In the rich and variegated garden of the English muse, there appeared in the latter half of the nineteenth century two plants of exotic growth, bringing to it a new colour and a strange beauty to which it was hitherto unused. One was the lily of Toru Dutt, pale and fragile, but stately, graceful and delicate. The other was the rose of Sarojini Naidu–tiny, bright, sweet and fragrant.


To change the metaphor, one could think of Toru Dutt as the skylark, singing loud and clear, soaring high into the sky, like a star of heaven in the broad daylight. The other was the Nightingale, more familiar and melodious, tiny but powerful. One was the “blithe spirit,” with a strain of sadness, “the unbodied joy whose race is just begun.” The other was the happy, light-winged dryad of the trees.


In considering the poetry and personality of the two in more specific terms, we might remember that Toru Dutt was almost classical in her sense of form, her restraint and reserve. Sarojini Naidu was obviously and impenitently romantic in her outlook–her sense of colour, her wide-eyed wonder at the world and her spontaneous ecstasy. One had a flair for the narrative and and ambitions for the epic achievement. The other was lyrical in her impulse, with a natural lilt in her song.


If one was cut off in the prime of her life and ever remains the heir to an unfulfilled renown, the other had, in the hectic throes of a nation in the making, to exchange the lyre of the poet for the sword and shield of the patriot and the freedom-fighter. Both wrote in English, familiar to them as the functional mother-tongue, though still dubbed an alien language. Both were children of Bengal and of India, but represented the fruits of cross-fertilisation and the results of emotional and intellectual integration at the deepest level.


Both were precocious in their intellectual development and had discovered themselves as poets while still in their early teens. About the age of eleven, Sarojini began to write a long poem in English, while struggling unsuccessfully with a problem in Algebra, which was her bugbear (as that of many other poets and writers). Toru attained a commendable mastery of English and French by the age of fifteen and contributed substantially to the Dutt Family Album, brought out by her father and his cousins.


Toru Dutt was born in Calcutta on March 4, 1856 and died on August 30, 1877 at the age of 21. Her father, Govin Chundar Dutt, was an official in the Accounts Department, who resigned his job for personal reasons and devoted the rest of his life to literary pursuits. The Dutts belonged to an orthodox and respectable Hindu family, and were baptized, along with the children, in 1862.


Her literary output, not too large in itself, was not inconsiderable for a girl of 21. Her earliest book of poems was A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields, published in Calcutta in 1876. It is a volume of over 250 pages, with 165 renderings from French poets, a few by her sister Aru and the rest by Toru. The poets included Victor Hugo, La Martine, Baudelaire, Musset, Sainte-Beuve, among others.


Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, which is her major poetical work, was posthumously published in London, with an introductory memoir by Edmund Gosse, 1882.


Besides these two, she wrote a novel in French (Le Journal de Madmoiselle D’ Arvers) and an unfinished romance in English, Bianca or The Young Spanish Maiden, serialised in a Calcutta magazine.


She also wrote some essays and translations in prose from French. One of her essays was on Derozio, the pioneer Indo-Anglian poet of Bengal, who also died at the age of 21 or 22. The translations were from the speeches of Victor Hugo and M. Thiers, with specimens of their poetry. She also wrote a number of letters to her close friend, Miss Mary Martin, daughter of a Cambridge Don and Vicar of a neighbourhood village.


Toru Dutt’s chief title to fame as a poet rests in her poems collected in the volume, Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan. There is enough evidence in it of achievement as well as promise. It will not be necessary for her students and admirers to speculate on what more she could possibly have achieved, had she lived as long as Tagore did any more than to wonder what more Keats would have composed had he been as long-lived as Wordsworth or Tennyson. In the event, she must be judged by the actual corpus of her published work.


The poems in this volume run to about 140 to 150 pages. They are in two sections–the nine ballads and legends, which form the bulk; and seven short miscellaneous poems which occupy about 20 pages in all. Among the legends the one relating to Savitri is the longest and the most ambitious. All the other ones are shorter–they relate to Lakshmana, Sita, Dhruva, Prahlada, Ekalavya (referred to as Buttoo here) and so on.


