The Poetry of Toru Dutt–A Study
BY P. SAMA RAO
Though still recent, Toru Dutt has already become a legendary figure. She is the second memorable Indian, the first being her cousin Romesh Chunder Dutt, with his translation of the Ramayana, who gave the English-speaking, world a sublime idea of Indian culture through the medium of poetry. She is, therefore, a pioneer in the field of Indo-Anglian poetry.
Quite charming in her teens, and gifted with the power of a genius that is catholic, she spent her impressionable nonage for her education mostly in France, the Western land of poetry and romance. The solid foundation of Indian culture on which she had been reared, and which permeated her entire being, helped her to withstand the onslaughts of the flippant social tendencies of the French girl. It is this deep-seated Indian spirit that helped her to treasure up a fragrant memory of the lady who presented her with roses ‘sweet…and large as lotus flowers;’ in her NEAR HASTINGS;
“But sweeter was the love that gave
These flowers to one unknown,
The lady’s name I do not know,
Her face no more may see;
But yet, oh yet I love her so!
Blest, happy, may she be!”
She broods with a detachment of her own over Savitri, Uma and Sita, unexcelled for grace, loveliness, faith, devotion, chastity and nobility. Toru’s portrait of woman is not of mere parochial but of universal interest. Her Ancient Ballads and Lyrics of Hindustan is a synthesis, a distillation, as it were, of all that is good, loveable, and enduring in all life and thought.
The pre-eminent quality of Toru Dutt’s poetry is the Vedic atmosphere which she successfully recaptured for the benefit of the modern industrialised mortal of the nineteenth century. This is lyrical with the scent of lotuses that vaunt their pristine glory in the glassy lakes of the countryside, with clouds of bees buzzing around them; while a little far-off on the outskirts, amidst the peace and quiet of the rural hermitages, peacocks and kokilas wail their cries from out of the luscious verdure of the tamarind, the sal and the mango.
SAVITRI is the longest and perhaps the best and the most admirable of her pieces from all standpoints. It traces the history of the heroine of that name–the birth, the upbringing, her marriage with its hectic honeymoon, her widowhood, and the revival of her lord after she vanquishes Yama on his own terms–in an atmosphere at once classically simple, luscious and sublime. She is born of blessings from Siva, the ever-auspicious, and, as such, she teems with all the virtues of beauty, spiritual strength and chastity of his own spouse Uma.
On a summer morn she espies her future lord and guide, Satyavan, a virtuous youth amidst his golden fields and elects him. The sad story of his father, the blind and dethroned Dyumatsen moves her to tears to the same intensity as the exploits of Othello did Desdemona. Neither their poverty nor the dethronement were allowed to interfere with her choice as Dyumatsen’s merit ‘still remained a star’ to her, and she had already plighted her troth. Nor were the dissuasions of her father and Naradamuni, on the score she would soon be widowed, of any avail; for she was a Vedic sati like Anusuya and Maitreyi who could outfate Fate, and firmly believed that
Once and once only ’tis writ
Shall woman pledge her faith and hand,
She was confident that she could contravene destiny if she pursued the path of righteousness with duty,-devotion to her lord–as her watchword. The marriage soon comes about, and
Blessings in a storm of sound
At every step the couple greet,
And now with rice and gold all bless.
A veritable Hindu wife that she is, Savitri has no being distinct from that of her lord, and her conduct is such ‘as to illumine all the place’. With simplicity and grace she discharges each household duty, and strives to comfort, cherish and help all she comes across, so that
The hours passed peacefully along
And rippling bright day followed day.
Satyavan’s duties, on the other hand, comprised the collection of fuel, flowers and fruits for the daily sacrifice in the wild solitude; while hers, besides, included the feeding of brahmins and birds. Her honeymoon is not, however, an unsaddened song; for there was a skeleton in her heart
Looming in shadow, somewhat dun,
……that fatal, fatal speech of Naradamuni.
