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Sri Aurobindo on Himself

Part One

Section Six

The Poet and the Critic

Reading and Poetic Creation and Yoga

A literary man is one who loves literature and literary activities for their own separate sake. A Yogi who writes is not a literary man for he writes only what the inner Will and Word wants him to express. He is a channel and instrument of something greater than his own literary personality. Of course, the literary man and the intellectual love reading – books are their mind's food. But writing is another matter. There are plenty of people who never write a word in the literary way but are enormous readers. One reads for ideas, for knowledge, for the stimulation of the mind by all that the world has thought or is thinking. I never read in order to create. As the Yoga increased, I read very little – for when all the ideas in the world come crowding in1 from within or from above, there is not much need for gathering mental food from outside sources; at most a utility for keeping oneself informed of what is happening in the world,– but not as material for building up one's vision of the world and Truth and things. One becomes an independent mind in communion with the cosmic Thinker.

Poetry, even perhaps all perfect expression of whatever kind, comes by inspiration, not by reading. Reading helps only to acquire for the instrument the full possession of a language or to get the technique of literary expression. Afterwards one develops one's own use of the language, one's own style, one's own technique. It is a decade or two that I have stopped all but the most casual reading, but my power of poetic and perfect expression has increased tenfold. What I wrote with some difficulty, often with great difficulty, I now write with ease. I am supposed to be a philosopher, but I never studied philosophy – everything I wrote came from Yogic experience, knowledge and inspiration. So too my greater power over poetry and perfect expression was acquired in these last days not by reading and seeing how other people wrote, but from the heightening of my consciousness and the greater inspiration that came from the heightening.

Reading and painstaking labour are good for the literary man but even for him they are not the cause of his good writing, only an aid to it. The cause is within himself. As to ‘natural’, I don't know. Sometimes when the talent is inborn and ready for expression, they can call it natural. Sometimes it awakes from within afterwards from a till then hidden nature.


Natural Growth of Inborn Intelligence

Q: How did your intellect become so powerful even before you started Yoga?

A: It was not any such thing before I started the Yoga. I started the Yoga in 1904 and all my work except some poetry was done afterwards. Moreover, my intelligence was inborn and so far as it grew before the Yoga, it was not by training but by a wide haphazard activity developing ideas from all things read, seen or experienced. That is not training, it is natural growth.


Q: Can it be that in course of the sadhana, one may have certain intellectual or other training by the direct power of Yoga? How did your own wide development come?

A: It came not by ‘training’, but by the spontaneous opening and widening and perfecting of the consciousness in the sadhana.


Development of Style by Yogic Force

Q: For an effective style, reading is very necessary. In order to manufacture your style, which is incomparable, your enormous reading must have helped a lot, I am sure.

A: Excuse me! I never manufactured my style; style with any life in it cannot be manufactured. It is born and grows like any other living thing. Of course, it was fed on my reading which was not enormous – I have read comparatively little – (there are people in India who have read fifty times or a hundred times as much as I have), only I have made much out of that little. For the rest it is Yoga that has developed my style by the development of consciousness, fineness and accuracy of thought and vision, increasing inspiration and an increasing intuitive discrimination (self-critical) of right thought, word-form, just image and figure.



Q: Methinks you are making just a little too much of Yogic Force. Its potency as regards matters spiritual is undeniable, but for artistic or intellectual things one can't be so sure about its effectiveness. Take X's case; one could very well say: “Why give credit to the Force? Had he been as assiduous, sincere etc. elsewhere, he would have done just the same.”

A: Will you explain to me how X who could not write a single good poem and had no power over rhythm and metre before he came here, suddenly, not after long ‘assiduous efforts’ blossomed into a poet, rhythmist and metrist after he came here? Why was Tagore dumbfounded by a ‘lame man throwing away his crutches’ and running freely and surely on the paths of rhythm? Why was it that I who never understood or cared for painting, suddenly in a single hour by an opening of vision got the eye to see and the mind of understanding about colour, line and design? How was it that I who was unable to understand and follow a metaphysical argument and whom a page of Kant or Hegel or Hume or even Berkeley left either dazed and uncomprehending and fatigued or totally uninterested because I could not fathom or follow, suddenly began writing pages of the stuff as soon as I started the Arya and am now reputed to be a great philosopher? How is it that at a time when I felt it difficult to produce more than a paragraph of prose from time to time and more than a mere poem, short and laboured, perhaps one in two months, suddenly after concentrating and practising prāṇāyāma daily began to write pages and pages in a single day and kept sufficient faculty to edit a big daily paper and afterwards to write 60 pages of philosophy every month? Kindly reflect a little and don't talk facile nonsense. Even if a thing can be done in a moment or a few days by Yoga which would ordinarily take a long, ‘assiduous, sincere and earnest’ cultivation, that would of itself show the power of the Yoga-force. But a faculty that did not exist appears quickly and spontaneously or impotence changes into highest potency or an obstructed talent changes with equal rapidity into fluent and facile sovereignty. If you deny that evidence, no evidence will convince you because you are determined to think otherwise.



Q: So about your style too, it is difficult to understand how much the Force has contributed towards its perfection.

A: It may be difficult for you to understand, but it is not difficult for me, since I have followed my own evolution from stage to stage with a perfect vigilance and following up of the process. I have made no endeavour in writing. I have simply left the higher Power to work and when it did not work, I made no efforts at all. It was in the old intellectual days that I sometimes tried to force things and not after I started the development of poetry and prose by Yoga. Let me remind you also that when I was writing the Arya and also since whenever I write these letters or replies, I never think or seek for expressions or try to write in good style; it is out of a silent mind that I write whatever comes ready-shaped from above. Even when I correct, it is because the correction comes in the same way. Where then is the place for even a slight endeavour or any room at all for ‘my great endeavours’? Well?

By the way, please try to understand that the supra-intellectual (not the supramental only) is the field of a spontaneous automatic action. To get it or to get yourself open to it needs effort, but once it acts there is no effort. Your grey matter does not easily open; it closes up also too easily, so each time an effort has to be made, perhaps too much effort – if your grey matter would sensibly accommodate itself to the automatic flow there would not be the difficulty and the need of ‘assiduous, sincere and earnest endeavour’ each time, methinks. Well?

I challenge your assertion that the Force is more easily potent to produce spiritual results than mental (literary) results. It seems to me the other way round. In my own case the first time I started Yoga, prāṇāyāma, etc., I laboured five hours a day for a long time and concentrated and struggled for five years without any least spiritual result, (when the spiritual experiences did come, they were as unaccountable and automatic as – as blazes), but poetry came like a river and prose like a flood and other things too that were mental, vital or physical, not spiritual richnesses or openings. I have seen in many cases an activity of the mind in various directions as the first or at least early result. Why? Because there is less resistance, more co-operation from the confounded lower members for these things than for a psychic or a spiritual change. That is easy to understand at least. Well?



Q: I can quite understand that the inner knowledge comes with the growth and heightening of consciousness. But what about the outer knowledge – what we ordinarily call knowledge?

A: The capacity for it can come with the inner knowledge. E.g. I understood nothing about painting before I did Yoga. A moment's illumination in Alipore jail opened my vision and since then I have understood with the intuitive perception and vision. I do not know the technique, of course, but I can catch it at once if anybody with knowledge speaks of it. That would have been impossible to me before.



Q: Suppose you had not studied English literature; would it be still possible for you to say something about it by Yogic experience?

A: Only by cultivating a special Siddhi, which would be much too bothersome to go after. But I suppose if I had got the Yogic knowledge (in your hypothetical case) it would be quite easy to add the outer one.



Q: When one hears that you had to plod through a lot, one wonders whether the story of Valmiki's sudden opening of poetic faculties is true – whether such a miracle is really possible.

A: Plod about what? For some things I had to plod – other things came in a moment or in two or three days like Nirvana or the power to appreciate painting. The ‘latent’ philosopher failed to come out at the first shot (when I was in Calcutta) – after some years of incubation (?) it burst out like a volcano as soon as I started writing the Arya. There is no damned single rule for these things. Valmiki's poetic faculty might open suddenly like a champagne bottle, but it does not follow that everybody's will do like that.


Opening of the Artistic Eye

Don't be desperate about your incapacity as a connoisseur of painting. I was far worse in this respect: knew something about sculpture, but blind to painting. Suddenly one day in the Alipore jail while meditating I saw some pictures on the walls of the cell and lo and behold! the artistic eye in me opened and I knew all about painting except of course the more material side of the technique. I don't always know how to express though, because I lack the knowledge of the proper expressions, but that does not stand in the way of a keen and understanding appreciation. So, there you are: all things are possible in Yoga.

Difficulty of Commanding Inspiration

Inspiration is always a very uncertain thing; it comes when it chooses, stops suddenly before it has finished its work, refuses to descend when it is called. This is a well-known affliction, perhaps of all artists, but certainly of poets. There are some who can command it at will; those who, I think, are more full of an abundant poetic energy than careful for perfection; others who oblige it to come whenever they put pen to paper but with these the inspiration is either not of a high order or quite unequal in its levels. Again there are some who try to give it a habit of coming by always writing at the same time; Virgil with his nine lines first written, then perfected every morning, Milton with his fifty epic lines a day, are said to have succeeded in regularising their inspiration. It is, I suppose, the same principle which makes Gurus in India prescribe for their disciples a meditation at the same fixed hour every day. It succeeds partially of course, for some entirely, but not for everybody. For myself, when the inspiration did not come with a rush or in a stream,– for then there is no difficulty,– I had only one way, to allow a certain kind of incubation in which a large form of the thing to be done threw itself on the mind and then wait for the white heat in which the entire transcription could rapidly take place. But I think each poet has his own way of working and finds his own issue out of inspiration's incertitudes.


X used to write ten or twelve poems in a day or any number more.

It takes me usually a day or two days to write and perfect one or three days even, or if very inspired I get two short ones out, and have thereafter to revise the next day. Another poet will be like Virgil writing nine lines a day and spending all the rest of his time polishing and polishing. A fourth will be like Y, as I knew him, setting down half lines and fragments and taking 2 weeks or 2 months to put them into shape. The time does not matter, getting it done and the quality alone matter. So forge ahead and don't be discouraged by the prodigious rapidity of X.



Considering that the Supramental Avatar himself is quite incapable of doing what X or Y do, i.e. producing a poem or several poems a day, why do you bring him in? In England indeed I could write a lot every day but most of that has gone to the Waste Paper Basket.



Poetry seems to have intervals in its visits to you very often. I rather think the malady is fairly common. X and Y who can write whenever they feel inclined are rare birds. I don't know about ‘the direction of consciousness’. My own method is not to quiet the mind, for it is eternally quiet, but to turn upward and inward. You, I suppose, would have to quiet it first, which is not always easy. Have you tried it?



I myself have more than once abstained for some time from writing because I did not wish to produce anything except as an expression from a higher plane of consciousness but to do that you must be sure of your poetic gift, that it will not rust by too long a disuse.


Rewriting Poetry

Q: We have been wondering why you should have to write and rewrite your poetry – for instance, ‘Savitri’ ten or twelve times – when you have all the inspiration at your command and do not have to receive it with the difficulty that faces budding Yogis like us.

A: That is very simple. I used Savitri as a means of ascension. I began with it on a certain mental level, each time I could reach a higher level I rewrote from that level. Moreover I was particular – if part seemed to me to come from any lower levels I was not satisfied to leave it because it was good poetry. All had to be as far as possible of the same mint. In fact Savitri has not been regarded by me as a poem to be written and finished, but as a field of experimentation to see how far poetry could be written from one's own Yogic consciousness and how that could be made creative. I did not rewrite Rose of God or the sonnets except for two or three verbal alterations made at the moment.


Q: If X could receive his inspiration without any necessity for rewriting, why not you?

A: So could I if I wrote every day and had nothing else to do and did not care what the level of inspiration was so long as I produced something exciting.


Q: Do you have to rewrite because of some obstruction in the way of the inspiration?

A: The only obstruction is that I have no time to put myself constantly into the poetic creative posture and if I write at all have to get out something in the intervals of quite another concentration.


Q: With your silent consciousness it should be possible to draw from the highest planes with the least concentration.

A: The highest planes are not so accommodating as all that. If they were so, why should it be so difficult to bring down and organise the Supermind in the physical consciousness? What happy-go-lucky fancy-web-spinning ignoramuses you all are! You speak of silence, consciousness, overmental, supramental, etc., as if they were so many electric buttons you have only to press and there you are. It may be one day but meanwhile I have to discover everything about the working of all possible modes of electricity, all the laws, possibilities, perils etc., construct modes of connection and communication, make the whole far-wiring system, try to find out how it can be made foolproof and all that in the course of a single lifetime. And I have to do it while my blessed disciples are firing off their gay or gloomy a priori reasonings at me from a position of entire irresponsibility and expecting me to divulge everything to them not in hints but at length. Lord God in omnibus!



Q: A great bother and an uninteresting business, this chiselling, I find. But perhaps it is very pleasant to you, as you cast and recast ad infinitum, we hear, poetry or prose.

A: Poetry only, not prose. And in poetry only one poem Savitri. My own other poems are written off at once and if any changes are to be made it is done the same day or the next day and very rapidly done.


Effort and Inspiration

Q: As regards poetry, inspiration exists, so also effort. The first leaves one sometimes and one goes on beating and beating, hammering and hammering, but it comes not!

A: Exactly. When any real effect is produced, it is not because of the beating and the hammering, but because an inspiration slips down between the raising of the hammer and the falling and gets in under cover of the beastly noise. It is when there is no need of effort that the best comes. Effort is all right, but only as an excuse for inducing the Inspiration to come. If it wants to come, it comes, if it doesn't, it doesn't and one is obliged to give up after producing nothing or an inferior mind-made something. I have had that experience often enough myself. I have seen X also often producing something good but not perfect, beating the air and hammering it with proposed versions each as bad as the other; for it is only a new inspiration that can really improve a defect in the transcription of the first one. Still one makes efforts, but it is not the effort that produces the result but the inspiration that comes in answer to it. You knock at the door to make the fellow inside answer. He may or he may not; if he lies mum, you have only to walk off, swearing. That's effort and inspiration.



Q: Do you mean that this method (to ‘sit in vacant meditation and see what comes from the intuitive Gods’) can really do something? I understand that you wrote many things in that way, but people also say that Gods – no. Goddesses used to come and tell you the meaning of Vedas.

A: It was a joke. But all the same that is the way things are supposed to come. When the mind becomes decently quiet, an intuition perfect or imperfect is supposed to come hopping along and jump in and look round the place. Of course, it is not the only way. People tell a stupendous amount of rubbish. I wrote everything I have written since 1909 in that way, i.e. out of or rather through a silent mind, and not only a silent mind but a silent consciousness. But Gods and Goddesses had nothing to do with the matter.


Pressure of Creative Formation

I know very well this pressure of a creative formation to express itself and be fulfilled. When it presses like that there is nothing to do but to let it have its way, so as to leave the mind unoccupied and clear; otherwise it will be pushed two ways and would not be in the condition of ease necessary for concentration.

Poetic Inspiration and Prose-Work

Q: I am at present too much caught in the prose-work. No wonder poetry is impossible. I suppose the prose has to run its course before the poetic inspiration gets a chance to return?

A: Why the deuce should your poetic inspiration wait for the results of the prose canter? The ground being still cumbered ought to be no obstacle to an aerial flight.


Mania of Self-Depreciatory Criticism

You seem to suffer from a mania of self-depreciatory criticism. Many artists and poets have that; as soon as they look at their work they find it awfully poor and bad. (I had that myself often varied with the opposite feeling. X also has it); but to have it while writing is its most excruciating degree of intensity. Better get rid of it if you want to write freely.


Need to Limit Fields for Success in Writing

Q: I have such a push to write poetry, stories, all kinds of things, in Bengali!

A: Ambitions of that kind are too vague to succeed. You have to limit your fields and concentrate in order to succeed in them. I don't make any attempt to be a scientist or painter or general. I have certain things to do and have done them, so long as the Divine wanted; others have opened in me from above or within by Yoga. I have done as much of them as the Divine wanted.


Q: To try to be a literary man and yet not to know what big literary people have contributed would be inexcusable.

A: Why is it inexcusable? I don't know what the Japanese or the Soviet Russian writers have contributed, but I feel quite happy and moral in my ignorance. As for reading Dickens in order to be a literary man that's a strange idea. He was the most unliterary bloke that ever succeeded in literature and his style is a howling desert.



Q: What about planning to read Meredith, Hardy, Shelley, Keats and the Continental and Russian writers?

A: Lord, sir, I wish I had time to follow out a programme as massive as yours. I have none even to dilate upon yours.

Gaps in Culture

Q: You have nowhere said anything about Firdausi, the epic poet of Persia, author of Shahnameh? Would you rank him with the other epic poets whom you consider absolutely first-rate – Homer, Valmiki, Vyasa? How is it that you who have made your own culture so wide by means of learning so many languages have allowed a serious gap in it by not knowing Persian?

A: I read Firdausi in a translation long ago but it gave me no idea at all of the poetic qualities of the original. As for gaps in the culture – well, I don't know Russian or Finnish (missing the Kalevala) and haven't read the Nibelungenlied in the original, nor for that matter Pentaur's poem on the conquests of Rameses in ancient Egyptian or at least the fragment that survives. I don't know Arabic either, but I don't mind that, having read Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights which is as much a classic as the original. Anyhow, the gaps are vast and many.


Inspiration and Technique

You do not need at all to afflict your inspiration by studying metrical technique – you have all the technique you need, within you. I have never studied prosody myself – in English, at least; what I know I know by reading and writing and following my ear and using my intelligence. If one is interested in the technical study of prosody for its own sake, that is another matter – but it is not at all indispensable.


Literalness in Translation

The proper rule about literalness in translation, I suppose, is that one should keep as close as possible to the original provided the result does not read like a translation but like an original poem in Bengali, and, as far as possible, as if it were the original poem originally written in Bengali.

I admit that I have not practised what I preached,– whenever I translated I was careless of the hurt feelings of the original text and transmogrified it without mercy into whatever my fancy chose. But that is a high and mighty criminality which one ought not to imitate. Latterly I have tried to be more moral in my ways, I don't know with what success. But anyhow it is a case of ‘Do what I preach and avoid what I practise.’


Translation of Prose into Poetry

I think it is quite legitimate to translate poetic prose into poetry; I have done it myself when I translated The Hero and the Nymph on the ground that the beauty of Kalidasa's prose is best rendered by poetry in English, or, at least, that I found myself best able to render it in that way. Your critic's rule seems to me rather too positive; like all rules it may stand in principle in a majority of cases, but in the minority (which is the best part, for the less is often greater than the more) it need not stand at all. Pushed too far, it would mean that Homer and Virgil can be translated only in hexameters. Again, what of the reverse cases – the many fine prose translations of poets so much better and more akin to the spirit of the original than any poetic version of them yet made? One need not go farther than Tagore's English version of his Gitanjali. If poetry can be translated so admirably (and therefore legitimately) into prose, why should not prose be translated legitimately (and admirably) into poetry? After all, rules are made more for the convenience of critics than as a binding law for creators.

Translations of ‘Vikramorvasie’ and ‘Meghadut’

Q: It is curious how you repeatedly forget that you have so wonderfully Englished Kalidasa's ‘Vikramorvasie’ or ‘The Hero and the Nymph’. Once before also I had to remind you of it. Surely it cannot be that you want it to be rejected? By the way, you are supposed also to have translated Kalidasa's ‘Meghadut’ or ‘The Cloud-Messenger’ – in terza rima.

A: No, I do not reject The Hero and the Nymph. I had merely forgotten all about it.... I did translate the Meghadut, but it was lost by the man with whom I kept it.


Rewriting Shelley

Q: In Shelley's ‘Skylark’ my heart does not easily melt towards one simile –

Like a high-born maiden

In a palace-tower,

Soothing her love-laden

Soul in secret hour

With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower.

Sometimes I am inclined even to feel this is an atrocity. Then I wonder whether the sentimental stuff shouldn't be cut out and replaced by something deeper although in Shelley's style as much as possible – something like:

Like a child who wanders

In an ancient wood

Where the strange glow squanders

All its secret mood

Upon her lilting soul lost in that solitude.

A: The attempt to rewrite Shelley better than Shelley himself is a rash and hopeless endeavour. Your proposed stanza is twentieth century mysticism quite out of place in the Skylark and has not the simple felicity and magic and music of Shelley's verse. I fail to see why the high-born maiden is an atrocity – it expresses the romantic attitude towards love which was sentimental and emotional, attempting to lift it out of the coarseness of life into a mental-vital idealism which was an attempt to resuscitate the attitude of chivalry and the troubadours. Romantic and unreal, if you like, but not atrocious.


Comments on Criticisms2

The... letter was to be, as I suggested, ‘between ourselves’; there is too much that is private and personal in it for publicity. It is something that can be shown to those who can appreciate and understand, but to an ordinary reader I might seem to be standing on my defence rather than attacking and demolishing a criticism which might damage the appreciation of it in readers who are not sure of their own critical standard and reliability of their taste and so might be shaken by well-phrased judgments and plausible reasonings such as X's: they might make the same confusion as X himself between an apology and an apologia. An idea might rise that I am not sure of the value of my own poetry especially the earlier poetry and accept his valuation of it. The humility you speak of is very largely a Socratic humility, the element of irony in it is considerable; but readers not accustomed to fineness of shades might take it literally and conclude wrongly that I accepted the strictures passed by an unfavourable criticism. A poet who puts no value or a very low value on his own writing has no business to write poetry or to publish it or keep it in publication; if I allowed the publication of the Collected Poems it is because I judged them worth publishing. Y's objection has therefore some value. On the other hand in defending I may seem to be eulogising my own work, which is not a thing that can be done in public even if a poet's estimate of his achievement is as self-assured as that of Horace, Exegi monumentum aere perennius, or as magnificent as Victor Hugo's. Similarly, the reply was not meant for X himself and I do not think the whole can be shown to him without omissions or some editing, but if you wish and if you think that he will not resent any strictures I have made you can show to him the passages relevant to his criticisms.



You have asked me to comment on your friend X's comments on my poetry and especially on Savitri. But, first of all, it is not usual for a poet to criticise the criticisms of his critics though a few perhaps have done so; the poet writes for his own satisfaction, his own delight in poetical creation or to express himself and he leaves his work for the world, and rather for posterity than for the contemporary world, to recognise or to ignore, to judge and value according to its perception or its pleasure. As for the contemporary world he might be said rather to throw his poem in its face and leave it to resent this treatment as an unpleasant slap, as a contemporary world treated the early poems of Wordsworth and Keats, or to accept it as an abrupt but gratifying attention, which was ordinarily the good fortune of the great poets in ancient Athens and Rome and of poets like Shakespeare and Tennyson in modern times. Posterity does not always confirm the contemporary verdict, very often it reverses it, forgets or depreciates the writer enthroned by contemporary fame, or raises up to a great height work little appreciated or quite ignored in its own time. The only safety for the poet is to go his own way careless of the blows and caresses of the critics; it is not his business to answer them. Then you ask me to right the wrong turn your friend's critical mind has taken; but how is it to be determined what is the right and what is the wrong turn, since a critical judgment depends usually on a personal reaction determined by the critic's temperament or the aesthetic trend in him or by values, rules or canons which are settled for his intellect and agree with the viewpoint from which his mind receives whatever comes to him for judgment; it is that which is right for him though it may seem wrong to a different temperament, aesthetic intellectuality or mental viewpoint. Your friend's judgments, according to his own account of them, seem to be determined by a sensitive temperament finely balanced in its own poise but limited in its appreciations, clear and open to some kinds of poetic creation, reserved towards others, against yet others closed and cold or excessively depreciative. This sufficiently explains his very different reactions to the two poems, Descent and Flame-Wind,3 which he unreservedly admires and to Savitri. However, since you have asked me, I will answer, as between ourselves, in some detail and put forward my own comments on his comments and my own judgments on his judgments. It may be rather long; for if such things are done, they may as well be clearly and thoroughly done. I may also have something to say about the nature and intention of my poem and the technique necessitated by the novelty of the intention and nature.

