An examination of imagination and poetic expression in the poetry of Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore and English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
In linking the names of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) my purpose is to explore some issues of poetic imagination, poetic expression, and ideas of nationalism to the extent these can be detected in the works of Tagore and Hopkins. In some cases, Ireland will be the site of enactment of these ideas and these various performances of words and temperaments. "Various," certainly, for this exploration will reveal changeable relationships that are neither fixed nor immutable.Hopkins and Tagore found the word "nationalism" to be troublesome.
Yet both authors had several occasions to use it. "It is killing work to examine a nation," wrote Hopkins to R.W. Dixon . Hopkins ostensibly was grumbling about marking a large number of examination scripts written by students of The Royal University in Dublin.
But I see in Hopkins's words "examination" and "nation" large implications - including the suggestion that in examining these examination candidates, Hopkins was, in fact, aware of having to examine and evaluate a "nation", in this case the Irish nation. As a Catholic educator coming from a Protestant "national" background, with the purpose of teaching in a predominantly Catholic culture through a Catholic institution, in Ireland Hopkins was always aware of the uneasy implications the word "nation" had to have for him. And it was no easy task to examine a nation where his standing was at once of an alien and of a religious kindred. At the other side of globe, and about three decades later, Rabindranath Tagore asked: "What is this [word] Nation?". He answered, "Nationalism is a great menace" .
This is the surprising but unambiguous conclusion of a politically and socially alert poet-philosopher who was closely involved with one of the most striking socio-political experiments ever made of ideas emerging from nationalism: the forging of a "nation" called India. The word "nation" usually takes on a special, and usually a dynamic, meaning in the context of colonial history. In fact, nations never appear to be comfortable with a static notion of nationhood: they are either forming colonies elsewhere to underwrite their own validity as nations, or are emerging into nationhood by dismantling a history of subjugation.
A poet as a poet does not care much for the notion of a nation. Exceptionally clear in his disapproval of exploitation and colonizing, and loud in his praises of liberty and freedom, Tagore found the idea of a nation to be unappealing. "A nation," he wrote, ". . . is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose" . In a lecture entitled "The Problem of Race Conflicts," Tagore asserted, "All civilizations are mixed products . Only barbarism is simple, monadic and unalloyed" . Later in the same lecture, Tagore declared, "Men have not yet outgrown this training of racial or national self-sufficiency". Here the connection between nationalism and racialism is made abundantly clear by Tagore. Nationalism, he cautioned, arises out of "the home training of isolation". "I am not a Nationalist, moderate or immoderate in my political doctrine or aspiration,". He described Mahatma Gandhi as being "above all distinguished by his freedom from any bias of personal or national selfishness. For the selfishness of the Nation can be a grandly magnified form of the same vice" . In Tagore's view, then, even politicians must avoid the error of nationalism.
Good poets delight in particularities: in the contingent, the specific, the concrete. The individual and the particular have most clearly expressed themselves in Hopkins in his sense of place, and of the individual within the particular place. Places animate Hopkins' imagination, as many of his poems enliven places. At its simplest, it is the emphatic indicative pronoun "This," with which "Inversnaid" begins: "This darksome burn, horseback brown" (Poems 89) . Or we find it in the particularizing of the poplars after a specific location, as in "Binsey Poplars," and in the first-person possessive pronoun with which that poem begins: "My aspens dear" (Poems 78-79).
Real living, then, as the poem tells us, is unfortunately an activity underwritten only by a "lease of leisure," by the narrow "measure of time and treasure." We are allowed even this arbitrarily restricted liberty far too infrequently. Without the inescapable noose of that abstraction called modern life, which doles out most parsimoniously our "lease of leisure" - which is to say, a leisure that is on a tight leash, and also, of course, merely leased to us--the poem would hardly register its message of vital particularities. In fact, I would go even further to suggest that the body of water, the pool itself, and the surrounding landscape, are themselves almost shadow places, definite-seeming but highly mutable within the actual site of the text's inscription. For, the authorial gloss, used as a subtitle, tells us that the poem was written" [for] the Visitors' Book at the Inn." You will certainly grant, these places - the page of a guest book and a wayfarer's temporary lodging for the night - are doubly transient particular places. And doubly appropriate, too. For the particular is to be measured by its palpable vitality and exactness, not by its durability, because Time is abstract, whereas a page in a notebook kept in the foyer of a pleasant inn decidedly is not. The contraries of abstraction and concreteness, permanence and mutability, interplay in a variety of ways in these dialogic place poems. Nature, for example, is more permanent than the productions of human vanity. But in "Penmaen Pool" nature's durability is linked with the dynamic movements of highly changeable seasons.