She is not without courage to face the situation. She believed that the God who decreed the blow for her could himself vacate the decree if it pleased Him. The Ides of March–the fourteenth of the Moon in Joystee–soon arrives and she,
Incessant in her prayers from morn,
Her heart fluttered like a wren
That sees the shadow of a hawk.
On that fatal day as well, Satyavan heads for the forest to gather fruit of the evening. Her heart is a flutter because Fate contrived with ‘unseen bands’ to draw him on, as though he were her ‘plaything with her breath’ to blow him ‘where she lists in space.’ Although night hovered with ‘ebonwing’ she goes with him ‘hand in hand’ in quest of fruits. Their issuing out together into the woods with the ‘sun withdrawn’ and ‘a twilight and a crescent moon’ changing ‘all asperities of shape’ and ‘toning down all colours…with a blue veil of silvered crape,’ and ‘the buds that to the dews expand’ is the most charming of her idylls–the last flicker of joy before it goes out. It has all the pointedness of beauty appropriate to the situation, amounting to a dramatic irony. Hand in hand, they go even against Fate! The tragic hour strikes, and Satyavan begins to complain all of a sudden of a pain in his head as though he felt ‘the cobra’s fangs’ and finds the universe, whirling and whirling around him, finally recede;
A mist before his vision hangs;
The trees whirl dizzily around
In a fantastic fashion wild;
He staggers like a sleepy child.
Whereto? Not on to the mother earth entire, but quiet on into Savitri’s lap, his one solace even in death! ‘The branches flap’ as though they were also shaken by death, and the ‘fireflies glimmer all around’ in a perturbation that the kindred soul of Satyavan had left its earthly tenement for a higher, and perhaps, a better abode. All is dark, terribly dark; and both ‘look statues magic bound.’
What follows is of ethical interest up to the time the Lord of Death blesses Satyavan into life again, and hands back to her his released soul ‘no bigger than the human thumb,’ which she places on his heart, whence like a bee it finds its cell.
Satyavan soon wakes up, but ‘wholly bewildered and amazed,’ with memories of his past slowly coming back ‘like some old remembered song’–‘a tangled thread.’ The poet celebrates their return home in an atmosphere of pearliness that precedes the Indian dawn, in sensuous phraseology, never beyond its mark;
And ‘neath the trees they hurry past’
For Hope’s fair light before them burns.
Under the faint beams of the stars
How beautiful appeared the flowers,
Light scarlet, flecked with golden bars
Of the palasas, in the bowers
That Nature there herself had made
Without the aid of man. At times
Trees on their path cast densest shade
And nightingales sang mystic rhymes,
Their fears and sorrows to assuage.
BUTTOO is no less enticing with a sublimity of another kind. She rightly calls the hunter-class youth, famous as Ekalavya. ‘VATU,’ because he is possessed of Brahma-knowledge, though unsophisticated.
He is a commoner of the Valmiki caste. Not knowing the lowness of his caste he aspires to learn archery of the brahmin guru Dronacharya. His unlettered mind does not deem it necessary that the guru should be worshipped only in flesh and blood, and determines to acquire knowledge at any cost. He adjourns to the ‘forest verge’ where Nature with her children, ‘the sombre sal,’ ‘the light-leaved tamarind,’ and the seemul gorgeous as a bride,’ and’ herds, still herds of tame deer, rubbing their foreheads smooth against his arms’ untouched with any caste prejudice welcome him as though he was still another child of hers come back home. So he elects to live with them all ‘a calm, calm life’ and learn of them the higher truths Drona had mercilessly denied to impart to him. Against this forest background of calmness he makes and sets up an image of Drona and worships him,
By a strained sense, by constant prayer
By steadfastness of heart and will;
and with a ‘conscience clear,…..joined to a meek humility.’ Thus he learns to see the ‘One-ness’–that is in his guru, God Himself, in the many, and the many in the One, in a universe of which himself, his guru, and Nature formed but a few and, after all, tiny units. What his guru could not teach Arjuna–selflessness–this rejected disciple of low class, learnt of him quite Galahad-wise. When Drona at the instigation of Arjuna demanded his right thumb for dakshina, he, with a nobility comparable only to Karna’s charity, that ‘knew its own exceeding great reward,’ whipped out his knife, to sever it. The poet’s description of the incident is sublime in its simplicity:
Glanced the sharp knife one moment high,
The severed thumb was on the sod,
There was no tear in Buttoo’s eye,
He left the matter with his God.
