Rabindranath Tagore's "The Last Bargain"

Updated on May 9, 2019
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.

Rabindranath Tagore

Source

Introduction and Text of "The Last Bargain"

The spiritual search is the one that leads to freedom and bliss. Much pain and anguish befall those whose main, and often, only focus is on the material. The speaker in Tagore's "The Last Bargain" metaphorically compares that focus, as the speaker, the metaphorical job hunter, searches for the best employment for himself.

The Last Bargain

"Come and hire me," I cried, while in the morning I was walking on the stone-paved road.
Sword in hand, the King came in his chariot.
He held my hand and said, "I will hire you with my power."
But his power counted for nought, and he went away in his chariot.

In the heat of the midday the houses stood with shut doors.
I wandered along the crooked lane.
An old man came out with his bag of gold.
He pondered and said, "I will hire you with my money."
He weighed his coins one by one, but I turned away.

It was evening. The garden hedge was all aflower.
The fair maid came out and said, "I will hire you with a smile."
Her smile paled and melted into tears, and she went back alone into the dark.

The sun glistened on the sand, and the sea waves broke waywardly.
A child sat playing with shells.
He raised his head and seemed to know me, and said, "I hire you with nothing."
From thenceforward that bargain struck in child's play made me a free man.

A reading of Tagore'e "The Last Bargain"

Commentary

Rabindranath Tagore's "The Last Bargain" presents an enigma: how can it be that a child offering nothing can be the bargain that makes a "free man" of the seeker?

First Movement: Seeking Employment

"Come and hire me," I cried, while in the morning I was walking on the stone-paved road.
Sword in hand, the King came in his chariot.
He held my hand and said, "I will hire you with my power."
But his power counted for nought, and he went away in his chariot.

In the opening movement whose setting is in the morning, the speaker appears to be searching for employment, as he cries, "Come and hire me." The king appears and offers to employ the seeker with his "power."

The speaker, however, finds that the king's power amounted to nothing valuable. The king then retreats in his "chariot." Assuredly, the speaker continues his search. But at this point, the reader begins to suspect that this speaker is not searching for earthly employment on the material, physical level of being.

Second Movement: Continuing the Search

In the heat of the midday the houses stood with shut doors.
I wandered along the crooked lane.
An old man came out with his bag of gold.
He pondered and said, "I will hire you with my money."
He weighed his coins one by one, but I turned away.

The speaker continues his search and now it is "midday." He notes that the doors to the houses are all shut. Suddenly, an old man appears with a "bag of gold," and reports to the seeker that he will hire him "with [his] money."

The old man "weighed his coins one by one," demonstrating his attachment to those pieces of material. But the speaker/seeker is likely disgusted by the spectacle and "turn[s] away."

The speaker was not impressed with a king's power, and he was not impressed with an old man's "gold." The reader can now be sure that it is not worldly goods that the speaker is seeking; he can be seeking only the love of the Spirit, which is not to be found in worldly power and wealth.

Third Movement: Experiencing a Change

It was evening. The garden hedge was all aflower.
The fair maid came out and said, "I will hire you with a smile."
Her smile paled and melted into tears, and she went back alone into the dark.

However, the speaker/seeker continues on into evening, when see spies, a "garden hedge [ ] all aflower." Then he meets a "fair maid" who asserts, "I will hire you with a smile."

However, the seeker eventually experiences the change that comes over the aged human as the smile "paled and melted into tears." And the maiden "went back alone into the dark."

Fourth Movement: The Best Bargain

The sun glistened on the sand, and the sea waves broke waywardly.
A child sat playing with shells.
He raised his head and seemed to know me, and said, "I hire you with nothing."
From thenceforward that bargain struck in child's play made me a free man.

Finally, the speaker, walking along the seashore, observing the crashing waves, and encountering a child at play on the shore, is offered his last bargain: "I hire you with nothing." This last bargain turns out to be the best bargain, the one that frees the seeker from seeking satisfaction from earthly things.

It is the silent Spirit, the nothingness contravening materiality, the space transcending time and matter—that becomes the true employer. Toiling for such an employer conveys upon the worker freedom, soul awareness, and bliss, none of which can broached by power, money, and worldly affection.

Rabindranath Tagore

Source

Rabindranath Tagore as Nobel Laureate

In 1913, Rabindranath Tagore, Indian Nobel Laureate, won the literature prize primarily for his prose translations of Gitanjali, which is Bengali for "song offerings."

William Rothenstein, the English painter and art critic, was greatly interested in the Rabindranath Tagore's writings. The painter especially was 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.

(Note: Readers who are interested in experiencing other poems by Rabindranath Tagore from his Nobel Prize winning collection may find this volume useful: Gitanjali. This collection also includes "poem #7.")

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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