Let me deal first with some of the details he stresses so as to get them out of the way. His detailed intellectual reasons for his judgments seem to me to be often arbitrary and fastidious, sometimes based on a misunderstanding and therefore invalid or else valid perhaps in other fields but here inapplicable. Take, for instance, his attack upon my use of the prepositional phrase. Here, it seems to me, he has fallen victim to a grammatical obsession and lumped together under the head of the prepositional twist a number of different turns some of which do not belong to that category at all. In the line,

Lone on my summits of calm I have brooded with voices around me,4

there is no such twist; for I did not mean at all ‘on my calm summits’, but intended straightforwardly to convey the natural, simple meaning of the word. If I write ‘the fields of beauty’ or ‘walking on the paths of truth’ I do not expect to be supposed to mean ‘in beautiful fields’ or ‘in truthful paths’; it is the same with ‘summits of calm’, I mean ‘summits of calm’ and nothing else; it is a phrase like ‘He rose to high peaks of vision’ or ‘He took his station on the highest summits of knowledge’. The calm is the calm of the highest spiritual consciousness to which the soul has ascended, making those summits its own and looking down from their highest heights on all below: in spiritual experience, in the occult vision or feeling that accompanies it, this calm is not felt as an abstract quality or a mental condition but as something concrete and massive, a self-existent reality to which one reaches, so that the soul standing on its peak is rather a tangible fact of experience than a poetical image. Then there is the phrase ‘A face of rapturous calm’:5 he seems to think it is a mere trick of language, a substitution of a prepositional phrase for an epithet, as if I had intended to say ‘a rapturously calm face’ and I said instead ‘a face of rapturous calm’ in order to get an illegitimate and meaningless rhetorical effect. I meant nothing of the kind, nothing so tame and poor and scanty in sense: I meant a face which was an expression or rather a living image of the rapturous calm of the supreme and infinite consciousness,– it is indeed so that it can well be ‘Infinity's centre’. The face of the liberated Buddha as presented to us by Indian art is such an expression or image of the calm of Nirvana and could, I think, be quite legitimately described as a face of Nirvanic calm, and that would be an apt and live phrase and not an ugly artifice or twist of rhetoric. It should be remembered that the calm of Nirvana or the calm of the supreme Consciousness is to spiritual experience something self-existent, impersonal and eternal and not dependent on the person – or the face – which manifests it. In these two passages I take then the liberty to regard X's criticism as erroneous at its base and therefore invalid and inadmissible.

Then there are the lines from the Songs of the Sea:

The rains of deluge flee, a storm-tossed shade,

Over thy breast of gloom...6

‘Thy breast of gloom’ is not used here as a mere rhetorical and meaningless variation of ‘thy gloomy breast’; it might have been more easily taken as that if it had been a human breast, though even then, it could have been entirely defensible in a fitting context; but it is the breast of the sea, an image for a vast expanse supporting and reflecting or subject to the moods or movements of the air and the sky. It is intended, in describing the passage of the rains of deluge over the breast of the sea, to present a picture of a storm-tossed shade crossing a vast gloom: it is the gloom that has to be stressed and made the predominant idea and the breast or expanse is only its support and not the main thing: this could not have been suggested by merely writing ‘thy gloomy breast’. A prepositional phrase need not be merely an artificial twist replacing an adjective; for instance, ‘a world of gloom and terror’ means something more than ‘a gloomy and terrible world’, it brings forward the gloom and terror as the very nature and constitution, the whole content of the world and not merely an attribute. So also if one wrote ‘Him too wilt thou throw to thy sword of sharpness’ or ‘cast into thy pits of horror’, would it merely mean ‘thy sharp sword’ and ‘thy horrible pits’? and would not the sharpness and the horror rather indicate or represent formidable powers of which the sword is the instrument and the pits the habitation or lair? That would be rhetoric but it would be a rhetoric not meaningless but having in it meaning and power. Rhetoric is a word with which we can batter something we do not like; but rhetoric of one kind or another has been always a great part of the world's best literature; Demosthenes, Cicero, Bossuet and Burke are rhetoricians, but their work ranks with the greatest prose styles that have been left to us. In poetry the accusation of rhetoric might be brought against such lines as Keats'

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down....

To conclude, there is ‘the swords of sheen’ in the translation of Bande Mataram.7 That might be more open to the critic's stricture, for the expression can be used and perhaps has been used in verse as merely equivalent to ‘shining swords’; but for anyone with an alert imagination it can mean in certain contexts something more than that, swords that emit brilliance and seem to be made of light. X says that to use this turn in any other than an adjectival sense is unidiomatic, but he admits that there need be no objection provided that it creates a sense of beauty, but he finds no beauty in any of these passages. But the beauty can be perceived only if the other sense is seen, and even then we come back to the question of personal reaction; you and other readers may feel beauty where he finds none. I do not myself share his sensitive abhorrence of this prepositional phrase; it may be of course because there are coarser rhetorical threads in my literary taste. I would not, for instance, shrink from a sentence like this in a sort of free verse, ‘Where is thy wall of safety? Where is thy arm of strength? Whither has fled thy vanished face of glory?’ Rhetoric of course, but it has in it an element which can be attractive, and it seems to me to bring in a more vivid note and mean more than ‘thy strong arm’ or ‘thy glorious face’ or than ‘the strength of thy arm’ and ‘the glory of thy face’.

I come next to the critic's trenchant attack on that passage in my symbolic vision of Night and Dawn in which there is recorded the conscious adoration of Nature when it feels the passage of the omniscient Goddess of eternal Light. Trenchant, but with what seems to me a false edge; or else if it is a sword of Damascus that would cleave the strongest material mass of iron he is using it to cut through subtle air, the air closes behind his passage and remains unsevered. He finds here only poor and false poetry, unoriginal in imagery and void of true wording and true vision, but that is again a matter of personal reaction and everyone has a right to his own, you to yours as he to his. I was not seeking for originality but for truth and the effective poetical expression of my vision. He finds no vision there, and that may be because I could not express myself with any power; but it may also be because of his temperamental failure to feel and see what I felt and saw. I can only answer to the intellectual reasonings and judgments which turned up in him when he tried to find the causes of his reaction. These seem to me to be either fastidious and unsound or founded on a mistake of comprehension and therefore invalid or else inapplicable to this kind of poetry. His main charge is that there is a violent and altogether illegitimate transference of epithet in the expression ‘the wide-winged hymn of a great priestly wind’.8 A transference of epithet is not necessarily illegitimate, especially if it expresses something that is true or necessary to convey a sound feeling and vision of things: for instance, if one writes in an Ovidian account of the dénouement of a lovers' quarrel

In spite of a reluctant sullen heart

My willing feet were driven to thy door,

it might be said that it was something in the mind that was willing and the ascription of an emotion or state of mind to the feet is an illegitimate transfer of epithet; but the lines express a conflict of the members, the mind reluctant, the body obeying the force of the desire that moves it and the use of the epithet is therefore perfectly true and legitimate. But here no such defence is necessary because there is no transfer of epithets. The critic thinks that I imagined the wind as having a winged body and then took away the wings from its shoulders and clapped them on to its voice or hymn which could have no body. But I did nothing of the kind; I am not bound to give wings to the wind. In an occult vision the breath, sound, movement by which we physically know of a wind is not its real being but only the physical manifestation of the wind-god or the spirit of the air, as in the Veda the sacrificial fire is only a physical birth, temporary body or manifestation of the god of Fire, Agni. The gods of the Air and other godheads in the Indian tradition have no wings, the Maruts or storm-gods ride through the skies in their galloping chariots with their flashing golden lances, the beings of the middle world in the Ajanta frescoes are seen moving through the air not with wings but with a gliding natural motion proper to ethereal bodies. The epithet ‘wide-winged’ then does not belong to the wind and is not transferred from it, but is proper to the voice of the wind which takes the form of a conscious hymn of aspiration and rises ascending from the bosom of the great priest, as might a great-winged bird released into the sky and sinks and rises again, aspires and fails and aspires again on the ‘altar hills’. One can surely speak of a voice or a chant of aspiration rising on wide wings and I do not see how this can be taxed as a false or unpoetic image. Then the critic objects to the expression ‘altar hills’ on the ground that this is superfluous as the imagination of the reader can very well supply this detail for itself from what has already been said: I do not think this is correct, a very alert reader might do so but most would not even think of it, and yet the detail is an essential and central feature of the thing seen and to omit it would be to leave a gap in the middle of the picture by dropping out something which is indispensable to its totality. Finally he finds that the line about the high boughs praying in the revealing sky does not help but attenuates, instead of more strongly etching the picture. I do not know why, unless he has failed to feel and to see. The picture is that of a conscious adoration offered by Nature and in that each element is conscious in its own way, wind and its hymn, the hills, the trees. The wind is the great priest of this sacrifice of worship, his voice rises in a conscious hymn of aspiration, the hills offer themselves with the feeling of being an altar of the worship, the trees lift their high boughs towards heaven as the worshippers, silent figures of prayer, and the light of the sky into which their boughs rise reveals the Beyond towards which all aspires. At any rate this ‘picture’ or rather this part of the vision is a complete rendering of what I saw in the light of the inspiration and the experience that came to me. I might indeed have elaborated more details, etched out at more length but that would have been superfluous and unnecessary; or I might have indulged in an ampler description but this would have been appropriate only if this part of the vision had been the whole. This last line9 is an expression of an experience which I often had whether in the mountains or on the plains of Gujarat or looking from my window in Pondicherry not only in the dawn but at other times and I am unable to find any feebleness either in the experience or in the words that express it. If the critic or any reader does not feel or see what I so often felt and saw, that may be my fault, but that is not sure, for you and others have felt very differently about it; it may be a mental or a temperamental failure on their part and it will be then my or perhaps even the critic's or reader's misfortune.

I may refer here to X's disparaging characterisation of my epithets. He finds that their only merit is that they are good prose epithets, not otiose but right words in their right place and exactly descriptive but only descriptive without any suggestion of any poetic beauty or any kind of magic. Are there then prose epithets and poetic epithets and is the poet debarred from exact description using always the right word in the right place, the mot juste? I am under the impression that all poets, even the greatest, use as the bulk of their adjectives words that have that merit, and the difference from prose is that a certain turn in the use of them accompanied by the power of the rhythm in which they are carried lifts all to the poetic level. Take one of the passages I have quoted from Milton,

On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues...

Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides

And Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old,

here the epithets are the same that would be used in prose, the right word in the right place, exact in statement, but all lies in the turn which makes them convey a powerful and moving emotion and the rhythm which gives them an uplifting passion and penetrating insistence. In more ordinary passages such as the beginning of Paradise Lost the epithets ‘forbidden tree’ and ‘mortal taste’ are of the same kind, but can we say that they are merely prose epithets, good descriptive adjectives and have no other merit? If you take the lines about Nature's worship in Savitri, I do not see how they can be described as prose epithets; at any rate I would never have dreamt of using in prose unless I wanted to write poetic prose such expressions as ‘wide-winged hymn’ or ‘a great priestly wind’ or ‘altar hills’ or ‘revealing sky’; these epithets belong in their very nature to poetry alone whatever may be their other value or want of value. He says they are obvious and could have been supplied by any imaginative reader; well, so are Milton's in the passages quoted and perhaps there too the very remarkable imaginative reader whom X repeatedly brings in might have supplied them by his own unfailing poetic verve. Whether they or any of them prick a hidden beauty out of the picture is for each reader to feel or judge for himself; but perhaps he is thinking of such things as Keats' ‘magic casements’ and ‘foam of perilous seas’ and ‘fairy lands forlorn’, but I do not think even in Keats the bulk of the epithets are of that unusual character.

I have said that his objections are sometimes inapplicable. I mean by this that they might have some force with regard to another kind of poetry but not to a poem like Savitri. He says, to start with, that if I had had a stronger imagination, I would have written a very different poem and a much shorter one. Obviously, and to say it is a truism; if I had had a different kind of imagination, whether stronger or weaker, I would have written a different poem and perhaps one more to his taste; but it would not have been Savitri. It would not have fulfilled the intention or had anything of the character, meaning, world-vision, description and expression of spiritual experience which was my object in writing this poem. Its length is an indispensable condition for carrying out its purpose and everywhere there is this length, critics may say an ‘unconscionable length’ – I am quoting the Times' reviewer's description10 in his otherwise eulogistic criticism of The Life Divine – in every part, in every passage, in almost every canto or section of a canto. It has been planned not on the scale of Lycidas or Comus or some brief narrative poem, but of the longer epical narrative, almost a minor, though a very minor Ramayana; it aims not at a minimum but at an exhaustive exposition of its world-vision or world-interpretation. One artistic method is to select a limited subject and even on that to say only what is indispensable, what is centrally suggestive and leave the rest to the imagination or understanding of the reader. Another method which I hold to be equally artistic or, if you like, architectural is to give a large and even a vast, a complete interpretation, omitting nothing that is necessary, fundamental to the completeness: that is the method I have chosen in Savitri. But X has understood nothing of the significance or intention of the passages he is criticising, least of all, their inner sense – that is not his fault, but is partly due to the lack of the context and partly to his lack of equipment and you have there an unfair advantage over him which enables you to understand and see the poetic intention. He sees only an outward form of words and some kind of surface sense which is to him vacant and merely ornamental or rhetorical or something pretentious without any true meaning or true vision in it: inevitably he finds the whole thing false and empty, unjustifiably ambitious and pompous without deep meaning or, as he expresses it, pseudo and phoney. His objection of longueur would be perfectly just if the description of the night and the dawn had been simply of physical night and physical dawn; but here the physical night and physical dawn are, as the title of the canto clearly suggests, a symbol, although what may be called a real symbol of an inner reality and the main purpose is to describe by suggestion the thing symbolised; here it is a relapse into Inconscience broken by a slow and difficult return of consciousness followed by a brief but splendid and prophetic outbreak of spiritual light leaving behind it the ‘day’ of ordinary human consciousness in which the prophecy has to be worked out. The whole of Savitri is, according to the title of the poem, a legend that is a symbol and this opening canto is, it may be said, a key beginning and announcement. So understood there is nothing here otiose or unnecessary; all is needed to bring out by suggestion some aspect of the thing symbolised and so start adequately the working out of the significance of the whole poem. It will of course seem much too long to a reader who does not understand what is written or, understanding, takes no interest in the subject; but that is unavoidable.

To illustrate the inapplicability of some of his judgments one might take his objection to repetition of the cognates ‘sombre Vast’, ‘unsounded Void’, ‘opaque Inane’, ‘vacant Vasts’ and his clinching condemnation of the inartistic inelegance of their occurrence in the same place at the end of the line. I take leave to doubt his statement that in each place his alert imaginative reader, still less any reader without that equipment, could have supplied these descriptions and epithets from the context, but let that pass. What was important for me was to keep constantly before the view of the reader, not imaginative but attentive to seize the whole truth of the vision in its totality, the ever-present sense of the Inconscience in which everything is occurring. It is the frame as well as the background without which all the details v/would either fall apart or stand out only as separate incidents. That necessity lasts until there is the full outburst of the dawn and then it disappears; each phrase gives a feature of this Inconscience proper to its place and context. It is the entrance of the ‘lonely splendour’ into an otherwise inconscient obstructing and unreceptive world that has to be brought out and that cannot be done without the image of the ‘opaque Inane’ of the Inconscience which is the scene and cause of the resistance. There is the same necessity for reminding the reader that the ‘tread’ of the Divine Mother v/as an intrusion on the vacancy of the Inconscience and the herald of deliverance from it. The same reasoning applies to the other passages. As for the occurrence, of the phrases in the same place each in its line, that is a rhythmic turn helpful, one might say necessary to bring out the intended effect, to emphasise this reiteration and make it not only understood but felt. It is not the result of negligence or an awkward and inartistic clumsiness, it is intentional and part of the technique. The structure of the pentameter blank verse in Savitri is of its own kind and different in plan from the blank verse that has come to be ordinarily used in English poetry. It dispenses with enjambment or uses it very sparingly and only when a special effect is intended; each line must be strong enough to stand by itself, while at the same time it fits harmoniously into the sentence or paragraph like stone added to stone; the sentence consists usually of one, two, three or four lines, more rarely five or six or seven: a strong close for the line and a strong close for the sentence are almost indispensable except when some kind of inconclusive cadence is desirable; there must be no laxity or diffusiveness in the rhythm or in the metrical flow anywhere,– there must be a flow but not a loose flux. This gives an added importance to what comes at the close of the line and this placing is used very often to give emphasis and prominence to a key phrase or a key idea, especially those which have to be often reiterated in the thought and vision of the poem so as to recall attention to things that are universal or fundamental or otherwise of the first consequence – whether for the immediate subject or in the total plan. It is this use that is served here by the reiteration at the end of the line.

I have not anywhere in Savitri written anything for the sake of mere picturesqueness or merely to produce a rhetorical effect; what I am trying to do everywhere in the poem is to express exactly something seen, something felt or experienced; if, for instance, I indulge in the wealth-burdened line or passage, it is not merely for the pleasure of the indulgence, but because there is that burden, or at least what I conceive to be that, in the vision or the experience. When the expression has been found, I have to judge, not by the intellect or by any set poetical rule, but by an intuitive feeling, whether it is entirely the right expression and, if it is not, I have to change and go on changing until I have received the absolutely right inspiration and the right transcription of it and must never be satisfied with any à peu près or imperfect transcription even if that makes good poetry of one kind or another. This is what I have tried to do. The critic or reader will judge for himself whether I have succeeded or failed; but if he has seen nothing and understood nothing, it does not follow that his adverse judgment is sure to be the right and true one, there is at least a chance that he may so conclude, not because there is nothing to see and nothing to understand, only poor pseudo-stuff or a rhetorical emptiness but because he was not equipped for the vision or the understanding. Savitri is the record of a seeing, of an experience which is not of the common kind and is often very far from what the general human mind sees and experiences. You must not expect appreciation or understanding from the general public or even from many at the first touch; as I have pointed out, there must be a new extension of consciousness and aesthesis to appreciate a new kind of mystic poetry. Moreover if it is really new in kind, it may employ a new technique, not perhaps absolutely new, but new in some or many of its elements: in that case old rules and canons and standards may be quite inapplicable; evidently, you cannot justly apply to the poetry of Whitman the principles of technique which are proper to the old metrical verse or the established laws of the old traditional poetry; so too when we deal with a modernist poet. We have to see whether what is essential to poetry is there and how far the new technique justifies itself by new beauty and perfection, and a certain freedom of mind from old conventions is necessary if our judgment is to be valid or rightly objective.

Your friend may say as he has said in another connection that all this is only special pleading or an apology rather than an apologia. But in that other connection he was mistaken and would be so here too, for in neither case have I the feeling that I had been guilty of some offence or some shortcoming and therefore there could be no place for an apology or special pleading such as is used to defend or cover up what one knows to be a false case. I have enough respect for truth not to try to cover up an imperfection; my endeavour would be rather to cure the recognised imperfection; if I have not poetical genius, at least I can claim a sufficient, if not an infinite capacity for painstaking: that I have sufficiently shown by my long labour on Savitri. Or rather, since it was not labour in the ordinary sense, not a labour of painstaking construction, I may describe it as an infinite capacity for waiting and listening for the true inspiration and rejecting all that fell short of it, however good it might seem from a lower standard until I got that which I felt to be absolutely right. X was evidently under a misconception with regard to my defence of the wealth-burdened line; he says that the principle enounced by me was sound but what mattered was my application of the principle, and he seems to think that I was trying to justify my application although I knew it to be bad and false by citing passages from Milton and Shakespeare as if my use of the wealth-burdened style were as good as theirs. But I was not defending the excellence of my practice, for the poetical value of my lines was not then in question; the question was whether it did not violate a valid law of a certain chaste economy by the use of too many epithets massed together: against this I was asserting the legitimacy of a massed richness, I was defending only its principle, not my use of the principle. Even a very small poet can cite in aid of his practice examples from greater poets without implying that his poetry is on a par with theirs. But he further asserts that I showed small judgment in choosing my citations, because Milton's passage11 is not at all an illustration of the principle and Shakespeare's12 is inferior in poetic value, lax and rhetorical in its richness and belongs to an early and inferior Shakespearean style. He says that Milton's astounding effect is due only to the sound and not to the words. That does not seem to me quite true: the sound, the rhythmic resonance, the rhythmic significance is undoubtedly the predominant factor; it makes us hear and feel the crash and clamour and clangour of the downfall of the rebel angels: but that is not all, we do not merely hear as if one were listening to the roar of ruin of a collapsing bomb-shattered house, but saw nothing, we have the vision and the full psychological commotion of the ‘hideous’ and naming ruin of the downfall, and it is the tremendous force of the words that makes us see as well as hear. X's disparagement of the Shakespearean passage on ‘sleep’ and the line on the sea considered by the greatest critics and not by myself only as ranking amongst the most admired and admirable things in Shakespeare is surprising and it seems to me to illustrate a serious limitation in his poetic perception and temperamental sympathies. Shakespeare's later terse and packed style with its more powerful dramatic effects can surely be admired without disparaging the beauty and opulence of his earlier style; if he had never written in that style, it would have been an unspeakable loss to the sum of the world's aesthetic possessions. The lines I have quoted are neither lax nor merely rhetorical, they have a terseness or at least a compactness of their own, different in character from the lines, let us say, in the scene of Antony's death or other memorable passages written in his great tragic style but none the less at every step packed with pregnant meanings and powerful significances which would not be possible if it were merely a loose rhetoric. Anyone writing such lines would deserve to rank by them alone among the great and even the greatest poets.

