Editorial

In this 6th article of our series, the respected scholar K. D. Sethna – also known as Amal Kiran – offers a literary feast to all those who desire to understand the genius of Sri Aurobindo, the kavi.  Sethna suggests that many of the World’s greatest poets possessed, however small or narrow, a mystical sense that revealed itself in their great works. In 31 intellectually-stimulating pages, while discussing numerous English poets, Sethna indicates that Sri Aurobindo’s mystical inspiration would usher in a new age of poetry; a poetry that would be reminiscent of vedic and upanishadic mantric poetry but occupy a niche above and beyond them.

-Editors Renaissance

A New Age of Mystical Poetry

KD Sethna
Click here to read Part 1
Part 2

Savitri: a unique adventure in poetic creation

When we speak of Savitri we speak of a unique adventure in poetic creation. From a certain standpoint the only parallel to its develop­ment is the second part of Goethe’s Faust. Goethe kept it with him for several decades, adding to it, revising it, making it run along with the growth of his own mind, and the last touch was given just a few days before his death. Here the parallel ends. Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri is not merely a work drawn out over a great number of years: it is a work re-written more than half a dozen times and each time re-written not simply because of poetic defects. Each version might be poetically satisfying: the difference was of the plane of consciousness from which the writing took place. Nor was Sri Aurobindo growing and maturing only as Goethe did during the composition of the second part of Faust; he was moving from plane to plane of Yoga. Not alone the ideas and the emotions were undergoing a change and richness to ripeness as with Goethe: the very stuff of consciousness was turning increasingly from human to superhuman. Savitri was originally composed with a good deal of the kind of inspiration which flows through Sri Aurobindo’s early narratives Urvasie and Love and Death, the inspiration of the life-force with its surge of passion and emotion, the mind energy with its lucid or recondite sweep of thought and here and there an outbreak of occult sight, a piercing by the bright poignancies of the psychic, a lifting into the large ideation of the Higher Mind. In Savitri the last three ele­ments were more active than before, since the poet was now deep in Yoga. More frequent too were sudden visitations by the rhythm which passes through lines like the one from Love and Death;

Measuring vast pain in his immortal mind,

or the vision of that other from Urvasie:

Time like a snake coiling among the stars.

But Sri Aurobindo soon struck beyond the level from which he had written the original poem. He grew master – at all moments and not solely in the trance-state – of the plane the traditional Yogas posit above the mind-centre in the brain, the famous “thousand-petalled lotus” of spiritual light. A recast was made in the terms of this poise of consciousness. Another became necessary when he rose to an illumination yet more profound – and whenever definitely higher levels were his, he infused the poem with fresh values of significance and sound. Sometimes, from one and the same level, differing versions were set forth – on every occasion the scope extended and the writing laden with more matter. The last few, spread across thirty-five years or so, have been such ramifications and “pithings”. The very final, which for want of leisure is still incomplete and unpublished, is an endeavour to be comprehensive to the maximum with a continual command of the intense and immense spiritual directness of the Vedas and the Upanishads.

The ancient Indian scriptures are pervaded by an ever-present awareness of a living Infinity, an illimitable Oneness deploying itself in myriad modes, remaining not only transcendental and static but throwing itself out in a cosmic dance, a dance that is divine on the higher planes but shot with shadows on the lower. On the lower there is a tremendous hide and seek, the soul has to pierce through masks and meet its own white truth. Once the piercing is done, the light is seen even here as ubiquitous and all Nature as secretly bathed in an ether of bliss. The Vedas and the Upanishads were chanted by those in whom the veil of division had fallen away. They spoke from the depths of the all-suffusing Spirit and from the heights of the Spirit’s Truth-world whose dim reflex is in our space and time. These scrip­tures, therefore, brim with a concrete seeing and complex manifesta­tion of forms the mind cannot wholly explain but which seize at once the inner heart, or a mighty burst of harmonious intuitions in which the mind discovers the consummation, the absolute, of its own fumbling concepts. In either case, what is found is, as it were, three-dimensional – far from the merely abstract: there is a solid touch of revelation, a burning throb of realisation.

All poetry deals in the tangible and the pulsing; but here what is supposed to be immeasurably remote comes intimately near, impinges on our members and affects our blood-stream. The whole body of us seems to thrill to the Eternal, feel itself as a play of the Eternal, in contact with the Eternal’s luminous stuff, the Eter­nal’s rhythm of vastitude. Yes, a new stuff of being, a new rhythm of experience press to incarnate themselves, so that our limited conscious­ness may not view the Beyond as from behind unbreakable glass but find windows and doors flung open in the crystal walls of the imagination for the breath of the shining Mystery to blow in and our mind and heart to rush out. That gigantic intercommunion and that boundless freedom are what the Vedic and Upanishadic poetry is composed of. It is these things that are also Savitri.

