Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Yeats & Tagore

There's an excellent article on Tagore, by Seamus Perry, in the TLS here. When I say excellent, I don't, of course, mean it's any good but it is in the TLS and that's excellent.  I mean it would have looked decidedly odd in the pages of Viz magazine and I'd have kittens if it suddenly started streaming onto the roll of luminous toilet paper I've recently invested in.

The points Perry Sahib fails to mention are-
1) Tagore's dad was the head of a High Victorian Hindu sect. Thus, Tagore had a great big beard and wore robes and affected a sort of Christ-like absence of brains and bollocks.  But, Tagore only did this out of filial piety. He wasn't an authentic nut-job.
2) Tagore didn't want to be a land-lord. He liked travelling about by river-boat but he'd have preferred doing it as a beggarly and minstrel baul, rather than in the unholy guise of a glorified Rent-collector. His one small rebellion- but a rebellion sanctioned by his father's own example- was to reject the sort of education which would have enforced baristari or magistari (being a Barrister or Magistrate) upon him- as had happened to others of his family before he was born.
3) Tagore wasn't quite as well up on European literature as a lot of the other Bengalis back home. In a sense he was going against the grain by pretending to be a sort of rustic baul singer- but without the earthy humour, the not-shite metaphysics, the actual as opposed to ersatz poetry of even imported bauls like Anthony Firinghee. Still, as a family man, he had the sense of social responsibility to point young Bengal in a less pestilential direction than that taken previously by Michael Madhusudhan Dutt or, later, by Aurobindo. The fact is mythologies are immiscible save graphically by working class lads like Alan Moore. Otherwise, they're just nasty Nazi posturing- like Yeats's gyres or Pound's paranoid Cantos- or else the sort of idealistic cult of assassination which drove Gayatri Spivak's great-aunt (vide 'Can the subaltern speak') to hang herself while menstruating.
4) Tagore knew a lot about actual people. He knew servants were tyrants, teachers witless bullies, culture vultures worthless sociopaths, the British middle class stupid and provincial in England and brutal, cynical and provincial while serving in India, the poorer class of peasants pathetically credulous and helpless to fend off exploitation by the slightly better off of their bretheren, the Revolutionaries criminal psychopaths, the Loyalists self-deluding bores, the... etc.  But Tagore couldn't denounce the confederacy of dunces he saw all around him. His social position forbade it. So he wrote what he did- his diffuse lacrimae rerum sentiment arising from not the memory of a Trojan War but yearning across incompossible identity classes (kids and grown ups, husbands and wives, little peasant girls and ill paid Post Masters) as its Timeo Danaos Wooden horse- and left it to posterity to read between the lines.
5) Seamus Perry writes- 'Far from the exquisitely lapidary mode of the English Gitanjali, “I Won’t Let You Go!” tells a largely aimless story: as he is leaving home on a business trip one day, Tagore hears his four-year-old daughter assert, “I won’t let you go”, “As if only saying / ‘I won’t let you go’ was enough”. It is a moment of no great consequence, but Tagore unwinds the story of the rest of his day, throughout which he fondly and sadly remembers his little girl’s protest – a lengthening poem which could have gone on yet longer, part of the amused poignancy of which is its own reluctance to bid a more timely farewell.'
What Perry doesn't say is that, notwithstanding the splendid physique and spotless character that was his genetic and properly entailed inheritance, Tagore's family was much besieged by death. No descendants in the direct line much survived my dawning day. It is the very muscular longevity of the father, not the frailness of the child, which, not nihilates, but abnegates the Universe by the quoted- 'I won't let you go'.  But abnegates it in a nice manner, the Gentleman-Babu has retired from the feast, he had no appetite for it in any case, but he does so with a seemly show of boneless haut embourgeoisement, lest the swinish poetasters (shitheads like me) too lose their zest for an envious and parasitical punishing of his stock of  butter and honey mead. 

Now, let us look at Yeats. He wasn't really a Celtic genius at all. His ancestors were English and priggishly English they remained till plundering Ireland rendered them at last merely aesthetic and shabby genteel. The last of the Aisling poets, having built the Hammersmith line- you can still hear a sort of banshee wail as the train pulls into Earls Court- was perishing in the Halford Road, Poor House, the place where the Primary School now stands, while Yeats, at Edith Villas, was taking his first baby steps in literary London. Thus Yeats's Cuchulain and Countess Cathleen and so on were about as authentic as Tom Moore's 'Lalla Rookh'. Tagore on the other hand, despite being born a Brahmo, could easily have become a baul. If Anthony Firingee could go from Portuguese Catholicism to composing Agamani verse, Tagore could have done more. Bengali was his mother's milk. Unfortunately, Tagore couldn't simply use Vaishnav or Sakta imagery in a straightforward way without people saying that his Dad and his Grand Dad, 'Prince' Dwarkanath, and so on all the way back to his 'Pir Ali' ancestors, were simply time-serving heretics and whited sepulchres and probably lechers and panders into the bargain.

So Tagore is vague in his imagery and veiled in his criticisms of the political currents of his time and comes across as bit of an old woman. But he was actually no such thing. Thomas Mann was agreeably surprised that Tagore's son was a strapping young fellow. Tagore himself was got up in robes- because he felt he owed it to his own dear departed Dad, the Maharishi. But he didn't impose that sort of nonsense on his sons or the young people at Shantiniketan. My feeling is, he worked things so his family, or the class he represented, could make the psychological break from financial dependence on rack rented country estates for their sense of identity and amour propre.

Whereas Yeats- the landless landlord told off by Joyce, the shiftless tenant- turns, from a sham presentment of Irishry, to elitism and occultism and monkey glands and being a fucking Senator; Tagore's trajectory was minimally mischievous.

I remember, many years ago, reading an anthology of Chinese poetry leant me by a colleague.
I was entranced by a poem by Li Chin Fa and asked my friend about it. He grimaced. Apparently friendship was impossible between us, because the poem in question had been written under the influence of Tagore. That's why I'd liked it.
I thought this remarkable because my love for Chinese poetry sprang from the belief that it was solely concerned with failing one's exams and drinking alone- two themes which featured prominently in both our then careers in the City of London- but in Li Chin Fa, alas!, not at all.

Ultimately, Yeats is a poet I still read, Tagore a bore who proves Spinoza's lemma that to feel pity is unethical. This is because I'm a shit-head. For the best of reasons, Tagore tries hard to pretend he's stupid and self-involved and under-educated, but in the end he fails. Yeats tries hard to pretend he's an adept of something immeasurably larger and cosmic and universal and...also fails. But since we're trying to be Yeats- coz we aren't Tagore- Yeats is our man and, pace William Radice, his Gitanjali Tagore's.


Anonymous said...

I think you're exaggerating the baul element in Tagore. He was a literary experimentalist and modernist who moved to an increased appreciation of the natural sciences and an appreciation of the wider world which figured little in formal education.

Sheharyar Sajid said...

Very nice.
I am sharing some of my favorite love poetry here.