Poem of the week May 11

Early last week, on May 4th or 5th, I had decided to post a Tagore poem for this week’s “Poem of the Week”. I was delighted to discover yesterday, May 9th, that it was Tagore’s birthday by the Indian calendar.

Tagore translated many of his poems into English. In fact, that is how he won the Nobel prize. On a voyage to England in 1911, he fell sick. He took the advice of one of his companions on the ship, and used the time to translate a few of his poems from Gitanjali into English. He circulated these poems when he arrived in England, and in a very short time, his poems became a rage among the local literati. Momentum grew, and soon thereafter, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1912.

While most of his poems sound better in the original Bengali, there are a few poems that I have enjoyed more in the English translation than in the original Bengali. The poem of this week is one of them. It is from his collection of poems called “The Crescent Moon”.

On the Seashore

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
The infinite sky is motionless overhead
and the restless water is boisterous.
On the seashore of endless worlds
the children meet with shouts and dances.

They build their houses with sand
and they play with empty shells.
With withered leaves they weave their boats
and smilingly float them on the vast deep.
Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.

They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets.
Pearl fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships,
while children gather pebbles and scatter them again.
They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.

The sea surges up with laughter
and pale gleams the smile of the sea beach.
Death-dealing waves sing meaningless ballads to the children,
even like a mother while rocking her baby’s cradle.
The sea plays with children,
and pale gleams the smile of the sea beach.

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
Tempest roams in the pathless sky,
ships get wrecked in the trackless water,
death is abroad and children play.
On the seashore of endless worlds is the
great meeting of children.

Rabindranath Tagore (The Crescent Moon)

In this poem, one can see some of the genius of Tagore. Tagore effectively combined literary word play suffused with emotion, and deep philosophy. The poem uses the subject of children being engrossed in their play, creating with whatever material is available to them, oblivious to the ills and obstacles of their world, and happy to start all over again. Underlying all of this is the tragic farce of adults, who are after attaining treasures, fraught with anxiety and effort, while the lessons of detached joyful work lie right before them through the play of children.

Reams have been written about Rabindranath Tagore. Amartya Sen, another Nobel Laureate, who studied in Tagore’s school and university in Shantiniketan, Bolpur, has written extensively on Tagore. He was not just a prolific poet, but also a songwriter and composer (over 2000 songs), a playwright, a novelist, short story writer, founder of a school and a university that for a while was regarded as among the best in the Eastern hemisphere, freedom fighter, a land owner who actively managed his estates, and in his last years, a painter. What stands out is that everything he attempted or produced was of a high quality. One may or may not like all his works, and that is a matter of personal taste. But everything that he touched was well above average, if not among the best in its respective category.

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