July 11, 2008

Having studied poetry so thoroughly, it was a natural step for Sri Aurobindo to compose his own poems

Just as the World Wars changed the “aesthetic atmosphere” perhaps some other event or a development in the human consciousness will bring about the other change of which Sri Aurobindo speaks so that his mystical works as well as Savitri will find recognition and appreciation from the general reader. But fortunately we who know him don’t have to wait for such a day. Sunayana Panda’s blog Sri Aurobindo’s Collected Poems

Sri Aurobindo considered himself to be firstly a poet, but ironically this aspect of his life remains the least known. Of all his poetic creations the most widely read is Savitri, but since that falls in the category of mantric utterance and not mere poetical composition I will leave it out of this discussion. I will only take up the volume Collected Poems and try to understand why it remains relatively unknown, even among his disciples.

Poetry is truly a complete expression of beauty because it combines many different kinds of beauty: the beauty of sounds, of images, of thought, of emotions and of expression. And yet, unfortunately, for most people in India the word “poetry” conjures up only images of their school life. Those images often have in the background the voice of an unkind teacher or the stress of having to struggle with incomprehensible or archaic words. Most people think that one bids goodbye to poetry when one steps out of the student life. This may be why poems don’t usually form a part of our general reading...

We have to keep in mind when we turn the pages of the Collected Poems that we are looking at the work of someone who started writing at the end of the 19th century, and that too in England. If we overlook his background we will miss the most important point. Sri Aurobindo was brought up in England from his early childhood. He not only went to St. Paul’s, one of the best schools in England, but also studied at King’s College, Cambridge. Therefore, his early poetry cannot strictly be considered as the work of an Indian. He grew up the way an English boy would have grown up, and for him English was the normal language of communication. At Cambridge he studied Classical Greek and Latin, both prose and poetry, and was trained to translate those texts into English and vice versa. He was accustomed to a very high form of expression - in prose as well as in poetry - before he returned to India. That was what entirely occupied him during the last years of his stay in England.

English poetry was a natural part of his education and therefore helped to form his mental make-up. In the late 19th century, a school like St. Paul’s taught Greek and Latin from the lowest level of classes, and the entire focus was on literature. Although mathematics was a subject, science did not figure in the curriculum. Education for the upper classes in England was structured around acquiring general culture, and this is why poetry was given a place of great importance at school level and was also commonly studied at colleges. It was an age when science, commerce and technology were generally considered to be inferior to literature. Having studied poetry so thoroughly, it was a natural step for Sri Aurobindo to compose his own poems.

Another point to remember when we read his poetry is that his style belongs to an age when poetry had quite another definition from what it has today. The poetry of the late-Victorian age had its own ideals and its own pace. This style disappeared from the scene of world literature after the two World Wars. What happened to poetry is more or less what happened to art in general. The First World War brought about a certain breakdown of sensibilities, and by the end of the Second World War the entire mindscape of the world had changed. In the field of art there was a deliberate move away from realism and from the way artists had expressed themselves earlier; the stress was on the individual and not on the collective.

Poems in our modern world are like the paintings of our times. They are abstract and stay away from anything that confines the flow of expression. Neither poets nor artists aim primarily for beauty in their creations. The main point is an idea, a feeling, an impression. In the same manner that an artist no longer needs to acquire a refined skill after long years of training - in fact he need not even know how to draw - the poet too has no qualms about not knowing how to align words with stressed and unstressed syllables or not understanding metre and rhyme.

Sri Aurobindo did not write poetry to pass time on a Sunday afternoon. His works are the creations of a master poet who expects his readers to know the background of what he is saying. This again becomes a common stumbling block. Even if a person had the inclination to read a sonnet or a long narrative poem, he would still find it hard to understand not only the vocabulary but also the allusions and references to Greek or Indian mythology, which often form a backdrop to Sri Aurobindo’s poems. These literary and cultural references were once common knowledge to the educated person but do not generally form part of the intellectual development of modern man. In other words, one needs a certain amount of preparation about the context before one can take pleasure in reading some of the poems. And that preparation must also include a familiarity with his yoga in order to grasp the meaning of many of his later poems, including most of the sonnets.

The most fascinating thing about these poems is that they were written not only in different places but also during the various phases of a life that changed dramatically through the decades. His earliest poems are dated 1890-1892. This corresponds to Sri Aurobindo’s Cambridge years when he was leading the life of a student, seeking knowledge and preparing for examinations. The next phase of his poetical creation is set in Baroda when he was teaching at the college and could devote some time to poetry. Some of the poems were written in the middle of the revolutionary movement in Calcutta; one poem was even written in Alipore jail. The rest were composed in Pondicherry from his yogic heights and while he was engaged in an intense inner activity. In fact, Sri Aurobindo started writing poetry when he was a young boy and continued to do so until the last year of his life.

The early poems are touched with the influence of the poets he read and admired, but he soon developed his own unmistakable style. One can open Collected Poems and have the sensation of being in a secret garden; there is so much to discover silently. The early poems are rich in imagery and emotion and can be enjoyed for their visual delight. The sonnets, particularly the later ones, are almost all surprisingly written in the first person singular. The word “I” comes back again and again. Yes, these deeply personal lines are written by the author of the supremely impersonal The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga.

The most attractive pieces, within easy grasp of the reader, are the narrative poems such as “Chitrangada”, “Uloupie”, “Love and Death” and “Urvasie”. The incomplete epic poem “Ilion” can be enjoyed, even if one isn’t familiar with the story of the Trojan war, for the sheer beauty of the lines, even taken a few at a time. The same can be said about “Ahana”, in that individual lines can be enjoyed for their own beauty if read a few at a time, even if the meaning of the whole is difficult to grasp.

We could continue to look for less evident reasons to justify why so enjoyable a book has remained so little known. As is often the case when we are seeking something sincerely, we are always guided to the answer... Our knowledge of Sri Aurobindo the philosopher may remain incomplete without our knowledge of Sri Aurobindo the poet
Sri Aurobindo’s Collected Poems from

We can open the Collected Poems and take delight in the many-coloured emotions, in full bloom here, of one whose high thoughts we usually have to grapple with. Perhaps knowing his feelings through his poetry may help us to understand his thoughts better. Perhaps our knowledge of Sri Aurobindo the philosopher may remain incomplete without our knowledge of Sri Aurobindo the poet. ‘Love & Death’ 4:42 PM

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