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At the Feet of The Mother

Correspondence 1932, October (I)

October 1, 1932

I am still at a loss what to answer about uchchvās [exuberance], because I still don’t understand exactly what Suhrawardy is aiming at in his criticism. There is not more uchchvās in Bengali poetry than in English, if by the word is meant rhetoric, free resort to imagery, prolific weaving of words and ideas and sentiments around what one has to say. Most Indian poetry in the Sanskritic languages — there are exceptions of course — was more restrained and classic in taste or else more impressionist and incisive than most English poetry; the qualities or defects noted above came into Bengali under the English influence. I don’t see therefore the point of his remark that the English language cannot express the Indian temperament. It is true of course to a certain extent, first, because no foreign language can express what is intimate and peculiar to a national temperament, it tends at once to become falsified and seems exotic, and especially the imagery or sentiment of one language does not go well with that of another; least of all can the temperament of an oriental tongue into a European tongue — what is perfectly simple and straightforward in one becomes emphatic or over-coloured or strange in the other. But that has nothing to do with uchchvās in itself. As to emotion — if that is what is meant — your word effusiveness is rather unfortunate, for effusiveness is not praiseworthy in poetry anywhere; but vividness of emotion is no more reprehensible in English than in Bengali poetry. You give as examples of uchchvās among other things Madhusudan’s style, Tagore’s poem to me,[1] a passage from Govindadas. I don’t think there is anything in Madhusudhan which an English poet writing in Bengali would have hesitated to father. Tagore’s poem is written at a high-pitch of feeling perfectly intelligible to anyone who had passed through the exaltation of the Swadeshi days, but not more high pitched than certain things in Milton, Shelley, Swinburne. In Govinda Das’s lines, — let us translate them into English —

Am I merely thine? O Love, I am there clinging
In every limb of thine — there ever in my creation and my dissolution,

the idea is one that would not so easily occur to an English poet, it is an erotic mysticism, easily suggested to a mind familiar with the experiences of Vedanta or Vaishnava mystics; but this is not effusiveness, it is intensity — and an English writer — e.g. Lawrence — could be quite as intense, but would use a different idea or image.

It is probably modern (contemporary) English poetry of which Suhrawardy is thinking. Here I am no expert; but I understand that the turn there is to suppress emotion, rhetoric, colouring, sentiment and arrive at something very direct, expressive, recording either the thing exactly as it is or some intimate essential truth of the thing without wrapping it up in ideas and sentiments, superfluous images and epithets. It does not look as if all contemporary English poetry was like that, it is only one strong trend; but such as it is, it has not as yet produced anything very decisive, great or successful. Much of it seems to be mere flat objectivity or, what is worse, an exaggerated emphatic objectivity; emotion seems often to be replaced by an intensified vital-physical sensation of the object You will perhaps understand what I mean if you read the poem quoted on pages 316-17 of the Parichay (also made much of in a book on English modernistic poetry sent to me by Arjava) — “red pieces of day, hills made of blue and green paper, Satanic and blasé, a black goat lookingly wanders” — images expressing vividly an impression made on the nerves through the sight by the described object. Admittedly it is — at least when pushed to such a degree, a new way of looking at things in poetry, but not essentially superior to the impressions created on the heart or the mental imagination by the object. All the same, there is behind, but still not successfully achieved, something real, an attempt to get away from ornate mental constructions about things to the expression of the intimate truth of the things themselves as directly seen by a deeper sight within us. Only it seems to me a mistake to theorise that only by this kind of technique and in this particular way can what is aimed at be done. I have to form my idea more fully when I have finished Arjava’s book, but this is what impresses me at present.

I can understand very well what Suhrawardy objects to in Harin’s poetry, though his expression of it is absurdly exaggerated (“trash”), and he may be right in thinking it an exotic [?] in English literature; but I am under the impression that Harin will stand in spite of that, though he has still to write something so sovereign in its own kind as to put all doubt out of court; but, even as it is, the poetic quality of his work appears to me undeniable.