–who was none other than his ‘inanimate’ guru. It is not surprising that men link Sweet Buttoo’s name with self-help, truth and modesty. This poem is truly an Aristotlean tragedy, which, while purging us of bad emotions, ennobles our souls.
In JOGADHYA UMA we have delightful evidence of Toru’s capacity as a romantic poet. Her conception of romance has all the ethereal charm of a bhakta’s soul craving for a union with his beloved God. She commemorates this in this choice idyll, a tale about the customary gift of shell-bracelets to Uma at Kairogram. One day the goddess sits on a bank of a lake-like tank enjoying her own loveliness in its waters. A bangle-hawker approaches the spot crying out his wares. Like her human prototype she is anxious to possess some; purchases them and when asked to pay directs him to collect the price from her ‘father–the temple priest’ of the village; or, if he did not either pay or had no money to pay, the father would find some in a casket ‘streaked with bright vermilion’ near the idol. The hawker believes her, and is subsequently blessed with wealth for his belief. The priest has been praying to realise her by many a vigil, with the intense ardour and devotion of a Sri Gauranga. The pedlar soon arrives at his door and demands the money. The ‘father’ is surprised that ‘some minx had played a trick,’ because he had no daughter. On the pedlar’s assuring him that she had ‘such a face’ that could not deceive and telling him of the further direction how to find the cash in the casket, and on verification, he is convinced that his erstwhile minx is only Uma come down to earth to test him. So he rushes with the pedlar to the tank to catch her and prays for her return quickly for worship. She reveals herself:
Sudden from out the water sprang
A rounded arm, on which they saw
As high the lotus buds among
It rose, the bracelet white, with awe.
Then a wide ripple tost and swung
The blossoms on that liquid plain.
This description has all the simplicity and grandeur of Tennson’s description of the rising of Excalibur from its watery depths.
There are in this poem many a characteristic line of the poet which endow it with lyrical beauty. Her picture of Uma is etched with a classical restraint;
And at the entrance arch there sat
Full face against the morning light,
A fair young woman with large eyes
And dark hair falling to her zone.
Oh! she was lovely, but her look
Had something of a high command
That filled with awe. Aside she shook
Intruding curls by breezes fanned
And blown across her brows and face.
Her delineations of the countryside in the following have all the alluring gusto of the Indian atmosphere at sunrise:
Along the road, in morning’s glow
In knee-deep grass, stood magic bound
And half-awake, involved in mist,
That floated in dun coils profound
Till by the sudden sunbeams kist
Rich rainbow hues broke all around.
Huge straw ricks, log huts full of grain
Sleek cattle, flowers, a tinkling bell
Spoke in a language sweet and plain
Here smiling peace and plenty dwell.
THE ROYAL ASCETIC AND THE HIND as well as the LEGEND OF DHRUVA have been taken from the Vishnu Purana. In the former Toru Dutt tries to inculcate the truth that it is sin to cast off love by ‘return to the forest shades. For that was to abandon duties high,’
And like a recreant soldier leave the post
Where God had placed him as a sentinel.
True happiness lies in him only when he discharges his duties as conscience dictates to him. As Kabir put it ‘Maname Kasi, maname Ganga’–both Kasi and Ganga are in his mind only. So, according to the poetess true salvation lay
Not in seclusion, nor apart from all
But in the heart and bustle of the world;
Mid sorrow, sickness, suffering and sin,
Must he labour still with a loving soul.
