Our Casuarina Tree Summary and Analysis
The poem, “Our Casuarina Tree” is a beautiful symbolic poem combining both matter and manner in proper proportion. The tree here is the symbol of the memory of Toru Dutt. It also symbolizes the rich tradition of Indian culture and philosophy which played an important role in shaping the poetic and aesthetic vision of the poets. In Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” the bird symbolizes the world of art and beauty. In Shelley’s “To a Skylark“, the bird is the symbol of freedom and liberty. Similarly, in Toru Dutt’s “ Our Casuarina Tree “, the tree connotes the nostalgic feelings and memory of Toru Dutt. This is the tree under which she played with her dead brother and sister. So whenever she remembers the tree, all of a sudden she is transported to the world of her memory which is strongly attached to the tree. But the beauty of the poem lies in its rich images and symbols, words and phrases which are very suggestive.
In the first stanza, she imagined the rugged trunk of the tree to a huge python winding round and round. The creeper has indented deep with scars up to the top of the tree. She says:
The giant wears the scarf and flowers are hung
In crimson clusters all the boughs among
Whereon all day are gathered bird and bee
And of at nights the garden overflows
With one sweet song that seems to have no close
Sung darkling from our tree while men repose.”
Here in these lines she has presented a beautiful picture of nature in and around the tree. It recalls the poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley. She says that the flowers of the tree are hung in crimson clusters. The various birds and bees may be seen gathering on the tree. In the night while men are sleeping, one can see the sweet song of a bird.
Well, on the connotative scale of meaning, the sweet song of bird in the night may be attributed to her nostalgic feelings felt at the moment of loneliness. The words ‘darkling’, ‘repose’, ‘crimson’, ‘clusters’ remind us of such types of common phrases of the romantic poets particularly in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale“. The phrase, “Indented deep with scars” suggests her unforgettable and indestructible love for the tree. This love has carved out a permanent imprint in her heart which she is unable to forget. Though at the time of the composition of this poem she was in France, but spiritually she was with India. This shows her great attachment with the native land. Her love with the tree and the memory of her home recalls the couplet of Wordsworth who says, though in other context;
“Type of the wise who soar but never roam
True to the kindred points of heaven and home.”
The second stanza is replete with the pictorial and visual description of the tree and the gray baboon and his offspring. The poet says that when she gets up in the morning she is delighted to see the tree. In winter season a gray baboon used to sit on one of the branches of the tree watching the sunrise. She compares the baboon to a statue. On the lower branches, the offspring of the baboon used to leap about and play. Hence the description of the baboon sitting alone like a statue is very pictorial and visual. In this stanza she also creates Indianess by mentioning the songs of kokilas. She says:
“And far and near kokilas hail the day
And to their pastures wend our sleepy cows
And in the shadow on the broad tank cast
By that hoar tree, so beautiful and vast
The water lilies spring like snow enmassed”
Here the comparison of water lilies’ to ‘snow enmassed’ is very apt and proper. It has a Keatsean or Wordsworthian overtones. Toru Dutt in her other poem, “Baugmaree” presents a similar visual and natural description of the flower lotus which looks like a silver cup floating in the pond.
Up to the second stanza we get the visual portrayal of the tree. But in the third stanza we see a sudden change. Now there is a sense of pathos and memory. She feels that the tree is important for her not simply for its magnificence but because of her memory which is tagged to it very strongly: .
“But not because of its magnificence
Dear is the casuarinas to my soul
Beneath it we have played: though years may roll
O sweet companies, loved with love intense
For your sakes shall the tree be ever dear.”
Toru Dutt thinks that the tree has an emotional significance in her life. It is the tree under which she used to play with her brother and sister, though the cruel fate had laid an icy hand on them. The word, ‘we’ and ‘companions’ make this point more clear. Hence these lines contain a deep sense of pathos and memory of the writer. Like Keats, she had to suffer a lot in her life. She had seen bitter struggle for life and death, untold miseries after the death of her beloved brother and sister. So, there is a Hardian philosophy working in her life. Dr. S.S. Bal rightly observes:
“As in the case of Hardy and the French existentialists Camus and Sartre, the dark image of an incomprehensible fatality and absurdity of life seems to have become a permanent art of Toru’s consciousness; and she writes the pangs of separation and suffering, alienation and exile, illusion and dejection and loss and premature death with deep feeling.”
The heart of the poet at that time was full of the grief and sorrow, the cares and anxieties of her personal loss. Perhaps this is why she does not hear the ‘lapwater lapping with low sound’ but in place of this, she hears a ‘dirge like murmur’ which has been compared to the sea breaking on a single beach. She hears the lament of the tree:
“It is the tree’s lament, an eerie speech
That haply to the unknown land may reach.”
Here, the phrase, ‘tree lament’ is an example of the figure of speech, transferred epithet. It is not the tree’s lament but the lament of her heart which weeps for the immature death of the poet’s brother and sister. Here, the tenderness of pathos and transcendental imagination is very interesting.
The fourth stanza is very philosophical. The poet observes that the unknown land is much known to the eyes of faith. Here the term “unknown’ denotes not simply the native home of the poet but also the world of the departed soul. She is of the opinion that though physically her beloved ones are no visible, but spiritually they are alive in the form of the tree. And she has ears to hear the wail of the far distant lands:
“Unknown yet well-known to the eye of faith
Ah, I have heard that wail far, far away
In distant lands, by many a sheltered bay”
As a matter of fact, a man who has the eye of faith can see the unknown as well-known. Yoga also says that when a man has an unwavering faith in the existence of the divinity through the art of meditation and poetry, nothing remains unknown to him in the universe, because he lives on the plain of consciousness, usually felt as vacuum of the transcendental stage of smadhi. This is exactly what Toru Dutt feels here. She says:
“When earth lay tranced in a dreamless swoon;
And every time the music rose before
Mine inner vision rose a form sublime
Thy form, O Tree, as in my happy prime
I saw thee, in my own loved native clime.”