There is absolutely no doubt that the second book marked a notable advance on the first. It was more mature and had a better finish. Edmund Gosse, writing of the Sheaf, gave expression to his mixed feelings:


“The English verse is sometimes exquisite. At other times, the rules of our prosody are absolutely ignored, and it is obvious that the Hindu poetess was chanting to herself a music that is discord in an English ear.”


He was persuaded to be more generous in his response to the Ballads and Legends. In fact, he was all praise for it. He was almost in ecstasy:


“Literature has no honours which need have been beyond the grasp of a girl who, at the age of 21, and in languages separated from her own by so deep a charm, had produced so much of lasting worth.”


In Savitri, the longest of these pieces, and the most ambitious, one could sense the epic intentions of the young poet, if not quite see her epic achievement. Her powers of narration and description are seen to good effect throughout this poem.


The description of Yama, the God of Death, is particularly striking:


Upon his head be wore a crown

That shimmered in the doubtful light;

His vestment scarlet reached low down,

His waist, a golden girdle dight.

His skin was dark as bronze; his face

Irradiate and yet severe;

His eyes had much of love and grace,

But glowed so bright they filled with fear.


The vivid majesty of the picture evoked here, and the vigour of the diction remind the reader of at least two well-known Victorian poets–Tennyson in his Mort’de Arthur and Mathew Arnold in his Sohrab and Rustum. The poet employs stanzas of twelve lines, with the alternate lines rhyming. Each line has eight syllables and the metre is lambic.


The dialogue between Savitri and Yama is conducted with persuasive skill and dignity of behaviour. Asking her not to persist in following him any further, the latter (i. e., Yama) says:


“It shall be done. Go back, my child,

The hour wears late, the wind feels cold,

The path becomes more weird and wild,

Thy feet are torn, there’s blood behold!”


While these are not a copy of Tennyson, these lines sound like a parallel to some of those in Ulysses:


The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends….


The moral law that governs all human life, as well as this story, eloquently brought out in the words of Savitri addressed to Yama:


“Virtue should be the aim and end

Of every life, all else is vain,

Duty should be its dearest friend

If higher life it would attain.”


When Dharma or the law of duty conquers all, Savitri attains her end. Her father-in-law regains his lost sight and kingdom. Her father is blessed with many sons, who start a valiant race.


As for Savitri, to this day,

Her name is named, when couples wed,

And to the bride the parents say

Be thou like her, in heart and head.


Lakshman is a poem of 22 stanzas woven around the incident in which Sita and Lakshmana left alone in the Ashram in the forest when Rama runs in search of the golden deer. On hearing the dissembled voice of Rama crying for help, Sita gets agitated and implores Lakshmana to make haste. Confronted by his reluctance, in obedience to his brother’s instructions, she taunts him with pricking words, accusing him of cowardice and worse:


“But then thy leader stood beside!

Dazzles the cloud when shines the sun,

Reft of his radiance, see it glide

A shapeless mass of vapours dun;

So of thy courage,–or if not

The matter is far darker dyed,

What makes thee loth to leave this spot?

Is there a motive thou would’s hide?”


A mystic touch is provided in the poem entitled Jogadhya Uma, celebrating the encounter of a poor, simple bangle-seller (a vendor of shell bracelets), near the village tank with the Goddess Uma, the harbinger of good luck and prosperity to the Hindu women of Bengal. He does not know who she is, but gives her the bracelets and goes to her house as directed.


Without referring to her celestial identity in so many words, the poet hints at the character in her graphic, sensitive description of her form and shape:


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 brow and face

And asked the price, which when she heard

She nodded, and with quiet grace

For payment to her home referred.


To which are added the four lines:


Well might the pedlar look with awe,

For though her eyes were soft, a ray

Lit them at times, which kings who saw

Would never dare to disobey.


In another poem called The Royal Ascetic and the Hind, she retells an anecdote from the Vishnu Purana, in which Maitreya relates the story to Parasara. As for the conclusion, she draws her own moral, which is modern in its world view, and presents it in unequivocal terms. Is it possible to attain salvation by running away from this world, by turning one’s face away from one’s mundane duties and responsibilities? Here’s her answer:


“Not in seclusion, not apart from all,

Not in a place elected for its peace,

But in the heat and bustle of the world,

’Mid sorrow, sickness, suffering and sin,

Must he still labour with a loving soul

Who strives to enter through the narrow gate.