That is enough for the detail of the criticism and we can come to the general effect and his pronounced opinion upon my poetry. Apart from his high appreciation of Flame-wind and descent, Jivanmukta and Thought the Paraclete and his general approval of the mystic poems published along with my essay on quantitative metre in English, it is sufficiently damning and discouraging and if I were to accept his verdict on my earlier and latest poetry, the first comparatively valueless and the last for the most part pseudo and phoney and for the rest offering only a few pleasant or pretty lines but not charged with the power and appeal of true or great poetry, I would have to withdraw the Collected Poems from circulation, throw Savitri into the wastepaper-basket and keep only the mystical poems,– but these also have been banned by some critics, so I have no refuge left to me. As X is not a negligible critic and his verdict agrees with that of the eulogist of my philosophy in The Times Literary Supplement, not to speak of others less authoritative like the communist reviewer of Iyengar's book who declared that it was not at all certain that I would live as a poet, it is perhaps incumbent on me to consider in all humility my dismal position and weigh whether it is really as bad as all that. There are some especial judgments in your friend's comments on the Collected Poems but these seem to concern only the translations. It is curious that he should complain of the lack of the impulse of self-expression in the Songs of the Sea as in this poem I was not busy with anything of the kind but was only rendering into English the self-expression of my friend and fellow-poet C. R. Das in his fine Bengali poem Sagar Sangit. I was not even self-moved to translate this work, however beautiful I found it; I might even be accused of having written the translation as a pot-boiler, for Das knowing my impecunious and precarious condition at Pondicherry offered me Rs. 1,000 for the work. Nevertheless I tried my best to give his beautiful Bengali lines as excellent a shape of English poetry as I could manage. The poet and littérateur Chapman condemned my work because I had made it too English, written too much in a manner imitative of traditional English poetry and had failed to make it Bengali in its character so as to keep its native spirit and essential substance. He may have been right; Das himself was not satisfied as he appended a more literal translation in free verse but this latter version does not seem to have caught on while some at least still read and admire the English disguise. If X is right in finding an overflow of sentiment in the Songs, that must be my own importation of an early romantic sentimentalism, a contribution of my own ‘self-expression’ replacing Das's. The sea to the Indian imagination is a symbol of life,– one speaks of the ocean of the samsāra and Indian Yoga sees in its occult visions life in the image of a sea or different planes of being as so many oceans. Das's poem expresses his communing with this ocean of universal life and psychic intimacies with the Cosmic Spirit behind it and these have a character of grave emotion and intense feeling, not of mere sentimentalism, but they come from a very Indian and even a very Bengali mentality and may seem in translation to a different mind a profuse display of fancy and sentiment. The Songs are now far away from me in a dim backward of memory and I will have to read them again to be sure, but for that I have no time.

Again, I am charged with modern nineteenth-century romanticism and a false imitation of the Elizabethan drama in my rendering of Kalidasa's Vikramorvasie; but Kalidasa's play is romantic in its whole tone and he might almost be described as an Elizabethan predating by a thousand years at least the Elizabethans; indeed most of the ancient Sanskrit dramas are of this kind, though the tragic note is missing, and the general spirit resembles that of Elizabethan romantic comedy. So I do not think I committed any fault in making the translation romantic and in trying to make it Elizabethan, even if I only achieved a ‘sapless pseudo-Elizabethan’ style. One who knew the Sanskrit original and who, although an Indian, was recognised as a good critic in England as well as a poet, one too whose attitude towards myself and my work had been consistently adverse, yet enthusiastically praised my version and said if Kalidasa could be translated at all, it was only so that he could be translated.

This imprimatur of an expert may perhaps be weighed against the discouraging criticism of X. The comment on my translation of Bhartrihari is more to the point; but the fault is not Bhartri-hari's whose epigrams are as concise and lapidary as the Greek, but in translating I indulged my tendency at the time which was predominantly romantic: the version presents faithfully enough the ideas of the Sanskrit poet but riot the spirit and manner of his style. It is comforting, however, to find that it makes ‘attractive reading’,– I must be content with small mercies in an adversely critical world. After all, these poems are translations and not original work and not many can hope to come within a hundred miles of the more famous achievements of this kind such as Fitzgerald's splendid misrepresentation of Omar Khayyam, or Chapman's and Pope's mistranslations of Homer which may be described as first-class original poems with a borrowed substance from a great voice of the past. X does not refer specifically to Love and Death to which your enthusiasm first went out, to Poems, to Urvasie and to Perseus the Deliverer though this last he would class, I suppose, as sapless pseudo-Elizabethan drama; but that omission may be there because he only skimmed through them and afterwards could not get the first volume. But perhaps they may come under his general remark that this part of my work lacks the glow and concentration of true inspired poetry and his further judgment classing it with the works of Watson and Stephen Phillips and other writers belonging to the decline of romantic poetry. I know nothing about Watson's work except for one or two short pieces met by chance; if I were to judge from them, I would have to regard him as a genuine poet with a considerable elevation of language and metrical rhythm but somewhat thin in thought and substance; my poems may conceivably have some higher quality than his in this last respect since the reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement grants deep thought and technical excellence as the only merits of my uninspired poetry. It is otherwise with Stephen Phillips: I read Marpessa and Christ in Hades, the latter in typescript, shortly before I left England and they aroused my admiration and made a considerable impression on me. I read recently a reference to Phillips as a forgotten poet, but if that includes these two poems I must consider the oblivion as a considerable loss to the generation which has forgotten them. His later poetry disappointed me, there was still some brilliance but nothing of that higher promise. The only other poet of that time who had some influence on me was Meredith, especially his Modern Love which may have helped in forming the turn of my earlier poetic expression. I have not read the other later poets of the decline. Of subsequent writers or others not belonging to this decline I know only A.E. and Yeats, something of Francis Thompson, especially the Hound of Heaven and the Kingdom of God, and a poem or two of Gerald Hopkins; but the last two I came across very late, Hopkins only quite recently, and none of them had any influence on me, although one English reviewer in India spoke of me in eulogistic terms as a sort of combination of Swinburne and Hopkins and some have supposed that I got my turn for compound epithets from the latter! The only romantic poets of the Victorian Age who could have had any influence on me, apart from Arnold whose effect on me was considerable, were Tennyson perhaps, subconsciously, and Swinburne of the earlier poems, for his later work I did not at all admire. Still it is possible that the general atmosphere of the later Victorian decline, if decline it was, may have helped to mould my work and undoubtedly it dates and carries the stamp of the time in which it was written. It is a misfortune of my poetry from the point of view of recognition that the earlier work forming the bulk of the Collected Poems belongs to the past and has little chance of recognition now that the aesthetic atmosphere has so violently changed, while the later mystical work and Savitri belong to the future and will possibly have to wait for recognition of any merit they have for another strong change. As for the mystical poems which your friend praises in such high terms, they are as much challenged by others as the rest of my work. Some reviewers have described them as lacking altogether in spiritual feeling and void of spiritual experience; they are, it seems, mere mental work, full of intellectually constructed images and therefore without the genuine value of spiritual or mystic poetry.

Well, then, what is the upshot? What have I to decide as a result of my aesthetic examination of conscience? It is true that there are voices on the other side, not only from my disciples but from others who have no such connection with me. I have heard of individuals nameless or tameless in England who chanced to come across Love and Death and had the same spontaneous enthusiasm for it as yourself; others have even admired and discovered in my earlier work the beauty and the inspiration which X and the Times reviewer find to be badly lacking in it. It is true that they have differed in the poems they have chosen; Andrews cited particularly the Rishi and the epigram on Goethe as proof of his description of me as a great poet; an English critic, Richardson, singled out Urvasie and Love and Death and the more romantic poems, but thought that some of my later work was less inspired, too intellectual and philosophical, too much turned towards thought, while some work done in the middle he denounced altogether, complaining that after feeding my readers on nectar for so long I came later on to give them mere water. This critic made a distinction between great poets and good poets and said that I belonged to the second and not to the first category, but as he classed Shelley and others of the same calibre as examples of the good poets, his praise was sufficiently ‘nectarous’ for anybody to swallow with pleasure! Krishnaprem (Ronald Nixon), Moore and others have also had a contrary opinion to the adverse critics and these, both English and Indian, were men whose capacity for forming a true literary judgment is perhaps as good as any on the other side. Krishnaprem I mention, because his judgement forms a curious and violent contrast to X's: the latter finds no overtones in my poetry while Krishnaprem who similarly discourages Harm's poetry on the ground of a lack of overtones finds them abundant in mine. One begins to wonder what overtones really are, or are we to conclude that they have no objective existence but are only a term for some subjective personal reaction in the reader? I meet the same absolute contradiction everywhere; one critic says about Perseus that there is some good poetry in it but it is not in the least dramatic except for one scene and that the story of the .play is entirely lacking in interest, while another finds in it most of all a drama of action and the story thrilling and holding a breathless interest from beginning to end. Highest eulogy, extreme disparagement, faint praise, mixed laudation and censure – it is a see-saw on which the unfortunate poet who is incautious enough to attach any value to contemporary criticism is balanced without any possibility of escape. Or I may flatter myself with the idea that this lively variation of reaction from extreme eulogy to extreme damnation indicates that my work must have after all something in it that is real and alive. Or I might perhaps take refuge in the supposition that the lack of recognition is the consequence of an untimely and too belated publication, due to the egoistic habit of writing for my own self-satisfaction rather than any strong thirst for poetical glory and immortality and leaving most of my poetry in the drawer for much longer than, even for twice or thrice, the time recommended by Horace who advised the poet to put by his work and read it again after ten years and then only, if he still found it of some value, to publish it. Urvasie, the second of the only two poems published early, was sent at first to Lionel Johnson, a poet and littérateur of some reputation who was the Reader of a big firm. He acknowledged some poetic merit, but said that it was a repetition of Matthew Arnold and so had no sufficient reason for existence. But Lionel Johnson, I was told, like the Vedantic sage who sees Brahman in all things, saw Arnold everywhere, and perhaps if I had persisted in sending it to other firms, some other Reader, not similarly obsessed, might have found the merit and, as romanticism was still the fashion, some of the critics and the public too might have shared your and Richardson's opinion of this and other work and, who knows, I might have ranked in however low a place among the poets of the romantic decline. Perhaps then I need not decide too hastily against any republication of the Collected Poems or could even cherish the hope that, when the fashion of anti-romanticism has passed, it may find its proper place, whatever that may be, and survive.

As regards your friend's appraisal of the mystical poems13 I need say little. I accept his reservation that there is much inequality as between the different poems: they were produced very rapidly – in the course of a week, I think – and they were not given the long reconsideration that I have usually given to my poetic work before publication; he has chosen the best, though there are others also that are good, though not so good; in others, the metre attempted and the idea and language have not been lifted to their highest possible value. I would like to say a word about his hesitation over some lines in Thought the Paraclete14 which describe the spiritual planes. I can understand this hesitation; for these lines have not the vivid and forceful precision of the opening and the close and are less pressed home, they are general in description and therefore to one who has not the mystic experience may seem too large and vague. But they are not padding; a precise and exact description of these planes of experience would have made the poem too long, so only some large lines are given, but the description is true, the epithets hit the reality and even the colours mentioned in the poem, ‘gold-red feet’ and ‘crimson-white mooned oceans’, are faithful to experience. Significant colour, supposed by intellectual criticism to be symbolic but there is more than that, is a frequent element in mystic vision; I may mention the powerful and vivid vision in which Ramakrishna went up into the higher planes and saw the mystic truth behind the birth of Vivekananda. At least, the fact that these poems have appealed so strongly to your friend's mind may perhaps be taken by me as a sufficient proof that in this field my effort at interpretation of spiritual things has not been altogether a failure.

But how then are we to account for the same critic's condemnation or small appreciation of Savitri which is also a mystic and symbolic poem although cast into a different form and raised to a different pitch, and what value am I to attach to his criticism? Partly, perhaps, it is this very difference of form and pitch which accounts for his attitude and, having regard to his aesthetic temperament and its limitations, it was inevitable. He himself seems to suggest this reason when he compares this difference to the difference of his approach as between Lycidas and Paradise Lost. His temperamental turn is shown by his special appreciation of Francis Thompson and Coventry Patmore and his response to Descent and Flame-Wind and the fineness of his judgment when speaking of the Hound of Heaven and the Kingdom of God, its limitation by his approach towards Paradise Lost. I think he would be naturally inclined to regard any very high-pitched poetry as rhetorical and unsound and declamatory, wherever he did not see in it something finely and subtly true coexisting with the high-pitched expression,– the combination we find in Thompson's later poem and it is this he seems to have missed in Savitri. For Savitri does contain or at least I intended it to contain what you and others have felt in it but he has not been able to feel because it is something which is outside his own experience and to which he has no access. One who has had the kind of experience which Savitri sets out to express or who, not having it, is prepared by his temperament, his mental turn, his previous intellectual knowledge or psychic training, to have some kind of access to it, the feeling of it if not the full understanding, can enter into the spirit and sense of the poem and respond to its poetic appeal; but without that it is difficult for an unprepared reader to respond,– all the more if this is, as you contend, a new poetry with a new law of expression and technique.

Lycidas is one of the finest poems in any literature, one of the most consistently perfect among works of an equal length and one can apply to it the epithet ‘exquisite’ and it is to the exquisite that your friend's aesthetic temperament seems specially to respond. It would be possible to a reader with a depreciatory turn to find flaws in it, such as the pseudo-pastoral setting, the too powerful intrusion of St. Peter and puritan theological controversy into that incongruous setting and the image of the hungry sheep which someone not in sympathy with Christian feeling and traditional imagery might find even ludicrous or at least odd in its identification of pseudo-pastoral sheep and theological human sheep: but these would be hypercritical objections and are flooded out by the magnificence of the poetry. I am prepared to admit the very patent defects of Paradise Lost: Milton's heaven is indeed unconvincing and can be described as grotesque and so too is his gunpowder battle up there, and his God and angels are weak and unconvincing figures, even Adam and Eve, our first parents, do not effectively fill their part except in his outward description of them; and the later narrative falls far below the grandeur of the first four books but those four books stand for ever among the greatest things in the world's poetic literature. If Lycidas with its beauty and perfection had been the supreme thing done by Milton even with all the lyrical poetry and the sonnets added to it, Milton would still have been a great poet but he would not have ranked among the dozen greatest; it is Paradise Lost that gives him that place. There are deficiencies if not failures in almost all the great epics, the Odyssey and perhaps the Divina Commedia being the only exceptions, but still they are throughout in spite of them great epics. So too is Paradise Lost. The grandeur of his verse and language is constant and unsinking to the end and makes the presentation always sublime. We have to accept for the moment Milton's dry Puritan theology and his all too human picture of the celestial world and its denizens and then we can feel the full greatness of the epic. But the point is that this greatness in itself seems to have less appeal to X's aesthetic temperament; it is as if he felt less at home in its atmosphere, in an atmosphere of grandeur and sublimity than in the air of a less sublime but a fine and always perfect beauty. It;s the difference between a magic hill-side woodland of wonder and a great soaring mountain climbing into a vast purple sky: to accept fully the greatness he needs to find in it a finer and subtler strain as in Thompson's Kingdom of God. On a lower scale this, his sentence about it seems to suggest, is the one fundamental reason for his complete pleasure in the mystical poems and his very different approach to Savitri. The pitch aimed at by Savitri, the greatness you attribute to it, would of itself have discouraged in him any abandonment to admiration and compelled from the beginning a cautious and dubious approach; that soon turned to lack of appreciation or a lowered appreciation even of the best that may be there and to depreciation and censure of the rest.

But there is the other reason which is more effective. He sees and feels nothing of the spiritual meaning and the spiritual appeal which you find in Savitri; it is for him empty of anything but an outward significance and that seems to him poor, as is natural since the outward meaning is only a part and a surface and the rest is to his eyes invisible. If there had been what he hoped or might have hoped to find in my poetry, a spiritual vision such as that of the Vedantin, arriving beyond the world towards the Ineffable, then he might have felt at home as he does with Thompson's poetry or might at least have found it sufficiently accessible. But this is not what Savitri has to say or rather it is only a small part of it and, even so, bound up with a cosmic vision and an acceptance of the world which in its kind is unfamiliar to his mind and psychic sense and foreign to his experience. The two passages with which he deals do not and cannot give any full presentation of this way of seeing things since one is an unfamiliar symbol and the other an incidental and, taken by itself apart from its context, an isolated circumstance. But even if he had had other more explicit and clearly revealing passages at his disposal, I do not think he would have been satisfied or much illuminated; his eyes would still have been fixed on the surface and caught only some intellectual meaning or outer sense. That at least is what we may suppose to have been the cause of his failure, if we maintain that there is anything at all in the poem; or else we must fall back on the explanation of a fundamental personal incompatibility and the rule de gustibus non est disputandum, or to put it in the Sanskrit form nānārucirhi lokaḥ. If you are right in maintaining that Savitri stands as a new mystical poetry with a new vision and expression of things, we should expect, at least at first, a widespread, perhaps, a general failure, even in lovers of poetry to understand it or appreciate; even those who have some mystical turn or spiritual experience are likely to pass it by if it is a different turn from theirs or outside their range of experience. It took the world something like a hundred years to discover Blake; it would not be improbable that there might be a greater time-lag here, though naturally we hope for better things. For in India at least some understanding or feeling and an audience few and fit may be possible. Perhaps by some miracle there may be before long a larger appreciative audience.

At any rate this is the only thing one can do, especially when one is attempting a new creation, to go on with the work with such light and power as is given to one and leave the value of the work to be determined by the future. Contemporary judgments we know to be unreliable; there are only two judges whose joint verdict cannot easily be disputed, the World and Time. The Roman proverb says, securus judicat orbis terrarum; but the world's verdict is secure only when it is confirmed by Time. For it is not the opinion of the general mass of men that finally decides, the decision is really imposed by the judgment of a minority and élite which is finally accepted and settles down as the verdict of posterity; in Tagore's phrase it is the universal man, viśva mānava, or rather something universal using the general mind of man, we might say the Cosmic Self in the race that fixes the value of its own works. In regard to the great names in literature this final verdict seems to have in it something of the absolute,– so far as anything can be that in a temporal world of relativities in which the Absolute reserves itself hidden behind the veil of human ignorance. It is no use for some to contend that Virgil is a tame and elegant writer of a wearisome work in verse on agriculture and a tedious pseudo-epic written to imperial order and Lucretius the only really great poet in Latin literature or to depreciate Milton for his Latin English and inflated style and the largely uninteresting character of his two epics; the world either refuses to listen or there is a temporary effect, a brief fashion in literary criticism, but finally the world returns to its established verdict. Lesser reputations may fluctuate, but finally whatever has real value in its own kind settles itself and finds its just place in the durable judgment of the world. Work which was neglected and left aside like Blake's or at first admired with reservation and eclipsed like Donne's is singled out by a sudden glance of Time and its greatness recognised; or what seemed buried slowly emerges or re-emerges; all finally settles into its place. What was held as sovereign in its own time is rudely dethroned but afterwards recovers not its sovereign throne but its due position in the world's esteem; Pope is an example and Byron who at once burst into a supreme glory and was the one English poet, after Shakespeare, admired all over Europe but is now depreciated, may also recover his proper place. Encouraged by such examples, let us hope that these violently adverse judgments may not be final and absolute and decide that the wastepaper-basket is not the proper place for Savitri. There may still be a place for a poetry which seeks to enlarge the field of poetic creation and find for the inner spiritual life of man and his now occult or mystical knowledge and experience of the whole hidden range of his and the world's being, not a corner and a limited expression such as it had in the past, but a wide space and as manifold and integral an expression of the boundless and innumerable riches that lie hidden and unexplored as if kept apart under the direct gaze of the Infinite as has been found in the past for man's surface and finite view and experience of himself and the material world in which he has lived striving to know himself and it as best he can with a limited mind and senses. The door that has been shut to all but a few may open; the kingdom of the Spirit may be established not only in man's inner being but in his life and his works. Poetry also may have its share in that revolution and become part of the spiritual empire.

I had intended as the main subject of this letter to say something about technique and the inner working of the intuitive method by which Savitri was and is being created and of the intention and plan of the poem. X's idea of its way of creation, an intellectual construction by a deliberate choice of words and imagery, badly chosen at that, is the very opposite of the real way in which it was done. That was to be the body of the letter and the rest only a preface. But the preface has become so long that it has crowded out the body. I shall have to postpone it to a later occasion when I have more time.



Q: In that long letter on your own poetry, apropos of my friend's criticisms, you have written of certain influences of the later Victorian period on you. Meredith's from ‘Modern Love’ I have been unable to trace concretely – unless I consider some of the more pointed and bitter-sweetly reflective turns in ‘Songs to Myrtilla’ to be Meredithian. That of Tennyson is noticeable in only a delicate picturesqueness here and there or else in the use of some words. Perhaps more than in your early blank verse the Tennysonian influence of this kind in general is there in ‘Songs to Myrtilla’. Arnold has influenced your blank verse in respect of particular constructions like two or three [?]buts as in

No despicable wayfarer, but Ruru,

But son of a great Rishi,


But tranquil, but august, but making easy...

Arnold is also observable in the way you build up and elaborate your similes both in ‘Urvasie’ and in ‘Love and Death’. Less openly, a general tone of poetic mind from him can also be felt: it persists subtly in even the poems collected in ‘Ahana’, not to mention ‘Baji Prabhou’. I don't know whether Swinburne is anywhere patent in your narratives: he probably does have something to do with ‘Songs to Myrtilld’. Stephen Phillips is the most direct influence in ‘Urvasie’ and ‘Love and Death’. But as I have said in my essay on your blank verse he is assimilated into a stronger and more versatile genius, together with influences from the Elizabethans, Milton and perhaps less consciously Keats. In any case, whatever the influences, your early narratives are intensely original in essential spirit and movement and expressive body. It is only unreceptiveness or inattention that can fail to see this and to savour the excellence of your work.

A: The influences I spoke of were of course only such influences as every poet undergoes before he has entirely found himself. What you say about Arnold's influence is quite correct; it acted mainly, however, as a power making for restraint and refinement, subduing any uncontrolled romanticism and insisting on clear lucidity and right form and building. Meredith had no influence on Songs to Myrtilla; even afterwards I did not make myself acquainted with all his poetry, it was only Modern Love and poems like the sonnet on Lucifer and the Ascent to Earth of the Daughter of Hades that I strongly admired and it had its effect on the formation of my poetic style and its after-effects in that respect are not absent from Savitri. It is only Swinburne's early lyrical poems that exercised any power on me, Dolores, Hertha, The Garden of Proserpine and others that rank among his best work,– also Atalanta in Calydon, his later lyrical poetry I found too empty and his dramatic and narrative verse did not satisfy me. One critic characterised Love and Death as an extraordinarily brilliant and exact reproduction of Keats: what do you say to that? I think Stephen Phillips had more to do with it.


Symbolism of the Tale of Satyavan and Savitri

The tale of Satyavan and Savitri is recited in the Mahabharata as a story of conjugal love conquering death. But this legend is, as shown by many features of the human tale, one of the many symbolic myths of the Vedic cycle. Satyavan is the soul carrying the divine truth of being within itself but descended into the grip of death and ignorance; Savitri is the Divine Word, daughter of the Sun, goddess of the supreme Truth who comes down and is born to save; Aswapati, the Lord of the Horse, her human father, is the Lord of Tapasya, the concentrated energy of spiritual endeavour that helps us to rise from the mortal to the immortal planes; Dyumatsena, Lord of the Shining Hosts, father of Satyavan, is the Divine Mind here fallen blind, losing its celestial kingdom of vision, and through that loss its kingdom of glory. Still this is not a mere allegory, the characters are not personified qualities, but incarnations or emanations of living and conscious Forces with whom we can enter into concrete touch and they take human bodies in order to help men and show him the way from his mortal state to a divine consciousness and immortal life.

