Rabindranath Tagore: Nobel Laureate in Literature

Updated on May 18, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore



William Rothenstein, the English painter and art critic, was fascinated by the writings of Rabindranath Tagore's . The was painter especially drawn to Gitanjali, Bengali for "song offerings." The subtle beauty and charm of these poems prompted Rothenstein to urge Tagore to translate them into English so more people in the West could experience them.

Nobel Prize for Literature

In 1913 primarily for this volume, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In that same year, Macmillan published the hardcover copy of Tagore's prose translations of Gitanjali. The great Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, also a Nobel Laureate (1923), provided an introduction to Gitanjali.

Yeats writes that this volume "stirred my blood as nothing has for years." About the Indian culture Yeats comments, "The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes."

Yeats interest and study of Eastern philosophy became intense, and he was especially attracted to Tagore's spiritual writing. Yeats explains that Tagore's was

[a] tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing and that it has passed through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble.

Yeats later wrote many poems based on Eastern concepts; although, their subtleties at times evaded him. Nevertheless, Yeats should be credited with advancing the West's interest and attraction to the spiritual nature of those concepts. Also in the introduction, Yeats asserts,

If our life was not a continual warfare, we would not have taste, we would not know what is good, we would not find hearers and readers. Four-fifths of our energy is spent in this quarrel with bad taste, whether in our own minds or in the minds of others.

This somewhat harsh assessment, no doubt, points out the mood of his era: Yeats' birth and death dates (1861-1939) sandwiches the Irish poet's life between two bloody Western wars, the American Civil War and World War II.

Yeats also correctly measures Tagore's achievement when he reports that Tagore's songs "are not only respected and admired by scholars, but also they are sung in the fields by peasants." Yeats would have been astonished if his own poetry had been accepted by such a wide spectrum of the populace.

Sample Poem from Gitanjali

The following poem #7 is representative of the Gitanjali's form and content:

My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration. Ornaments would mar our union. They would come between thee and me. Their jingling would drown thy whispers.

My poet's vanity dies in shame before thy sight. O Master Poet, I have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple and straight like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.

This poem demonstrates a humble charm: it is a prayer to open the poet's heart to the Divine Beloved Master Poet, without unneeded words and gestures. A vain poet produces ego-centered poetry, but this poet/devotee wants to be open to the simple humility of truth that only the Divine Beloved can offer his soul.

As the Irish poet W. B. Yeats has said, these songs grow out of a culture in which art and religion are the same, so it is not surprising that we find our offerer of songs speaking to God in song after song, as is the case in #7.

And the last line in song #7 is a subtle allusion to Bhagavan Krishna. According the great yogi/poet, Paramahansa Yogananda, "Krishna is shown in Hindu art with a flute; on it he plays the enrapturing song that recalls to their true home the human souls wandering in delusion."

Rabindranath Tagore, in addition to being an accomplished poet, essayist, playwright, and novelist, is also remembered as an educator, who founded Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan, West Bengal, India. Tagore exemplifies a Renaissance man, skilled in many fields of endeavor, including, of course, spiritual poetry.

The Voice of Rabindranath Tagore

Questions & Answers

  • What prompted Rabindranath Tagore to translate his Gitanjali into English?

    The English painter and art critic, William Rothenstein, was fascinated by the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. The painter was drawn especially to Gitanjali, Bengali for "song offerings." The subtle beauty and charm of these poems inspired Rothenstein to prompt Tagore to translate them into English so more Westerners could experience them.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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