This she illustrates from the vanaprastha of the illustrious monarch, Bharata of Saligram, who shedding all his earthly ties went into a forest ‘to attain perfect dominion on his soul.’ But he soon found instead, Destiny, the inscrutable goddess enmeshing him with an affection to an orphaned hind. He soon began to live in her. Even when his last moments arrived he could not free himself of this tie. The poet reaches the height of pathos in the following:
He too watched and watched
His favourite through a blinding film of tears,
And could not think of the Beyond at hand.
She, however, differs from the Puranic conclusion and asserts that because the hind engendered love once again in his withered heart, the Heavens were as much open to him as they would have been if it had not been ‘brought strangely on his path;’ for, God was love and should be adored
But with a love, in character akin
To his unselfish and all-including love.
Just as Uma, Savitri and Sita are the poet’s ideal types of women, Dhruva and Prahlad are her boy types, while Rama in her LAKSHMAN is her paragon of manliness. The physical bearing of her perfect man is her portrait of Rama;
The lion and the grisly bear
Cower when they see his royal look,
Sun-staring eagles of the air
His glance of anger cannot brook,
Pythons, and cobras at his tread
To their most secret coverts glide
Bowed to the dust each serpent head
Erect before in hooded pride.
In her LEGEND OF DHRUVA she harps again on the Karmic theory of the Hindus, and stresses that on humility
Descends prosperity, even as water flows
Down to low grounds.
She advocates the following precepts through Dhruva’s mother, Suneeti;
Collect a large sum of virtues; thence
A goodly harvest must to thee arise.
Be meek, devout, and friendly, full of love
Intent to do good to the human race,
And to all creatures sentient made of God.
She defines the truly wise man as one
Who is content with what he has and seeks
Nothing beyond, but in whatever sphere
Lowly or great, God placed him, works in faith.
Like SINDHU, PRAHLAD is also a story of nemesis, with one small difference. In the former the involuntary action of Dasaratha has been punished, while in the latter it is the deliberate sin of Hiranyakasipu. But in PRAHLAD, it may be noted that the poet seeks to give a political significance to the whole affair. His tyranny over his subjects, his total denial of the supremacy of Vishnu and arrogating to himself the same are in direct contrast with his son Prahlada’s meekness and recognition of the omni-presence of God; for, he says,
The gods who made us are the life
Of living creatures, small and great.
We see them not, but space is rife.
With their bright presence and their state.
They are the parents of us all,
‘Tis they create, sustain, redeem
Heaven, earth, and hell, they hold in thrall.
In this belief Prahlad marches to every punishment meted out to him by his father, ‘all unmoved and calm, erect and stately as a palm.’ He is not afraid to die because ‘to die is but to lose one’s breath,’ and death is no annihilation, for new worlds of further and better existence open to his view. The tyrants are exhorted to realise that ‘Demos’ assumes that ‘awful shape’ of Narasimha to put them down whenever their subjects suffer pain at their hands.
THE TREE OF LIFE and OUR CASUARINA TREE are the two reflective pieces in this volume, imaginatively sad, autobiographical, and perhaps premonitory of the poet’s early end. THE TREE OF LIFE is dreamy in its texture, and is in the manner of a mystical experience of Wordsworth. The imagery is quite Western in the sense that no oriental poet ever craved for the binding of any laurel wreath over his head, nor does he ever expect an outside agency, however representative of God, to do it in recognition of excellence. But the thought
Bind too my father’s forehead with these leaves
is Indian, and expresses her love for her father between whom and herself she could scarcely see any difference, because she owed her being, physical as well as spiritual, entirely to him. This poem seems to have been composed on her death-bed when thoughts of the hereafter were already buzzing in her brain. There is a sort of premonition of her early end in the following lines, The superambient atmosphere has been cleverly manipulated to be chilly and sepulchral, with an imagery which is weird:
It was an open plain
Illimitable–stretching, stretching, oh, so far!