There were some contemporary English critics, who had their own serious reservations about the Ballads, though they could see the unmistakable signs of her promise. E. J. Thomas, for instance,


“Yet, even amid the many marks of immaturity and haste, there are signs that she would have escaped before long from many of her prosodic limitations.”


He hoped that her greater faults would have been removed by experience. He did recognise that “the Ballads are that portion of her work which has most chance of some sort of permanance for its own sake.” He felt they were “careless and diffused, yet binding the whole work into unity.” What is more serious, he sees lack of sympathy in the poet, who, according to him, stands outside her themes and does not enter deeply into them. The suggestion is that she being a Christian, her emotions and imagination were not involved in the Hindu or pagan ballads and legends, which a proselytising padre, might dismiss as cock-and-bull stories.


But the plain fact of the matter is that though Toru was baptised, she came of an orthodox Hindu stock steeped in the Hindu cultural tradition. She learnt these legends in childhood, seated in her mother’s lap. Her imagination was fired and engaged by the Hindu legends as vigorously as that of Keats’s was by the Greek legends (or that of Emerson by the Hindu metaphysics). No devout Hindu believer could have done more justice to them than this Hindu-born pious Christian. A careful and sympathetic reader can’t find any instance of lack of commitment to the theme or its moral.


That apart, there are quite a few intelligent readers and perceptive critics, who prefer her miscellaneous poems, purely on artistic grounds. Some of them are sonnets. The poet’s love of Nature, her sensitiveness to beauty as also her mastery of the sonnet form, The Lotus, for instance, is one of her widely recognised and best acclaimed of them:


Love came to Flora asking for a flower

That would of flowers be undisputed queen,

The lily and the rose, long, long had been

Rivals for that high honour...


And Flora gave the lotus, “rose-red” dyed,

And ‘lily-white,’ queenliest flower that blows.


Another is Our Casuarina Tree, not a sonnet, but rather longer, as long as three sonnets put together. It has greater warmth of feeling, almost as a member of the household. In fact, she vividly personifies it with her wealth of refreshing similes and stimulating metaphors:


Like a huge python, winding round and round

The rugged trunk, indented deep with scars

Up to its very summit near the stars,

A creeper climbs, in whose embraces bound

No other tree could live. But gallantly

The giant wears the scarf, and flowers are hung


In crimson clusters all the boughs among,

Where on all day are gathered bird and bee;

And oft nights the garden overflows

With one sweet song that seems to have no close,

Sung darkling from our tree, while men repose.”


Dear to her sight it becomes dearer still, when sight of it is denied in the foreign country (Italy or france), where she wrote the lines:


In memory, till the hot tears blind my eyes!

What is that dirge-like murmur that I hear

Like the sea breaking on a shingle-beach?

It is the tree’s lament, an eery speech

That haply to the unknown land may reach.


The vision of a loved tree is even more powerful than that the sight of it in actual life. She recalls:


When earth lay tranced in a dreamless swoon:

And every time the music rose–before

Mine inner vision rose a form sublime,

Thy form, O tree, as in my happy prime

I saw thee, in my own loved native clime.


She counts the tree as dear to her as the departed brothers and sisters, buried in their garden. She sums up the touching poem with a melancholy benediction:


Mayst thou be numbered when my days are done.

With deathless trees–like those in Barrowdale,

Under whose awful branches lingered pale

“Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton,

And time the shadow;” and though weak the verse

That would thy beauty fain, Oh fain rehearse,

May love defend thee from oblivion’s Curse.


And so does one hope that love of Indian literature, including Indian writing in English, will defend the work of Toru Dutt from oblivion’s curse.


Reference has already been made to the views of the critic, E. J. Thomas (mentioned by Padmini Sengupta in her monograph). Dr. Amarnath Jha, who has written an appreciative introductory memoir to the Indian edition of The Ballads and Legends brought out by Kitabstan, Allahabad, in 1941, refers to the tribute paid by Dr. Edward Thompson (friend and translator of Tagore) to Toru Dutt. He speaks of her as a poet whose place is with Sappho and Emile Bronte. Dr. Jha thought this was a singularly inapt comparison, for there was nothing in common among them, except in regard to their common womanhood. “Sappho, that creature of fire and force, who even in translation can move and charm with impassioned personal lyrics, had little in common with Toru Dutt”, adds Dr. Jha, setting aside all speculation about the might-have-beens as idle and futile.