Creation of ‘Love and Death’15

Q: As ‘Love and Death’ I have long since adopted as my poetic Bible owing to the consummate beauty of its inspiration and art, and as now I am just awaking to a capacity in myself for blank verse, I shall be really happy if you will tell me the way in which you created this poem – the first falling of the seed of the idea, the growth and maturing of it, the influences assimilated from other poets, the mood and atmosphere you used to find most congenial and productive, the experience and the frequency of the afflatus, the pace at which you composed, the evolution of that multifarious, many-echoed yet perfectly original style and of a blank verse whose art is the most unfailing and, except for one too close repetition of the mannerism of the double ‘but’, the most unobtrusively conscious that I have seen. In my essay, in ‘Sri Aurobindo – the Poet’, I tried to show the white harmony, so to speak, of ‘Love and Death’ in a kind of spectrum analysis, how colours from Latin, Italian, Sanskrit and English verse had fused here together with an absolutely original ultra-violet and infra-red not to be traced ^anywhere. Among English influences the most outstanding are, to my mind, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and Stephen Phillips. In my essay I dwelt at length on the first two and on the magic way in which the passage about Rum's sail along the Ganges and subsequent sea-plunge into Patala combines at the same time the early and later Milton and, with that, something of Shelley and Coleridge. Keats and Stephen Phillips I did not specially deal with. Keats seems to have added to the element of supple strength in your poem, while Phillips has tinged it with a certain poignant vividness and colourful delicacy. More fundamental, however, than the effect of his manner was, I think, the spell cast by certain moods, as it were, of his ‘Marpessa’.... But all this is guess-work – correct maybe in some respects, but I should like very much to have your own illuminating account of the matter, as well as your answer to the other points in my question at the beginning of this letter.

A: I cannot tell you much about it from that point of view; I did not draw consciously from any of the poets you mention except from Phillips. I read Marpessa and Christ in Hades before they were published and as I was just in the stage of formation then – at the age of 17 – they made a powerful impression which lasted until it was worked out in Love and Death. I dare say some influence of most of the great English poets and of others also, not English, can be traced in my poetry – I can myself see that of Milton, sometimes of Wordsworth and Arnold; but it was of the automatic kind – they came in unnoticed. I am not aware of much influence of Shelley and Coleridge, but since I read Shelley a great deal and took an intense pleasure in some of Coleridge's poetry, they may have been there without my knowledge. The one work of Keats that influenced me was Hyperion – I dare say my blank verse got something of his stamp through that. The poem itself was written in a white heat of inspiration during 14 days of continuous writing – in the mornings, of course, for I had to attend office the rest of the day and saw friends in the evening. I never wrote anything with such ease and rapidity before or after. Your other questions I can't very well answer – I have lived ten lives since then and don't remember. I don't think there was any falling of the seed of the idea or growth and maturing of it; it just came,– from my reading about the story of Ruru in the Mahabharata; I thought, ‘Well, here's a subject’, and the rest burst out of itself. Mood and atmosphere? I never depended on these things that I know of – something wrote in me or didn't write, more often didn't, and that is all I know about it. Evolution of style and verse? Well, it evolved, I suppose – I assure you I didn't build it. I was not much of a critic in those days – the critic grew in me by Yoga like the philosopher, and as for self-criticism the only standard I had was whether I felt satisfied with what I wrote or not, and generally I felt it was very fine when I wrote it and found it was very bad after it had been written, but I could not at that time have given you a reason either for the self-eulogy or the self-condemnation. Nowadays it is different, of course; for I am conscious of what I do and how things are done. I am afraid this will not enlighten you much but it is all I can tell you.



There was no trial or experiment – as I wrote, I did not proceed like that,– I put down what came, changing afterwards; but there too only as it came. At that time I had no theories, no methods or process. Bat Love and Death was not my first blank verse poem – I had written one before in the first years of my stay in Baroda which was privately published, but afterwards I got disgusted with it and rejected it.16 I made also some translations from the Sanskrit (in blank verse and heroic verse); but I don't remember to what you are referring as the translation of Kalidasa. Most of all that has disappeared into the unknown in the whirlpools and turmoil of my political career.


Madan's Speech in ‘Love and Death’

Q: The other day X told me that he considered the long speech of the Love-God Kama or Madan about himself in ‘Love and Death’ one of the peaks in that poem – he as good as compared it to the descent into Hell about which I have raved ever since I read the poem some years back. He added that the Mother too had been very much moved by it. Somehow I couldn't at the time wax extremely enthusiastic about it. I found it moving and excellent of its own kind, very powerful and displaying great psychological acumen; but, except for the opening eight or ten lines and some three or four in the middle, I couldn't regard it as astonishing poetry – at least not one of the peaks. What is your own private opinion? I need not of course, quote it to anyone. Here is the passage, to refresh your memory:

But with the thrilled eternal smile that makes

The spring, the lover of Rathi golden-limbed Replied to Rum, “Mortal, I he;

I am that Madan who inform the stars

With lustre and on life's wide canvas fill

Pictures of light and shade, of joy and tears,

Make ordinary moments wonderful

And common speech a charm: knit life to life

With interfusions of opposing souls

And sudden meetings and slow sorceries:

Wing the boy bridegroom to that panting breast,

Smite Gods with mortal faces, dreadfully

Among great beautiful kings and watched by eyes

That burn, force on the virgin's fainting limbs

And drive her to the one face never seen,

The one breast meant eternally for her.

By me come wedded sweets, by me the wife's

Busy delight and passionate obedience,

And'loving eager service never sated,

And happy lips, and worshipping soft eyes:

And mine the husband's hungry arms and use

Unwearying of old tender words and ways,

Joy of her hair and silent pleasure felt

Of nearness to one dear familiar shape.

Nor only these, but many affections bright

And soft glad things cluster around my name.

I plant fraternal tender yearnings, make

The sister's sweet attractiveness and leap

Of heart towards imperious kindred blood,

And the young mother's passionate deep look,

Earth's high similitude of One not earth,

Teach filial heart-beats strong.These are my gifts

For which men praise me, these my glories calm:

But fiercer shafts I can, wild storms blown down

Shaking fixed minds and melting marble natures,

Tears and dumb bitterness and pain unpitied,

Racked thirsting jealousy and kind hearts made stone:

And in undisciplined huge souls I sow

Dire vengeance and impossible cruelties,

Cold lusts that linger and fierce fickleness,

The loves close kin to hate, brute violence

And mad insatiable longings pale,

And passion blind as death and deaf as swords.

O mortal, all deep-souled desires and all

Yearnings immense are mine, so much I can.”

A: My own private opinion agrees with X's estimate rather than with yours. These lines may not be astonishing in the sense of an unusual effort of constructive imagination and vision like the descent into Hell; but I do not think I have, elsewhere, surpassed this speech in power of language, passion and truth of feeling and nobility and felicity of rhythm all fused together into a perfect whole. And I think I have succeeded in expressing the truth of the godhead of Kama, the godhead of vital love (I am not using ‘vital’ in the strict Yogic sense; I mean the love that draws lives passionately together or throws them into or upon each other) with a certain completeness of poetic sight and perfection of poetic power, which puts it on one of the peaks – even if not the highest possible peak – of achievement. That is my private opinion – but, of course, all do not need to see alike in these matters.


Appreciation of ‘Love and Death’

Q: A.E. has made a few interesting remarks on some of my poems – remarks curious in some places while fairly perceptive in others. He warns against frequent use of words like ‘infinite’, ‘eternal’, ‘limitless’. The difficulty about such words has struck me before – frequent use of them gives a not altogether agreeable Hugoesque flavour to mystic Indian poetry; but I wonder whether I have cheapened or misused them. At least you have never taken me to task on that score.

As regards those two poems of mine which you have liked immensely, he notes with pleasure only one phrase in ‘Ne Plus Ultra’ – ‘the song-impetuous mind’ – and has nothing to say about ‘This Errant Life’. Isn't that strange?

By the way, the copy of your ‘Love and Death’ is ready to go to England. I wonder how the critics will receive the poem. They should be enthusiastic. It is full of superb passages. Do you remember Ruru's going down to Patala, the underworld? I have commented on its inspiration in my essay ‘Sri Aurobindo – the Poet’. I can never stop thrilling to it. Here are the lines:

In a thin soft eve

Ganges spread far her multitudinous waves,

A glimmering restlessness with voices large,

And from the forests of that half-seen bank

A boat came heaving over it, white-winged,

With a sole silent helmsman marble-pale.

Then Ruru by his side stepped in; they went

Down the mysterious river and beheld

The great banks widen out of sight.

The world Was water and the skies to water plunged.

All night with a dim motion gliding down

He felt the dark against his eyelids; felt,

As in a dream more real than daylight,

The helmsman with his dumb and marble face

Near him and moving wideness all around,

And that continual gliding dimly on,

As one who on a shoreless water sails

For ever to a port he shall not win.

But when the darkness paled, he heard a moan

Of mightier waves and had the wide great sense

Of Ocean and the depths below our feet.

But the boat stopped; the pilot lifted on him

His marble gaze coeval with the stars.

Then in the white-winged boat the boy arose

And saw around him the vast sea all grey

And heaving in the pallid dawning light.

Loud Rum cried across the murmur: “Hear me,

O inarticulate grey Ocean, hear.

If any cadence in thy infinite

Rumour was caught from lover's moan, O Sea,

Open thy abysses to my mortal tread.

For I would travel to the despairing shades,

The spheres of suffering where entangled dwell

Souls unreleased and the untimely dead

Who weep remembering. Thither, O guide me,

No despicable wayfarer, but Ruru,

But son of a great Rishi.from all men

On earth selected for peculiar pangs,

Special disaster. Lo, this petalledfire,

How freshly it blooms and lasts with my great pain

He held the flower out subtly glimmering.

And like a living thing the huge sea trembled,

Then rose, calling, and filled the sight with waves,

Converging all its giant crests: towards him

Innumerable waters loomed and heaven

Threatened. Horizon on horizon moved

Dreadfully swift; then with a prone wide sound

All Ocean hollowing drew him swiftly in,

Curving with monstrous menace over him.

He down the gulf where the loud waves collapsed

Descending, saw with floating hair arise

The daughters of the sea in pale green light,

A million mystic breasts suddenly bare,

And came beneath the flood and stunned beheld

A mute stupendous march of waters race

To reach some viewless pit beneath the world.

A: I did not object to your frequent use of ‘infinite’, ‘eternal’, ‘limitless’, because these are adjectives that I myself freely pepper over my poetry. When one writes about the Infinite, the Eternal and the Limitless or when one feels them constantly, what is one to do? A. E. who has not this consciousness but only that of the temporal and finite (natural or occult) can avoid these words, but I can't. Besides, all poets have their favourite words and epithets which they constantly repeat. A. E. himself has been charged with a similar crime.

If you send your poems to five different poets, you are likely to get five absolutely disparate and discordant estimates of them. A poet likes only the poetry that appeals to his own temperament or taste, the rest he condemns or ignores. Contemporary poetry, besides, seldom gets its right judgment from contemporary critics, even. You expect for instance Love and Death to make a sensation in England – I don't expect it in the least: I shall be agreeably surprised if it gets more than some qualified praise, and if it does not get even that, I shall be neither astonished nor discomfited. I know the limitations of the poem and its qualities and I know that the part about the descent into Hell can stand comparison with some of the best English poetry; but I don't expect any contemporaries to see it. If they do, it will be good luck or divine grace, that is all. Nothing can be more futile than for a poet to write in expectation of contemporary fame or praise, however agreeable that may be, if it comes: but it is not of much value; for very few poets have enjoyed a great contemporary fame and very great poets have been neglected in their time. A poet has to go on his way, trying to gather hints from what people say for or against, when their criticisms are things he can profit by, but not otherwise moved (if he can manage it) – seeking mainly to sharpen his own sense of self-criticism by the help of others. Differences of estimate need not surprise him at all.



I am afraid you are under an illusion as to the success of Love and Death in England. Love and Death dates,– it belongs to the time when Meredith and Phillips were still writing and Yeats and A.E. were only in bud if not in ovo. Since then the wind has changed and even Yeats and A.E. are already a little high and dry on the sands of the past, while the form or other characteristics of Love and Death are just the things that are anathema to the post-war writers and literary critics. I fear it would be, if not altogether ignored which is most likely, regarded as a feeble and belated imitation of the literary model exploded and buried long ago. I don't regard it in that light myself, but it is not my opinion that counts for success but that of the modern highbrows. If it had been published when it was written it might have been a success, but now! Of course, I know there are many people still in England, if it got into their hands, who would read it with enthusiasm, but I don't think it would get into their hands at all.

As for the other poems they could not go with Love and Death. When the time comes for publication, the sonnets will have to be published in a separate book of sonnets and the others in a separate book of (mainly) lyrical poems – so it cannot be now. That at least is my present idea. It is not that I am against publication for all time, but my idea was to wait for the proper time rather than do anything premature.

One thing, however, could be done. X could send his friend Love and Death and perhaps the Six Poems and sound the publishers as to whether the publication, in their eye, would be worthwhile from their point of view. That could at least give a clue.


An Interpretation of ‘Thought the Paraclete’17

Q: Dr. X has given an interpretation of your poem ‘Thought the Paraclete’, which some other critic has fallen foul of. What is your own analysis of the thought-structure in this poem.

A: There is no thought-structure in the poem; there is only a succession of vision and experience; it is a mystic poem, its unity is spiritual and concrete, not a mental and logical building. When you see a flower, do you ask the gardener to reduce the flower to its chemical components? There would then be no flower left and no beauty. The poem is not built upon intellectual definitions or philosophical theorisings; it is something seen. When you ascend a mountain, you see the scenery and feel the delight of the ascent; you don't sit down to make a map with names for  every rock and peak or spend time studying its geological structure — that is work for the geologist, not for the traveller. Ayengar's geological account (to make one is part of his métier as a critic and a student and writer on literature) is probably as good as any other is likely to be; but each is free to make his own according to his own idea. Reasoning and argumentation are not likely to make one account truer and invalidate the rest. A mystic poem may explain itself or a general idea may emerge from it, but it is the vision that is important or what one can get from it by intuitive feeling, not the explanation or idea; it is a vision or revelation of an ascent through spiritual planes, but gives no names and no photographic descriptions of the planes crossed. I leave it there.

Bhava Behind ‘The Bird of Fire’18

Q: Your ‘The Bird of Fire’ is full of colour and images, but if one can follow the bhāva behind or through them, I believe the appreciation becomes complete.

A: What do you mean by following the bhāva behind? Putting a label on the bird and keeping it dried up in your intellectual museum, for Professors to describe – to their pupils – “this is the species and that's how it is constituted, these are the bones, feathers etc., etc., and now you know all about the bird. Or would you like me to dissect it farther?”

Tagore's Objections to ‘The Life Heavens’19

In regard to Tagore, I understand from X that his objections to The Life Heavens were personal rather than in principle – that is, he himself had no such experience and could not take them as true (for himself), so they excited in him no emotion, while my poem Shiva20 was just the contrary. I don't say anything to that, as I could not say anything if somebody condemned a poem of mine root-and-branch because he did not like it or on good grounds such as Cousins' objection to the inferiority of the greater part of my poem In the Moonlight21 to the opening stanzas. I learnt a great deal from that objection: it pointed me the way I had to go towards ‘The Future Poetry’. Not that I did not know before, but that it gave precision and point to my previous perception. But still I don't quite understand Tagore's objection. I myself do not take many things as true in poetry (e.g. Dante's Hell etc.) of which I yet feel the emotion. It is surely part of the power of poetry to open new worlds to us as well as to give a supreme voice to our own ideas, experiences and feelings. The Life Heavens may not do that for its readers, but, if so, it is a fault of execution, not of principle.

Cousin's Criticism of ‘The Rishi’22

Q: I hear that James Cousins said about your poem ‘The Rishi’ that it was only spiritual philosophy, not poetry.

A: I never heard that. If I had I would have noted that Cousins had no capacity for appreciating intellectual poetry. But that I knew already, just as he had no liking for epic poetry either, only for poetic ‘jewellery’. His criticism was of In the Moonlight which he condemned as brain-stuff only except the early stanzas for which he had high praise. That criticism was of great use to me, though I did not agree with it. But the positive part of it helped me to develop towards a supra-intellectual style. As Love and Death was poetry of the vital, so Ahana23 is mostly work of the poetic intelligence. Cousins' criticism helped me to go a stage farther.



Q: X says Cousins ignored your poem ‘The Rishi’ while speaking of the others. Isn't that far worse?

A: Neither worse nor better. What does Cousins' bad opinion about The Rishi matter to me? I know the limitations of my poetry and also its qualities. I know also the qualities of Cousins as a critic and also his limitations. If Milton had written during the life of Cousins instead of having an established reputation for centuries. Cousins would have said of Paradise Lost and still more of Paradise Regained, “This is not poetry, this is theology”. Note that I don't mean to say that The Rishi is anywhere near Paradise Lost, but it is poetry as well as spiritual philosophy.


Spiritual Value of Poetry

It won't do to put excessive and sweeping constructions on what I write, otherwise it is easy to misunderstand its real significance. I said there was no reason why poetry of a spiritual character (not any poetry like Verlaine's or Swinburne's or Baudelaire's) should bring no realisation at all. This did not mean that poetry is a major means of realisation of the Divine. I did not say that it would lead us to the Divine or that anyone had achieved the Divine through poetry or that poetry by itself can lead us straight into the sanctuary. Obviously, if such exaggerations are put into my words, they become absurd and untenable.

My statement is perfectly clear and there is nothing in it against reason or common sense. The Word has power – even the ordinary written word has a power. If it is an inspired word it has still more power. What kind of power or power for what depends on the nature of the inspiration and the theme and the part of the being it touches. If it is the Word itself,– as in certain utterances of the great Scriptures, Veda, Upanishads, Gita, it may well have a power to awaken a spiritual and uplifting impulse, even certain kinds of realisation. To say that it cannot contradicts spiritual experience.

The Vedic poets regarded their poetry as Mantras, they were the vehicles of their own realisations and could become vehicles of realisation for others. Naturally, these mostly would be illuminations, not the settled and permanent realisation that is the goal of Yoga – but they could be steps on the way or at least lights on the way. I have had in former times many illuminations, even initial realisations while meditating on verses of the Upanishads or the Gita. Anything that carries the Word, the Light in it, spoken or written, can light this fire within, open a sky, as it were, bring the effective vision of which the Word is the body. You yourself know that some of your poems deeply moved people who had the tendency towards spiritual things. Many have got openings into realisation while reading passages of the Arya – which are not poetry, have not the power of spiritual poetry – but it shows all the more that the word is not without power even for the things of the spirit. In all ages spiritual seekers have expressed their aspirations or their experiences in poetry or inspired language and it has helped them and others. Therefore there is nothing absurd in my assigning to such poetry a spiritual or psychic value and effectiveness of a psychic or spiritual character.


It is obvious that poetry cannot be a substitute for sadhana; it can be an accompaniment only. If there is a feeling (of devotion, surrender etc.), it can express and confirm it; if there is an experience, it can express and strengthen the force of experience. As reading of books like the Upanishads or Gita or singing of devotional songs can help, especially at one stage or another, so this can help also. Also it opens a passage between the external consciousness and the inner mind or vital. But if one stops at that, then nothing much is gained. Sadhana must be the main thing and sadhana means the purification of the nature, the consecration of the being, the opening of the psychic and the inner mind and vital, the contact and presence of the Divine, the realisation of the Divine in all things, surrender, devotion, the widening of the consciousness into the cosmic Consciousness, the Self one in all, the psychic and the spiritual transformation of the nature. If these things are neglected and only poetry and mental development and social contact occupy all the time, then that is not sadhana. Also the poetry must be written in the true spirit, not for fame or self-satisfaction, but as a means of contact with the Divine through inspiration or of the expression of one's own inner being as it was written formerly by those who left behind them so much devotional and spiritual poetry in India; it does not help if it is written only in the spirit of the western artist or littérateur. Even works or meditation cannot succeed unless they are done in the right spirit of consecration and spiritual aspiration gathering up the whole being and dominating all else. It is lack of this gathering up of the whole life and nature and turning it towards the one aim, which is the defect in so many here that lowers the atmosphere and stands in the way of what is being done by myself and the Mother.


Poetry and Yoga

Literature and art are or can be a first introduction to the inner being – the inner mind, vital; for it is from there that they come. And if one writes poems of bhakti, poems of divine seeking, etc., or creates music of that kind, it means that there is a bhakta or seeker inside who is supporting himself by that self-expression. There is also the point of view behind Lele's answer to me when I told him that I wanted to do Yoga but for work, for action, not for Sannyasa and Nirvana,– but after years of spiritual effort I had failed to find the way and it was for that I had asked to meet him. His first answer was, “It would be easy for you as you are a poet.” But it was not from any point of view like that that X put his question and it was not from that point of view that I gave my answer. It was about some especial character-making virtue that he seemed to attribute to literature.



I have not seen what X says, but if it is that you have narrowed or deteriorated because you no longer sing erotic songs, I do not see how that can be. One is not narrowed if one loses taste for Jazz and can hear with rich pleasure only the great masters or music like theirs; it is not deterioration when one rises from a lower to a higher plane of thinking, feeling or artistic self-expression. I used to write poems on vital love, I could not do it now (for if I wrote of love, it would be the psychic and spiritual feeling) not because I have narrowed or deteriorated but I have centred myself in a higher consciousness and anything merely vital would not express me. It must be the same with anyone who changes his level of consciousness. Can one say of the man who has grown out of childishness and no longer plays with nursery toys that he has narrowed and deteriorated by the change?



What you write is perfectly true, that all human greatness and fame and achievement are nothing before the greatness of the Infinite and the Eternal. There are two possible deductions from that: first that all human action has to be renounced and one should go into a cave; the other is that one should grow out of ego so that the activities of the nature may become one day consciously an action of the Infinite and Eternal. I myself never gave up poetry or other creative human activities out of tapasyā; they fell into a subordinate position because the inner life became stronger and stronger slowly: nor did I really drop them, only I had so heavy a work laid upon me that I could not find time to go on. But it took me years and years to get the ego out of them or the vital absorption, but I never heard anybody say nor did it ever occur to me that that was a proof that I was not born for Yoga.


The difficulty you feel or any sadhak feels about sadhana is not really a question of meditation versus bhakti versus works, it is a difficulty of the attitude to be taken, the approach or whatever you call it. Yours seems to be characterised on one side by a tremendous effort in the mind, on the other a gloomy certitude in the vital which seems to watch and mutter under its breath if not aloud, ‘Yes, yes, go ahead, my fine fellow, but’...and at the end of the meditation ‘What did I tell you?’... A vital so ready to despair that even after a ‘glorious’ flood of poetry, it uses the occasion to preach the gospel of despair! I have passed through most of the difficulties of the sadhak, but I cannot recollect to have looked on delight of poetical creation or concentration in it as something undivine and a cause for despair. This seems to me excessive.


