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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Number 85: Rabindranath Tagore "Closed Path"

Closed Path

I thought that my voyage had come to its end
at the last limit of my power,
that the path before me was closed,
that provisions were exhausted
and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.

But I find that thy will knows no end in me.
And when old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost,
new country is revealed with its wonders.

-- Rabindranath Tagore

Hap Notes: Rabindrath Tagore (1861-1941) is probably India's most famous poet in the west, mostly because of his Nobel Prize (the first awarded to a non-European) and the poet William Butler Yeats (whom we will get to later, I promise). Tagore translated his own poems into English as something to do on a sea voyage to England. The poems were seen by his friend, artist Rothenstein, who, in turn showed them to Yeats. Yeats was impressed and the poems were published in 1912. Tagore was 51 years old at the time. This is how the floodgates opened to much of the English speaking world as the amazing words of Indian poetry flowed out. (This is one story of how it happened- there are more but let's stick with this one, for now.)

Tagore had a fascinating life. He was born in Kolkata (once Calcutta) and was born into a wealthy Bengali Brahmin family. He went to England to study law, left with no degree and became a writer of small fame, of stories, songs and plays, in his home town. He, at 51, decided to go back to England to restart his studies (!) and that's when he wrote out the translations that changed his life and the world's perceptions of India. Just look at his eyes. There's a truth in them, isn't there?

Tagore was a brilliant intellect who knew something about post-Newtonian physics and had discussions with Einstein. He traveled the world after his Nobel Prize in 1913 and he started a school and he had political views which I cannot possibly explain because I don't understand Indian politics much better than I understand our own and India is a big country with a lot of political subgroups. Gandhi, I kind of understand. The 1961 census recognized, hold on to your hat-- 1,652 separate languages in India. A full 29 of those languages are each spoken by 1 million or more people. Now throw in the difficulties of politics and translation. Let's back away from this problem politely and get back to the poem, eh?

This poem is so wonderful because of its universality. Whether you are old and thinking that your life's path is coming to a slow halt or you are young and see that some impediment has left you feeling as though some path has been closed off to you, the poem has meaning and gives hope. The world is such a vast and various place that fresh worlds will open for you at every turn. There is never an end to learning, the world is filled with wonders, new horizons beckon you daily.

I must confess that while I deeply enjoy the poetry of India, the more I read about it, the more Hindi I understand, the more background literature I read on it, the less I know. I have several times mentioned the difficulties of translation and one of them is not the language itself, which one can learn, but the upbringing that goes along with the language. For example, if I would say something in a poem about, say, a baseball game or Mt. Rushmore or a Southern Baptist church, you would instantly be flooded with impressions, that we may share, about these things because we grew up in America. Where Tagore's work excels is transcending much of this cultural baggage and gets right to the heart of things.

I adore the work of Harivansh Bachchan, another famous poet. His son, Indian film star Amitabh Bachchan (yeah, I managed to slip him in again), reads and sings some of his work which you can find on YouTube. You'll need to find a good translation to fully appreciate the words but the tune (yes, tune- many poems in India are put to music- think how easy that makes them to memorize!) of his father's classic poem Madhushala (it's too long for us to do here and I wouldn't presume to understand it all) is wonderful. You'll find yourself humming it and long to know the words. That's how learning starts- for the love and interest of something. However, the Bachchans are not Bengali- it's a whole different culture of meaning.

I don't mean to scare you with Indian poetry difficulties, though. Indian poetry is a beautiful lake with enticing colorful flowers around it and spicy sandalwood smokes in the air. Just take a run and jump into the lake and start floating around. It's wonderful and heady stuff. Read a good translation of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita. This Vedic literature will make your understanding deeper and...

"a new country will be revealed with its wonders."

Here's a good Tagore quote: " I say again and again that I am a poet, that I am not a fighter by nature. I would give everything to be one with my surroundings. I love my fellow beings and I prize their love."

and another (they're endless): "Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come."

You can find more Tagore here:

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