Literary Shelf

Indian English Poetry

- Poetic Scenario in Early Years

Continued from "Beginning and Growth"

Poetic scene of early Twentieth Century reveals certain unique characteristics of poetry. As India is a multilingual and multicultural country, it is worthwhile to mention that poets of different languages from north to south, from west to east gave expression to genuine feelings of love, romance, religious and patriotic passion and at the same time, social, economic, religious, political, philosophical issues got authentic expression, and social acceptance. Collective efforts continued until the beginning of twentieth century when the movement for freedom slowly gained momentum.

A spectacular synthesis of nature and varied longings of man was a vital feature. Poets’ legitimate apprehensions for the good and well-being of man and society were legitimate during disturbing and anarchic times. Theme of peace occupied minds of poets more often after First World War. One also realizes the poets’ mentally chaotic conditions and so they display love, love for the eternal and the invisible while passion and romance overweigh artists’ minds, and it leads to the destination of independence from unsympathetic foreign yoke. Often repeated sentiments and rhetoric expression in creative writings may look monotonous, shrill and noisy many a time but perhaps, poets’ and creative minds could not avoid. More so, it appears poets also want to escape from the disturbing age when white man’s callousness rather ruthless style of governing the nation. It seemed safe to go back to ancient myths and legends so that recreation of romance and adventure fills life.

Love and faith in nature becomes a symbol of caution, peace, harmony and continuity for authors and artists. In disturbing times, a few lines of Tagore (1861-1941) appear relevant. Poet’s desire to relax in the ever-soothing embrace of night is indicative of an effort to escape from unexciting and dreary life. Even in the body-frame, the poet wants wearing and diminishing spirits to get ready and offer prayers, for it would grant eternal peace.

In the night of weariness
let me give myself up to sleep without struggle,
resting my trust upon thee.
Let me not force my flagging spirit
into a poor preparation for thy worship.
It is thou who drawest the veil of night upon the tired eyes of the day
to renew its sight in a fresher gladness of awakening. - (“Verse 25,” Gitanjali 20)

Little jewels of love-feelings and deep fervour for humanity in creative works transmit truths of life, which create a sublimity of distinction and grandeur heretofore, not comprehended. Stray Birds is epigrammatic, philosophically poetic with a unique flow of words and terrific assault of images and metaphors, mostly drawn from nature. Brevity in thoughts startles and one ought to devote time to recognize the true implication within a meaning.

Stray birds of summer come to my window to sing and fly away.
And yellow leaves of autumn, which have no songs, flutter and fall
There with a sigh. (Stray Birds 1)

Elsewhere, feelings of surrender predominate when he, like a renegade or an escapee, wishes to submit to the invisible, the eternal identity that grants tranquility and succor as a metaphor of sea again emerges. It is obvious that a man is merely a boat where He is the sea as well as a boatman.

If you are only the haven, as they say, then what is the sea?
Let it surge and toss me o its waves, I shall be content.
I live in you whatever and however you appear. Save me or kill me as you
wish, only never leave me in other hands. (Fugitive)

Swami Vivekananda’s (1863-1902) epistles reveal eternal truths in a religious-cum-philosophic disposition. A saint in him is affirmative and optimistic. He is a spiritualist and a mystic at heart but while talking to an ordinary man he is simple and down-to-earth, and makes even metaphysical experiences look realistic and very much worldly. He knows a man ignores eternal reality of life. If he understands life and the presence of the invisible, he should automatically discard idols worship. He is the God, the Visible, the Knowable and the Omnipresent, Swami tells evocatively -

In whom is neither past life
Nor future birth nor death,
In whom we always have been
And always shall be one,
Him worship. Break all other idols!
… …
While ye run after imaginary shadows,
That lead alone to fights and quarrels,
Him worship, the only visible!
Break all other idols!
(“The Living God,” Swami Vivekananda)

Poet clearly tells that a man ought to know that He has no past, no future, no birth and no death. He is eternal and ever alive. Lord Krishna’s exhortations speak of eternal truth and reverberate with renewed energy and relevance. Ignorance of eternal reality only leads to strife and struggles ending in nothingness. Oneness and a feeling of non-duality offer harmony and peace. Everything lives in nature. Intellect, pure heart and a pious mindset can feel existence of the Invisible even in comforting sounds emerging out of breeze, fluttering leaves, noisy storms and everything inhabiting the world with its ugliness, beauty and wonder.

