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The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, v.1: Poems

Rabindranath Tagore and Sisir Kumar Das (ed.)

Tagore, Rabindranath; Sisir Kumar Das (ed.);

The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, v.1: Poems

Sahitya Akademi, 1994, 669 pages

ISBN 817201547X, 9788172015473

topics: |  poetry | bengali | translation | tagore

includes The Child, the only major poem he wrote in English.

I focus below on a detailed analysis of the well-known poem "where the mind is without fear".

where the mind is without fear

it is exactly a hundred years now that a 50 year old poet, unknown to the world, translated an earlier work and created the english poem "where the mind is without fear". the poet was rabindranAth tagore, who had composed the original bAnglA in 1900. he translated it in 1911, and it appeared as poem 35 in the english gitanjali, first published by the india society, london, in 1912.

that thin volume with its exuberant introduction hy w.b. yeats, became immensely popular, and was re-published by macmillan in 1913. it had run through ten editions by november, when it was announced that tagore had been awarded that year's nobel prize for literature.

however, within a couple of decades, the aura had dimmed, and tagore's english writings were gradually considned to oblivion. of the poems of the english gitanjali, few are read today. perhaps one of the few exceptions is "where the mind is without fear", which remains a compact, direct expression of a thought, and one that remains relevant to us today.

let us begin by looking at the english text, and then the bAnglA original.

Where the mind is without fear (poem 35), p.53

	Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
	Where knowledge is free;
	Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

	Where words come out from the depth of truth;
	Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
	Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
	Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action --
	Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য (original bAnglA text)

		  (naivedya poem 72)

চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য, উচ্চ যেথা শির,
জ্ঞান যেথা মুক্ত, যেথা গৃহের প্রাচীর
আপন প্রাঙ্গণতলে দিবসশর্বরী
বসুধারে রাখে নাই খণ্ড ক্ষুদ্র করি,
যেথা বাক্য হৃদয়ের উত্‍‌সমুখ হতে
উচ্ছ্বসিয়া উঠে, যেথা নির্বারিত স্রোতে
দেশে দেশে দিশে দিশে কর্মধারা ধায়
অজস্র সহস্রবিধ চরিতার্থতায়,
যেথা তুচ্ছ আচারের মরুবালুরাশি
বিচারের স্রোতঃপথ ফেলে নাই গ্রাসি---
পৌরুষেরে করে নি শতধা, নিত্য যেথা
তুমি সর্ব কর্ম চিন্তা আনন্দের নেতা,
নিজ হস্তে নির্দয় আঘাত করি, পিতঃ,
ভারতেরে সেই স্বর্গে করো জাগরিত
		(from rabIndra rachanAbalI paschimbanga sarkAr
		 centenary edition, v.1 p. 894)

background to the original composition

the settled lifestyle of bengal (and much of the world) suffered a shock with
the advent of colonialism in the 18th century.  as awareness of western
thought spread, the educated elite encountered the objective, scientific
temper that had developed in europe via widespread education and a shift to
a materialist philosophy.  the european temperament made a deep impression on
the indian intellegentsia, who contrasted it with the superstitions and
irrationality prevailing all around them.  this generated a sense of shame,
and in trenchant calls for change, and formed the backdrop against which the
modern bengali identity was forged.

the search for a re-invigorated bengali identity was thus a reaction to the
oppressive intrusion of the west, as has been documented by a number of
subaltern sociologists.  beginning with the earliest vernacular writing, but
certainly on the pages of bankim chandra chatterjee's bangadarshan magazine
(founded 1872), there were a number of calls for a manly spirit bordering on
belligerence, along with a harkening to india's glorious past; see for
example, Sudipta Kaviraj's The unhappy consciousness: Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and the formation of nationalist discourse in India.

it is against this backdrop that the 39-year old tagore, living in the
river-fed delta region that is bangladesh now, sometime in 1900, composed a
series of poems exhorting indians towards a stronger mind, free from
superstition and other irrational obstacles to growth.

one of these poems seeks to release the mind from everyday fears
and superstitions, and return the courage of the spirit.

	by hitting us hard, with your own hands, father, awaken my people
	into a world where the spirit is fearless and free.

a decade later, after the british artist rothenstein asked for a translation
of his poems, this was one of the poems that was translated.

that tagore is much concerned about the diffident supine-ness of the masses
is clear from other poems composed in this time.  for example, in naivedya
poem 71, we find - "o you speechless mute, why have you closed yourself off
from this joyful world?"  this tendency, which persists with the masses of
india even today, was often attributed to a lack of freedom and to ignorance.