Help to New Poets

Yes, of course, I have been helping X. When somebody wants, really, to develop the literary power, I put some force to help him or her. If there is faculty and application, however latent the faculty, it always grows under the pressure and can even be turned in this or that direction. Naturally, some are more favourable Adharas than others and grow more decisively and quickly. Others drop off not having the necessary power of application. But, on the whole, it is easy enough to make this faculty grow for there is co-operation on the part of the recipient and only the Tamas of the apravṛtti and aprakāśa in the human mind are to be overcome which are not as serious obstacles in the things of the human mind as a vital resistance or non-co-operation of the will or idea which confronts one when there is a pressure for change or progress in other directions.



Q: We feel that your Force gives us the necessary inspiration for poetry, but I often wonder if you send it in a continuous current.

If it were so, we would not write 15 to 20 lines at a stretch and then go on for days together producing only 3 or 4 lines.

A: Of course not. Why should I? It is not necessary. I put my Force from time to time and let it work out what has to be worked out. It is true that with some I have to put it often to prevent too long stretches of unproductivity, but even there I don't put a continuous current. I have not time for such things.

That depends on the mental instrument. Some people write freely – others do so only when in a special condition.



Q: I tried to write a poem, but failed in spite of prayer and call. Then I wrote to you to send me some Force. Before the letter had reached you, lo, the miracle was done! Can you explain the process? Simply the writing has helped to establish the contact with the Force?

A: The call for the Force is very often sufficient, not absolutely necessary that it should reach my physical mind first. Many get as soon as they write – or (if they are outside), when the letter reaches the atmosphere.

Yes, it is the success in establishing the contact that is important. It is a sort of hitching on or getting hold of the invisible button or whatever you like to call it.



Q: When you send the Force, is there a time limit for its functioning or does it work itself out in the long run or get washed off after a while, finding the Adhar unreceptive?

A: There is no time limit. I have known cases in which I have put a Force for getting a thing done and it seemed to fail damnably at the moment; but after two years everything carried itself out in exact detail and order just as I had arranged it, although I was thinking no more at all of the matter. You ought to know but I suppose you don't that ‘Psychic’ Research in Europe has proved that all so-called ‘psychic’ communications can sink into the consciousness without being noticed and turn up long afterwards. It is like that with the communication of Force also.



Q: If a man has outer knowledge and capacity, will he not receive your right Force?

A: It does not follow. Another man may have the knowledge and receive nothing. If he receives, his knowledge and capacity help the Force to work out the details.



Your idea is that either I must inspire him specifically in every detail, making a mere automaton of him, or if I don't do that I can do nothing with him? What is this stupid mechanical notion of things?



Q: Don't you develop our intuition by outer guidance in the form of corrections and changes in our English poems?

A: I do so in your English poetry because I am an expert in English poetry. In Bengali poetry I don't do it. I only select among alternatives offered by yourself. Mark that for X I now-a-days avoid correcting or changing as far as possible – that is in order to encourage the inspiration to act in himself. Sometimes I see what he should have written but do not tell it to him, leaving him to get it or not from my silence.



X's poems are only attempts – good attempts for his age – so I encourage him by telling him that they are good attempts. It is his English poems I correct, as he has talent, but his mastery of the language is still naturally very imperfect. The other three are masters of language and Y is a poet of a very high order. I give my general opinion only when they want it. I never make suggestions. It is in English poetry that I give my opinions or correct or make suggestions.



I do not know that I can suggest any detailed criticisms of Bengali poetry, as I have to rely more on what I feel than on any expert knowledge of language and metre.


I don't want to say anything [about X's book], because when I cannot positively encourage a young and new writer, I prefer to remain mum.... Each writer must be left to develop in his own way.



As to X, you can, if you like, send the complimentary portion of my remarks with perhaps a hint that I found his writing rather unequal, so that it may not be all sugar. But the phrases about album-verse and chaotic technique are too vivid – being meant only for private consumption – to be transmitted to the writer of the poem criticised; I would for that have expressed the same view in less drastic language. As I have already said once, I do not want to write anything disparaging or discouraging for those whom I cannot help to do better. I received much poetry from Indian writers for review in the Arya, but I always refrained because I would have had to be very severe. I wrote only about Y because there I could seriously, and I think justly, write unqualified praise.


Judgment of Poetry

You seem to demand a very rigid and academic fixity of meaning from my hastily penned comments on the poetry sent to me. I have no unvarying aesthetic standard or fixed qualitative criterion,– not only so, but I hold any such thing to be impossible with regard to so subtle and unintellectual an essence as poetry. It is only physical things that can be subjected to fixed measures and unvarying criteria. Appreciation of poetry is a question of feeling, of intuitive perception, of a certain aesthetic sense, it is not the result of an intellectual judgment.

My judgment does differ with different writers and also with different kinds of writings. If I put ‘very good’ on a poem of S's, it does not mean that it is on a par with H's or A's or yours. It means that it is very good S, but not that it is very good H or very good A. ‘If very good were won by them all,’ you write! But, good heavens, you write that as if I were a master giving marks in a class. I may write ‘good’ or ‘very good’ on the work of a novice if I see that it has succeeded in being poetry and not mere verse however correct or well rhymed – but if H or A or you were to produce work like that, I would not say ‘very good’ at all. There are poems of yours which I have slashed and pronounced unsatisfactory, but if certain others were to send me that, I would say, ‘Well, you have been remarkably successful this time.’ I am not giving comparative marks according to a fixed rule. I am using words flexibly according to the occasion and the individual. It would be the same with different kinds of writings. If I write ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ on some verses of D about his chair, I am not giving it a certificate of equality with some poems of yours similarly appreciated – I am only saying that as humorous easy verse in the lightest vein it is very successful, an outstanding piece of work. Applied to your poem it would mean something different altogether.

Coming from your huge P.S. to the tiny body of your letter, what do you mean by ‘a perfect success’? I meant that pitched in a certain key and style your poem had worked itself out very well in that key and style in a very satisfying way from the point of view of thought, expression and rhythm. From that standpoint it is a perfect success. If you ask whether it is at your highest possible pitch of inspiration, I would say no, but it is nowhere weak or inadequate and it says something poetically well worth saying and says it well. One cannot always be writing at the highest pitch of one's possibility, but that is no reason why work of very good quality in itself should be rejected.


You all attach too much importance to the exact letter of my remarks of the kind as if it were a giving of marks. I have been obliged to renounce the use of the word ‘good’ or even ‘very good’ because it depressed N – though I would be very much satisfied myself if I could always write poetry certified to be very good. I write ‘very fine’ against work which is not improvable, so why ask me for suggestions for improving the unimprovable? As for rising superior to yourself that is another matter – one always hopes to do better than one has yet done, but that means not an avoidance of defects – I always point out ruthlessly anything defective in your work – but to rise higher, wider, deeper etc. etc. in the consciousness. Incidentally, even if my remarks are taken to be of mark-giving value, what shall I do in future if I have exhausted all adverbs? How shall I mark your self-exceeding if I have already certified your work as exceeding? I shall have to fall back on roars ‘Oh, damned fine, damned damned damned fine!’


Difficulty of Appreciation of Imaged Spiritual Poetry

Q: How is it that people find my poetry difficult? I almost suspect that only N and A get the whole hang of it properly. Of course many appreciate when I have explained it to them – but otherwise they admire the beauty of individual phrases without grasping the many-sided whole the phrases form. This morning P, V and N read my ‘Agni’. None of them caught the precise relevances, the significant connections of the words and phrases of the opening lines:

Not from the day but from the night he's born, Night with her pang of dream – star on pale star Winging strange rumour through a secret dawn. For all the black uncanopied spaces mirror The brooding distance of our plumbless mind.

In the rest of the poem too they failed to get, now and again, the true point of felicity which constitutes poetic expression. My work is not surrealist: I put meaning into everything, not intellectualism but a coherent vision worked out suggestively in various detail. Why then the difficulty? Everybody feels at home in H's poetry, though I dare say that if I catechised them I might find the deepest felicities missed. All the same, there was something in his work which made his sense more accessible. Even D says that my work passes a little over his head – A's, of course, he finds still more difficult. Perhaps I tend to pack too much stuff into my words and to render my links a little less explicit than H did – or D himself does in Bengali. But would people have the same trouble with vernacular poetry, however like my own it might be?

A: It is precisely because what you put in is not intellectualism or a product of mental imagination that your poetry is difficult to those who are accustomed to a predominantly mental strain in poetry. One can grasp fully if one has some clue to what you put in, either the clue of personal experience or the clue of a sympathetic insight. One who has had the concrete experience of the consciousness as a night with the stars coming out and the sense of the secret dawn can at once feel the force of those two lines, as one who has had experience of the mind as a wide space or infinity or a thing of distances and expanses can fathom those that follow. Or even if he has had not these experiences but others of the same order, he can feel what you mean and enter into it by a kind of identification. Failing this experience, a sympathetic insight can bring the significance home; certainly, N and A who write poems of the inner vision and feeling must have that, moreover their minds are sufficiently subtle and plastic to enter into all kinds of poetic vision and expression. P and V have no such training; it is natural that they should find it difficult. N ought to understand, but he would have to ponder and take some trouble before he got it; night with her labour of dream, the stars, the bird-winging, the bird-voices, the secret dawn are indeed familiar symbols in the poetry he is himself writing or with which he is familiar; but his mind seeks usually at first for precise allegories to fit the symbols and is less quick to see and feel by identification what is behind them – it is still intellectual and not concrete in its approach to these things, although his imagination has learned to make itself their transcribing medium. That is the difficulty, the crux of imaged spiritual poetry; it needs not only the fit writer but the fit audience – and that has yet to be made.

D wrote to me in recent times expressing great admiration for A's poems and wanting to get something of the same quality into his own poetic style. But in any case D has not the mystic mind and vision – H also. In quite different ways they receive and express their vision or experience through the poetic mind and imagination – even so, because it expressed something unusual, D's poetry has had a difficulty in getting recognised except by people who were able to give the right response. H's poetry deals very skilfully with spiritual ideas or feelings through the language of the emotion and the poetic imagination and intelligence – no difficulty there. As regards your poetry, it is indeed more compressed and carefully packed with substance and that creates a difficulty except for those who are alive to the language or have become alive to subtle shades, implications, depths in the words. Even those who understand a foreign language well in the ordinary way find it sometimes difficult to catch these in its poetry. Indications and suggestions easy to catch in one's own tongue are often missed there. So probably your last remark is founded.



Q: I hope people won't misunderstand what you have remarked about the mystic mind. One's not having the mystic mind and vision does not reflect upon one's poetic excellence, even as a singer of the Spirit. As regards H, you had said long ago that he wrote from several planes. And surely his ‘Dark Well’ poems come from a source beyond the poetic intelligence?

A: I used the word ‘mystic’ in the sense of a certain kind of inner seeing and feeling of things, a way which to the intellect would seem occult and visionary – for this is something different from imagination and its work with which the intellect is familiar. It was in this sense that I said D had not the mystic mind and vision. One can go far in the spiritual way, have plenty of spiritual visions and dreams even without having this mystic mind and way of seeing things. So too one may write poetry from different planes or sources of inspiration and expressing spiritual feelings, knowledge, experience and yet use the poetic intelligence as the thought medium which gives them shape in speech; such poems are not of the mystic type. One may be mystic in this sense without being spiritual – one may also be spiritual without being mystic; or one may be both spiritual and mystic in one. Poems ditto.

I had not in view the Dark Well poems when I wrote about H. I was thinking of his ordinary way of writing. If I remember right, the Dark Well poems came from the inner mind centre, some from the Higher Mind – other planes may have sent their message to his mind to put in poetic speech, but the main worker was the poetic intelligence which took what was given and turned it into something very vivid, coloured and beautiful,– but surely not mystic in the sense given above.


Yeats' Advice to Indian Poets

mother tongues – Marathi, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil – and not try English?

A: All very well for those who can write in some language of India and don't know English intimately. But what of those who think and write naturally in English? Why didn't Yeats write in Gaelic?


Overhead Inspiration – a Few Examples

Q: To help me distinguish the planes of inspiration, would you just indicate where the following lines from various poems of mine have their sources?

1. What visionary urge

Has stolen from horizons watched alone

Into thy being with ethereal guile?

2. A huge sky-passion sprouting from the earth

In branched vastnesses of leafy rapture.

3. The mute unshadowed spaces of her mind.

4. A sea unheard where spume nor spray is blown.

5. Irradiant wing-waft through eternal space,

Pride of lone rapture and invincible sun-gaze.

6. Born nomad of the infinite heart!

Time-tamer! star-struck debauchee of light!

Warrior who hurls his spirit like a dart

Across the terrible night

Of death to conquer immortality!

7. ...And to the earth-self suddenly

Came, through remote entranced marvelling

Of adoration ever-widening,

A spacious sense of immortality.

8. Here life's lost heart of splendour beats immense.

9. The haunting rapture of the vast dream-wind That blows, star-fragrant, from eternity.

10. An ocean-hearted ecstasy am I

Where time flows inward to eternal shores.

A: 1. Second line Intuitive with Overmind touch. Third line imaginative Poetic Intelligence.

2. Imaginative Poetic Intelligence with something of the Higher Mind.

3. Intuitive with Overmind touch.

4. Intuitive.

5. Higher Mind with mental Overmind touch.

6. Illumined Mind with mental Overmind touch.

7. Mixture of Higher and Illumined Mind – in the last line the mental Overmind touch.

8. Illumined Mind with mental Overmind touch.

9. Ditto.

10. Intuitive, Illumined, Overmind touch all mixed together.

I have analysed but very imperfectly – because these influences are so mixed together that the descriptions are not exhaustive.

Also remember that I speak of a touch, of the mental Overmind touch and that when there is the touch it is not always complete – it may be more apparent from something either in the language or substance or rhythm than in all three together.

Even so, perhaps some of my descriptions are overhasty and denote the impression of the moment. Also the poetical value of the poetry exists independent of its source.



Q: I should like to know whether you intend any important distinction when you speak of ‘Overmind touch’ and ‘mental Overmind touch’.

A: Yes – the Overmind proper has some gnostic light in it which is absent in the mental Overmind.



Q: Once the consciousness is aware of a certain vibration and poetic quality, it is possible to reach out towards its source of inspiration. As poetry for us here must be a way of Yoga, I suppose this reaching out is a helpful attempt; but it would become easier if there were some constant vibration present in the consciousness which we know to have descended from the higher ranges. Very often the creative spark comes to me from the poems I read. I shall be obliged if you mil indicate the origin of the few examples below – only the first of which is from my own work.

1. Plumbless inaudible waves of shining sleep.

2. The diamond dimness of the domed air.

3. Withdrawn in a lost attitude of prayer.

4. This patter of Time's marring steps across the solitude

Of Truth's abidingness. Self-blissful and alone.

5. Million d'oiseaux d'or, 6 future vigueur!

6. Rapt above earth by power of one fair face.

7. I saw them walking in an air of glory.

8. Solitary thinkings such as dodge

Conception to the very bourne of heaven,

Then leave the naked brain.

9. But felt through all this fleshly dress Bright shoots off everlastingness.

10. I saw Eternity the other night,

Like a great ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright.

A: 1. Illumined Mind.

2. Illumined Mind.

3. Intuition.

4. Illumined Mind with an intuitive element and a strong Overmind touch.

5. Illumined Mind.

6. Difficult to say. More of Higher Mind perhaps than anything else – but something of illumination and intuition also.

7. It is a mixture. Something of the Illumined Mind, something of the Poetic Intelligence diluting the full sovereignty of the higher expression.

8. Higher Mind combined with Illumined.

9. Illumined Mind with something from Intuition.

10. Illumined Mind with something from Overmind.



Q: A long time ago, you wrote to me that the Overmind has two levels – the intuitive and the gnostic. There are surely several passages in your own poetry as well as in the Upanishads and the Gita that sustain an inspiration from the former; but has no poetry ever come from the Overmind proper which is turned towards the full supramental Gnosis? Do you remember anything either in Sanskrit or in your own work which derives from there? If not, is it possible to give some idea as to what quality of rhythm, language and substance would constitute the difference between the expression of the Overmind Intuition and the Overmind Gnosis? Those four lines I quoted to you from yourself the other day – where do they hail from? –

Arms taking to a voiceless supreme delight,

Life that meets the Eternal with close breast,

An unwalled mind dissolved in the Infinite,

Force one with unimaginable rest.24

A: It is really very difficult for me to say anything in this respect about my own poetry; there is too complex a working of the Consciousness for it to be possible for me to classify and define. As for the Overmind Gnosis, I cannot yet say anything – I am familiar with its workings, but they are not easily definable or describable and, as for poetry I have not yet observed sufficiently to say whether it enters in anywhere or not. I should expect its intervention to be extremely rare even as a touch; but I refer at present all higher Overmind intervention to the Overmind Intuition in order to avoid any risk of overstatement. In the process of overmental transformation what I have observed is that the Overmind first takes up the illumined and higher mind and intellect (thinking, perceiving and reasoning intelligence) into itself and modifies itself to suit the operation – the result is what may be called a mental Overmind – then it lifts these lower movements and the intuitive mind together into a higher reach of itself, forming there the Overmind Intuition, and then all that into the Overmind Gnosis awaiting the supramental transformation. The Overmind ‘touch’ on the Higher Mind and Illumined Mind can thus raise towards the O.I. or to the O.G. or leave in the M.O.; but estimating at a glance as I have to do, it is not easy to be quite precise. I may have to revise my estimates later on a little, though not perhaps very appreciably, when I am able to look at things in a more leisurely way and fix the misty lines which often tend to fade away, being an indefinable border.


Q: I said to X and Y that it has been a habit with me to reread and repeat and hum lines which I have felt or known to have come from very high sources. I mentioned your recent poems as my aid to drawing inspiration from the Overhead planes. I quoted also the famous lines from other poets which have derived from the highest levels. Y begged me to type for her all the lines of this character from your poems. I have chosen the following:

1. O marvel bird with the burning wings of light and the unbarred lids that look beyond all space...

2. Lost the titan winging of the thought.

3. Arms taking to a voiceless supreme delight,

Life that meets the Eternal with close breast,

An unwalled mind dissolved in the Infinite,

Force one with unimaginable rest.

4. My consciousness climbed like a topless hill...

5. He who from Time's dull motion escapes and thrills

Rapt thoughtless, wordless into the Eternal's breast,

Unrolls the form and sign of being,

Seated above in the omniscient Silence.

6. Calm faces of the gods on backgrounds vast

Bringing the marvel of the infinitudes...

7. A silent unnamed emptiness content

Either to fade in the Unknowable

Or thrill with the luminous seas of the Infinite.

8. Crossing power-swept silences rapture-stunned,

Climbing high far ethers eternal-sunned...

9. I have drunk the Infinite like a giant's wine.

10. My soul unhorizoned widens to measureless sight...

11. Rose of God like a blush of rapture on Eternity's face,

Rose of Love, ruby depth of all being, fire-passion of Grace!

Arise from the heart of the yearning that sobs in Nature's abyss:

Make earth the home of the Wonderful and life beatitude's kiss.

I shan't ask you to tell me in detail the sources of all these lines – but what do you think in general of my choice? Only for one quotation I must crave the favour of your closer attention. Please do try to tell me something about it, for I like it so much that I cannot remain without knowing all that can be known: it is, of course. Number 3 here. I consider these lines the most satisfying I have ever read: poetically as well as spiritually, you have written others as great – but what I mean to say is that the whole essence of the truth of life is given by them and every cry in the being seems answered. So be kind enough to take a little trouble and give me an intimate knowledge of them. I'll be very happy to know their sources and the sort of enthousiasmo you had when writing them. How exactly did they come into being?

A: The choice is excellent. I am afraid I couldn't tell you in detail the sources, though I suppose they all belong to the Overhead inspiration. In all I simply remained silent and allowed the lines to come down shaped or shaping themselves on the way – I don't know that I know anything else about it. All depends on the stress of the enthousiasmos, the force of the creative thrill and largeness of the wave of its Ananda, but how is that describable or definable? What is prominent in No. 3 is a certain calm, deep and intense spiritual emotion taken up by the spiritual vision that sees exactly the state or experience and gives it its exact revelatory words. It is an Overmind vision and experience and condition that is given a full power of expression by the word and the rhythm – there is a success in ‘embodying’ them or at least the sight and emotion of them which gives the lines their force.



Q: It is a bit of a surprise to me that Virgil's Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt is now considered by you ‘an almost direct descent from the Overmind consciousness’.25 I was under the impression that, like that other line of his –

O passi graviora! dabit deus his quoque finem

it was a perfect mixture of the Higher Mind with the Psychic; and the impression was based on something you had yourself written to me in the past. Similarly I remember you definitely declaring Wordsworth's

The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep


to be lacking precisely in the Overmind note and having only the note of Intuition in an intense form.26 What you write now means a big change of opinion in both the instances – but how and why the change?

A: Yes, certainly, my ideas and reactions to some of the lines and passages about which you had asked me long ago, have developed and changed and could not but change. For at that time I was new to the overhead regions or at least to the highest of them – for the higher thought and the illumination were already old friends – and could not be sure or complete in my perception of many things concerning them. I hesitated therefore to assign anything like Overmind touch or inspiration to passages in English or other poetry and did not presume to claim any of my own writing as belonging to this order. Besides, the intellect took still too large a part in my reactions to poetry; for instance, I judged Virgil's line too much from what seemed to be its surface intellectual import and too little from its deeper meaning and vision and its reverberations of the Overhead. So also with Wordsworth's line about the ‘fields of sleep’: I have since then moved in those fields of sleep and felt the breath which is carried from them by the winds that came to the poet, so I can better appreciate the depth of vision in Wordsworth's line. I could also see more clearly the impact of the Overhead on the work of poets who wrote usually from a mental, a psychic, an emotional or other vital inspiration, even when it gave only a tinge.


Grades of Poetic Style – Some Examples

Q: You have distinguished five kinds of poetic style – the adequate, the effective, the illumined, the inspired, the inevitable. In what kind are the following lines from my ‘Ne plus ultra’? –

Is the keen voice of tuneful ecstasy

To be denied its winged omnipotence,

Its ancient kinship to immensity

And the swift suns?

A: This seems to me the effective style at a high pitch.


Q: Or take these lines – from your early ‘Urvasie’:

But plunged o'er difficult gorge and prone ravine

And rivers thundering between dim walls,

Driven by immense desire, until he came

To dreadful silence of the peaks and trod

Regions as vast and lonely as his love.

A: This is also high-pitch effective except the last line which is in the inspired style – perhaps!



Q: Some more lines to classify, the close of a sonnet by me – the sestet following the last four words of the octave:

For I have viewed,

Astir within my clay's engulfing sleep,

An 'alien astonishment of light!

Let me be merged with its unsoundable deep

And mirror in futile farness the full height

Of a heaven barred for ever to my distress,

Rather than hoard life's happy littleness!

A: This is indeed an example of the effective style at its best, that is to say rising to something of illumination, especially in the second, fourth and sixth lines.



Q: Will you please comment on this new sonnet of mine, ‘Mystic Mother’?

Seeing you walk our little ways, they wonder

That I who scorn the common loves of life

Should kneel to You in absolute surrender,

Deeming Your visible perfection wife

Unto my spirit's immortality.

They think I have changed one weakness for another,

Because they mark not the new birth of me –

This body which by You, the Mystic Mother,

Has now become a child of my vast soul!

