Sarojini Naidu as a Poet | The Nightingale of India

Sarojini Naidu as a Poet | The Nightingale of India

Sarojini Naidu as a Poet

One of the outstanding women of her generation, Sarojini Naidu, a gifted poet, indeed the Nightingale of India, combined in her the vigour and vitality of a freedom fighter with the sensitivity of a born poet. Dustoor states “Sarojini Naidu was a confluence of diverse currents of tradition, a conjunction of many roads of influence, a concourse of many talents.” She had commendable metrical skill, an admirable mastery of sonorous English, and lyrical gifts of a high order. Her songs may not always have the spontaneity of a nightingale’s song, but its melody they often have, and to the English-speaking world they reveal the glamour, the emotions and the mysticism of India. The magic of the East, blended with the magic of melodious words in her poems imparts to them a unique charm.

She was born on the 13th February 1879 in Hyderabad where her father Dr. Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya, was Professor at the Nizam’s College. She was Bengali by race, but was born and bred in Hyderabad, Deccan. She was a Hindu very much at home in her Muslim environment, and a Brahmin bound by ties of love and marriage of her choice to a non-Brahmin from the South, Dr. Govinda Rajulu Naidu of Andhra. She was subject to occasional illness and she passed away at Lucknow on the 2nd March 1949. Sarojini inherited the poetic instinct from her mother. She narrated her story thus:

“One day when I was eleven, I was sighing over a sum in Algebra; it would not come right; but instead a whole poem came to me suddenly. I wrote it down. From that day my ‘poetic career began. At thirteen, I wrote a long poem ‘The Lady of the Lake 1300 lines in six days. At thirteen I wrote a drama of 2000 lir full-fledged passionate thing that I began on the spur of the moment, without forethought, just to spite my doctor, who said was very ill and must not touch a book.”

A weaver of exquisite garlands of songs, she was drawn into the vortex of a tremendous national struggle, and unhesitatingly abandoned poetry for politics. While studying at London and Cambridge she came in contact with Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons who helped her to acquire the metrical accomplishment and advised her to compose on Indian themes and not to imitate the English poets. Her early affiliations with Arthur Symons and Gosse, who introduced her works to the Western readers, had helped her to acquire the verbal and technical accomplishments, the mastery of phrase and rhythm, without which she could not have translated her visions and experiences into melodious poetry.

Gosse said: “Write no more about robins and skylarks, in a landscape of our midland countries with the village bells somewhere in the distance calling the parishioners to church, but to describe the flowers, the fruits, the hills, to set your poems firmly among the mountains, the gardens, the temples…to be a genuine poet of the Deccan, not a clever machine-made imitator of the English classics.” Mrs. Naidu took the advice and turned to Indian themes like folk songs, flowers and the songs of the great critics. Her ‘Indian Weavers’, ‘Corn-Grinders’ and such other poems are noted for their rhythmic flow and characteristic Indian imagery.

Dr. Iyengar writes:

“She tried to catch and reproduce in English lilt and atmosphere of some of the folk-songs, in her early poems like the ‘Bangle-Sellers ‘Palanquin-Bearers, ‘Coromandel Fishers’ and Snake Charmer.”

Thoughts of love and death form the themes of many of her poems. “Indian Weavers” presents the journey of life in twelve lines:

“Weavers, weaving at break of day

Why do you weave a garment so gay

Blue as the wing of halcyon wild?

We weave the robes of a new born child.

Weavers, weaving at fall of night,

Why do you weave a garment so bright?

Like the plumes of a peacock, purple and green

We weave the marriage veils of a queen

Weavers, weaving solemn and still

What do you weave in the moonlight chill?

White as a feather and white as a cloud

We weave a dead man’s funeral shroud.”

Here Sarojini Naidu presents an allusive and symbolic journey of life from birth to death. The weavers are Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, each taking a stanza unto himself. Brahma, the patron-deity of truth: Vishnu, the foster father, and Siva, smeared with ashes are represented here. C.D. Narasimhaiah emphatically states: “It is not merely a competent poem, but a very distinguished one for Sarojini, because the poet here is in full possession of rare gifts of a profound awareness of her own tradition, admirable poise, economy and a ear and eye for striking rhythm, image and symbol, all used to fine advantage to make the poem most evocative.”

Prof. Viswanathan feels that “perhaps she realized like Keats that fine doing was the top-thing in the world, that poetry should be Deed, not a dream, that poetry is burning oracle only to those that pursue it, not to others.” She writes humbly in a letter to Symons: “I am not a poet really. I have the vision and desire, but not the voice, but I sing just as the birds do and my songs are ephemeral.”