in the analysis of chAruchandra bandyopAdhyAy, this particular poem is the
poet's search for a more "baliShTha AtmA" - a stronger, more manly, soul.
he seeks to overcome all barriers to the spirit, all obstacles and narrow
divisions that are holding us back, and move towards the free, indomitable,

however, this search for identity is never divorced from the underlying
mysticism in tagore, to which he had been introduced in his childhood during
several long journeys with his father.  the poems of naivedya, and also the
earlier volume kshaNikA, the and the later gItAn~jalI (bAnglA) mostly reflect
this mystic stream.

clearly there is a conflict between renunciation and the call for social
change.  in naivedya poem 30 we find a direct attempt to reconcile these
differences; his search for deliverance will lie, not through the path of
renunciation, as is advocated in the indian ideal of sanyAs. instead, he will

   		freedom in a thousand bonds of delight
		No, I will never shut the doors of my senses.
		The delights of sight and hearing and touch will bear thy delight.

and it is with the fruits of love (for humanity) that he will perform his

this song though, is more a call for the doer, the worker, the active agent
of change.

however, the influence of the west permeates even the structure of the poem.
this class of chaturdashpadI poems were a bengali version of the english
sonnet, and the poems of naivedya, with a few exceptions, all follow the
fourteen-line structure.  however, the bAnglA chaturdashpadI rhyme pattern
is based on couplets (aabb) and does not alternate (abab) as in English.

tagores translation: changes from the original

the english rendering differs significantly from the bAnglA.  as in most of
tagore's english translations, the concepts have been considerably
simplified, and the language given a more mystic turn.

here is a line by line analysis.

lines 1 and 2

line 1: Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
bAnglA;     চিত্ত    যেথা   ভয়  শূন্য,     উচ্চ    যেথা    শির
roman: 	   chitta JethA bhayshUnya,  uccha JethA  shir
gloss:     mind   where fear-empty, high   where  head

line 2: Where knowledge is free;
bAnglA:   জ্ঞান      যেথা    মুক্ত
roman: 	 jn~An     JethA  mukta
gloss: 	 knowledge where free

differences in english version:
quite a literal translation.  also scans well.

line 3: Where the world has not been broken up

line 3: Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow
domestic walls
bAngla + roman + gloss:
		   যেথা গৃহের প্রাচীর
		   JethA  griher    prAchIr
		   where  house-GEN  wall(+PL)

	আপন প্রাঙ্গণতলে দিবসশর্বরী
	Apan prAMgaN-tale     dibasasharbarI
	own  courtyard-under  day-night

	বসুধারে রাখে নাই খণ্ড ক্ষুদ্র করি
	vasudhAre rAkhe-nAi khaNDa kShudra kari
	world-OBJ  kept  not pieces small   do+3P

dropped phrase:  আপন প্রাঙ্গণতলে দিবসশর্বরী Apan prAMgaNtale dibasasharbarI

A more accurate rendering might go:
   Where, day and night, walls within our homes haven't compartmentalized
   our world
but tagore's version captures the essence.

line 4: Where words come out from the depth of truth

line 4: Where words come out from the depth of truth;

bAnglA + roman + gloss:
	যেথা   বাক্য    হৃদয়ের     উত্‍সমুখ         হতে
	JethA vAkya  hr.dayer  utsamukh      hate
	where words  heart-GEN source-mouth  from

	উচ্ছ্বসিয়া 	     উঠে,
	uchchhasiyA  uThe
	gushes       up

   changed হৃদয়ের উত্‍‌সমুখ, literally "depths of the heart"; rendered as
   "depths of truth".
   dropped উচ্ছ্বসিয়া - gushes forth
Literal rendering might go:
	Where words gush out from the depths of the heart


rendering "heart" as "truth" may be viewed as a tendency in tagore to present
his writing in a more mystic language.  this mysticism, along with the
freshness of the style, initially enamoured him to the west, but it is the
same mysticism, which was found cloying and lead even strong supporters like
Yeats to eventually denounce his english writings in 1935.

line 5: Where tireless striving ...

line 5: Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

this line replaces the following lines in the original, but it makes no
attempt to translate them.  it is essentially a re-creation.

bAnglA + roman + gloss:
		যেথা নির্বারিত স্রোতে
		JethA nirbArita srote
		where un-barred current-in

	দেশে দেশে দিশে দিশে কর্মধারা ধায়
	deshe deshe   dishe dishe     karmadhArA  dhAy
	country-PL-in direction-PL-in work-stream flows

	অজস্র সহস্রবিধ চরিতার্থতায়,
	ajasra sahasra   charitArthatAy
	many    thousand  purpose-finding

differences: Tagore has created essentially a different version, more mystic,
	but one might also say, more clichéd.

