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On Rabindranath Tagore Modern Poetry

(Composed by S.Chatterjee)

In the wake of the rise of a new art movement in Europe and Bengal as well,
Rabindranath Tagore’s essay Modern Poetry, in particular, is a defence of the older
literary tradition in the vein of Romanticism. In general it is a critique on aesthetics in
order to justify that the value of a literary product lies in its universality of appeal.
Tagore’s spiritual nexus with the Romantics is a thing he himself admits; Burns,
Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats were so many champions of the individualistic modes just as
Tagore was. On the face of it the cry of the “modern English poets” for impersonal
objectivity in art in the likeness of science leaves him annoyed. He has a deep loathing
for any argument which should insist on a deliberate jerking-away from the tradition and
convention, and which should narrow down the range of modernism to a fastidious
stripping about all illusions of life. For, Tagore is at pains to show that the tradition
cannot be totally aborted and the universal truth about poetry or poetic beauty cannot be
subverted or improved upon.

But Tagore wrote the essay Modern Poetry before the advent of what is termed as
‘Modernism’ in the 20th century literary criticism. The specific features signified by the
term vary with the user, but almost all writers agree that it involves a deliberate and
radical break with some of the traditional bases not only of western art, but also of
western culture, in general. Tagore’s vision, therefore, was great enough to recognise the
fundamental features of the so-called ‘modernism’. He begins the essay with an
understanding that the term ‘modernism’ is semantically mobile. Modernity in normal
usage is something that progresses in company with and at the speed of the years; in
this sense, “the last year’s modern is not this year’s”. So he explains the illusive nature
of the implications of the term:

“it is not so much a question of time as of temperament. Most rivers after

flowing straight take a sudden twist or turn. When literature does that,
that turn may be called modern.”

In this way, the poetry of the Romantics of the Victorians must have seemed ‘modern’
respectively to their contemporaries, just as that of the Avant-garde’s is. But Tagore’s is
inflamed at their attitude of reacting against the imaginary and illusive world of the
poetry of yesteryears deliberately and violently. Here Tagore thought-process runs in
parallel with F.R. Leavis, who in New Bearing in English Poetry observes that the poetry
of the last decades of the 19th century was preoccupied with the creation of dream-world,
and that new poetry wanted to shatter that dream-world.

But Tagore affirms that illusions cannot be given up completely. When the violent realists
are all set to keep wooing the proportions of science, they are only changing the variety
of those illusions. Again, Tagore’s Romantic heritage pops up when he puts a rhetorical

“Does not Beauty become bankrupt when divested of the veil which reveals
rather than conceals?”

The ‘veil’ is a Shelleyan metaphor which comes naturally to Tagore. Moreover, he notes a
touch of arrogance in the modernists’ attitude, as if it has become a fashion. Such a self-
conscious ‘modernism’ is clearly revealed, he thinks, in a poet’s deliberate anticlimactic
juxtaposition of the frog and Apollo. Tagore excerpts a few lines from a modern poet to
show he self-conscious modernism of that poet, who, intoxicated, gives an irreverent
fare-well to the ‘beauty’ of the by-gone days:

“You are beautiful and faded

Like an old opera tune...


My vigour is a new-minted penny

Which I cast at your feet.”

To reinforce his point, Tagore refers to Ezra Pound’s A Study of Aesthetics, where a boy
shows incredible lack of discrimination by applying the epithet ‘beautiful’ first to a girl
and then to the neatly arranged fish on the riverbank. Tagore argues, if it is being loyal
to the reality by distorting the reality in the way of ugliness, they apply the same illusive
dye simply of an opposite kind.

The fact is that the “present day literature” has ‘accepted the creed of modernity”
consciously and it is this consciousness that makes Eliot a modern rather than Robert
Bridges. Tagore quotes extensively from Eliot’s Preludes a number of images which
convey a sense of squalor ugliness of modern urban life in which men and women are
subject to suffer. Such images Tagore observes, do not suggest that the poet is taking a
perverse delight in ugliness, but they reflect the poet’s distaste for the dung-gathering
world evidently. But Tagore’s ability to rise above his Romantic bias and overcome his
natural antipathy towards the modernists’ preoccupation with the unconventional and
anti-Romantic is reflected in his allusion to the lines from Eliot’s Preludes, which suggest,
however, fleeting notions of beauty and immortality even in the midst of tawdriness:

“I am moved by the fancies that are curled

Around these images, and cling:

The notion of some infinitely gentle

Infinitely suffering thing.”

At this point Tagore comes to grant that even in the midst of so-called modernism there
can be vision which is modern, not in its violence against tradition, but in the truest
sense of the term. That is to say, it can evoke feelings in man, which are universal and
invariable in a particular phase of civilisation. For, as Tagore says, “in this muddy world
one must look at mud with open eyes, and accept it”. Though in this poem, impersonality
could not be maintained, Tagore considers Eliot a modern poet, perhaps because he has
his own personal appreciation for Eliot, who does not give up the attitude that one must
look upon the universe as a whole.

Finally Tagore goes on to reinforce his point that “pure modernism...consists in an

impersonal and matter-of-fact manner”, by the example of a Chinese poet Li-Po, who
wrote more than a thousand years ago. According to Tagore, Li-Po is a modern poet, not
in respect of time or age, but in virtue of his vision of “universe with freshly opened

In fine, as an artist Tagore adhered to the Upanishadic doctrine of the fundamental

principles of life—Truth, Beauty and Goodness—which made it unnecessary for him to
adopt a violent and insolent attitude in art.