The Nobel Prize and Rabindranath - 9 by Kumud Biswas SignUp

The Nobel Prize and Rabindranath - 9
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‘At last he arrived, accompanied by two friends and by his son. As he entered the room he handed me a note-book in which, since I wished to know more of his poetry, he made some translations during his passage from India. …That evening I read the poems. Here was poetry of a new order which seemed to me on a level with that of the great mystics.’ This is how in his autobiography Rothenstein narrated Tagore’s arrival. What followed next was remembered by Tagore in his letter of 26th November, 1932 to Rothenstein – ‘The next day you came rushing to me with assurance which I dared not take seriously and to prove to me the competence of your literary judgement you made three copies of those translations and sent them to Stopford Brooke, Bradley and Yeats. The letter which Bradley sent to you in answer left no room for me to feel diffident about the merit of those poems and Stopford Brooke’s opinion also was a corroboration. These were enthusiastic as far as I remember.’

Stopford A. Brooke (1832 –1916) was an Irish churchman and writer. From 1863 to 1865 he was chaplain to the Empress Frederick in Berlin, and in 1875 became chaplain in ordinary to Queen Victoria. He was keenly interested in literature and art, and a fine critic of both. In 1876 he wrote an admirable primer of English Literature followed in 1892 by The History of Early English Literature down to the accession of Alfred the Great, and English Literature from the Beginnings to the Norman Conquest (1898). To the students of English literature these works have remained standard works of reference to this day. And Bradley was none other than the famous Andrew Cecil Bradley (1851 –1935), the English literary scholar who is best remembered for his work on Shakespeare. He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University from 1901 to 1905. His Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) and Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909) have ensured him a permanent place among the great Shakespearean scholars of all time. The following anonymous doggerel current at the time shows how formidable was his reputation as a Shakespearean scholar –

I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s Ghost
Sat for a civil service post.
The English paper for that year
Had several questions on King Lear
Which Shakespeare answered very badly
Because he hadn’t read his Bradley.

In his reply to the letter of Rothenstein Bradley instantly communicated his reaction. After exploring Shakespeare all his life he seems to have ‘discovered’ another great poet in Rabindranath and wrote, ‘It looks as though we have at last a great poet among us again.’ Then came the response from Stopford Brooke. The grand old man wrote, ‘I have read them with more than admiration, with great gratitude, for their spiritual help and the joy they bring and confirm, and for the love of beauty which they deepen far more than I can tell. I wish I were worthy of them.’ W.B.Yeats (1865-1939), the third recipient of these translations, was an Irishman and had already made a name as a poet of great promise. Eventually he was also to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature ten years after Tagore in 1923. After reading the poems the enthusiasm of Yeats - in the words of Rothenstein, ‘equalled mine’ – and this he was to express in glowing terms later in his beautiful introduction to the first edition of Gitanjali published by the India Society. He wrote, ‘I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me.’ In Pearson’s tea party Rothenstein had expressed his desire to publish these poems and he was determined to make the publication as flawless as possible. For this purpose he was anxious to avail of the services of Yeats. He therefore made arrangements for the introduction of these two poets at a dinner in his residence on 27th June. Next day in a letter to Kshitimohan Sen Rabindranath wrote, ‘Last night I dined with the poet Yeats who recited some of the prose translations of my poems in his beautiful melodious voice. I feel little confident about my English but he assured me that anybody who thought it needed improvement knows nothing about literature. …He has undertaken to edit my poems and arrange for their publication.’  Then followed those ‘delightful days’ when together they worked on the poems and the press copy of the Gitanjali was made ready for publication by the India Society.

Readings of the poems by Yeats seem to have taken place at the residence of Rothenstein more than once and on one of those occasions a long-term poet friend of Yeats was present. His name is Thomas Sturge Moore (1870-1944). It proved to be fateful - it was he who, as a member of the Royal Society of Literature of London, recommended Rabindranath’s name to the Nobel Committee. This is how in a letter to Robert Trevelyan (1872-1951) he gave his first impression of the poet – “Yeats and Rothenstein had a Bengalee poet on view during the last days I was in London. I was first privileged to see him in Yeats’ rooms and then hear a translation of his poems made by himself and read by Yeats in Rothenstein’s drawing room. His unique subject is ‘the love of God’. When I told Yeats that I found his poetry preposterously optimistic he said, ‘Ah, you see, he is absorbed in God.’ The poet himself is a sweet creature beautiful to the eye in a silk turban. …Speaks very little, but looks beneficent and intelligent.” After this in the evening of 7th July Rothenstein invited many more friends to his house. It was a Sunday. We shall talk about this ‘historic evening’ in our next blog. But one person present that day in that meeting deserves special mention here. He was Reverend Charles Freer Andrews, a teacher of the St Stephen College of Delhi. He became a dedicated follower not only of Rabindranath but also of Mahatma Gandhi and dedicated his entire life to the service of India.

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