Loving Your feet's earth-visitation, I

Find each heart-throb miraculously flower

Out of the unplumbable God-mystery

Behind dark clay; and, hour by dreamful hour,

Upbear that fragrance like an aureole.

A: Exceedingly good. Here you have got to inevitability. I forgot to say that all the styles ‘adequate’, ‘effective’ etc. can be raised to inevitability in their own line. The octet here is adequateness raised to inevitability except the fourth and fifth lines in which the effective undergoes the same transformation. In the sestet on the other hand it is the illumined style that becomes inevitable.



Q: Would you describe the following poem of mine as ‘coin of the fancy’? What is the peculiarity of poetic effect, if any, here?


No more the press and play of light release

Thrilling bird-news between high columned trees.

Upon the earth a blank of slumber drops:

Only cicadas toil in grassy shops –

But all their labours seem to cry ‘Peace, peace.’

Nought travels down the roadway save the breeze;

And though beyond our gloom – throb after throb –

Gathers the great heart of a silver mob,

There is no haste in heaven, no frailty mars

The very quiet business of the stars.

A: It is very successful – the last two lines are very fine and the rest have their perfection. I should call it a mixture of inspiration and cleverness – or perhaps ingenious discovery would be a better phrase. I am referring, to such images as ‘thrilling bird-news’, ‘grassy shops’, ‘silver mob’. Essentially they are conceits but saved by the note of inspiration running through the poem – while in the last line the conceit ‘quiet business’ is lifted beyond itself and out of conceitedness by the higher tone at which the inspiration arrives there.



Q: I feel my poem ‘The Triumph of Dante’ has now been sufficiently quintessenced. If it satisfies you, will you make whatever analysis is possible of its inspirational qualities?

These arms, stretched through ten hollow years,have brought her

Back to my heart! A light, a hush immense

Falls suddenly upon my voice of tears,

Out of a sky whose each blue moment bears

The shining touch of that omnipotence.

Ineffable the secrecies supreme

Pass and elude my gaze – an exquisite

Failure to hold some nectarous Infinite!

The uncertainties of time grow shadowless –

And never but with startling loveliness,

A white shiver of breeze on moonlit water,

Flies the chill thought of death across my dream.

For, how shall earth be dark when human eyes

Mirror the love whose smile is paradise? –

A love that misers not its golden store

But gives itself and yearns to give yet more,

As though God's light were inexhaustible

Not for His joy but this one heart to fill!

A: There are three different tones or pitches of inspiration in the poem, each in its own manner reaching inevitability. The first seven lines up to ‘gaze’ bear as a whole the stamp of a high elevation of thought and vision – height and illumination lifted up still farther by the Intuition to its own inspired level; one passage (lines 3, 4) seems to me almost to touch in its tone of expression an Overmind seeing. But here ‘A light, a hush...a voice of tears’ anticipates the second movement by an element of subtle inner intensity in it. This inner intensity – where a deep secret intimacy of feeling and seeing replaces the height and large luminosity – characterises the rest of the first part. This passage has a seizing originality and authenticity in it – it is here that one gets a pure inevitability. In the last lines the intuition descends towards the higher mental plane with less revelatory power in it but more precise in its illumination. That is the difference between sheer vision and thought. But the poem is exceedingly fine as a whole; the close also is of the first order.



Q: According to your five kinds of poetic style – the adequate, the effective, the illumined, the inspired and the pure inevitable which is something indefinable – how would you class Dante's style? It has a certain simplicity mixed with power which suggests what I may call the forceful adequate – of course at an inevitable pitch – as its definition. Or is it a mixture of the adequate and the effective? A line like –

E venni dal martirio a questa pace27

is evidently adequate; but has this the same style –

Si come quando Marsïa traesti

Della vagina delle membra sue?28

A: The ‘forceful adequate’ might apply to much of Dante's writing, but much else is pure inevitable; elsewhere it is the inspired style as in the last lines quoted. I would not call the other line merely adequate; it is much more than that. Dante's simplicity comes from a penetrating directness of poetic vision, it is not the simplicity of an adequate style.



Q: I am drawn to Dante especially by his conception of Beatrice which seems to me to give him his excellence. How would you define that conception?

A: Outwardly it was an idealisation, probably due to a psychic connection of the past which could not fulfil itself in that life. But I do not see how his conception of Beatrice gives him his excellence – it was only one element in a very powerful and complex nature.


‘Trance’29 – Some Metrical and Other Points

Q: Is it not the case that, in this metre,30 either one must keep a rather staccato movement, pausing with almost unbroken regularity at the end of each foot, or else risk the iambic pentameter approximation by the use of an easy and fluent movement, as in your very beautiful line, Mute the body aureate with light, that would seem least out of place if inserted amidst other iambic pentameters?

A: Possibly – though the line does not read to my ear very well as an iambic pentameter – the movement sounds then common and rather lame. It goes better as a trochaic rhythm. It is true that there is this dilemma and the whole skill will then be in avoiding the staccato effect, but that necessitates a very light movement.


I think the principle of this metre31 should be to say a few very clear-cut things in a little space. At least it looks so to me at present – though a more free handling of the metre might show that the restriction was not justifiable.

I had chosen this metre – or rather it came to me and I accepted it – because it seemed to me both brief and easy, so suitable for an experiment. But I find now that it was only seemingly easy and in fact very difficult. The ease with which I wrote it only came from the fact that by a happy inspiration the right rhythm for it came into my consciousness and wrote itself out by virtue of the rhythm being there. If I had consciously experimented 1 might have stumbled over the same difficulties as have come in your way.

The Bird of Fire32 was written on two consecutive days and afterwards revised. The Trance at one sitting – it took only a few minutes. You may have the date as they were both completed on the same day and sent to you the next.


Q: In the line –

Halo-moon of ecstasy unknown –


is the ‘o’ assonance satisfactory, or does the ear feel the two sounds come too close or for some reason are too insistent?

A: It seems to me that there is sufficient space between to prevent the assonance from being too prominent; it came like that and I kept it because the repetition and the prolongation of the full ‘o’ sound seemed to me to carry in it a certain unexpressed (and inexpressible) significance.


Q: What exactly does ‘Halo-moon’ signify? In line 2 there was the concrete physical moon ringed with a halo. Is the suggestion of line 10 that a glory of indefinable presence is imaged by a lunar halo – the moon as a distinct object now being swallowed up in the halo? My difficulty is that if it is ‘halo’ simply it cannot be a ‘moon’ as well. But possibly the compound ‘halo-moon’ is elliptical for ‘moon with its surrounding halo’.

A: Well, it is of course the ‘moon with its halo’, but I wanted to give a suggestion if not of the central form being swallowed up in the halo, at least of moon and halo being one ecstatic splendour as when one is merged in ecstasy.


Q: The last line –

Ocean self enraptured and alone –


I took as meaning ‘Self, who art symbolised by this ocean’, since otherwise you would probably have written ‘self-enraptured’?

A: Yes, that is right.

Iambic Pentameter

Q: How is it that one slips so easily into the iambic pentameter when one wants to say things of most significance? Have you also a penchant for it?

A: An inspiration which leans more on a sublimated or illumined thought than on some strong or subtle or very simple psychic or vital intensity and swiftness of feeling, seems to call naturally for the iambic pentameter, though it need not confine itself to that form. I myself have not yet found another metre which gives room enough along with an apposite movement – shorter metres are too cramped, the longer ones need a technical dexterity (if one is not to be either commonplace or clumsy) for which I have not leisure.


Aim of Quantitative Efforts in English Poetry

X's poem in laghu-guru is splendid. But perhaps Y would say that it is a pure Bengali rhythm, which means, I suppose, that it reads as well and easily in Bengali as if it were not written on an unusual rhythmic principle. I suppose that must necessarily be the aim of a new metre or metrical principle; it is what I am trying to do with quantitative efforts in English.

The Loose Alexandrine

Q: Robert Bridges has invented what is called the loose Alexandrine. Lascelles Abercrombie explains its principle thus: The novelty is to make the number of syllables the fixt base of the metre; but these are the effective syllables, those which pronunciation easily slurs or combines with following syllables being treated as metrically ineffective. The line consists of 12 metrically effective syllables; and within this constant scheme the metre allows of any variation in the number and placing of the accents. Thus the rhythm attained is purely accentual, in accordance with the genius of the English language, but a new freedom is achieved within the confines of a new kind of discipline. What do you think of the principle?

A: I do not understand how this can be called an accentual rhythm except in the sense that all English rhythm, prose or verse, is accentual. What one usually means by accentual verse is verse with a fixed number of accents for each line, but here accents can be of any number and placed anywhere as it would be in a prose; cut up into lines. The only distinctive feature is thus of the number of ‘effective’ syllables. The result is a kind of free verse movement with a certain irregular regularity in the lengths of the lines.


The Problem of Blank Verse Quatrains

Q: I have begun a poem on Parvati in blank verse quatrains. Here are the first five stanzas. If at all you think I should continue, will not the closed stanza plan adopted so far prove monotonous?

Men dreamed of her strange hair and saw it fall

A cataract of nectar through their sleep,

Crushing the soul with sweetness – and woke a-dread,

In all their limbs a speechless heaven of pain!

Her voice reached to Creations highest peak,

And though a music most delicate its rapture

Swept through the seven worlds and found the gods

Helpless like flames swaying in a huge wind!

A terror beautiful were those dark eddies,

Her fathomless vague-glimmering pure eyes,

Wherein the spirits that rashly plunged their love

Whirled through a lifetime of bewildered bliss!

But all in vain her voice and gaze and hair

Before the snowy calm immutable

Of Shiva's meditation, a frozen fire

Of omnipotence alone with its self-splendour!

Like an immortal death his far face glowed –

Inaudible disclosure of some white

Eternity of unperturbed dream-vast

Behind the colour and passion of time's heart-beat!

A: It looks as if you were facing the problem of blank verse by attempting it under conditions of the maximum difficulty. Not content with choosing a form which is based on the single-line blank verse (I mean, of course, each line a clear-cut entity by itself) as opposed to the flowing and freely enjambed variety you try to unite flow-lines and single-line and farther undertake a form of blank verse quatrains! I have myself tried the blank verse quatrain; even, when I attempted the single-line blank verse on a large scale in Savitri I found myself falling involuntarily into a series of four-line movement. But even though I was careful in the building, I found it led to a stiff monotony and had to make a principle of variation – one line, two line, three line, four line or longer passages (paragraphs as it were) alternating with each other; otherwise the system would be a failure.

In attempting the blank verse quatrain one has to avoid like poison all flatness of movement – a flat movement immediately creates a sense of void and sets the ear asking for the absent rhyme. The Fast line of each verse especially must be a powerful line acting as a strong close so that the rhyming close-cadence is missed no more. And, secondly, there must be a very careful building of the structure. A mixture of sculpture and architecture is indicated – there should be plenty of clear-cut single lines but they must be built into a quatrain that is itself a perfect structural whole. In your lines it is these qualities that are lacking, so that the poetic substance fails in its effect owing to rhythmic insufficiency. One closing line of yours will absolutely not do – that of the fourth stanza – its feminine ending is enough to damn it; you may have feminine endings but not in the last line of the quatrain, and its whole movement is an unfinished movement. The others would do, but they lose half their force by being continuations of clauses which look back to the previous line for their sense. They can do that sometimes, but only on condition of their still haying a clear-cut wholeness in themselves and coming in with a decisive force. In the structure you have attempted to combine the flow of the lyrical quatrain with the force of a single-line blank verse system. I suppose it can be done, but here the single-line has interfered with the flow and the flow has interfered with the single-line force.

In my version –

Men dreamed of her strange hair; they saw it fall

A cataract of nectar through their sleep,

Crushing the soul with sweetness; they woke from dread,

With all their limbs a speechless heaven of pain!

Her voice soared to Creation's highest peak,

And that most delicate music with its rapture

Sweeping through seven worlds found out the gods

Helpless like flames swaying in a huge wind!

A beautiful terror were those dark conscious eddies,

Her pure vague-glimmering and fathomless eyes;

Therein the spirits that rashly plunged their love

Fell whirled through lifetimes of bewildering bliss!

But all in vain, her voice and gaze and hair

Before the snow-pale and immutable calm

Of Shiva's meditation, a frozen fire

Of lone omnipotence locked in self-light!

His far face glowed like an immortal death:

The inaudible disclosure of some white

Eternity, some unperturbed dream-vast,

It slew the colour and passion of time's heart-beat! –

I have made only minor changes for the most part, but many of them in order to secure what I feel to be the missing elements. I have indicated in the places where my reasons for change were of another kind what those reasons were;33 the rest are dictated by the two considerations of rhythmic efficiency and quatrain structure. In the first verse this structure is secured by putting two pauses in the middle of lines, each clause taking up the sense from there and enlarging into amplitude and then bringing to a forceful close. In the second verse and in the fourth I have attempted a sweeping continuous quatrain movement but taken care to separate them by a different structure so as to avoid monotony. The third is made of two blank verse couplets, each complementary in sense to the other; the fifth is based on a one-line monumental phrase worked out in sense by a three-line development with a culminating close-line. The whole thing is not perhaps as perfect as it needs to be, but it is in the nature of a demonstration, to show on what principles the blank verse quatrain can be built if it has to be done at all – I have founded it on the rule of full but well-sculptured single lines and an architectural quatrain structure: others are possible, but I think would be more difficult to execute.

I had half a mind to illustrate my thesis by quotations from Savitri, but -I resist the temptation, warned by the scowling forehead of Time – this will do.

P.S. I don't consider the proximity of the closing words ‘light’ and ‘white’ in the last stanzas an objection since the quatrains stand as separate entities – so I did not alter; of course in continuous blank verse an objection would be.


Regular and Irregular Sonnet Rhymes

The two regular sonnet rhyme sequences are (1) the Shakespearean ab ab cd cd ef ef gg – that is, three quatrains with alternate rhymes with a closing couplet and (2) the Miltonic with an octet abba abba (as in your second and third quatrains) and a sestet of three rhymes arranged according to choice. The Shakespearean is closer to the natural lyric rhythm, the Miltonic to the ode movement – i.e. something large and grave. The Miltonic is very difficult, for it needs either a strong armoured structure of the thought or a carefully developed unity of the building which all poets can't manage. However there have been attempts at an irregular sonnet rhyme sequence. Keats tried his hand at one a century ago and I vaguely believe (but that may be only an illusion or Maya) that modern poets have played loose fantastic tricks of their own invention; but I don't have much first hand knowledge of modern (contemporary) poetry. Anyhow I have myself written a series of sonnets with the most heterodox rhyme arrangements, so I couldn't very well go for you when you do the same. One who has committed many murders can't very well rate another for having done a few. All the same this sequence is rather – a Miltonic octet with Shakespearean close would be more possible. I think I have done something of the kind with not too bad an effect, but I have no time to consult my poetry file and am not sure. In the sonnet too it might be well for you to do the regular thing first soberly and well, and afterwards when you are sure of your steps, frisk and dance.


Some Verbal Subtleties and Technical Points

Q: I should like to know what exactly the meaning of the word ‘absolve’ is in the following lines from your ‘Love and Death’. I have been puzzled because the ordinary dictionary meanings don't seem to fit in.

But if with price, ah God! what easier! Tears

Dreadful, innumerable I will absolve,

Or pay with anguish through the centuries...

There is another passage a few pages later where the same word is used:

For late

I saw her mid those pale inhabitants

Whom bodily anguish visits not, but thoughts

Sorrowful and dumb memories absolve,

And martyrdom of scourged hearts quivering.

A: In the second passage it is used in its ordinary sense. ‘Absolution’ means release from sins or from debts – the sorrowful thoughts and memories are the penalty or payment which procures the release from the debt which has been accumulated by the sins and errors of human life.

In the first passage ‘absolve’ is used in its Latin and not in its English sense,– ‘to pay off a debt’, but here the sense is stretched a little. Instead of saying ‘I will pay off with tears’, Ruru says: ‘I will pay off tears’ as the price of the absolution. This Latinisation and the inversion of syntactical connections are familiar licences in English poetry – of course, it is incorrect, but a deliberate incorrectness, a violence purposely done to the language in order to produce a poetic effect. The English language, unlike the French and some others, likes, as Stephen Phillips used to say, to have liberties taken with it. But, of course, before one can take these liberties, one must be a master of the language – and, in this case, of the Latin also.


Q: In my lines –

This heart grew brighter when your breath's proud chill

Flung my disperse life-blood more richly in –

a terminal ‘d’ will at once English that Latin fellow ‘disperse’, but is he really objectionable? At first I had ‘Drove’ instead of ‘Flung’ – so the desire for a less dental rhythm was his raison d’être, but if he seems a trifle weaker than his English Avatar, he can easily be dispensed with now.

A: I don't think ‘disperse’ as an adjective can pass – the dentals are certainly an objection but do not justify this Latin-English neologism.



Q: Why should that poor ‘disperse’ be inadmissible when English has many such Latin forms – e.g. ‘consecrate’, ‘dedicate’, ‘intoxicate”? I felt it to be a natural innovation and not against the genius of the language: I discover now from the Standard Dictionary that it is not even a neologism – it is only an obsolete word. I have a substitute ready, however:

Flung my diffuse life-blood more richly in.


But is not ‘disperse’ formed on exactly the same principle as ‘diffuse’? By the way, does ‘dispersed’ make the line really too dental, now that ‘Flung’ is there and not the original ‘Drove’?

A: I don't think people use ‘consecrate’, ‘intoxicate’ etc. as adjectives nowadays – at any rate it sounds to me too recherché. Of course, if one chose, this kind of thing might be perpetrated –

O wretched man intoxicate,

Let not thy life be consecrate

To wine's red yell (spell, if you want to be ‘poetic’).

Else will thy soul be dedicate

To Hell –

but it is better not to do it. It makes no difference if there are other words like ‘diffuse’ taken from French (not Latin) which have this form and are generally used adjectives. Logic is not the sole basis of linguistic use. I thought at first it was an archaism and there might be some such phrase in old poetry as lids disperse, but as I could not find it even in the Oxford which claims to be exhaustive and omniscient, I concluded it must be a neologism of yours. But archaism or neologism does not matter. ‘Dispersed life-blood’ brings three d's so near together that they collide a little – if they were farther from each other it would not matter – or if they produced some significant or opportune effect. I think ‘diffuse’ will do.



Q: What do I find this afternoon? Just read:


From motionless battalions as outride

A speed disperse of horsemen, from that mass

Of livid menace went a frail light cloud

Rushing through heaven, and behind it streamed

The downpour all in wet and greenish lines.


This is from your own ‘Urvasie’, written in the middle nineties of the last century! Of course it is possible that the printer has omitted a terminal ‘d’ – but is that really the explanation?

A: I dare say I tried to Latinise. But that does not make it a permissible form. If it is obsolete, it must remain obsolete. I thought at first it was an archaism you were trying on, I seemed to remember something of the kind, but as I could find it nowhere I gave up the idea – it was probably my own crime that I remembered.



Q: The English reader has digested Carlyle and swallowed Meredith and is not quite unwilling to reJOYCE in even more startling strangenesses of expression at the present day. Will his stomach really turn at the novelty of that phrase which you wouldn't approve: ‘the voice of a devouring eye’? ‘The voice of an eye’ sounds rather idiotic, but if the adjective ‘devouring’ is added the phrase seems to become effective. ‘Devouring eye’ is then a synecdoche – isolating and emphasising Shakespeare's most remarkable quality, his eager multitudinous sight, and the oral epithet provides a connection with the idea of a voice, thus preventing the catachresis from being too startling. If Milton could give us ‘blind mouths’ and Wordsworth

Thou eye among the blind,

That, deaf and silent, readst the eternal deep,

is there very much to object to in this visioned voice?

A: Can't accept all that. A voice of a devouring eye is even more re-Joycingly mad than a voice of an eye pure and simple. If the English language is to go to the dogs, let it go, but the Joyce cut by the way of Bedlam does not recommend itself to me.

The poetical examples have nothing to do with the matter. Poetry is permitted to be insane – the poet and the madman go together: though even there there are limits. Meredith and Carlyle are tortuous or extravagant in their style only – though they can be perfectly sane when they want. In poetry anything can pass – for instance, my ‘voice of a tilted nose’:

O voice of a tilted nose,

Speak but speak not in prose!

Nose like a blushing rose,

O Joyce of a tilted nose!

That is high poetry, but put it in prose and it sounds insane.



Q: In the lines,

O Grace that flowest from the Master's Will,

How fondly thou dost mitigate the power

Of utter summit for our volleyed sake...


What do you think of the turn ‘our volleyed sake’? Can it pass?

A: ‘For our valleyed sake’ is a locution that offers fascinating possibilities but fails to sound English. One might risk, ‘Let fall some tears for my unhappy sake’ in defiance of grammar or humourously, ‘Oh shed some sweat-drops for my corpulent sake’; but ‘valleyed sake’ carries the principle of the ārṣa prayoga34 beyond the boundaries of the possible.


Q: Is there any advantage in changing the phrase –

as though a press

Of benediction lay on me unseen –


as though the press

Of a benediction lay on me unseen?

A: No, no. The first was immeasurably better. ‘A press of benediction’ is striking and effective; ‘the press of a benediction’ is flat and means nothing. Besides, it is not good English. You can say ‘a press of affairs’, ‘a press of matter’; you can say ‘the pressure of this affair’, but you cannot say ‘the press of an affair’.



Q: Here is a sonnet for your judgment. It deals with the massive spiritual light descending into the brain like an inverted pyramid. The final phrase has a historical allusion:

...a conscious hill

Down-kindled by some Cheops of the skies

To monument his lordship over death.

You must have heard of Cheops, the Egyptian King who built the Great Pyramid at Gizeh?

A: Of course I have heard of Cheops, but did not expect to hear of him again in this context. Don't you think the limiting proper name brings in an excessive touch of intellectual ingenuity, almost as if the poem were built for the sake of this metaphor and not for its subject? I would myself prefer a general term so as to prevent any drop from sublimity, e.g.

Down-sloped by some King-Builder of the skies.

But it is a good sonnet and there is certainly both vision and poetry in it.



‘Revealed her mateless beauty the true paradise’ is not permissible in prose, but it is one of those contracted expressions which are allowed in poetry and it is quite intelligible.



Q: In your sonnet ‘The Human Enigma’ occurs the magnificent line:

His heart is a chaos and an empyrean.


But I am much saddened by the fact that the rhythm of these words gets spoiled at the end by a mis-stressing in ‘empyrean’. ‘Empyrean’ is stressed currently in the penultimate syllable, thus: ‘empyre'an’. Your line puts the stress on the second syllable. It is in the adjective ‘empyreal’ that the second syllable is stressed, but the noun is never stressed that way, so far as I know. Perhaps you have a precedent in the Elizabethans? Or have you deliberately taken liberty with the accentuation? The same mis-stressing occurs also in Book II, Canto 11, of Savitri:35 page 270, line 6:

Surprised in their untracked empyrean.


But you certainly do not always stress the noun like the adjective. In Book I, Canto III, line 5 from below on page 25 is the splendid verse:

An empyrean vision saw and knew.


