In the middle of town in Sligo sits a statue of Rabindranath Tagore, the bearded Indian Nobel Laureate and accomplished poet. A gift from the Indian Embassy to Ireland unveiled in 2015, the writer’s bust stands austere in the middle of the county seat, which has a population of under 20,000 people. Why a bronze statue of India’s “national poet” was erected in the western countryside of Ireland can be explained via one of Ireland’s most famous spokespeople: W. B. Yeats.
Poets William Butler Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore are often paired for their remarkable similarities. Most notably, both won the Nobel Prize: Tagore in 1913 and Yeats a decade later in 1923. Born in 1861 and 1865, respectively, Tagore and Yeats traveled around the imperial metropole London at the same time and ran in similar circles, involved in cultural and political movements representing their home countries of Ireland and India, respectively, at the peak of the British Empire. Both poets were interested in the relationship of spirituality, music, and poetry; both poets used landscape and nature in their poetic imagery. They also shared a poor reputation among anti-colonial nationalists; both were seen as being sympathetic to the British imperial cause at certain points in their careers. Though Tagore and Yeats were nationalists, their form of nationalism drew from “new” cosmopolitanism emphasizing the global nature of nationalism striving for a larger connectivity, as Louise Blakeney Williams notes.
A growing network of colonialization, industry, and trade routes at the turn of the century fostered metropole-periphery relationships and provided increased opportunity for post/colonial encounters on the micro and macro level. These encounters, which critics such as Louis Althusser and Homi Bhabha most notably have discussed in their works, served as moments of identity negotiation between colonizer and colonized as well as between different colonized populations. Though the post/colonial encounter could occur in a shared space or conversation between two individual humans, post/colonial encounters with the Other could also come through literature, a tactic taken up by Irish and Indian cultural revivals at the time to advocate for mounting independence movements. Yeats as a key figure of the Irish Literary Revival (alternatively, Celtic Twilight) of the late 1800s and Tagore as a cornerstone of the Bengali Renaissance realized their poetry’s position and potential within the larger global connections colonialism had wrought.
The similarities and differences between these two poets also reflect those of the nations they came to represent, which during this time period perched precariously on the verge of splitting along similar religious and cultural fault lines, leading to comparisons of the countries as both possessing so-called “Partition literatures.” Yeats and Tagore in particular were aware of the potency of their artistic representations of their nations during a charged political time. Each drew from imagery of ordinary people and the rural imaginary to form national cultural consciousnesses that would shape British perceptions of Indianness and Irishness. This move to reclaim invaded space and narrative of the people who are citizens of a colonized nation is a hallmark of postcolonial literature as a way of reviving or reinvigorating the pre-colonial culture (see Frantz Fanon ), before British invasion and exploitation created myths of the native and before the empire mapped their colonies as a form of control.
The relationship between Ireland and India during the early 20th century has been a source of recent attention as a salient postcolonial encounter, from the inception of these national consciousnesses to the physical independence struggles that later manifest in the two nations. Indian-Irish affinities developed through such individual encounters, as evidenced by figures like Theosophy’s Annie Besant and James and Margaret Cousins, who drew heavy parallels between the Irish and Indian political situations and ran in similar circles with Yeats and Tagore. Connections between the two nations furthered as figures invested in Indian nationalism like Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, and Sri Aurobindo travelled in similar circles in London. These cosmopolitan relationships and postcolonial encounters added to the momentum of the burgeoning and affinitive independence movements of India and Ireland. Specifically, Yeats and Tagore’s relationship has been the source of a rising number of articles, book chapters, and dissertations over the years, notably exploring the dimension to which the pair’s friendship participates in Orientalist and colonial norms. Yeats himself has been a muddled figure in postcolonialism and the process of decolonization in Ireland (see Yeats and Postcolonialism), but in a larger global comparative framework he becomes even more muddled.
To better understand Yeats’s relationship with colonialism beyond the Irish context, specifically with India and Tagore, this article aims to give a critical overview and outline Yeats’s relationship with India prior to meeting Tagore, then the relationship to Tagore himself.
