This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan, is not the first lyricist to receive the award. In 1913, it was given to Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who also became the first non-European awarded a Nobel.
Some of you may be aware that the title of this blog, The Endless Further, is borrowed from Tagore (see About).
According to the Nobel website, Tagore received the prize “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.
Wikipedia tells us that “the Swedish Academy appreciated the idealistic—and for Westerners—accessible nature of a small body of his translated material focused on the 1912 Gitanjali: Song Offerings.”
I’ve published a number of posts on Tagore so I won’t go into details on the man’s life. For that, you can read the previous posts or visit the Wikipedia link above.
I will tell you that Tagore remains a towering figure in Indian literature, but today in the West he is largely forgotten and his poetry unknown. Tagore’s poems are songs, chants. In English, they become prose poems. His work is lyrical, moving, graceful, and subtle in self-knowledge. He composed hymns both sad and joyous, universal songs that touch on an experience ultimately personal. With his meditative rhythm and evocative lyrics, Tagore gave the world something more than poetry or literature. They touch our heart, inspirit our mind, cause us to cry or shudder or want to float up and dance among the stars.
The songs of Gitanjali (which literally means “an offering of songs”) are love songs; love for something divine, love between human beings, and love of life itself. Like Whitman, Tagore did not shy away from the sensual. He made the sensual beautiful.
In his introduction to the 1913 edition of Gitanjali, W.B. Yeats wrote that “Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.”
Here, then, are two poems from Gitanjali:
I dive down into the depth of the ocean of forms, hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless.
No more sailing from harbour to harbour with this my weather-beaten boat. The days are long passed when my sport was to be tossed on waves.
And now I am eager to die into the deathless.
Into the audience hall by the fathomless abyss where swells up the music of toneless strings I shall take this harp of my life.
I shall tune it to the notes of forever, and when it has sobbed out its last utterance, lay down my silent harp at the feet of the silent.
Ever in my life have I sought thee with my songs. It was they who led me from door to door, and with them have I felt about me, searching and touching my world.
It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I ever learnt; they showed me secret paths, they brought before my sight many a star on the horizon of my heart.
They guided me all the day long to the mysteries of the country of pleasure and pain, and, at last, to what palace gate have the brought me in the evening at the end of my journey?