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October 8, 1932

It is not easy to say precisely what is austerity in the poetic sense — for it is a quality that can be felt, a spirit in the writer and the writing, but if you put it in the strait-waistcoat of a definition or of a set technical method you are likely to lose the spirit altogether. In the spirit of the writing you can feel it as a something constant, self-restrained, grave and severe; it is the quality that one at once is aware of in Milton, Wordsworth, Aeschylus and which even their most fervent admirers would hardly attribute to Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Euripides. But there is also an austerity in the poetic manner and that is more difficult to describe or to fix its borders. At most one can say that it consists in a will to express the thing of which you write, thought, object or feeling, in its just form and exact power without addition and without exuberance. The austerer method of poetry avoids all lax superfluity, all profusion of unnecessary words, excess of emotional outcry, self-indulgent daub of colour, over-brilliant scattering of images, all mere luxury of external art or artifice. To use just the necessary words and no others, the thought in its simplicity and bare power, the one occasional expressive or revealing image, the precise colour and nothing more, just the exact impression, reaction, simple feeling proper to the object, — nothing spun out, additional, in excess. Any rioting in words, colour, images, emotions, sound, phrase for their own sake, for their own beauty, attraction, luxury of abundant expression would, I suppose, be what your friend means by uchchvas. Even, an extreme contemporary tendency seems to condemn the use of image, epithet, colour, pitch or emphasis of any kind, except on the most sparing scale, as a vice. Length in a poem is itself a sin, for length means padding — Suhrawardy, if I remember right, echoes this view? — a long poem is a bad poem, only brief work, intense, lyrical in spirit can be throughout pure poetry. Milton, for example, considered austere by the common run of mortals, would be excluded from the list of the pure for his sprawling lengthiness, his epic rhetoric, his swelling phrases, his cult of the grandiose. To be perfect you must be small, brief and restrained, meticulous in cut and style.

This extremism in the avoidance of excess is perhaps itself an excess. Much can be done by bareness in poetry — a poetic nudism if accompanied by either beauty and grace or strength and power has its excellence. There can be a vivid or striking or forceful or a subtle, delicate or lovely bareness which reaches to the highest values of poetic expression. There can be also a compact or a stringent bareness — the kind of style deliberately aimed at by Landor;[2] but this can be very stiff and stilted as Landor is in his more ambitious attempts — although he did magnificent things sometimes, like his lines on Rose Aylmer; you can see there how emotion itself can gain by a spare austerity in self-expression. It is doubtful whether all these kinds — Wordsworth’s lyrics, for example, the Daffodils, the Cuckoo — can be classed as austere. On the other hand, there can be a very real spirit and power of underlying austerity behind a considerable wealth and richness of expression. Arnold in one of his poems gives the image of a girl beautiful, rich and sumptuous in apparel on whose body, killed in an accident, was found beneath the sumptuousness, next to the skin, an under-robe of sackcloth. If that is admitted, then Milton can keep his claim to austerity in spite of his epic fullness and Aeschylus in spite of the exultant daring of his images and the rich colour of his language. Dante is, I think, the perfect type of austerity in poetry, standing between the two extremes and combining the most sustained severity of expression with a precise power and fullness in the language which gives the sense of packed riches — no mere bareness anywhere.

But, after all, exclusive standards are out of place in poetry; there is room for all kinds and all methods. Shakespeare was to the French classicists a drunken barbarian of genius; but his spontaneous exuberance has lifted him higher than their willed severity of classical perfection. All depends on the kind one aims at — expressing what is in oneself — and an inspired faithfulness to the law of perfection in that kind. That needs some explanation, perhaps; but I have here perforce to put a dash and finish.

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[1] Rabindranath Tagore’s homage to Sri Aurobindo when the latter was arrested for the first time in the Bande Mataram sedition case in 1907. In this poem, Rabindranath saluted Sri Aurobindo as “the voice incarnate, free, of India’s soul.”

[2] Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), an English writer and poet.

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When I ask you to be plastic in relation to the Divine, I mean not to resist the Divine with the rigidity of preconceived ideas and fixed principles.