But then, has Toru Dutt as a poet anything in common with her compatriot, Sarojini Naidu? Not much in poetic sensibility or style or in theme and treatment. Even Sarojini cannot be compared with Sappho, whose songs are powerful and passion-laden, and marked by the fine frenzy of reckless abandon. A song of Sappho reads, for example:


“Oh, come then, and release me from alarms,

That crush me: all I long to see

Fulfilled, fulfil –A very mate-in-arms

Be thou to me.”


Though she has composed quite a few pieces, on aspects of Nature, including seasons, flowers and fruits, she cannot be classified as a Nature poet. She has, for instance, burst forth in song on the charms of spring, the refreshing warmth of summer, the sweetness of Champak blossoms, the glory of Gulmohur, the brilliance of Cassia, the poignant perfume of Nasturtiums. But more often than not, these titles are yet another occasion for the outlet of her bubbling emotions. The excitement is there, but the expression is so deliberately rounded, that one cannot escape the impression that she has been looking for a peg to hang her thoughts. It seems less a case of her musings, set off by a scene or a spot.


Curiously enough, she has a poem, a sonnet to boot, on The Lotus on which Toru Dutt had composed one. Beyond the title and the broad theme, there is not much else in common between the two sonnets. Toru Dutt’s poem seems to be the simpler in meaning, based on a Greek or Roman legend (real or contrived, one does not know) of love coming to Flora (the Goddess of Flowers) and asking for the queen of flowers. The claimaints for the honour were–the Rose and the Lily–both of which were found wanting:


“The rose can never tower

Like the pale lily with her Juno mein”–

“But is the lily lovelier?” Thus between

Flower-factions rang the strife in Psyche’s bower.

“Give me a flower delicious as the rose

And stately as the lily in her prise”– 

“But of what colour” – “Rose-red,” Love first chore,

Then prayed,–“No, lily white,–or both provide;”

And Flora gave the lotus, “rose red” dyed,

And “Lily white,” queenliest flower that blows.


Sarojini’s poem is of a different type altogether. It is an invocation, dedicated to M. K. Gandhi, and is obviously symbolic, from beginning to end. It reads:


“O mystic Lotus, sacred and sublime,

In myriad-petalled grace inviolate,

Supreme O’er transient storms of tragic Fate,

Deep-rooted in the waters of all Time,

What legions loosed from many a far-off clime

Of wild bee hordes with lips insatiate,

And hungry winds with wings of hope or hate,

Have thronged and pressed round thy miraculous prime

To devastate thy loveliness, to drain

The midmost rapture of thy glorious heart....”


Is the poet thinking of the beautiful Lotus flower, or of the Lotus, which, along with the Elephant and the Serpent, has been a favourite symbol of grace, power, wisdom, in the Indian tradition? The poetic and the philosophical tradition is replete with this symbol. It is also rich with mystic significance, even without the poet saying it in so many words, as students of Sri Chakra might well be familiar with. Traditional Hindu symbolism apart, does the Lotus stand here for mother India, whose freedom and integrity are threatened by the armed hordes of foreign invaders wailing to suck her precious juice like the hungry wild bees? The hundred-petalled lotus (Sata patra sundari) is also a well-known image used by the poets. Or does it stand for the greatness of Mahatma Gandhi, of whom the poet is an ardent devotee?


In any case, ‘the mystic lotus’ of the poet is unconquerable, as declared by her in the last four lines:


But who could win thy secret, who attain

Thine ageless beauty born of Brahma’s breath;

Or pluck thine immortality, who art

Coeval with the Lords of Life and Death?


Somehow, one feels a sense of overstatement here, with the crowding in of over-used images and expressions like Time, Fate, Ageless Beauty, Immortality of Soul, Life, Death, etc., which seem to confront the reader in most of the poems of Sarojini Naidu. Even if meant as a tribute to Gandhi, it could be construed as hyperbolic. As a piece of resounding rhetoric and lofty sentiment, yes. But as a poem, it does not click. It rather overhits the mark. Toru Dutt’s sonnet, simpler, softer and more subdued in tone, seems to fill the bill better.