Hopkins registered places unmistakably and gloriously, while places animated his poetic inscriptions of them. A place, however, acquires a national characteristic only in inverse proportion to its distinctiveness. The place must become something like a coherent collection of people. It must become, in effect, one with other, perhaps contiguous, places before it becomes a "nation." Roehampton, a place Hopkins loved, and Dublin, which he did not love, are places. England or Ireland, on the other hand, approach notions of nations-and they play different sorts of games in our imagination. Hopkins was committed to the English nation, and Irish claims for nationhood did not fill him with enthusiasm.
On "nationhood" and its significance for the artist, the opinions of Tagore and Hopkins were not always consistent or coherent. While veerings and hesitations in an artist's thought may appear to indicate intellectual wavering and inconsistency, the same veerings and uncertainties often guarantee the authenticity of modern art. I use "modern" in the sense of post-romantic, and not necessarily exclusive of notions of Victorianism. Hopkins the poet, in a particular way, is a writer of the self-divided sensibility that is characteristic of the genuinely Victorian. It is customary for critics to find the presence of this conflicted imagination in the dual sensuous and sacramental impulses that animate Hopkins's nature poetry. Hopkins's early critics spend much critical ink in trying to prove how the author's Christian commitments intruded upon the supposedly unfettered natural responses that vitalized such poems as "The Windhover" or "Spring" or "Pied Beauty," in all of which the devotional or sacramental element was for a long time seen by many as gratuitous overlay. Surely, the more reasonable view-the one now generally held to be true-is that neither impulse is untrue in the poems, no matter which way our individual tastes incline.
Hopkins felt his faith and his religious calling as vividly as he felt the presence of an almost unimaginable animation in nature. And in a real sense he did not know which way to turn-he faced both ways at once. In some sense it might even be argued that being a typical Victorian Hopkins cannot be expected to have had a sense of unalloyed singleness of artistic purpose and production.
But the national feelings of Hopkins were not of the same emotional order and intensity as his religious faith. This is the reason Hopkins can be pleased with a bad nationalist poem, "What shall I do for the land that bred me" (Poems 195), one which leaves most non-English readers cold. Certainly, on some readings it even strikes me as a parody of the typical soldier's song-lines written, as Tagore might have said, to be voiced by "a whole people" organized for a "mechanical" purpose. Of course, this is the very effect a patriotic Hopkins thought he had tried to avoid. As he told Bridges, he wanted the poem to "breathe true feeling without spoon or brag" . The feeling was probably true for the Englishman in Hopkins, but it was not a fine one. Still, he thought the poem good; he composed a tune for it that he liked very much: "very flowing and spirited," he called it. Although, it must be admitted that he said that the tune came to him before the words did. Nevertheless, he called the whole project "a great light," and at least the first verse came to him as unbidden as the tune. ("Great light," incidentally, was not an unusual expression for Hopkins [see 199].) Perhaps, not unremarkably, this nationalistic or imperialistic "light" and inspiration-which was decidedly of a secular nature, came to Hopkins in Dublin's Phoenix Park - a place where the show of Irish nationalism on other occasions filled this English poet with much annoyance.
We notice that while the Phoenix Park demonstration had not made Hopkins particularly sympathetic toward the Irish cause, the beauty of the place, paradoxically, prompted his own nationalistic sentiments. He wrote to Bridges: "Feeling the need of something, I spent the afternoon in the Phoenix Park, which is large, beautiful, and lonely. It did me good" . Hopkins then gets his "great light" and starts creating his own "patriotic song for soldiers", a poem that in turn mentions England's "banner" at least nine times in twenty lines, including four in the choric refrain. The letter to Bridges says that in the Park he hit on a "tune," and goes on to mention also "base" and "instrument": the Irish bands, no doubt, lurk behind these words. Irish patriotism is discounted; but the English one is declared to be "a true feeling."
Hopkins's patriotic poem, prompted by the beauty of an Irish place, is heavy with elements that suggest parody: inversions of meaning-the many mentions of the English banner are matched by the tum-pum rhyme of the nine-times repeated phrase "her honour"; the sentimental progress from "we live for her honour," through "we fight," and "we march" to "we die," and so on. Hopkins did not intend the parody but it exists and must be accounted for in any reasonable reading of the "song." I think Irish national feelings are picked up - if not absorbed - by Hopkins, and unconsciously legitimized by an awkward and questionable conversion into English nationalism. Of course, the nationalism that Hopkins espoused - British nationalism of the Victorian era - was not consciously directed against an Irish nationalism.