Her poems are a combination of truth, imagination and art. Her metrical skill is capable of great variety. “Sarojini Naidu’s poetry,” said Sri Aurobindo, “has qualities which make her best work exquisite, unique and unchallengeable in its kind.” All praise her lyric worthy, but some consider her a minor poet of the old fashioned school. Some critics labouring under the critical fallacy that the Eliotian way of writing is a poetic absolute, in a patronizing way, dismiss Mrs. Naidu; one such critic observed, “the lyrics are saturated with the saccharine-sweetness, we have come to associate with the hand of Sarojini Naidu. The rhythms are tick-tock and precise. But this song-bird sang very well indeed.” “Despite all the criticism levelled against her, Sarojini has in patches reached the depths of mystical poetic expression. She will always be remembered as the Indian nightingale the ‘Bharat Kokila’, a name given to her by Mahatma Gandhi. There are distinct echoes in her work: of Shelley and Swinburne and Tennyson.

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James Cousins remarked: “Some of her poems are nothing but a rumity timity measure and some have those flaws of structure and expression which suggest a not quite authentic inspiration, a mood worked up till it becomes hectic and unbalanced but when she touches the great impersonalities or phrase, a clear energy of thought, a luminosity and reserve that reach the level of master emerge as in such poems like ‘Buddha’.” At the age of thirteen she wrote the “Traveller’s Song“:

“Over Italia’s sunny plains

All aglow with rosy flowers,

I wonder now “mid fallen fanes,

And now amid the myrtle bowers

But, wheresoever I may roam

I long for thee, my dear dear home!”

Arthur Symons, the renowned English poet and critic felt that it was the desire of beauty that made her a poet. ‘The Song of Radha, the Milk Maid’ captures the very tone of voice of the milk maid, the chanting rhythm and the evocative power of the name, Govinda, Govinda, as she carried her curds, her pots and the gifts of her inner self to the shrine of Mathura. The full-throated ease of the devotee’s song manifests itself in the free flow of the verse:

“When the bees grew loud and the day grew long

And the peach graves thrilled to the Oriole’s song.”

The three volumes of her poems The Golden Threshold, The Bird of Time and The Broken Wing published between 1905 and 1920 constitute her splendid poetic achievement. The Feather of Dawn is a posthumous publication. Dr. Naik observes: “In spite of the strong romantic influence the early Indian writers of English verse, show a fondness for eighteenth century poetic diction. Sarojini Naidu speaks of bangles as ‘rainbow-tinted circles of light’; Kashi Prasad Ghosh describes the Moon as ‘irradiated gem of Night’, “Orb of gentle light, and (when it is covered by clouds) as ‘Beauty in a shroud’; M.M. Dutt personifies ‘Dark Vengeance’ and talks about Day’s fair brow’ and ‘beauty’s whispered fare-well sigh’;

All these collections are Indian in spirit, thought, emotion and imagery. Her first collection of poems entitled The Golden Threshold was her finest effort. The London Times remarked that her poetry seems to sing itself, as if her swift thoughts and strong emotions sprang into lyrics of themselves. There are the same unity and spontaneity about such poems, as that ‘To a Buddha Seated on a Lotus’, in which her wisdom has play’:

“How shall we reach the great, unknown

Nirvana of thy Lotus-throne?”

Here the poetess rejoices an accessible desire and heaven-ward hunger, and in doing so, she sums up the central philosophy of the Vedanta:

“And all our mortal moments are

A session of the infinite.”

The Manchester Guardian had an equally glowing review: “It is a considerable delight to come across such genuine poetry as is contained in The Golden Threshold. Its simplicity suggests Blake, it is always musical; its Eastern colour is fresh and its firm touch is quick and delicate.”

Again, the ‘Review of Reviews‘ remarked: “This little volume should silence for ever the scoffer who declares that women cannot write poetry.”

T.P’s Weekly announced: “A book of verse of undeniable beauty and distinction… Sarojini Naidu’s work is remarkable, opening a window through which the West may see the East if it will.”

The Morning Post said: “The book is one not merely of accomplishment, but beautiful verse, it is the expression of a temperament.” The Academy praised the Golden Threshold as a book full of beauty. Not for a long time have we seen a volume of poetry so full of promise and real achievement.”

Thus the Golden Threshold certainly took the English world by storm. The poems of this volume are divided into folk songs, songs for music and poems. In the folk songs the most inspiring are the ‘Palanquin-bearers‘ and ‘Coromandel Fishers’, marked with fine lyrical excellence:

“Gaily, O gaily we glide and we sing,

We bear her along like a pearl on a string.”

The tilting music of her poetry is apparent in the mellifluous flow of words:

“Sweet is the shade of the coconut glade, and the scent of the mango grove,

And sweet are the sands at the full o’ the moon with the sound of the voice we love.”

Again, the ‘Indian Love-song’ is set in the form of a dialogue between the lover and the beloved:

“Like the perfume in the petals of a rose,

Hides thy heart within my bosom, O my love.”