The gaiety of her tunes and the vividness of general images notwithstanding, there is an undercurrent of pain and sorrow in Sarojini’s poems. This is especially true of the section called “The Broken Wing” –“Why should a song-bird like you have a broken wing” was the question posed by her friend and well-wisher, G. K. Gokhale. The poems in the section, tearful, poignant, might provide an indirect answer to that question.


Sarojini has written quite a few songs of love and devotion and they are pretty, colourful and melodious. But power and passion are not the qualities associated with them. She composed The Gate of Delight, comprising a series of eight songs –The Offering; The feast; Ecstasy; The lute-song; If you call me; The sins of love; The desire of love and The vision of love.


The opening stanza of the “Offering” reads as follows:


Were beauty mine, Beloved, I would bring it

Like a rare blossom to Love’s glowing shrine;

Were a dear youth mine, Beloved, I would fling it

Like a rich pearl into Love’s lustrous wine.


The spirit of self-surrender, as of a devotee is certainly here but not the full-blooded passion of a human lover. The stanza as well as the whole poem, is replete with the mystic ecstasy of medieval saint-poets and the well-turned conceits of Persian poetry, with all its polished conventions. She says in The Feast:


Bring no pearls from ravished seas,

Gems from rifled hemispheres;

Grant me, Love, in priceless boon

All the sorrow of your years,

All the secret of your tears.


The imagery is so pretty, the expression so neat, the rhymes so tidy, that one is led to suspect the depth of spontaneous emotion.


Slightly more convincing is the expression of her emotion in another similarly designed longish poem, The Sanctuary. The eighth and last section dealing with Devotion has more of warmth, though this too has its share of conceits and conventions:


Take my flesh to feed your dogs if you choose,

Water your garden-trees, with my blood if you will,

Turn my heart into ashes, my dreams into dust–

Am I not yours, O Love, to cherish or kill?

Strangle my soul and fling it into the fire!

Why should my true love falter or fear or rebel?

Love, I am yours to lie in your breast like a flower,

Or burn like a weed for your sake in the flame of hell.


Of Sarojini’s lyricism, however, there is hardly any doubt. The whole body of work, be it based on folk songs, personal recollections, of the sights and sounds, tributes to the dead, offerings to the Divine, is an expression of her lyric genius.


If Toru Dutt wasan epic poet in the making, cut off before the fulfillment, Sarojini Naidu was the lyric poet in the fullness of her efflorescence. Toru, what with the mid- Victorian code of conduct, marked by restraint, fought shy of expressing her personal emotion, with the exception of innocuous sentiments like attachment to family members, domestic pets and the trees and plants and creepers in her garden. She was severely classical in her restraint, though she might have been romantic in the choice of her favourite French poets.


Sarojini was an uninhibited Romantic in her responses, tending to be eclectic in her tastes. But she was neat and pretty like a Moghul miniature in her expression and polished like a Thanjavur plate. Symmetrical and well-carved, its appeal was more decorative than emotional. That may be the reason why she achieved her unqualified victories in short pieces, like Palanquin bearers, Indian Weavers and Bangle-sellers. She was able to capture and reproduce the Indian melodies and folk song tunes to a nicety. Her ear was Indian, or Hindustani, but her tongue was English.


While her ear is attuned to the sound of Indian folk music, her soul is en rapport with the silence of the Universal Maker, which explains the success of another of her songs, The Call to Evening Prayer, in which she weaves a garland made of the four Indian flowers of devotion–the Muslim, Christian, Parsee and Hindu prayers. Hers was the voice of integration, spontaneous and unpremeditated.


Toru Dutt, Bengali by birth, was English by intellectual training and consciously French in her political sympathies. James Darmesteter, a noted French critic, spoke of her personality as a confluence of three souls and three traditions (an English mind and a French heart in an Indian body!). But the soul, if any, is indivisible. Toru Dutt’s poetic soul is as Indian as that of Sarojini Naidu. In both the cases, it was dressed in the garb of the English language, which is native to both. One can’t be sure about the English literary establishment or the Indian cultural hierarchy, but both Toru Dutt and Sarojini as poets, have an assured place in Indian literature as long as Indian writing in English stays alive in this country.