Recent post-colonial and new historicist scholars like Mary Louise Pratt have argued, for example, in her book Imperial Eyes (notwithstanding the author's trendy but sentimental notion of `transculturation'), that colonialists arrived in the colonies with their eyes trained to see things in a predetermined imperialist way. I suggest this was not always so - and Hopkins's fitful but unmistakable admission that he was now beginning to see and hear things differently from people in England, attests to the subjective nature of perception of imaginative artists, and to the dramatic effect of the colony. That is to say, the post-romantic poet is as a poet essentially non-national, and that the colony itself has some power to make a difference to, and to readjust, the "imperial eye." Of course, Hopkins's views are not revolutionized by his stay in Ireland; they are, nevertheless, somewhat destabilized. In spite of his "brag and spoon" poem, the fact is that he can "neither express nor bear to speak" of his new realization. The credit goes both to him - in so far as the poet in him is concerned - and to Ireland - the place and agent of that change.
Now, having suggested that Hopkins's patriotic song, written in Ireland, is unredeemably "spoon and brag," how can one justify the claim that this poet's imperialist views vacillated? Well, for one thing, the poet's faith as expressed in the song, "What shall I do for the land that bred me?" is not unproblematic. For example, there are more heartfelt ways of addressing one's country than through the detached, almost clinical, phrase "the land that bred me." Second, the manuscript version of the first refrain lacks the first person pronoun "we," and reads "Under her banner live for her honour" - sounding more like an injunction than an expression of personal commitment or affection (Poems lii). Of course, edited versions supply the missing "we" since it is to be found in the remaining three repetitions of the refrain . Still, the original omission is suggestive. Hopkins' remark to Bridges, "heaven knows it [a patriotic song of the kind he has written] is needed," suggests that the poet saw a public role for his nationalistic poem, and that as an Englishman he felt somewhat cornered, also perhaps, a bit insecure about his country. It is not surprising that he asks Bridges to add a stanza to his poem, seeking to make it the product of a communally-shared nationalist undertaking .
The motivation for writing the "song" becomes more intriguing when we notice that the plural form of the pronoun in the refrain is somewhat at odds with the prominently singular "I" and "me" we find in the first four lines of each stanza. Similarly, is it not puzzling to note how the singer enumerates negatively the benefits of his nationalism? "Not the pleasure, the pay, the plunder, / But country and flag, the flag I am under." No one will dispute the speaker's assertion that his values are all in the right places - still, the enumeration of a negative list of profits oddly foregrounds an awkward sense of valuation. The priest in Hopkins may have found "pleasure" and "pay" particularly troublesome, but I must admit to a more acute unease with the unpleasant word "plunder" - especially when I look at it within a post-colonialist context: a political and intellectual framework that simply will not disappear or fade into the background when we consider the late 19th-century Irish location in which Hopkins wrote these lines. It is no wonder that Hopkins, while in possession of the nearly completed poem and an exact tune for it, should have thought the poem to be far from "final." He even admitted that "perhaps the name of England is too exclusive" . "Too exclusive"? Now, that is hardly the language or tenor of nationalist celebration. Evidently, this apparently self-confident English patriotic song, composed on Irish soil, has both internal and external fault lines.
The poem is aporetic, but it is so in a helpless and unselfconscious way; consequently, the "spoon and brag" elements are at least partly mitigated. In a similar frame of mind Hopkins had earlier written to Bridges, "I shd. be glad to see Ireland happy, even though it involved the fall of England, if that could come about without shame and guilt". The hesitating voice of divided loyalty is painfully clear in these words.
It is time now to move toward Hopkins's most painfully clear account of how he saw himself while he lived in Ireland. And it is to his utter credit that he does not restrict his poem, "To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life / Among strangers," geographically or "nationally" to either Ireland or England. Both places figure prominently. The poem transcends the topographies, enters personal griefs over family relationships, questions faith and vocation, and finally faces the issues of his artistic selfhood, the peculiar Hopkinesque and Victorian selfhood: ". . . Not but in all removes I can / Kind love both give and get," the poet declares (Poems 101).