These lines call for the reader’s deep and profound knowledge of yogic mysticism and the state of nothingness and vacuum. When a yogi, the seeker of truth and bliss, lays tranced in a dreamless swoon, his inner vision is enlightened. The word ‘dreamless swoon in yogic terminology suggests transcendental state of mind where there is nothing but meaning and where the self is realized. After the self realization of the soul, the seeker attains an inner vision of life and death, truth and reality. The music which Toru Dutt refers here is not an ordinary music which we hear in our day to day life; it is a music of the soul, which once it is attained, never dies, and continues to vibrate with the highest percipience in the mind of the seeker. It is like the celestial music arising out of the cosmic dance usually perceived by the modern scientists in the subatomic region of the material world.
Thus, here the spiritual dimension of Toru Dutt’s poetry is akin to that of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo. It is also very similar to Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” where the poet has the inner vision of eternal bliss in the world of the bird. “Ode to Nightingale” starts with the physical world of cares and anxieties, fret and fever and ends with the truth and bliss of a great yogi. When Keats attains that vision of knowledge through the viewless wings of poesy’ he says that “No hungry generations tread thee down”. Similarly Our Casuarina Tree opens with the natural and physical description of the tree and the vegetation in and around the tree. But as the lines run on, there is a gradual change in the plot of the poem. It also reminds us of the famous metaphysical poem “Thoughts in a Garden” by Andrew Marvell. In this poem, up to the fifth stanza, there is a description of body and physical world. But after the fifth stanza, there is a sudden change in the feeling and vision of the poet. Now he describes the power of mind over body.
It is interesting to note that Toru Dutt’s mystical and spiritual approach to poetry is centered to her profound knowledge of great Sanskrit epics and scriptures. She started learning the great Sanskrit books at the early age of eighteen. She read The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, Shakuntala, The Bhagavta Purana and The Vishnu Puran.
Her first book “A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields” registered her name and fame in the firmament of literature. Prompted by its success, she turned to Sanskrit literature and in 1882 her book, Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan was published. It is a work deeply rooted to the fertile soil of Indian myths and legends, culture and civilization. So, Toru Dutt though brought up and schooled in France, falsified Kipling’s off-quoted line : “East is east and west is west/And never the twain shall meet.” Toru Dutt is not like the ‘Skylark’ of Shelley, ‘the scorner of the ground’ but she is the ‘skylark’ of Wordsworth a pilgrim of the sky’ and does not despise the earth where cares abound. As a matter of fact, Toru Dutt’s vision was that of a moralist. She wanted to see a mutual relation and understanding between the east and the west. She had an ardent desire to upgrade the moral and spiritual vision of India. The last stanza is even more philosophical. It contains pathos and philosophy. Her mind is weeping for the loss of the dear brother and sister. But her soul consoles her mind by mentioning the tree as deathless:
“Therefore I fain would consecrate a lay.
Unto thy honour, Tree beloved of those
Who now in blessed sleep for age repose,
Dearer than life to me alas ! Were they
Mayest thou be numbered when my days are done
With deathless tree”
The poet says here that her brother and sister who were dearer than life are no more present physically, but spiritually they will ever remain in the heart of the poet through the medium of the deathless tree. On the connotative scale of meaning, the phrase deathless tree’ suggests the unflinching, indestructible love which never dies. So here the ‘tree’ has got a spiritual dimension of meaning which stands for love, memory and healthy values of life.
At the end of the poem she absolutely transcends the mortal materialistic and mundane frame of mind and attains the power of love to overcome the negative forces of life like death and darkness, terror and fear:
“Under whose awful branches lingered pale
Fear, trembling hope and Death, the skeleton
And time the shadow and though weak the verse
That would thy beauty fain, oh fain rehearse,
May love defend thee from oblivion’s curse”
In this stanza, the words and the phrases like ‘trembling hope’, ‘love’, ‘death’, ‘the skeleton’, ‘oblivion’ are very suggestive. She means to say that a man of unflinching love and devotion never fears the blows of death. It is his love that defends him from oblivion curse. The poetess has a great love for the beloved brother and sister, she identifies her emotions of deep eternal love to the deathless tree. So, now the death has become a skeleton for her. Here, ‘skeleton’ means meaningless. But on the philosophical plane, both life and death are related to each other. There is no existence of flesh without a skeleton. The implied meaning of flesh here suggests life, love and memory. These lines seem to have a close conformity with what Sarojini Naidu observes in her famous poem, “My Soul’s Prayer”:
“Life is a prism of my life
And death, the shadow of my face.”
To sum up, the poem “Our Casuarina Tree” shows a perfect blending of feeling and form, matter and manner. It contains what Eliot means by his phrase ‘unified sensibility. It is a combination of both the east and the west. In form, it is very near to the Romantic and the Victorian poets. In theme, it dives deep into the deep and unfathomable ocean of the Vedanta and the Upanishad of body and soul, life and death and above all, the transcendental flight of imagination which mitigates the sorrows and sufferings of the body. Sri Aurobindo has rightly observed:
“She was an accomplished verse builder with a delicate talent and some outbreaks of genius and she wrote things that were attractive and sometimes she had a strong energy of language and a rhythmic force.”
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