here, to render the bAnglA, one could say:
	Where, in unabated flow
	the stream of work flows in all directions
	in countless purposefulnesses

line 6: Where the clear stream of reason...

line 6: Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary
     	desert sand of dead habit;

bAnglA + roman + gloss:

	যেথা   তুচ্ছ 	আচারের		মরুবালুরাশি
	JethA tuchchha  AchArer       	marubAlurAshi
	where minor	practice-GEN    desert-sand-pile

	বিচারের		স্রোতঃপথ        ফেলে   নাই  গ্রাসি---
	vichArer        srotaHpath    fele  nAi grAsi
	discrimination  stream-path   has   not enfisted

	পৌরুষেরে        করে   নি   শতধা,
	pouruShere     kare ni   shatadhA
	manliness-OBJ  did  not  hundred-times-fold

differences: in his translation, tagore drops the phrase পৌরুষেরে করে নি শতধা,

a more faithful translation might be:
	Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary
	desert sand of dead habit; where it has not belittled one's manhood.

line 7: Where the mind is led forward

line 7: Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and
 			নিত্য   যেথা
			nitya JethA
			ever  where
       তুমি  সর্ব 	  কর্ম 	চিন্তা 	আনন্দের 	নেতা,
       tumi sarba karma chintA  Anander netA
       you  all   work 	thought joy     leader

differences: tagore's rendering is close, but adds the concept of
	"ever-widening", which extends the temporal নিত্য (ever,
	always) into space.  Also drops আনন্দের - of joy.

literal translation might be:
	Where one is ever led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and
	action and joy

line 8: Into that heaven of freedom

line 8: Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.


	নিজ  হস্তে        নির্দয় 	  আঘাত করি,	  পিতঃ,
	nija haste     nirday     AghAt kari      pitaH
	own  hand-with merciless  blow	do-pass   father

	ভারতেরে     সেই   স্বর্গে        করো   জাগরিত॥
	bhAratere  sei  svarge	   karo  jAgarita
	bhArat-to  that heaven-in  do-2P awake

differences: drops the important notion of "নিজ হস্তে নির্দয় আঘাত করি, পিতঃ" -
	by merciless strokes of your own hand, Father

more literal may be:
	with the merciless blows of your own hand, Father, awaken my
	country into that world


On the whole, tagore's translation is simpler and more direct. some of the
more nationalistic elements have been dropped.  a few touches seem to
emphasize the mystic.

compared to many other translations by tagore, the english version scans
well, and remains readable even today, a hundred years after its original
composition in 1911.

in 1917, tagore read out the english version, (then titled indian prayer)
at the indian national congress session in calcutta, 1917.
(at the same venue, the song janagana mana was first sung).

this brought the poem to the attention of the indian nationalitic thinking.
in the era after independence, it was often prescribed in school curricula
and millions of indians have struggled with it for write-from-memory,
describe-in-your-own-words, what-does-the-poet-intend-when-xxxx and a hundred
other forms for questions and quizzes.  despite such disadvantages, the poem
remains one that many indians identify with, and the bAnglA version is
certainly widely read in west bengal and bangladesh.

Playthings, (Crescent Moon)

CHILD, how happy you are sitting in the dust, playing with a broken
twig all the morning.  I smile at your play with that little bit of a
broken twig.

I am busy with my accounts, adding up figures by the hour.  Perhaps
you glance at me and think, "What a stupid game to spoil your morning
with!"  Child, I have forgotten the art of being absorbed in sticks
and mud-pies.  I seek out costly playthings, and gather lumps of gold
and silver.

With whatever you find you create your glad games, I spend my time
over things I never can obtain.  In my frail canoe I struggle to cross
the sea of desire, and forget that I too am playing a game.


	The Gardener
	The Crescent Moon
	Lover's Gift and Crossing
	The Fugitive
	Collected Poems and Plays
	Stray Birds
	The Child
	One Hundred Poems of Kabir
	The Fugitive (1919?)
	Sources of English Translations
	Index of First Words

Sisir Kumar Das was educated at Calcutta, London and Cornell
Universities. His is currently Tagore Professor of Bengali literature at the
University of Delhi. He received the Nehru Prize of the Federal Republic of
Germany .

---from blurb:
The corpus of Tagore's English writings, large and diverse, forms a
substantial part of his total work. The first volume of this 3-part series
includes all the poetic works translated by Tagore and the poems he wrote
originally in English. The second volume consists of plays and stories
translated by him, as well as five prose works. The third volume is a
collection of different genres of his writings.

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This review by Amit Mukerjee was last updated on : 2015 Dec 25