He talks to soul, ‘In thee is friendship, faith, /For thou didst warn when evil thoughts were brewing / And though, alas, thy warning thrown away, /Went on the same as ever –good and true.’ Philosophy of Vedanta and immense impact of Gita determine Swamy’s poetry and other writings and most of the images, symbols and metaphors owe origin to nature.

Swami Ramatirtha’s verses are also a fine amalgamation of spiritual and religious experiences, and from here, he leads man to the journey of soul and the other world but also teaches art of life with emphasis on ethical values. A man does not hear what soul tells and so, brings miseries. Here, one gets glimpses of the Invisible. Sri Aurobindo observes -

The human condition is a stage of transition, effort and imperfection between the one and the other, between the natural and the ideal or spiritual life and it is full of uncertain seeking and disorder. It is not that the mental being cannot find or rather construct some kind of relative harmony of its own, but that I cannot render it stable because it is under the urge of the spirit. Man is obliged by a Power within him to be the labourer of a more or less conscious self-evolution that shall lead him to self-mastery and self-knowledge. (The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry: 1976, 799)

Above great saintly men of the age, depict mood and environment of society in totality. Another significant poet Sarojini Naidu (1879-1948) again is the voice of Indian spirit and heritage. She is a multifaceted personality, her contribution to public life is tremendous, and after marriage, interest in poetry equally influences people’s psyche in crucial times of Indian history. Poetry is suggestive of alien impact. Initially, Indian poets writing in English as said elsewhere could not escape from the influence English style and innate wish to cultivate English man’s mannerism in life. Naidu wields a significant position in Indian English Poetry.

Depiction of Indian scenarios like that of Indian weavers, fishermen, snake-charmers, gypsy girl, bangle sellers, palanquin bearers and the bride, offer pure pulsating delight and one feels as if part of the multihued life-experience with its pains and joys. A spirit of chaste, sparkle, sensuous and throbbing romanticism excites and captivates. Rainbow like experience thrills, ‘What can rival our lovely hue /O gorgeous boon of the spring? /The glimmering red of a bridal robe, /Rich red of wild bird’s wing? / Or the mystic blaze of the gem that burns /on the brow of a serpent King?’ While depicting enchanting beauty of Gulmohur Blossoms, she overwhelms. Nature poems impress. She is a poet of finer sensibilities and appeals to the ethical propensities of man. If she talks of life of ordinary people, she, in truth, expresses anxieties and genuine worries. Love consecrates life of man and society, romantic lyrics infuse hope and optimism in spite of the pain, and agony life confronts. She reveals predicament of life when she observes in ‘Past and future-

And now the Soul stands in a vague, intense
Expectancy and anguish of suspense,
On the dim chamber threshold... lo! He sees,
Like a strange, fated bride as yet unknown,
His timid future shrinking there alone,
Beneath her marriage-veil of mysteries

At times, she raises doubts but somewhere, she is conscious of struggles and conflicts that make life difficult and intrinsic fears of uncertainty and defeat preoccupy and here, it appears, she obliquely suggests at the continuous struggle of countrymen for securing freedom not only from inner-self but also from the alien rulers.

It does not mean that other poets were not aware of man’s hunger and thirst for the eternal. Poets more or less depict the period and its sensibility before Indian attained Freedom in 1947 and never for a moment, ignore what culture and heritage convey to humankind even in difficult times.

Poetic scene: A little before 1920 and after – its dimensions

Another class of poets began to take birth around 1920 and after, whose verses roughly began to appear after ninety hundred sixty. They exhibit entirely a different mindset whether it is socio-economic, religious-cultural-political, psychological or philosophical. Poetic strength and scope of Shiv K. Kumar, Keki N. Daruwalla, Kamala Das, Nissim Esekiel, Jayanta Mahaptra, A. K. Mehrotra, Pritish Nandy, Ramanujan, Gieve Patel, Gauri Deshpande and many others stun, irritate and provoke to think deep. It compels to scrutinize life in changed social set up where science, medicine and technology influence man’s life in entirety. One confronts entirely different poets, who mostly talk of urban life, reveal irony and cynicism with intrinsic bitterness but fundamental constituent and quality of Indianness grants it a pleasing distinctness and authenticity. ‘Pain and anguish’, if constitutes thought of town poets as they witness society and men amidst apparent comforts of life, it raises questions but tilt towards philosophic area engages despite initial flaws.