Yeats and India
Early Exposures: Textual Encounters
Yeats’s fascination with Tagore was not his first foray into Indian culture; India, in fact, served as an inspiration point throughout most of his life both aesthetically and spiritually. From as early as his first poetic endeavors in the late 1800s, references to India and Hindu spiritual practices permeated his writing. Three poems featured in the 1889 publication Crossways, published when Yeats was 24, specifically take India as their setting– “The Indian to His Love,” “Anushaya and Vijaya,” and “The Indian Upon God.” These poems suggest Yeats’s prior engagement with the literature and ideas of India from a myriad of sources. Ashim Dutta in “India in Yeats’s Early Imagination: Mohini Chatterjee and Kālidāsa” notes the influence of Indian poet Kalidasa’s play Sakuntala on Yeats’s imagery of Indian flora, fauna, and landscape in “The Indian To His Love”; both Dutta and Elleke Boehmer in their close readings of these poems also observe Vedantic concepts of self and anti-self unfolding through the exchanges in “Anushaya and Vijaya,” which they propose stems from Yeats’s reading of the Hindu holy text, the Bhagavad Gita (Dutta 20; Boehmer 113). Boehmer posits that these three “Indian” poems may have served as a way for Yeats to experiment with a bucolic, pastoral landscape that he would later make Irish in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in 1890 (117). Sushil Kumar Jain traces echoes of Brahmanite texts and teachings, specifically the Upanishads, through this early phase’s poems that are not nominally “Indian”, including “Quatrains and Aphorisms,” “The Way of Wisdom,” “The Pathway,” “The Priest and the Fairy,” “The Song of the Happy Shepherd,” “Fergus and the Druid,” and his little-published The Seeker among his close readings. The text of the Upanishads were introduced to Yeats by his schoolmate and fellow poet AE (George Russell), who obtained his copy through the spiritualist network that was arguably Yeats’s greatest source of accessing Hindu spiritual texts: Theosophy.
Like the pre-Tagore poems, later poems without a directly named Indian tie, such as “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), “Vacillation” (1933), “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1921), and “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1933) also utilize Hindu spiritual concepts as their themes, as noted by A. Davenport and Ruth Vanita. Davenport compares lines from “Vacillation” to direct analogies of self-creation and rebirth from the Upanishads (56) while Vanita emphasizes Yeats’s use of dialogic between ego and world, which she proposes are also taken from the Upanishads (239). Shamsul Islam traces Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi influences in Yeats’s later “Ribh” poems and in his unpublished novel, The Speckled Bird. Most notably is Yeats’s use of Hindu ideas for his late poetic and spiritual manifesto A Vision (1925), as Shalini Sikka and Charles Armstrong detail in their works. Indian philosophy and spirituality was indeed something that Yeats pursued throughout his entire life, not just a passing phase. However, most note that Yeats’s obsession with India came in three waves spurred by three crucial Indian figures: pre-Tagore, Mohini Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, and, post-Tagore, Purohit Swami.
Early Exposures: Personal Encounters
Pre-Tagore, Yeats had encountered these previously mentioned Indian texts and philosophy through the fashionable esoteric movement of Theosophy, which he was exposed to prior to his joining the Blavatsky Lodge of the Theosophical Society in 1887. Madame Blavatsky, a Russian mystic, was one of the founders of Theosophy, promoting it as a belief system. Blavatsky often feted “Eastern” speakers to come speak to members of the Lodge. It was through these talks that Yeats became more familiar with Hindu teachings.
The first Indian that Yeats ever met, Mohini Mohan Chatterjee (Chatterji) was especially foundational in teaching select Brahmanite tenets, specifically an interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita that centrally emphasized karma and reincarnation of the soul if not dissolved of desire, a line of thought that heavily influenced Theosophical beliefs. Ashim Dutta traces just how deeply Chatterjee’s ascetic teaching affected a young Yeats by analyzing Yeats’s journalistic writing, particularly “The Way of Wisdom” and “Kanva on Himself” (21-22). Judge Rajbir Singh details Yeats’s first meeting with Chatterjee and the time spent with him over the course of a week in 1886, about which, years later, in 1935, Yeats would recount by describing Chatterjee as “beautiful” and speaking “all wisdom” that “confirmed [his] vague speculations and seemed at once logical and boundless” (Singh 19). Yeats in 1935 wrote to Chatterji to thank him for the vivid memory of that encounter throughout the years. He claimed it gave him his “first philosophical exposition of life” and impacted his work tremendously (20). The exoticizing language that Yeats uses in discussion of Chatterjee, comparing him to a “sage” and a “monk” and crediting him as a guide in his own spiritual journey, has been criticized by Singh, Shamsul Islam, and Michael Collins as indicating an unbalanced and tokenizing colonial relationship, one that may have informed his later interactions with Rabindranath Tagore.