It would be utter impertinence to ask whether he declares this with satisfied confidence or stupefying dismay. Hopkins proceeds to talk about "breed[ing]" "words" in his "heart," of "dark heaven's baffling ban," and of the "hoard of unheard" or "heard unheeded": all of which "leaves [him] a lonely began" (emphases added). While the poem appears to begin in a suitably Modernist paradoxical manner - "Christ" being the poet's "peace [and] parting, sword and strife" - its scope enlarges beyond what might be called a Metaphysical overlay, to almost existential despair and recognition. From Anglican England, and his Protestant family, he is twice removed, while he desperately loves both. In Ireland, he is "at a thírd / Remove," being away from family and country. But the poem, we soon discover, is not about degrees of exile or loneliness-but about the essential poetic site of "all remove," the necessary alienation that fecundates his creativity, generates his love, and yet leaves him inevitably "unheard" and "unheeded." On the other hand, if he were heeded more attentively, he would have had little to say. He would not have been at "all remove," and therefore able neither to give nor receive love. Such is the terrifyingly honest vision of the cruel and potent condition of the solitary self that this poem traces. After such revelation, what comfort? In fact, there is much comfort - and it is in the poem itself, and it is available to us, the readers of Hopkins' poetry.
So, what is the function of poetry at the margins? I suppose it depends on how an author experiences the margin. Hopkins, at a third remove in Ireland, was convinced that Ireland's need for nationhood really made no sense. He saw it as a class issue, and as a legal issue. He was convinced that the majority of people in Ireland were being prompted to act rebelliously against England-the legal and legitimate "nation"-by the vested self-interest of a select few. The national issue in Ireland was not, for Hopkins, a national one, although he was sympathetic toward the hapless masses who were, he thought, likely to be happier under English rule:
. . . one class has passed off its class-interests as the interests of the nation and so got itself upheld by the support of the nation; . . . it will legislate its own interest and the rest will languish; distress will bring on some fresh convulsion; beyond that I cannot imagine
Like Tagore, Hopkins saw nothing fine in nationalist impulses; it is informed by a herd mentality. However, Tagore, in India, had an altogether different perspective of the political ramifications of the empire. He saw the necessary dismantling of British government in India not as a political issue-that is, not as merely a "national" issue-but a spiritual and cultural one. Only a free people can live authentic lives-but such lives are always authentically individual rather than communal.
In Tagore's most politically-informed novel, Gora (or The Fair Fellow, 1909) , the protagonist is an uncompromising, strident nationalist and a Hindu fundamentalist. The love of his religion, and the love of the strictly tradition-bound ways of his country, become the motivating impulses of his life. He passionately desires India's independence from the British. Independence from foreign shackles would be, for him, the first step toward re-establishing a nationalist Hindu state. Gora manifests acute symptoms of the condition Tagore elsewhere described disapprovingly as "the idolatry of geography".
To his utter shock, this pious and strict follower of Hindu rituals and ceremonies is forbidden by his dying father from taking part in the funeral rites. Gora must now learn the truth that he is not a born Hindu. He is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier in the British army, whom his Hindu parents adopted at the time of the 1857 uprising. They raised him as their own, but he was now not allowed by the very traditions he so greatly respects to perform the prescribed duties of a son.
After the shock Gora achieves his true freedom from all nationalisms and factionalisms. He awakens from the drugged slumber that nationalism induces: "The idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented". Tagore declares through his central character his notion of freedom - which is individual and spiritual, and is untainted by racialism or religious orthodoxy. "All the great religions of the world have taken their roots in the soil of India," Tagore pointed out in "Race Conflict". In the typescript of this lecture preserved at Harvard University, and which contains autograph revisions by the author, Tagore is even more emphatic in rejecting the notion of a homogeneous or nationalist view of his country: the phrase "the soil of India" appears in the typescript in an unusual plural form - "the soils of India". Unlike a nation, a country can be many countries at once.
Tagore deliberately avoids turning Gora into a tale of suspense. Gora's identity is known to the reader early in the book. The disputatious protagonist harangues everyone about the singular importance of getting the country and its culture back to its original, and supposedly uncontaminated, state. But the reader watches with a mixture of irony and admiration as Gora's partisan, yet strong and passionate, personality unfolds itself. It seems inevitable that the purist protagonist's ignorance will be shattered. Therefore, that revelation is not the really intriguing part of the plot. What Gora finally learns to admire is the simple, undoctrinaire humanity of his mother, Anandamayi. This woman embodies, in her openmindedness, her relaxed sense of the religious and the spiritual in human beings, the spirit of Tagore's envisioned India.
This act of love had emancipated Anandamayi from the social conventions and restrictive traditions of Hindu India.