Here the penultimate syllable gets the ictus. May I have some explanation? Perhaps there are acknowledged alternative accentuations and I am just ignorant? I really hope so, for otherwise, while the line from Book II of ‘Savitri’ can easily take a noun after ‘empyrean’ or get its ‘empyrean’ changed to ‘empyreal’ and then take a noun, the sonnet-line will not have the same absolute grandeur of phrase as now if it is rewritten:

His heart is a chaos and an empyreans span.


If it is to rhyme with ‘man’, ‘plan’ and ‘scan’ in your sonnet-scheme it must bring in ‘span’ – mustn't it?

A: I find in the Chambers's Dictionary the noun ‘empyrean’ is given two alternative pronunciations, each with a different stress,– the first, ‘empyre'an’ and secondly, ‘empy'rean’. Actually in the book the accent seems to fall on the consonant ‘r’ instead of the vowel. That must be a mistake in printing; it is evident that it is meant to fall on the second vowel. If that is so, my variation is justified and needs no further defence. The adjective ‘empyreal’ the dictionary gives as having the same alternative accentuation as the noun, that is to say, either ‘empyre'al’ with the accent on the long ‘e’ or ‘empy'real’ with the accent on the second syllable, but the ‘e’ although unaccented still keeps its long pronunciation. Then? But even if I had no justification from the dictionary and the noun ‘empy'rean’ were only an Aurobindonian freak and a wilful shifting of the accent, I would refuse to change it; for the rhythm here is an essential part of whatever beauty there is in the line.

P.S. Your view is supported by the small Oxford Dictionary which, I suppose, gives the present usage. Chambers being an older authority. But Chambers must represent a former usage and I am entitled to revive even a past or archaic form if I choose to do so.



Q: As between the forms – ‘with a view to express’ and ‘with a view to expressing’ – the Concise Oxford Dictionary calls the former vulgar.

A: I don't agree with Oxford. Both forms are used. If ‘to express’ is vulgar, ‘to expressing’ is cumbrous and therefore inelegant.

Q: The Oxford Dictionary seems to leave one no choice as regards counting the number of syllables in the word ‘vision’ and its likes. I quote below some of the words explained as monosyllables in the same way as ‘rhythm’ and ‘prism’:

Fa'shion (-shn)

Passion (pa'shn)

Prison (-zn)

Scission (si'shn)

Trea'son (-ezn)

Vi'sion (-zhn)

As X would say, qu'en dites vous? Chambers's Dictionary makes ‘vision’ a dissyllable, which is quite sensible, but the monosyllabic pronunciation of it deserves to be considered at least a legitimate variant when H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler – the name of Fowler is looked upon as a synonym for authority on the English language – give no other. I don't think I am mistaken in interpreting their intention. Take ‘realm’, which they pronounce in brakets as ‘relm’; now I see no difference as regards syllabification between their intention here and in the instances above.

P.S. I must admit, however, what struck me after typing the preceding. In the preface to the Oxford Dictionary it is said that it has not been thought necessary to mention certain pronunciations which are familiar to the normal reader, such as that of the suffix -ation (ashn). Does this mean that a word like ‘meditation’ is to be taken as three syllables only? According to my argument there seems no alternative; and yet the example looks very much like a reductio ad absurdum.

A: You may not have a choice – but I have a choice, which is to pronounce and scan words like vision and passion and similar words as all the poets of the English language (those at least whom I know) have consistently pronounced and scanned them – as dissyllables. If you ask me to scan Shakespeare's line in the following manner to please H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler,

Ĭn māī|děn mēd|ĭtatīōn | fān|cў frēē,

I shall decline without thanks. Shakespeare wrote, if I remember right, ‘treasons, strategems and spoils’; Shelley, Tennyson, any poet of the English language, I believe would do the same – though I have no books with me to give chapter and verse. I lived in both northern and southern England, but I never heard vision pronounced vizhn, it was always vizhun; treason, of course, is pronounced trez'n, but that does not make it a monosyllable in scansion because there is in these words a very perceptible slurred vowel sound in pronunciation which I represent by the '; in poison also. If realm, helm etc. are taken as monosyllables, that is quite reasonable, for there is no vowel between ‘1’ and ‘m’ and none is heard, slurred or otherwise in pronunciation. The words rhythm and prism are technically monosyllables, because they are so pronounced in French (i.e. that part of the word, for there is a mute ‘e’ in French): but in fact most Englishmen take the help of a slurred vowel-sound in pronouncing rhythms and it would be quite permissible to write in English as a blank verse line, ‘The unheard rhythms that sustain the world’.

This is my conviction and not all the Fowlers in the world will take it away from me. I only hope the future lexicographers will not ‘fowl’ the language any more in that direction; otherwise we shall have to write lines like this –

O vizhn! O pashn! m'd'tashn! h'rr'p'lashn!

Why did the infern'l Etern'l und'take creash'n?

Or else, creat'ng, could he not have afford'd

Not to allow the Engl'sh tongue to be Oxford'd?

P.S. I remember a book (Hamerton's? some one else's? I don't remember) in which the contrast was drawn between the English and French languages, that the English tongue tended to throw all the weight on the first or earliest possible syllable and slurred the others, the French did the opposite – so that when an Englishman pretends to say strawberries, what he really says is strawb's. That is the exaggeration of a truth – but all the same there is a limit.



Q: Of course a language is not made altogether according to logical rules. Originally, or aboriginally, it came, I suppose, out of the entrails and in spite of all Volapuks and Esperantos natural languages will flourish. But I should like to ask you a few questions suggested by your falling foul of the Fowlers. The poetic pronunciation of words cannot be accepted as a standard for current speech – can it? On your own showing, ‘treason’ and ‘poison’ which are monosyllables in prose or current speech can be scanned as dissyllables in verse; Shelley makes ‘evening’ three syllables and X has used even ‘realm’ as a dissyllable, while the practice of taking ‘precious’ and ‘conscious’ to be three syllables is not even noticeable, I believe. All the same, current speech, if your favourite Chambers^ Dictionary as well as my dear Concise Oxford is to be believed, insists on ‘evening’, ‘precious’ and ‘conscious’ being dissyllabic and ‘realm’ monosyllabic. I am mentioning this disparity between poetic and current usages not because I wish ‘meditation’ to be robbed of its full length or ‘vision’ to lose half its effect but because it seems to me that Shelley’s or Tennyson's or any poets practice does not in itself prove anything definitely for English as it is spoken. And spoken English, very much more than written English, undergoes change; even the line you quote from Shakespeare was perhaps not scanned in his time as you would do it now, for ‘meditation’ – as surely ‘passion’ and ‘fashion’ also and most probably ‘vision’ as well – was often if not always given its full vowel-value and the fourth foot of the line in question might to an Elizabethan ear have been very naturally an anapaest:

In mai\den me\dita\tion fān\cy free.

When, however, you say that your personal experience in England, both north and south, never recorded a monosyllabic ‘vision’, we are on more solid ground, but the Concise Oxford Dictionary is specially stated to be in its very title as ‘of Current English’: is all its claim to be set at nought? It is after all a responsible compilation and, so far as my impression goes, not unesteemed. If its errors were so glaring as you think, would there not be a general protest? Or is it that English has changed so much in ‘word of mouth’ since your departure from England? This is not an ironical query – I am just wondering.

P.S. Your exclamatory-interrogatory elegiacs illustrating the predicament we should fall into if the Fowlers were allowed to spread their nets with impunity were very enjoyable. But I am afraid the tendency of the English language is towards contraction of vowel-sounds^ at least terminal, ones; and perhaps the Oxford Dictionary has felt the need to monumentalise – clearly and authoritatively – the degree to which this tendency has, in some cases more definitely, in others less but still perceptibly enough, advanced? The vocalised ‘e’ of the suffix ‘-ed’ of the Spenserian days is now often mute;the trisyllabic suffix ‘-ation’ of the ‘spacious times’ has shrunk by one syllable, and ‘treason’ and ‘poison’ and ‘prison’, all having the same second-vowel sound if fully pronounced as in the second syllable of ‘-ation’, are already monosyllables in speech – so, if ‘passion’ and ‘fashion’ which too have lost their Elizabethan characteristic like ‘meditation’ should contract by a natural analogy, carrying all ‘ation’-suffixed words as well as ‘vision’ and ‘scission’ and the like with them, it would be quite as one might expect. And if current speech once fixes these contractions, they will not always keep outside the pale of poetry. What do you think?

A: Where the devil have I admitted that ‘treason’ and ‘poison’ are monosyllables or that their use as dissyllables is a poetic licence? Will you please quote the words in which I have made that astounding and imbecile admission? I have said distinctly that they are dissyllabic,– like risen, dozen, maiden, garden, laden and a thousand others which nobody (at least before the world went mad) ever dreamed of taking as monosyllables. On my own showing, indeed! After I had even gone to the trouble of explaining at length about the slurred syllable ‘e’ in these words, for the full sound is not given, so that you cannot put it down as pronounced maid-en, you have to indicate the pronunciation as maid'n. But for that to dub maiden a monosyllable and assert that Shakespeare, Shelley and every other poet who scans maiden as a dissyllable was a born fool who did not know the ‘current’ pronunciation or was indulging in a constant poetic licence whenever he used the words garden, maiden, widen, sadden etc. is a long flight of imagination. I say that these words are dissyllables and the poets in so scanning them (not as an occasional licence but normally and every time) are much better authorities than any owl – or fowl – of a dictionary-maker in the universe. Of course the poets use licences in lengthening out words occasionally, but these are exceptions; to explain away their normal use of words as a perpetually repeated licence would be a wild wooden-headedness (5 syllables, please). That these words are dissyllables is proved farther by the fact that ‘saddened’, ‘maidenhood’ cannot possibly be anything but respectively dissyllabic and trisyllabic, yet ‘saddened’ could, I suppose, be correctly indicated in a dictionary as pronounced ‘saddnd’. A dictionary indication or a dictionary theory cannot destroy the living facts of the language.

I do not know why you speak of my ‘favourite’ Chambers. Your attachment to Oxford is not balanced by any attachment of mine to Chambers or any other lexicographer. I am not inclined to swear by any particular dictionary as an immaculate virgin authority for pronunciation or a papal Infallible. It was you who quoted Chambers as differing from Oxford, not I. You seem indeed to think that the Fowlers are a sort of double-headed Pope to the British public in all linguistic matters and nobody could dare question their dictates or ukases – only I do so because I am antiquated and am living in India. I take leave to point out to you that this is not yet a universally admitted catholic dogma. The Fowlers indeed seem to claim something of the kind, they make their enunciations with a haughty papal arrogance condemning those who differ from them as outcasts and brushing them aside in a few words or without a mention. But it is not quite like that. What is current English? As far as pronunciation goes, every Englishman knows that for an immense number of words there is no such thing – Englishmen of equal education pronounce them in different ways, sometimes in more than two different ways. ‘Either’ — ‘neither’ is a current pronunciation, so is ‘eether’ ‘neether’. In some words the ‘th’ is pronounced variably as a soft ‘d’ or a soft ‘t’ or as ‘th’ – and so on. If the Oxford pronunciation of ‘vision’ and ‘meditation’ is correct current English, then the confusion has much increased since my time, for then at feast every body pronounced ‘vizhun’ ‘meditashun’, as I do still and shall go on doing so. Or if the other existed, it must have been confined to uneducated people. But you suggest that my pronunciation is antiquated, English has advanced since then as since Shakespeare. But I must point out that you yourself quote Chambers for ‘vizhun’ and following your example – not out of favouritism – I may quote him for ‘summation’ – ‘summashun’, not ‘shn’. The latest edition of Chambers is dated 1931 and the editors have not thought themselves bound by the decisive change of the English language to change ‘shun’ into ‘shn’. Has the decisive change taken place since 1931? Moreover in the recent dispute about the standard Broadcast pronunciation, the decisions of Bernard Shaw's Committee were furiously disputed – if Fowler and Oxford were papal authorities in England for current speech (it was current speech the Committee was trying to fix through the broadcasts), would it not have been sufficient simply to quote the Oxford in order to produce an awed and crushed silence?

So your P.S. has no solid ground to stand on since there is no ‘fixed’ current speech and Fowler is not its Pope and there is no universal currency of his vizhn of things. Language is not bound by analogy and because ‘meditation’ has become ‘meditashun’ it does not follow that it must become ‘meditashn’ and that ‘tation’ is now a monosyllable contrary to all common sense and the privilege of the ear. It might just as well be argued that it will necessarily be clipped farther until the whole word becomes a monosyllable. Language is neither made nor developed in that way – if the English language were so to deprive itself of all beauty by turning vision into vizhn and then into vzhn and all other words into similar horrors, I would hasten to abandon it for Sanskrit or French or Bengali – or even Swahili.

P.S. By the way, one point. Does the Oxford pronounce in cold blood and so many set words that vision, passion (and by logical extension treason, maiden, garden etc.) are monosyllables? Or is it your inference from ‘realm’ and ‘prism’?

If the latter, I would only say, ‘Beware’ of too rigidly logical inferences. If the former, I can only say that Oxford needs some gas from Hitler to save the English mind from its pedants. This quite apart from the currency of vizhns.



Q: I am sincerely sorry for mistaking you on an important point. But before my argumentative wooden-headedness gives up the ghost under your sledge-hammer it is bursting to cry a Themistoclean ‘Strike, but hear’. Please try to understand my misunderstanding. What you wrote was: ‘Treason’ of course is pronounced trez‘n’, but that does not make it a monosyllable in scansion because there is in these words a very perceptible slurred vowel sound in pronunciation which I represent by the '; in ‘poison’ also. I think it must have been the word ‘scansion’ which led me astray – as if you had meant that these words were non-monosyllabic in poetry only. But am I really misjudging Chambers as well as the Fowlers when I draw the logical inference that, since a dictionary is no dictionary if it does not follow a coherent system and since these people absolutely omit to make any distinction between the indicated scansion of ‘prism’, ‘realm’, ‘rhythm’ etc., and that of ‘treason’ and ‘poison’, they definitely mean us to take all these words as monosyllables? If Chambers who writes ‘vizhun’ but ‘trezn’ and ‘poizn’ just as he writes ‘relm’ and ‘rithm’, intends us to understand that there is some difference between the scansions of the latter pairs he, in my opinion, completely de-dictionaries his work by so illogical an expectation. He and the Fowlers may not say in cold blood and so many set words that ‘treason’ and ‘poison’ are monosyllables but it is their design, in most freezing blood and more eloquently than words can express, that they should fall into the same category as ‘realm’ and ‘rhythm’. Else, what could have prevented them from inventing some such sign as your ' to mark the dissimilarity? My sin was to have loved logic not wisely but too well where logicality had been obstreperously announced in flaring capitals on the title page and throughout the whole book by a fixed system of spelling and pronunciation. My Othellolike extremity of love plunged me into abysmal errors, but oh the Iagoistic ‘motiveless malignity’ of lexicographers!

I am grateful to you for disabusing my mind of its trust in these self-appointed Popes. Your contentions I accept: I also see that the beauty of the English language is at stake when these Fowlers and their ilk start their word-clipping business. You could at least turn to Sanskrit or French or Bengali, but I without English would be quieter than the grave.

A: It seemed to me impossible that even the reckless Fowler – reckless in the excess of his learning – should be so audacious as to announce that this large class of words accepted as dissyllables from the beginning of (English) time were really monosyllables. After all, the lexicographers do not set out to give the number of syllables in a word. Pronunciation is a different matter. Realm cannot be a dissyllable unless you violently make it so, because 1 is a liquid like r and you cannot make a dissyllable of words like ‘charm’, unless you Scotchify the English language and make it char'r'r'm or vulgarise it and make it charrum – and even char'r'r'm is after all a monosyllable. Prism, the ism in Socialism and pessimism, rhythm can be made dissyllabic; but by convention (convention has nothing to do with these things) the ism, rhythm are treated as a single syllable, because of the etymology. But there is absolutely no reason to bring in this convention with treason, poison, garden or maiden (coming from French trahison, poison and some O.E. equivalent of the German garten, madchen). The dictionaries give the same mark of pronunciation for thm, sm and the den (dn) of maiden and son (sn) of treason because they are phonetically the same. The French pronounce rhythme – reethm (I make English sound indications) without anything to help them out in passing from th to m, but the English tongue can't do that, there is a very perceptible quarter vowel or one-eighth vowel sound between th and m – if it were not so the plural rhythms would be unpronounceable. I remember in my French class at St. Paul's our teacher (a Frenchman) insisted on our pronouncing ordre in the French way – in his mouth orrdrr; I was the only one who succeeded, the others all made it auder, orrder, audrer, or some such variation. There is the same difference of habit with words like rhythm, and yet conventionally the French treatment is accepted so far as to impose rhythm as a monosyllable. Realm on the other hand is pronounced truly as a monosyllable without the help of any fraction of a vowel.



Q: Why have you bucked at my ‘azure’ as a line-ending? And why so late in the day? Twice before I have used the same inversion and it caused no alarm. Simple poetic licence. Sir. If Wordsworth could write

What awful perspective; while from our sight...

and leave no reverberation of ‘awful’ in the reader's mind, and if Abercrombie boldly come out with

To smite the horny eyes of men

With the renown of our Heaven


and our horny eyes remain unsmitten by his topsyturvy ‘Heaven’ – why, then, I need not feel too shy to shift the accent of ‘azure’ just because of poor me happening to be an Indian. Not that an alternative line getting rid of that word is impossible – quite a fine one can be written with ‘obscure’. But why does this particular inversion shock you? There is nothing un-English or unpoetic about it – so far as I can see, though of course such things should not be done often. What do you say?

Your ‘through whom’ in place of my ‘wherethrough’ in another line is an improvement, but it is difficult to reject that word as a legal archaism inadmissible in good poetry. Your remark about ‘whereas’ in my A.E. essay seemed to me just in pointing out the obscurity of connection it introduced between the two parts of my sentence, but the term itself has no stigma on it of obsolescence as does for instance ‘whenas’: in poetry it would be rather prosaic, while ‘wherethrough’ is a special poetic usage as any big dictionary will tell us, and in certain contexts it would be preferable to ‘through which’, just as ‘whereon’, ‘wherein’, and ‘whereby’ would sometimes be better than their ordinary equivalents. I wonder why you have become so ultra-modern: I remember you jibbing also at ‘from out’ – a phrase which has not fallen into desuetude yet, and can be used occasionally even in a common context: e.g. ‘from out the bed’.

A: I can swallow ‘perspective’ with some difficulty, but if anybody tried to justify by it a line like this (let us say in a poem to Miss Mayo):

O ínspectór, why súggestive of drains?

I would buck. I disapprove totally of Abercrombie's bold wriggle with Heaven, but even he surely never meant to put the accent on the second syllable and pronounce it Hevénn. I absolutely refuse to pronounce ‘azure’ as ‘azúre’. ‘Perspective’ can just be managed by making it practically atonal or unaccented or evenly accented, which comes to the same thing. ‘Sapphire’ can be managed at the end of a line, e.g. ‘strong sapphire’, because ‘phire’ is long and the voice trails over it, but the ‘ure’ of ‘azure’ is more slurred into shortness than trailed out into length as if it were ‘azyoore’.

I didn't suggest that ‘whereas’ was obsolete. It is a perfectly good word in its place, e.g. He pretended the place was empty whereas in reality it was crowded, packed, overflowing; but its use as a loose conjunctive turn which can be conveniently shoved into any hole to keep two sentences together is altogether reprehensible

None of these words is obsolete, but ‘wherethrough’ is rhetorically pedantic, just as ‘whereabout’ or ‘wherewithal’ would be. It is no use throwing the dictionary at my head – the dictionary admits many words which poetry refuses to admit. Of course you can drag any word in the dictionary into poetry if you like, e.g.:

My spirit parenthetically wise

Gave me its obiter dictum; a propos

I looked within with weird and brilliant eyes

And found in the pit of my stomach the juste mot.

But all that is possible is not commendable. So if you seek a pretext wherethrough to bring in these heavy visitors I shall buck and seek a means whereby to eject them.

P.S. It is not to the use of ‘azure’ in place of an iamb in the last foot that I object but to your blessed accent on the last syllable. I will even, if you take that sign off, allow you to rhyme ‘azure’ with ‘pure’ and pass it off as an Abercrombiean acrobacy by way of fun. But not otherwise – the accent mark must go.


Shakespeare's Inspiration

Q: From what plane are the substance and rhythm of this phrase from Shakespeare? –

the prophetic soul

Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.


Are they really from his usual plane – the vital?

A: The origin of the inspiration may be from anywhere, but in Shakespeare it always comes through the vital and strongly coloured by it as in some others it comes from the poetic intelligencegence.

What play or poem is this from? I don't remember it. It sounds almost overmental in origin.


Q: The phrase occurs in Sonnet CVII beginning,

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul

Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,

Can yet the lease of my true love control,

Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.

What I am eager to know is whether the rhythm of the words I have picked out is a fusion of the overmental and the vital; or is only the substance from the Overmind?

A: There is something from the Above in the rhythm also, but it is rather covered up by the more ordinary rhythm of the first half line and the two lines that follow. It is curious that this line and a half should have come in as if by accident and have nothing really to do with the restricted subject of the rest.



Q: Is there something definitely in the rhythm or language of a line of poetry which would prove it to be from a certain plane? Take the lines I am sending you. From what you once wrote to me I gather that my first quotation from Shakespeare has an Overmind movement as well as substance coming strongly coloured by the vital. But where and in what lies the vital colour which makes it the highest Shakespearian and not, say, the highest Wordsworthian – the line inspired by Newton? How does one catch here and elsewhere the essential differentiae?

A: It is a question of feeling, not of intellectual understanding. The second quotation from Shakespeare –

Eternity was in our lips and eyes,

Bliss in our brows36 bent, none our parts so poor

But was a race of heaven –

is plainly vital in its excited thrill. Only the vital can speak with that thrill of absolute passion – the rhythm too is vital.1 I have given the instance37 of Shakespeare's

it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

That is a ‘thought’, a judgment on life, so would naturally be assigned to the intellect, but as a matter of fact it is a throw-up from Macbeth's vital, an emotional or sensational, not an intellectual judgment and its whole turn and rhythm are vital. About the first quotation, Shakespeare's

the prophetic soul

Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,

there might be some doubt, but still it is quite different in tone from Wordsworth's line on Newton –

Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone –

which is an above-head vision – and the difference comes because the vision of the ‘dreaming soul’ is felt through the vital mind and heart before it finds expression. It is this constant vitality, vital surge in Shakespeare's language, which makes it a sovereign expression not of mind or knowledge but of life.



Q: Would you take, as many critics do. Hamlet as typically a mental being? How would you characterise his essential psychology?

A: Hamlet is a Mind, an intellectual, but like many intellectuals a mind that looks too much all round and sees too many sides to have an effective will for action. He plans ingeniously without coming to anything decisive. And when he does act, it is on a vital impulse. Shakespeare suggests but does not bring out the idealist in him, the man of bright illusions.