Appreciation or Appropriation? Yeats’s Use of Indian Themes
For all of his exposure to Indian philosophy, Yeats’s true understanding of Indian tradition and ethical treatment of the material he encountered remains debatable. Yeats may have found the Indian and Irish situations as analogous, but the sympathy he had for Indian philosophical and mythological tradition did not excuse him from exploitative and Orientalist behaviors. Yeats in piecemealing from Celtic bardic narrative conventions, musicality, mythology, spiritual belief, and folklore believed he was forging a united Irish literary and cultural tradition. However, Yeats’s quest to create a national literature from a mystic, pre-colonial Ireland in search for what Salman Rushdie refers to as an “imaginary homeland,” more often lent itself to borrowing and syncretizing other traditions in a way that can only be described as appropriative. The selective and dilettante-ish use of Indian imagery and philosophy in his own poetry is an ethical concern for many critics. Michael Collins in “History and Postcolonial Thought: Rabindranath Tagore‟s Reception in London, 1912 – 1913” argues that as much as Yeats’s knowledge of India has been praised, Yeats’s knowledge of India and “the East” were vague or primarily through Theosophy, which Yeats himself confesses could not be read as objective nor entirely true in understanding “the Orient.” Boehmer observes how openly calls Yeats’s use of Indian philosophy “deliberately attention seeking, an expression of the poet’s quest for an authoritative esoteric voice” (109) in an “uneven exchange of influence” (113).
Yeats was not alone in this pursuit. Joseph Lennon situates Yeats in the modernist Symbolist tradition during the fin de siécle, furthering that John Millington Synge, James Stephens, the previously mentioned AE, and Lady Augusta Gregory “often looked to their version of the Orient as a remedy for Ireland’s colonial and sectarian problems, using aspects of it to represent an imagined, precolonial, heroic Irish past, and to foster a sense of a literary and mythological tradition in Ireland” (214). This Orientalism circulated throughout not only the Irish consciousness in the Celtic Twilight/ Irish Literary Revival but also throughout the London Rhymers Club and other cultural circles Yeats ran in, which predicated Rabindranath Tagore’s European involvement and no doubt paved his favored arrival.
“Wise Imperialism”: The Friendship of Yeats and Tagore
The Yeats-Tagore Encounter
Tagore and Yeats met for the first time on June 27, 1912, at the home of photographer William Rothenstein. Rothenstein had previously sent Yeats the manuscripts of Tagore’s partial translation of Gitanjali. On July 7, Yeats gave a reading of these poems to a group of thrilled London literary elite, including Ernest Rhys and Ezra Pound, and on July 12, Yeats hosted a dinner for Tagore. After this reading, Yeats and Tagore worked on translating the remainder of Tagore’s Gitanjali while in London, then Yeats continued editing them in Normandy, giving several readings of the poems while Tagore was back in India. In November 1912, the India Society published the full translation with an introduction by Yeats, which likens Tagore to famous British writers like Chaucer, depicts Tagore as a wise and solemn mystic, and positions India as an eternal land “immeasurably strange to us…and yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image, as though we had [heard]…our voice as in a dream” (Yeats xvi). In the spring of 1913, Yeats directed the Irish Players to perform Tagore’s play The Post Office, then unpublished, at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and then again in London in July 1913. On November 14, 1913, Tagore was informed that he had won the Prize via telegram at home in Bengal, then on December 10, 1913, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first non-European to do so. Yeats’s involvement and role in the Nobel process has recently come under debate, per Michael Collins’ work that claims Thomas Sturge Moore had more sway with the Nobel committee than Yeats did, but undoubtedly his translations and 1912 feteing elevated European consciousness of Tagore’s work.
After this, nothing much is written about what became of their friendship– Tagore went back to Bengal from the UK and founded his school, Shantiniketan, with his Nobel Prize money, and Yeats would later be propelled into a highly politicized poetic environment away from his Eastern pursuits. Eventually, Yeats seemingly lost interest in Tagore’s poetic career and did not sing praises of his poems as he had effused in the Gitanjali introduction, stating in a 1935 letter to Thomas Sturge Moore that Tagore wrote too much of God; Mary Lago examines how the two’s poetic aims diverged later in life in her 1965 essay. In a letter to Rothenstein in May 1935, Yeats wrote, “Damn Tagore. We got out three good books, Sturge Moore and I, because he thought it more important to see and know English than to be be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation. Tagore does not know English, no Indian can know English” (Wade 834-835).