Her son, on the other hand, has made it his life's mission to defend that society and its orthodox values. At one point, Gora tells Anandamayi, "Mother, you must remember that you are a member of a society and that you are indebted to that society." His mother replies, "Gora, haven't I been telling you again and again that I have severed my connection with my society a long time ago? That is why society hates me so much and why I keep myself aloof from it". Near the end of the novel Gora experiences for the first time the freedom from orthodoxy that his mother had known all along. Awakened from his dream of Hindu purity, Gora finally arrives at the truth: "All that is good or evil in India, all her joys and sorrows, all her wisdom and follies, have come in their fulness close to my heart". It is curious that Tagore should have embodied his vision in the tribulations of an ultra-orthodox "Irish" Hindu.
Perhaps, on the other hand, the shared English yoke of India and Ireland made such imaginative projection quite probable. I think it is eminently arguable that an Indo-Irish Gora represented for Tagore a possible "seed grain" of the unfettered nationhood the author craved for his country. Born on Indian soil of an Irish father enlisted in the British army, and nurtured by the all-embracing motherhood of a childless Anandamayi, Gora, often in spite of himself, symbolizes the contingent reality of a potentially independent India. Free from the biological determinism of natural motherhood, Anandamayi becomes the embodiment of Tagore's vision of his country as a historically responsive home for all uncoercive peoples.
If in rejecting nationalism, Tagore's imagination foregrounded a "concealed" Irish character, Hopkins, too, thought of India during his fretful stay in Ireland. Often the two countries, Ireland and India, merged with Hopkins's own English-man-in-exile personality to make him speak of the compounded viewpoint through the enlarged pronoun "us." To Patmore he wrote, "No freedom you can give us is equal to the freedom of letting us alone: take yourselves out of India, let us first be free of you" . The conflating of Ireland and India is both surprising and appropriate. Unlike the Bengali poet, however, the Jesuit priest was unable to accept a diversity of ways to the one human destiny. Roman Catholicism was the religion for the world, for Hindus and Protestants alike, if only the world would listen. But the best nation to guarantee the world's other freedoms was England.
At the same time, he was not always convinced that England's culture was the culture most relevant for all peoples of the world. He asks candidly: "How far can the civilization England offers be attractive and valuable, and be offered and insisted on as an attraction and a thing of value to India, for instance?" >Essentially, then, what really carry through across all cultural barriers are not the nominally real social practices of a particular people-but the imaginative and imaginatively-reconstituted products of its artists and writers. Hopkins's example was Shakespeare-the author who best carries forward the necessary elements of English culture to other countries. The great artist is both individual and supra-national. Obviously, then, according to Hopkins, the artist's role in the dialogue between cultures can be supreme. And this idea is echoed by Tagore in much of his writing about the connection between art and culture. The artist has the key for the freedom nations need, says Tagore, for artists express the individual's "higher nature."
This paper is a revised version of the inaugural lecture delivered at the 7th International Hopkins Summer School, Monasterevin, Ireland, June 1994. Research for this study was made possible by grants received from the Central Research Fund of University of Alberta, the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed., C.C. Abbott, London: Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 154.
Tagore, Rabindranath, Nationalism. London: Macmillan, 1920, p. 9.
Tagore, op. cit., p. 9
"The problem of race conflicts . . ." Harvard University, The Houghton Library. b MS Eng 1159, folder 25. TS, nt, nd, MS pp. 9, incorporating the author's autograph revisions.
"Race Conflict", Boundless Sky, Calcutta: Visvabharati, 1964, pp. 341-49.
"Mahatma Gandhi." Boundless Sky. Calcutta: Visvabharati, 1964, pp. 325-31.
Unless otherwise noted, in this essay I will quote from The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Fourth Edition, edited by Gardner and MacKenzie, cited as Poems.
The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, ed., C.C. Abbott, London: Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 283.
Abbott, op. cit., pp. 282 — 3.
Abbott, op. cit., p. 283.
Abbott, op. cit., p. 283.
Abbott, op. cit., p. 283.
Abbott, op. cit., p. 252 (emphasis added).
Tagore, Rabindranath, Gora, London: Macmillan, 1924.
"A Vision of India's History", A Tagore Reader, ed., A. Chakravarty, Boston: Beacon Press, 1966, pp. 182 — 97.
Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins. ed., C.C. Abbott, London: Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 367
Nationalism, p. 18.
Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins. ed., C.C. Abbott, London: Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 386.
Overture No Finale
A relentless push towards Jerusalem then once inside engulfment begins: Temple beggars gang, changers
shout the parables and the contradictions, admiration with slight comprehension, the pursing of envious lips
storm warnings right, promises left, carried around by disquieting spirits into a belly of rock, a lap of cloud; not
leaving the city the same, left on its own ever after broken eagles, toppled minarets, and wailing walls.