Interpretation of a Passage in Shakespeare

Q: On that famous passage of Shakespeare's –

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. –

would it be legitimate to comment as follows? – ‘The meaning, on the surface, is that for each of us life will pass away as if it were a dream and what will remain is the sleep of death, an undetailed everlasting rest. But there is a deeper implication: just as the actor-spirits have not been destroyed and only their visible play has vanished while they themselves, seeming to melt into 'thin air\ have returned to their unknown realm of consciousness, so too the sleep of death is but an annihilation in appearance – it is really an unknown state which is our original mode of existence. Nor is this all: from the fourth line onward the language and the rhythm serve to evoke by a certain large and deep suggestiveness an intuition of some transcendental God-self – a being, rapt and remote, who experiences through each individual life a dream-interlude between a divine peace and peace, an ‘insubstantial pageant’ conjured up for a while by its creative imagination between two states of self-absorbed superconsciousness. We are reminded of the Upanishad's description of the mystic trance in which the whole world fades like an illusion and the individual soul enters the supreme Spirits unfeatured ecstasy of repose. Shakespeare's intuition is not pure Upanishad, the supreme Spirit is not clearly felt and whatever profundity is there is vague and unintentional; still, a looming mystic light does appear, stay a little, find a suggestive contour before receding and falling away to a music sublimely defunctive.”

A: I don't think Shakespeare had any such idea in his mind. What he is dwelling on is the insubstantiality of the world and of human existence. ‘We are such stuff’ does not point to any God-self. ‘Dream’ and ‘sleep’ would properly imply Somebody who dreams and sleeps, but the two words are merely metaphors. Shakespeare is not an intellectual or philosophic thinker nor a mystic one. All that you can say is that there comes out here an impression or intimation of the illusion of Maya, the dream-character of life, but without any vision or intimation of what is behind the dream and the illusion. There is nothing in the passage that even hints vaguely the sense of something abiding – all is insubstantial, ‘into air, into thin air’, ‘baseless fabric,’ ‘insubstantial pageant’, ‘we are such stuff as dreams are made on’. ‘Stuff’ points to some inert material rather than a spirit dreamer or sleep. Of course one can always read things into it for one's own pleasure, but...



Q: I admit that Shakespeare was hot a philosophic or mystic thinker; also that he had no wish to mysticise in this passage. But is great poetry always a matter of one's conscious intention? – do not unconscious or accidental effects occur which have implications beyond the poet's personal aim or at least unrealised in full by him? A genuinely mystic accident of a high order is the quotation I sent you some days back –

the prophetic soul

Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.


If we take this in connection with Prosperous lines we may have not only an intuition of the illusion of Maya but also that of an abiding something behind the illusory appearance: the word ‘dream’ common to the two passages is extremely suggestive. But as Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker it might not be right to construct like this a philosophy of any sort. And in my essay I do not. wish to do so. What, however, surprises me is your saying that there is not the vaguest hint of something abiding. In the magic performance which Prospero gave to Ferdinand and Miranda it was spirits that produced a simulacrum of material reality – a very convincing simulacrum and the young, lovers must have been quite taken in, until Prospero reminded them of what he had said before – namely, that ‘these our actors...were all spirits.’ They melt into thin air but do not disappear from existence, from conscious being of some character however unearthly: they just become invisible and what disappears is the visible pageant produced by them, a seemingly material construction which yet was a mere phantom. From this seeming, Prospero catches the suggestion that all that looks material is like a phantom, a dream, which must vanish, leaving no trace. But as the actor-spirits are not destroyed with the fabric of their visionary pageant, the terms ‘baseless’ and ‘insubstantial’ assume a meaning not quite what you give them. They mean that the pageant has no basis in materiality, in substantiality as opposed to spirit-nature; and by ‘we are such stuff as dreams are made on’ the outer human earthly personalities are regarded as dreamlike, as having no permanent basis of material reality. I may be going beyond the premises in speaking of a God-self, but, all things considered, what strikes me as analogically implicit in the passage is that ‘we’ and earth-existence are projected as a visionary pageant by some immaterial being or beings. I can't exactly say whether spirits akin to Ariel and his crew are implied or some superconscious God-self; but a general implication of occult if not mystic reality responsible for the pageant of human life and earth-existence seems to me inescapable. If pressed to choose on the side either of occult or of mystic implication, I would incline towards the latter: the intuition of Maya is so strong that the implicit significance may very well be some vague shadow of its Upanishadic complement, and the word ‘sleep’ may be a ‘far hint of some rapt, remote, self-absorbed superconsciousness. The whole thing is vague and far-looming because in Shakespeare's case a mystic inspiration would be mostly accidental and his was not a mind that would transmit it easily. The difficulty would be increased since this inspiration was mystic rather in the Indian than the Christian way. Only in that line and a half about the prophetic soul did an ultra-Christian mystic intuition come out more or less explicit – a miracle not to be expected always.

I may be quite at fault in all this complex impression and if you tell me again after considering the points I have broached that it is absolutely off the mark I shall at once scrap it.

A: One can read anything into anything. But Shakespeare says nothing about the material world or there being a base somewhere else or of our being projected into a dream. He says, “We are such stuff.” The spirits vanish into air, into thin air, as Shakespeare emphasises by repetition, which means to any plain interpretation that they too are unreal, only dream-stuff; he does not say that they disappear from view but are there behind all the time. The whole stress is on the unreality and insubstantiality of existence, whether of a pageant or of the spirits or of ourselves – there is no stress anywhere, no mention or hint of an eternal spiritual existence. Shakespeare's idea here as everywhere is the expression of a mood of the vital mind, it is not a reasoned philosophical conclusion. However, if you like to argue that, logically, this or that is the true philosophical consequence of what Shakespeare says and that therefore the Daemon who inspired him must have meant that, I have no objection. I am simply interpreting the passage as Shakespeare's transcribing mind has put it.



Q: Just a word more about that passage. If it is taken in vacuo, there is no internal justification for my idea which turns on^the survival of the spirits after the pageant has faded. But almost immediately after the stage indication: “ a strange, hollow and confused noise, they heavily vanish”, occurs this aside on the part of Prospero: (To the Spirits) “Well done; avoid; no more.” The quoted passage follows a little later. Then again Prospero says after Ferdinand and Miranda are gone:

“Come with a thought: – I thank you: – Ariel, come.”

Thereupon Ariel enters.

Ariel: Thy thoughts I cleave to. What's thy pleasure? Spirit,

Prospero: We must prepare to meet with Caliban.

What do you make of all this? And when Ariel reports how he has lured Prosperous enemies into a ‘foul lake’, Prospero commends him:

This was well done, my bird.

Thy shape invisible retain thou still.

Still later, comes another stage-direction: ‘A noise of hunters heard. Enter divers Spirits, in shape of hounds...; Prospero and Ariel setting them on.’ Even if this is taken to refer to Spirits other than those who produce that masque, the previous quotations are sufficient to prove that only the visible shapes and formations vanished – the entities themselves remained behind all the time.

To echo X: ‘Qu'en dites vous?’

A: I don't see what all that has to do with the meaning of the passage in question which plainly insists that nothing endures. Obviously Ariel had an invisible shape – invisible to human eyes, but the point of the passage is that all shapes and substances and beings disappear into nothingness. We are concerned with Prospero's meaning, not with what actually happened to the spirits or for that matter to the pageant in total which we might conceive also of having an invisible source or material. He uses the disappearance of the pageant and the spirits as a base for the idea that all existence is an illusion – it is the idea of the illusion that he enforces. If he had wanted to say, “We disappear, all disappears to view but the reality of us and of all things persists in a greater immaterial reality”, he would surely have said so or at least not left it to be inferred or reasoned out by you in the twentieth century. I repeat, however, that this is my view of Shakespeare's meaning and does not affect any possibility of reading into it something that Shakespeare's outer mind did not receive or else did not express.


h. Belloc

Q: I think what Belloc meant in crediting Virgil with the power to give us a sense of the Unknown Country was that Virgil specialises in a kind of wistful vision of things across great distances in space or time, which renders them dream-like and invests them with an air of ideality. He mentions as an instance the passage (perhaps in the sixth book of the Aeneid) where the swimmer sees all Italy from the top of a wave:

Prospexi Italiam summa sublimis ab undo.

I dare say –

Sternitur infelix alieno volnere coelumque

Aspicit et dulces moriens reminiscitur Argos38

as well as

Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore39


belong to the same category. To an ordinary Roman Catholic mind like Belloc, which is not conscious of the subtle hierarchy of unseen worlds, whatever is vaguely or remotely appealing – in short, beautifully misty – is mystical, and “revelatory” of the native land of the soul. Add to this that Virgil's rhythm is exquisitely euphonious and it is no wonder Belloc should feel as if the very harps of heaven were echoed by the Mantuan.

He couples Shakespeare with Virgil as a master of (to put it in a phrase of X) “earth-transforming gramarye”. The quotations he gives from Shakespeare struck me as rather peculiar in the context: I don't exactly remember them but something in the style of Nights tapers40 are burnt out and jocund day


Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

seems to give him a wonderful flash of the Unknown Country!

He also alludes to the four magical lines of Keats about Ruth ‘amid the alien corn’ and Victor Hugo's at-least-for-once truly delicate, unrhetorical passage on the same theme in ‘La Légende des Siècles’\ I wonder if you recollect the passage: its last two stanzas are especially enchanting:

Tout reposait dans Ur et dans Jérimadeth;

Les astres émaillaient le ciel profond et sombre;

Le croissant fin et clair parmi ces fleurs de l'ombre

Brillait à V accident, et Ruth se demandait,

Immobile, ouvrant l'œil à moitié sous ses voiles,

Quel dieu, quel moissonneur de l'é ternel été

Avail, en s'en allant, négligemment jeté

Cette faucille d'or dans le champ des étoiles.41

What do you think of them?

A: If that is Belloc's idea of the mystic, I can't put much value on his Roman Catholic mind! Shakespeare's lines and Hugo's also are good poetry and may be very enchanting, as you say, but there is nothing in the least deep or mystic about them. Night's tapers are the usual poetic metaphor, Hugo's moissonneur and faucille d'or are an ingenious fancy – there is nothing true behind it, not the least shadow of a mystical experience. The lines quoted from Virgil are exceedingly moving and poetic, but it is pathos of the life plane, not anything more – Virgil would have stared if he had been told that his ripae ulterioris was revelatory of the native land of the soul. These sentimental modern intellectuals are terrible: they will read anything into anything; that is because they have no touch on the Truth, so they make up for it by a gambolling fancy.


Samain and Flecker

Q: I am sending you two poems – one is Albert Samain's famous ‘Pannyre aux talons d'or’ and the other is Fleckers much-praised translation of it. I shall be very much interested in your comparison of the two. Here is Samain:

Dans la salle en rumeur un silence a passé...

Pannyre aux talons d'or s'avance pour danser.

Un voile aux mille plis la cache tout entière.

D'un long trille d'argent la flûte, la première,

U invite; elle s'élance, entre-croise ses pas,

Et, du lent mouvement imprimé par ses bras,

Donne un rythme bizarre àl'étoff nombreuse,

Qui s'élargit, ondule, et se gonfle et se creuse,

Et se déploie enfin en large tourbillon...

Et Pannyre devient fleur, flamme, papillon!

Tous se taisent;' les yeux la suivent en extase.

Peu àpeu la fureur de la danse l'embrase.

Elle tourne toujours; vite! plus vite encor!

La flamme éperdument vacille aux flambeaux d'or!...

Puis, brusque, elle s'arrê te au milieu de la salle;

Et le voile qui tourne autour d'elle en spirale,

Suspendu dans sa course, apaise ses long plis,

Et se collant aux seins aigus, aux flancs polis,

Comme au travers d'une eau soyeuse et continue,

Dans un divin éclair, montre Pannyre nue.

Here is Flecker:

The revel pauses, and the room is still,

The silver flute invites her with a trill,

And buried in her great veils, fold on fold,

Rises to dance Pannyra, Heel of Gold.

Her light steps cross, her subtle arm impels

The clinging drapery, it shrinks and swells,

Hollows and floats, and bursts into a whirl;

She is a/lower, a moth, a flaming girl.

All lips are silent; eyes are all in trance,

She slowly wakes the madness of the dance;

Windy and wild the golden torches burn;

She turns, and swifter yet she tries to turn,

Then stops; a sudden marble stiff she stands,

The veil that round her coiled its spiral bands,

Checked in its course, brings all its folds to rest,

And clinging to bright limb and pointed breast

Shows, as beneath silk waters woven fine,

Pannyra naked in a flash divine!

“All here” says a critic, “is bright and sparkling as the jewels on the dancer's breast, but there is one ill-adjusted word – pointed breast – which is perhaps more physiological than poetic.” Personally I don't somehow react very happily to the word ‘girl’ in line 8.

A: Samain's poem is a fine piece of work, inspired and perfect; Flecker's is good only in substance, an adequate picture, one may say, but the expression and verse are admirable within their limits. The difference is that the French has vision and the inspired movement that comes with vision – all on the vital plane, of course,– but the English version has only physical sight, sometimes with a little glow in it, and the precision that comes with that sight. I don't know why your critical sense objects to ‘girl’. This line,

She is a flower, a moth, a flaming girl,

and one other,

Windy and wild the golden torches burn,

are the only two that rise above the plane of physical sight. But both these poems have the distinction of being perfectly satisfying in their own kind.

P.S. ‘Flaming girl’ and ‘pointed breast’ might be wrong in spirit as a translation of the French – but that is just what Flecker's poem is not, in spite of its apparent or outward fidelity, it is in spirit quite a different poem.


Hopkins and Kipling

Q: I should like to have a few words from you on the poetic style and technique of these two quotations. The first is an instance of Gerard Manley Hopkins' polyphony ‘at its most magnificent and intricate’:

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, / vaulty, voluminous...stupendous

Evening strains to be time's vast, / womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.

Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, / her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height

Waste: her earliest stars, earl-stars, / stars principal, overbend us,

Fire-featuring heaven. For earth her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end astray or aswarm, all through her in throngs; / self in self steeped and pushed – quite Disremembering, dismembering / all now. Heart, you round me right

With: Our evening is over us; our night whelms, whelms, and will end us....

The next quotation illustrates Kipling's Tommy'-Atkins-music at its most vivid and onomatopoeic – lines considered by Lascelles Abercrombie to be a masterly fusion of all the elements necessary in poetic technique:

Less you want your toes trod off you'd better get back at once,

For the bullocks are walking two by two,

The ‘byles’ are walking two by two,

The bullocks are walking two by two,

An' the elephants bring the guns!

Ho! Yuss!

Great – big – long – black forty-pounder guns:

Jiggery-jolty to and fro,

Each as big as a launch in tow –

Blind – dumb – broad-breached beggars o' battering guns!

A: My verdict on Kipling's lines would be that they are fit for the columns of The Illustrated Weekly of India and nowhere else. I refuse to accept this journalistic jingle as poetry. As for Abercrombie's comment,– unspeakable rubbish, unhappily spoken!

Hopkins is a different proposition; he is a poet, which Kipling never was nor could be. He has vision, power, originality; but his technique errs by excess; he piles on you his effects, repeats, exaggerates and in the end it is perhaps great in effort, but not great in success. Much material is there, many new suggestions, but not a work realised, not a harmoniously perfect whole.



Q: I have been waiting for a long time to take a look at A. E. Housman's little book ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’. It's been with you for months now. Perhaps you could spare it for a while? How did you like it?

A: Here is the book. I kept it with the intention of noting down my own ideas on Housman's theory, but all this time has elapsed without my being able to do it. Apart from the theory Housman, judging from the book, has a fine sense of poetic quality in others. For his own poetry, from the extracts I have seen, looks rather thin. I have read the book three or four times and always with satisfaction to my solar plexus.


Edward Shanks

Q: I am sending you a sonnet by Edward Shanks, considered to be ‘one of our best younger poets’:

O Dearest, if the touch of common things

Can taint our love or wither, let it die.

The freest-hearted lark that soars and sings

Soon after dawn amid a dew-brushed sky

Takes song from love and knows well where love lies,

Hid in the grass, the dear domestic nest,

The secret, splendid, common paradise.

The strangest joys are not the loveliest.

Passion far-sought is dead when it is found

But love that's born of intimate common things

Cries with a voice of splendour, with a sound

That over stranger feeling shakes and rings.

The best of love, the highest ecstasy

Lies in the intimate touch of you and me.

A: Shanks – Phoebus, what a name!! I am not in love with the sonnet, though it is smoothly and musically rhythmed. The sentiment is rather namby-pamby, some of the lines weak, others too emphatic, e.g. the twelfth. It just misses being a really good poem, or is so, like the curate's egg, in parts: e.g. the two opening lines of the third verse are excellent, but they are immediately spoiled by two lines that shout and rattle. So too the last couplet promises well in its first line, but the last disappoints, it is too obvious a turn and there is no fusion of the idea with the emotion that ought to be there and isn't. Still, the writer is evidently a poet and the sonnet very imperfect but by no means negligible.



It is queer the intellectuals go on talking of creation while all they stand for is collapsing into the Néant without their being able to raise a finger to save it. What are you going to create and from what material? Besides, what use is it if a Hitler with his cudgel or a Mussolini with his castor-oil can come at any moment and wash it out or beat it into dust?

But I don't think Tagore's passing into the opposite camp is a certitude. He is sensitive and perhaps a little affected by the positive, robustious, slogan-fed practicality of the day. For I don't see how he can turn his back on all the ideas of a life-time. After all he has been a wayfarer  towards the same goal as ours in his own way — that is the main thing, the exact stage of advance and putting of the steps are minor matters. So I hope there will be no attack or harsh criticism. Besides, he has had a long and brilliant day creating on a very high level — I should like him to have as peaceful and undisturbed a sunset as may be. You ask what may be the verdict of posterity.42 The immediate verdict after his departure or soon after it may very well be a rough one, — for this is a generation that seems to take a delight in trampling with an almost Nazi rudeness on the bodies of the ancestors, specially the immediate ancestors. I have read with an interested surprise that Napoleon was only a bustling and self-important nincompoop all whose great achievements were done by others, that Shakespeare was “no great things”, and that most other great men were by no means so great as the stupid respect and reverence of past ignorant ages made them out to be! What chance has then Tagore? But these injustices of the moment do not endure — in the end a wise and fair estimate is formed and survives the changes of Time.

As for your question, Tagore, of course, belonged to an age which had faith in its ideas and whose very denials were creative affirmations. That makes an immense difference.43 His later development, too, was the note of the day and it expressed a tangible hope of fusion into something new and true — therefore it could create. Now all that idealism has been smashed to pieces by the immense adverse Event and everybody is busy exposing its weaknesses — but nobody knows what to put in its place. A mixture of scepticism and slogans, “Heil-Hitler” and the Fascist salute and Five-Year Plan and the beating of everybody into one  amorphous shape, a disabused denial of all ideals on one side and on the other a blind “shut-my-eyes and shut-everybody's-eyes” plunge into the bog in the hope of finding some firm foundation there, will not carry us very far. And what else is there? Until new spiritual values are discovered, no great enduring creation is possible.


1 The word ‘in’ is present only in later publication.


2 In a long letter dated 4-5-1947 Sri Aurobindo gave his comments on certain criticisms made against his poetry by a friend of a sadhak-poet apropos of a book by him on Sri Aurobindo's poetry. The sadhak-poet had asked Sri Aurobindo's permission to show this letter to his friend, but in a second letter dated 7-7-1947 Sri Aurobindo had explained the reasons why he did not favour the idea of making it public. Since, however, any possibility of the first long letter being misconstrued is removed if it is read along with the second explanatory letter, it has been thought fit to publish it, especially as it contains extremely valuable data relating to Sri Aurobindo's own literary development. The letter dated 7-7-1947 is placed here first followed by the long letter dated 4-5-1947.


3 Collected Poems (Centenary Edition, 1972), pp. 563 and 559.


4 Not in Savitri but in Trance of Waiting. See ibid., p. 558.


5 Savitri (Centenary Edition, 1972), p. 4.

Infinity's centre, a Face of rapturous calm

Parted the eternal lids that open heaven.


6 Translations (Centenary Edition, 1972), p. 366.


7 Ibid., p. 309.


8 Savitri, p. 4.


9 The high boughs prayed in a revealing sky. – Ibid


10 The Times Literary Supplement, January 17,1942.


11 With hideous ruin and combustion, down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In adamantine chains and penal fire.


12 Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast

Seal up the shipboy's eyes and rock his brains

In cradle of the rude imperious surge?


13 See Collected Poems (Centenary Edition, 1972), pp. 557-569.


14 Ibid., p. 582.


15 See Collected Poems (Centenary Edition, 1972), pp. 231-257.


16 The poem in question is Urvasie, a long narrative which some critics are inclined to consider the best of Sri Aurobindo's early blank verses. The reaction in himself against it which Sri Aurobindo speaks of in this letter persisted for many years during which he had no opportunity to see the poem again. On 5-2-1931 he wrote to a sadhak-poet: “I don't think I have the Urvasie, neither am I very anxious to have the poem saved from oblivion.” Later when he saw it he found it not at all a thing to be thrown away and allowed its inclusion in Collected Poems and Plays (First Edition, 1942). Subsequently it has been included in Collected Poems (Centenary Edition, 1972), pp. 189-228.


17 Collected Poems (Centenary Edition, 1972), p. 582.


18 Ibid., p. 571


19 Ibid., p. 574.


20 Ibid., p. 140.


21 Ibid., p. 55.


22 Ibid., p. 297.


23 The reference is to the early version, not the one revised and considerably re-written later.


24 ‘The Life Heavens’, Collected Poems (Centenary Edition, 1972), p. 575.


25 See ‘Letters on Savitri’ in Savitri (Centenary Edition, 1972), p. 803.


26 See ‘Letters on Poetry, Literature and Art’ in The Future Poetry (Centenary Edition, 1972), p. 368.


27 And came from that martyrdom into this peace.


28 As when you pulled Marsyas out of the scabbard of his limbs.


29 Collected Poems (Centenary Edition, 1972), p. 572.


30 Quantitative Trimeter.


31 Quantitative Trimeter.


32 Op. cit., p. 571.


33 Line 3: ‘A dread seems to me rather feeble.’

Line 5: “ ‘Reached’ is very weak.”

Line 17: ‘Why this inversion? It spoils the power and directness of the line.’

Lines 18 & 19: ‘The double of is very awkward and spoils both force and flow.’


34 Rihi's licence.


35 Centenary Edition, 1972.


36 Alongside the lines themselves Sri Aurobindo wrote: ‘Tremendously vital.’


37 In The Future Poetry.


38 ‘Unhappy, he fell by a stranger's wound and looked at the sky and, dying, remembered sweet Argos.’


39 ‘They stretched their hands for love of the other shore’ (Flecker's translation.)


40 The word in the original is ‘candles’.


41 “All were asleep in Ur and in Jerimadeth; the stars enamelled the deep and sombre sky; the thin clear crescent shone in the West among these flowers of the darkness, and Ruth, standing still and gazing through her half-parted veils, asked herself: ‘What god, what reaper of the eternal summer has thrown, while going home, this sickle of gold in the starry field?’”


42 In this place editors of the volume invented for Sri Aurobindo (!) the sentence stated below

His exact position as a poet or a prophet or anything else will be assigned by posterity and we need not be in haste to anticipate the final verdict.


43 Another astonishing invention of editors:

Your strictures on his later development may or may not be correct, but this mixture even was the note of the day