‘The Songs for Music’ contains exquisite pieces of superb poetry in the ‘Song of a Dream’ she expresses:

“Lone in the light of that magical grove,

I felt the stars of the spirits of Love

Gather and gleam round my delicate youth,

And I heard the song of the spirits of Truth;”

In the above lines, it is to be noted how the simile of a star stimulates the reader’s imagination. Similar instances of the skilful use of simile may be seen in the following lines:

“Like a joy on the heart of a sorrow,

The sunset hangs on a cloud:”

Again in the short poem ‘Ecstasy‘ she says:

“My soul is bent low with the pain

And the burden of love like the grace

Of a flower that is smitten with rain;

O shelter my soul from thy face!”

In the poem ‘To India’, Sarojini implores her motherland to wake up and attain the glory that once was hers:

“Waken, O slumbering Mother, and be crowned,

Who once wert empress of the Sovereign Past.”

Her second volume of poems entitled The Bird of Time came out in 1912. These are songs of love and death. The title was taken from Omar Khayyam‘s immortal lines:

“The Bird of Time has but a little way

To fly-and lo, and bird is on the wing.”

It was received with approval in Europe and with acclamation in India. Edmund Gosse, in his introduction, wrote: “If the poems of Sarojini Naidu be carefully and delicately studied they will be found as luminous in lighting up the dark places of the East as any contribution of savant or historian.”

The poems were received with warmth and enthusiasm. The Daily Chronicle commented: “She had more than a profusion of beautiful things.” Again, the Yorkshire Post declared: “Mrs. Naidu has not only enriched our language, but has enabled us to grow into intimate relation with the spirit, the emotions, the mysticism and the glamour of the East.”

In the poem written in memory of Violet Clarke (In Remembrance) she writes:

“O frail miraculous flower, tho’ you are dead,

The deathless fragrance of your spirit cleaves.”

Referring to the Spring season she addresses:

“O love do you know the spring is here

With the lure of her magic flute?”

She has penned beautiful lyrics on various flowers-like the Champak and Gulmohur blossoms. The poem ‘Bangle-sellers’ is a master-piece of rich poetic imagination:

“Some are like fields of sunlit corn,

Meet for a bride on her bridal morn,

Some like the flame of her marriage fire,

O, rich with the hue of her heart’s desire,

Tinkling luminous, tender, and clear,

Like her bridal laughter and bridal tea”.

The poem on ‘Death and Life’ is a splendid poetic achievement. The finest lyric is the ‘Soul’s Prayer.’ She appeals to God to reveal to her His inmost laws of life and death. She is prepared to drink earth’s utmost bitter and utmost sweet. God assures her that she shall drink deep of joy and fame and that love shall burn her like afire. He further imparts her that pain shall purify her like a flame and purge the dross form her desire. God informs her that:

“Life is a prism of My light,

And Death the shadow of My face.”

Mrs. Naidu’s third and last collection of poems entitled The Broken Wing was richer and more mature. Her rhyming and rhythm were stronger. Mrs. Cousins says: “The poems like The Broken Wing were of a depth of emotional intensity that swept me off my feet. I remember especially the love and reverence which she poured into her poems to her father and her national guru, Gokhale.”

There are fine pieces of sparkling gems. As a pilgrim she has brought a broken lute as Love’s praise-offering. Like other Indian poets and artists, she finds in the Buddha and Lord Krishna a perennial source of her poetic imagination. The Flute-Player of Brindaban is a jewel of lyric comparable only to “To a Buddha Seated on a Lotus. Among other poems are the memorial verses addressed to her father and Gokhale and “The Lotus’ addressed to Gandhi and ‘Awake’ addressed to Jinnah:

“The night is a flush with a dream of the morrow

Why still dost thou sleep in thy bondage of sorrow?”

Again, in her poem ‘The Call of Spring’ addressed to Padmaja and Lilamani, she says:

“And the air is aglow with the blossoming

Of thickets and hollow and hedges.

O come, let us go and play with the Spring

Like glad-hearted children together”

The next poem ‘The Coming of Spring’ has a characteristic note of its own:

“O Sweet, I am not false to you,

Only my weary heart of late,

Has fallen from its high estate,

Of laughter and has lost the clue,

To all the vernal joy it knew.”

Her poem ‘The Time of Roses’ is rich with fragrance and sweet odour:

“Love, it is the time of roses,

Hide me in a shrine of roses,

Drown me in a wine of roses,

Drawn from every fragrant grove.”

She welcomes Death with all joy:

“Welcome, O tranquil Death,

Thou hast no ills to grieve me,

Who com’st with Freedom’s breath,

From sorrow to retrieve me.”