Yeats’s Interest in Tagore
Meeting Tagore was for Yeats what Snežana Dabiċ refers to “the renewal of the Indian spell” (59). She outlines that Yeats’s primary spiritual concern at that time was a Unity of Culture and Being that was akin to the unity of atman and Brahman within the Hindu tradition, which was one of the primary themes present in Tagore’s poetry, specifically in Gitanjali. Spirituality aside, Lennon has posited that Yeats projected his affection for India and for the idea of a romantic, unified nation onto Tagore. Jain notes the romantic similarities of the two’s interests in ancient mythology and in using bucolic imagery as reasons why Yeats would have been attracted to Tagore’s work: “Tagore’s influence was primarily moral in nature. He symbolized to the Irish poet the power, the strength, and the wisdom that could be achieved through and assimilation of the Indian holy books; he strengthened belief in the validity of Asian philosophy and confirmed the course that Yeats’s life had followed since the meeting with Mohini Chatterji” (94).
Poloumi Saha through the account of Gitanjali’s translations gives a generous reading of Yeats, positing him as a figure complicit in advancing Tagore’s “Oriental inscrutability” but employing that inscrutability as helping Tagore, not hindering him (17). Elleke Boehmer too in her reading of Tagore and Yeats’s relationship obviously acknowledges the one-sided enthusiasm of Yeats, but also argues that Tagore was aware of the Orientalism at play both against him and to his own advantage in advancing an agenda. Boehmer seems more sympathetic to Yeats’s relationship with Tagore’s stemming from “wise imperialism”—calling it “patronizing yet promotional” (224)—and claims that Yeats did not see Tagore as a mere tokenism but as truthfully part of his pursuit for world unity.
However, the Orientalist dimension of this interest cannot be overlooked. Specifically when considering Yeats’s comment on how “no Indian can know English,” it becomes apparent that though Ireland may be considered a postcolonial nation, Yeats himself benefits from the European-ness and whiteness of his own identity’s positionality and perpetuates the model of a patronizing, paternalistic imperial relationship as superior to Tagore. Ana Jelnikar specifically delves into how Yeats propelled Tagore’s meteoric rise to fame whether Tagore wanted it or not by positioning Tagore as a one-dimensional tokenism, a serene and pious mystic. When “the real Tagore, the Bengali Rabindranath of a thousand interests and commitments, refused to wear the ‘Oriental’ straitjacket the British had fashioned for him,” Yeats (though not British, still obviously highly influential in British circles) and the writers he associated with in London lost interest and patience (Jelnikar 1009). Mary Lago also takes issue with the flatness of Yeats’s idea of Tagore, arguing that Yeats’s own obsession with Eastern thought and spirituality reduced Tagore’s poetry to simply mysticism and failed to recognize the merits of his other works in a way that were “romantically inaccurate” as “in actuality Rabindranath did not fit Yeats’s stereotype of the spiritual Indian” (40). Both Lago and Michael Collins point out the vagueness and little knowledge Yeats had about the sources of Tagore’s philosophy or about his social and cultural life outside of the poems of Gitanjali.
These differing views illustrate a post/colonial turn that Yeats scholarship, and Irish studies as a whole, will need to address; though some Yeats scholars engage critically with the post/colonial dimensions of Yeats as part of a colonized culture yet complicit in colonial attitudes, others are willing to be more forgiving of Yeats’s appropriation under the claim of search for religious truth or transcendental unity.
Reciprocated? Tagore’s Interest in Yeats
One way to combat a normatively colonial reading of the Yeats-Tagore relationship is to flip the focus from how Yeats related to Tagore to look instead at how Tagore viewed Yeats. Though little is written from Tagore’s side of both secondary scholarship and primary sources, the question remains of how much Tagore returned the affection for Yeats that Yeats exhibited for him. Joseph Lennon points out that though Yeats’s interest in Tagore as a national poet seems to be a reciprocal one, their relationship still points out “complex macrorelations” (214) between India as a colony in the “Orient” and Ireland as a white, Occidental colony. Tagore’s poetry heavily incorporates Vaishnavism’s use of love and self-dissolution into the whole, what Shamsul Islam in his essay attributes instead to Sufism). Lennon interprets this as similar to the arguments Yeats made about the universality of Eastern religions, but as a non-European Tagore did not have “the power of the Empire behind his words” (215) and thus in these literary workings his work was read not as national but as aesthetic. Instead, Yeats and his circles could categorize India as spiritual and mystic, a unified land and culture for their own usage– advocating for Tagore was what Yeats called “a piece of wise imperialism” that mapped onto his understanding of unifying cultures in the way he “unified” Irish tradition, even though it was done without Yeats actually understanding the factioned history of the Bengal Tagore was representing. However, Lennon still believes Tagore to have been equally inspired by Yeats as Yeats was by Tagore based on their similar views of the bard’s relation to the natural world.