At another level, Dr Atma Ram’s observes -

Indian poets distinctly see their goal though as yet they may not have scaled great heights. More importantly, their writings adequately incorporate the Indian ethos. It is a beautiful sapling rooted in Indian-ness…This, in general, is also the assessment of the general reader, though he does not articulate his views. He feels the impact the contemporary poets make, the genuineness of Indian poetry in English.” (Contemporary Indian English Poetry, WW Publication 1989)

To go into the depths of emotional and intellectual range of poets is not quite easy or satisfying. It does not mean that poets failed but the understanding and indulgence of critics causes usual problems. Personal prejudices and comprehension of poetic power and range raise obstacles but persistence attest poets’ genuineness. One leaves it to the critic or evaluator to delve deep and arrive at true poetic thought. Poetry is not only a study of thoughts or emotions but it also involves reading of a huge poetic landscape, literary output and social grounds that essentially require cautious overview because such areas absorb and engage society and human thought.

Apt reconciling of emotions and ideas to reach depths of pleasure in poetry truly sustains its beauty and realness for generations. If one ignores didactic thrust of poetry even though not a very admirable feature of good verses even then, a connoisseur of good poetry will invariably find interesting poems. True understanding of distinction and quietness within man inspire to discover latent virtues in others and maybe, poetry says a lot. If one succeeds, a feeling of genuine ecstasy and delight fills.

A man ought to understand poets’ emotions and sentiments, thoughts and philosophical wanderings, perception of contemporary life while referring to history and culture. Correct appreciation of life in existential situation without forgetting even for a second, the right social, economic and political structure makes poetry meaningful and at this moment, historical sense is important. Eager eyes and ears to taste lyrical and musical quality, rhythm and nuances, idiom and linguistic play poets indulge in at different times of mental and intellectual level grant real joy in understanding poetry.

The poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry…we should conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it. We should conceive of it as capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those, which in general men have assigned to it hitherto. More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.” (Essays in Criticism 2) and the words led the critic in Arnold to agree with Wordsworth who said, “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.”

It is also a period in the life of a verse, which determines its relevance to present in spite of changes in sensibility as time moves in past, present and future. Rabindranath Tagore’s poetic vision of Indian consciousness is unique and chaste. Indian English poets enshrine Indian thought with ease in right perspective. Tagore undoubtedly, belongs to different times with solemn approach to life where Indian culture, heritage and traditions find true interpretation with reference to Vedas and Upanishads. Love, patriotism, romance, nature and adventure constituted subject matter of earlier poetry. Generally, poets appear restrained, cautious in expression and emotional outburst for obvious reasons, but idioms and expressions at times, appear tardy. They seem to become more authentic and articulate in the last quarter of nineteenth century. Times changed, city bred educated people evinced interest in alien culture and language and very soon, one notices growth of industry as towns expanded.

City lyrics surface after late sixties with quite apparent impact of science and industry on lifestyles. Poetry of Shiv K. Kumar, Keki N. Daruwalla, Jayanta Mahapatra Kamala Das, Nissim Esekiel, A. K. Mehrotra, Pritish Nandy, Ramanujan, Gieve Patel, Gauri Deshpande and a few others, penetrates into the living conditions of people in urban surroundings and if rural glimpses surface, these turn out mere poetic aberrations and a bit unrealistic. They measure philosophical and materialistic inclinations of urban people living in fast growing crowded cities, and suffering tremendous impact of science and technology. They also depict anguish and sufferings of urbanites. An opportunity to peep within and fathom intensity of agony men underwent during the terrific transformation inspires and teases many times.

A sincere endeavour it is to know correctly as to how poets look at life and to what extent poets’ approach is pragmatic. Elsewhere, I observed, “Indian English Poetry …has come to exist on the strength of its Indianness. It carries the message of Indian culture and heritage with equanimity and dignity. I was a doubtful beginner in evaluating the capacity of English writing in India in nascent years when English sensibility and cultural impact determined its areas of expression. The earlier poets with diffidence experimented in an alien language with a little reasoning wariness while giving vent to inner feelings of love and patriotism.