The most remarkable feature of this volume is the intermittent subterranean rumbling, the pitiless evocation of broken images, the pointed rendering of naked beauty and truth and ferocity in the last section, “The Temple: A Pilgrimage of Love’ a trilogy of lyric sequences, each of eight poems.

‘The Temple: A Pilgrimage of Love’ is divided into three parts. The first -The Gate of Delight deals with Love’s fulfillment. Here the poetess tenders her life to her love and offers all to the object of her passion. This section contains eight poignant love-poems including ‘The Offering. ‘Ecstasy’ and ‘The Vision of Love, in which the poetess loses all other consciousness except the fact that she exists in her beloved:

“Bring no pearls from ravished seas,

Gems from rifled hemispheres;

Grant me, Love, in priceless boon

All the sorrow of your years,

All the secret of your tears,”

And again :

“My heart be your tent and your pillow of rest,

And a place of repose for your feet

O! Love: my foolish heart and eyes

Have lost all knowledge save of you.”

The second part, ‘The path of Tears’, brings out the anguish of all true lovers, who centre their devotion on the earthly object and feel the frustration and chaos which must follow for human love is a frailty and must meet with anguish. The woman realizes that her lover’s face has turned away and in eight poems she pours out the agony of a lonely heart, of a girl who has given her all and still feels the parched hungry pangs of love, unsatisfied. The opening poem “The Sorrow of Love’, shows the woman who offers her love and craves its return but it repulsed:

“Why did you turn your face away?

Turn not your face from me. O love!”

The second ‘The Silence of Love’, shows the girl beseeching ‘Give what you will, if ought be yours to give.’ There is anger and resentment in the third ‘The Menace of Love.’ In the fifth poem, the flouted woman declared that death may even be welcome. But her heart is less bitter and more reconciled in ‘Supplication’.

The last part is the ‘Bird’s Sanctuary‘: the reaction comes and the girl gives herself to martyrdom, asking to be crushed by her lover like a ‘lemon leaf of basil bloom, to be burnt like a ‘sandal grain’. There are similar out-pourings in the fear of Love, The Illusion of Love and the worship of Love. The last poem of this part ‘Devotion’, is short and very forthright.

“Strangle my soul and fling in into the fire,

Who should my true love falter of fear or rebel?

Love, I am yours to lie in your breast like a flower

Or burn like a weed for your sake in the flame of hell.”

Mrs. Padmini Sengupta in her biography of Sarojini Naidu says: “Like the twenty four poems in the Temple, Sarojini’s was life of sadness and gladness, of tears and laughter, of pain and pleasure, but in the end the love which reigned in her heart was more for a mystic lover than a human being.”

These verses were criticized by some critics as “more rhetoric than poetry: more violence than strength.” Others regarded it to be her greatest regulated success. Mr. Gawsworth opined that “Apart from Mrs. Browning’s ‘Sonnets form the Portuguese’ there is no potential sequence in English of such sustained passion addressed by a woman to a man.”

She is a sensitive poet in whom the Bengali and the Deccani voices mingle and merge. Her poems reflect her preoccupation with the dream-world and the Indian folk-life. “The Bird-Sanctuary” extracted from her The Feather of the Dawn was inspired by her visit to the Bird Sanctuary in Bombay. The poet wishes that she too (with her broken wing) had shelter and protection and joy and freedom. The human spirit is in equal need of a sanctuary amidst a violent, uncertain and harsh world:

“O Master of the Birds, great sanctuary and shelter

Also to homing bird that hears a broken wing.”

Sarojini Naidu’s poetry is openly and unselfconsciously the poetry of nature. It unfolds the beauties, the transformations and the significances of our natural world. It reveals a world of colour, perfume and melody and a sense of being permeating every pore, and nook and cranny of our sensate landscape. Dr. Paul Verghese remarks that “The range of her poetic style is limited, but within that range, she displays an extraordinary felicity and skill in the use of the language. Her forte consists in these as well as in her apt and suggestive use of similes and metaphors and of the telling images that she executes almost with gnomic terseness.”

Thus Sarojini Naidu has managed to remain Indian in her poetry. She is the coiner of matchless phrases and her technical skill is high. Her words are foreign, the metrical forms are English, but the dreams and fancies are all from India. Dr. Amarnath Jha writes: “The bird of the Deccan is sweet-voiced. Her language is very well-chosen and the spell she casts by her words is abiding.”

Sarojini wrote to Edmund Gosse: “While I live, it will always be the supreme desire of my soul to write poetry-one poem, one line of enduring verse.” Her poems indeed reveal the rare temperament of an Eastern woman who expressed herself through a western medium. But there is an Eastern miagic in them. Shanker Mokashi Puneker’s words, “She was a poet pure and simple, and she has paid dearly for it the price of not being taken seriously either in the heyday of fame or in the period of comparative neglect”, provide an apt summing up.

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