And o’er it that strange light, –a glorious light
Like that the stars shed over fields of snow
In a clear, cloudless, frosty winter night,
Only intenser in its brilliance, calm.
–When lo! the light
Was gone–the light as of the stars when snow
Lies deep upon the ground.
There are no doubt Western concepts, like the ones in the lines
“The nightingales sang mystic rhymes”
“The mien elate
Like hers. the goddess of the chase
On Latmos hill.”
“E’en echo slept within her cell”
which are, however, pardonable, as they do not either misinterpret her spirit or falsify her spiritual being.
THE CASUARINA TREE like the ‘Green Willow’ of Ethel Mannin, the ‘Yew’ of Wordsworth, and the ‘Elm’ of Maxwell is a delightful evidence of her childhood days and after. She sees in it; as through a crystal clear the various vicissitudes she had passed through in her own life. It becomes holy because of this and of the other fact that giant like she too withstood the cramping influences of the parasitic creeper of circumstance wearing them like a scarf, and flowering still
Into crimson clusters all the boughs among,
with an intrinsic strength and beauty. She also hears ‘a dirge-like murmur in the tree, a lament–an eerie speech’–spelling her early death. The poem is noteworthy for its sombre images, and possesses a diction indicative of her poetic strength.
Her BAUGMAREE and THE LOTUS are sonnets. The first is an objective piece, describing her garden in France; while the second is a reflection justifying her choice of the Lotus in preference to the delicious Rose and the pale Lily that competed for her selection. The Lotus she prefers because it has all the qualities of the other two, and made ‘the queenliest flower’–symbolic of Indian culture–a synthesis, as it were, of all other cultures.
Nature to Toru Dutt was but an aid, and an essential aid, for the depicting of human emotion. The description of the twilight-hour in
The twilight and a crescent moon
Change all asperities of shape
And tone all colors down
With a blue veil of silvered crape.
add not a little to the romance of the couple issuing out together into the wood before the fatal hour. The human figures with their thoughts and Nature here coalesce into an eerie indefinition. Or, again, the picture of
Herds, and still herds of tame deer
Were feeding in the solitude,
They knew not man, and felt no fear,
And heeded not his neighbourhood.
Some young ones came close with large eyes and sweet
Came close, and rubbed their foreheads smooth
Against his arms, and licked his feet,
As if they wished his cares to soothe.
in BUTTOO–all these bespeak of that close association which ever exist between Man and Nature for their mutual benefit. So Toru’s love of Nature for her own sake, as some critics have observed, does not exist. Nature was, therefore, no independent passion with her as it was with James Thomson, Keats, and Wordsworth in his early years. It had no distinct entity apart from Man, though she very often softened his emotions and sweetened his existence. In this connection what better lines can be cited than those in THE CASUARINA TREE, and the following lines by Buttoo, when he refers to the animate and the inanimate dwellers in the forest;
They have no pride of caste like men,
They shrink not from the hunter-boy,
Should not my home be with them then?
I shall learn
From beast, and fish, and bird with wings,
And rock, and stream, and trees, and fern.
To the Hindu temperament that is idealistic, Toru Dutt’s name must ever remain green; for she has distilled maxims of human conduct from the thought regions of Vedic and Upanishadic lore. She has grown legendary, too, like her Casuarina Tree that withstood all the cramping influences, and marched to her doom with the gusto of Prahlad, ‘erect and stately as a palm.’ The pale Lily with her ‘Juno mien’ and the Rose with her glamorous red, symbolic of cultures other than her own–did not satisfy her entire. She craved for a synthesis symbolised by her Lotus that is beloved of all gods and men. Though she did not live up to an age to realise the various trials of womanhood, she was certainly aged enough in her imagination to realise that Savitri was its best type.