Sirshendu Majumdar explores Tagore’s refusal to visit Ireland in 1913 by positing that Tagore’s decline to visit Ireland was not because of Yeats, but in part
“because [Tagore] had distanced himself from the political scene of his own country, and did not want to get embroiled in any further controversies. Or he might have been advised by his more cautious English friends that the English government would not be pleased with his visit to England’s most disturbed country” (193).
Other critics are not as convinced. Michael Collins finds the idea that Tagore “recognised in Yeats a common poetic genius” problematic, as Yeats at the time of the Nobel Prize in 1913 was not as established of a renowned poet as his later reputation would grow to be (124). Mary Lago implies that Tagore might have found issue with Yeats’s Orientalist methods of marketing his poetry and himself throughout 1912-1913 and that the friendship may have been one-sided. Most notably on the matter, a footnote of Harold M. Hurwitz’s seminal 1964 piece on their friendship observes that while Yeats mentions Tagore several times in his Autobiographies as being influential, a mention of meeting Yeats does not make the cut in Tagore’s own autobiography.
Bibliography & Further Reading
- Armstrong, Charles I. “‘Born Anew’: B. Yeats’s ‘Eastern’ Turn in the 1930s.” Yeats, Philosophy, and the Occult, edited by Matthew Gibson and Neil Mann, Liverpool University Press, 2016, pp. 83–106.
- Boehmer, Elleke. Indian Arrivals, 1870-1915: Networks of British Empire. Oxford University Press, 2015.
- Collins, Michael. “Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Friendship.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, Mar. 2012, pp. 118–42.
- Collins, Michael. “History and Postcolonial Thought: Rabindranath Tagore‟s Reception in London, 1912 – 1913,” The International Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 4, No. 9,2007, pp. 71-84.
- Dabić, Snežana. WB Yeats and Indian Thought: A Man Engaged in that Endless Research Into Life, Death, God. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.
- Davenport, A. “W. B. Yeats and the Upanishads.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 3, no. 9, 1952, pp. 55–62.
- Dutta, Ashim. “India in Yeats’s Early Imagination: Mohini Chatterjee and Kālidāsa.” International Yeats Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, May 2018, pp. 20-39.
- Hurwitz, Harold M. “Yeats and Tagore.” Comparative Literature, vol. 16, no. 1, 1964, pp. 55-64.
- Islam, Shamsul. “The Influence of Eastern Philosophy on Yeats’s Later Poetry.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 19, no. 4, 1973, pp. 283–90.
- Jain, Sushil Kumar. “Indian Elements in the Poetry of Yeats: On Chatterji and Tagore.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 1970, pp. 82–96.
- Jelnikar, Ana. “W.B. Yeats’s (Mis)Reading of Tagore: Interpreting an Alien Culture.” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 4, Oct. 2008, pp. 1005–24.
- Judge, Rajbir Singh. “Dusky Countenances: Ambivalent Bodies and Desires in the Theosophical Society.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 27, no. 2, Apr. 2018, pp. 264–93.
- Lago, Mary M. “The Parting of the Ways: A Comparative Study of Yeats and Tagore.” Mahfil, vol. 3, no. 1, 1966, pp. 31–57.
- Lennon, Joseph. “Writing Across Empire: W. B. Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore.” Rabindranath Tagore: Universality and Tradition, edited by Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press: Associated University Presses, 2003.
- Majumdar, Sirshendu. Yeats and Tagore: A Comparative Study of Cross-Cultural Poetry, Nationalist Politics, Hyphenated Margins and the Ascendancy of the Mind. Maunsel & Company/Academica Press, 2013.
- Saha, Poulomi. “Singing Bengal into a Nation: Tagore the Colonial Cosmopolitan?” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 36, no. 2, 2013, pp. 1–24.
- Sikka, Shalini. B. Yeats and the Upanishads. Peter Lang, 2002.
- Tagore, Rabindranath, and William Radice. Gitanjali : Song Offerings. Penguin Books India, 2011.
- Vanita, Ruth. “Self-Delighting Soul: A Reading of Yeats’s ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’ in the Light of Indian Philosophy.” Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate, vol. 24, no. 2, 2014, pp. 239–257.
- Wade, Allan, ed. The Letters of W. B. Yeats. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954.
- Williams, Louise Blakeney. “Overcoming the ‘Contagion of Mimicry’: The Cosmopolitan Nationalism and Modernist History of Rabindranath Tagore and W. B. Yeats.” The American Historical Review, vol. 112, no. 1, 2007, pp. 69–100.
Author: Bailey Betik, Spring 2020
Last edited: Spring 2020