Quite obviously, nature constituted the theme of many poets and if they took up subjects of contemporary consciousness, they maintained a dignified silence on controversial social and political aspects of life during the foreign rule. It must be understood that creative artists and intelligentsia, at times, found it difficult to annoy prevalent exigencies of rulers governing the populace, which had faint regard for value-system. Thus, there was an atmosphere of doubt, uncertainty and mutual distrust.” (English Poetry in India-A Comprehensive Survey of Trends and Thought Patterns, Authorspress, Delhi 2011)

No doubt, times were diverse and tricky but the poets of that significant period of history did not feel entirely cut off but kept realities of life in view. They were worried, and touched themes concerning the nation and its people. Hazardous and challenging times required universality and catholicity in thinking and expression. If situation before 1857 stirred passions and patriotic fervour, it matured into a systematic and concerted collective outlook towards the attainment of the ultimate objective.

In fact, events of 1857 taught bitter lessons and thereafter, the movement to oust the white man gained momentum with political awakening but restrained approach guided people engaged in a fierce struggle. In poetry, one notices transparent conviction and absolute trust in nature, which often imparts lessons of caution, peace, harmony and continuity to poetic outpourings so that perennial thoughts of love and humanism live. A continuation of various religious movements with a vigorous thrust on patriotic themes and nationalistic thoughts emerged. Birth of Congress, Muslim League and various sovereign political thinkers gave impetus to those involved in the movement for the attainment of total freedom. Struggle gained force and speed as leaders like Mahatma Gandhi took over the control of the movement where people’s participation became more evident.

It is not necessary that one ought to agree to what a poet says in a lyric, and it is not a prerequisite that a critic should invariably extol virtues of poetry when he does not detect anything meaningful and sensible. Nevertheless, to arrive at a correct psychoanalysis and evaluation, which ought to be fundamentally appreciative, one should try to know about the creative artists. Words of A. Scott James in The Making of Literature 250 are quite pertinent when he says:

‘He must be “a good naturalist in this vast field of the mind”…this ideal critic, an artist who knows the science of his subject, a scientist who has the artist’s eye. He will be unremitting in his search for all the relevant facts. He will look first for clues to the writer’s character, in the race to which he belongs, and the country of which he is a native, He will inquire about his ancestors, and his contemporaries…he will fix his attention closely on the group with which he voluntarily associates himself…’

Age appears enigmatic and each moment time offers, does not give birth to people of similar characteristics and it is almost impossibility. Age and time permit man to live in a spirit of rivalry and so, intellects grow within limitations as time and age consent, and therefore, poetic outpouring differs from poet to poet and moment to moment, and always offers a new perspective but needs a keen-critical eye, otherwise ennui will survive in poetic analysis. To reach correct results as far as possible, a critic should be conscious of the environment in which a particular poetic or creative work took birth. Creative artists are sensitive and possessive of words they write and speak. If cautious re-look does not appear essential to the artists, inaccuracies creep in and flawed work not only irritates but also hurts meaning.

A critic’s words often prove not very congenial and if he probes into the rough edges of emotions and thoughts verses contain, he finds certain inexactness in truths generally accepted. It leads to a bewildering situation where comprehension defies logic. A creative artist must conform to historicity and it is not a great demand though it is inessential because it would restrict poetic frenzy. It is morally binding that he ought to limit words to universally agreed principles of emotional truth, which culture and background carry. If consciousness of age determines critical evaluation of a piece of art, moral values invariably surface. At times, moralistic tone does not speak well of creation but then, many in society adhere to a systematic life-flow.

Continued to "Poetic Scenario After 1940


More by :  P C K Prem

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Views: 3347      Comments: 2


Thanks a lot Sir.


26-Apr-2016 00:30 AM

Comment extremely useful work - being done for the present generation of poets, budding as well as the already accomplished ones.
go ahead premji - god speed
many are reading for their own knowledge and info
rama rao

dr v v b ramarao
24-Apr-2016 21:20 PM

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