But Sri Aurobindo brings again and again the accent and vibration of the Mantra and a general mantric atmosphere playing round what­ever other overhead planes find voice, to convey him to a goal further than any the Vedas and the Upanishads envisaged. His poetry traverses regions on which the steps of the ancients never fell. The afflatus of the planes from which the Rishis chanted serves him to reveal a knowledge unattained by the Rishis. Savitri is at the same time a harking back and a springing forward. Its very conception shows this double movement. In the Mahabharata the story of Savitri depicts a fight between love and death somewhat similar in outward intention to the episodes of Priyumvada and Ruru as well as Urvasie and Pururavas which Sri Aurobindo had already poetised. The Mahabharata relates that when Savitri chose Satyavan for her bride­groom she was told of the prophecy that his life would be short and that soon she would be widowed. She stuck to her choice, resolved within herself to pit her love against the fatality by which she was being dogged. Knowing the heartbreak concealed for her behind the rapture of love she faced the future: hers was the hope of triumphing over the dread Adversary of man’s existence. At the back of this tale of conju­gal devotion armed with an extreme Will to Life, Sri Aurobindo intuited a wealth of symbol; for the name “Savitri” the Rig Veda had given to the supreme creative consciousness emblemed forth as the Sun. It means the Truth-force of the divine Light, and by analogy “Satyavan” would mean that Light’s Truth-being. So the carrying away of Satyavan by Yama the God of Death and the combat of Savitri’s heart and mind with that inscrutable darkness were felt bySri Aurobindo to be hinting vaguely the effort celebrated in the Vedic hymns to reclaim by means of Yoga what they called the lost Sun, the divine Light that has got submerged in a material Nature which seems to begin as a blind unconsciousness and out of which evolve various forms of Ignorance struggling to live and see.

In Sri Aurobindo’s poem the term Death regains its Vedic and Upanishadic connotation.   Death, in the Vedas and the Upanishads, is the world’s ignorance of its own divine Self: the falling asunder of the body and the blowing out of its little day are only the most external aspect of the mortal Night that has hidden from us our own Godhead. But Sri Aurobindo does not rest with this connotation.He goes beyond the old Indian idea of what God-attainment is. The Rishis spoke of liberating the soul from its bondage and of the liberated soul bringing the light of the Infinite into its erstwhile prison. They, however, put a limit to that enlightenment. A certain mixture of shadow was accepted as inevitable. At rare moments a flashing doubt about this grey inevitability escapes their lips:   Earth then appears to be a divine Mother waiting for some final apocalypse of herself.   But the vision of that perfect life is never clearly held before the consciousness: fugitive symbols of its possibility float down from the high trances of the seers without yielding their inmost essence or becoming dynamic. Though sufficient support is given to regarding the cosmic scene as a field for manifesting the Spirit, complete spiritual fulfilment is said to come only after the gross body has been doffed and a status reached outside the cosmic round of rebirth. According to Sri Aurobindo, the Supreme must be possessing the basic and perfect reality, the flawless archetype, of everything set going in our space and time. To couple with a liberation into the Self of selves an attainment of this archetypal Truth and to evolve the divine counterpart of each side of our complex constitution is the full aim of Yoga: in such an aim, even the gross body with its energies cannot be neglected as untransmutable into a luminous and immortal vehicle.

Consequently, Sri Aurobindo, while reading the Vedic and Upanishadic sense in the term Death, does not overlook its common physical sense which theMahabharata kept in view.   Unlike the old scriptures, he refuses to recognise the physical breaking-up as an unescapable destiny. The Aurobindonian Yogi does more than transmute his inward instruments: he conquers too the limitations imposed on the corporeal frame at present, by age, disease or accident: he incarnates a divine body-arche­type, his very stuff of matter flowers into a miraculous novel substance. So Savitri, fighting Satyavan’s death, is in Sri Aurobindo’s hands an avatar of the immortal Beauty and Love plunging into the trials of terrestrial life and seeking to overcome them not only in herself but also in the world she has embraced as her own: she is out to put an utter end to earth’s estrangement from God. Her story grows, a poetic structure of incident and character, in which he houses his special search and discovery, his unique exploration of hidden worlds, his ascent into the deific ranges of the Spirit and his bringing down of their power to divinise man’s total nature.

The technique of Savitri is attuned to the scriptural conception at work. It accepts the principle of metre and does not cut any moder­nistic zig-zag of irregularity. Sri Aurobindo is not an enemy to free verse, but he does reject the free verse that has no underlying rhythm to unify its wanderings. A unifying norm, no matter how inexplicit, is the sine quanonoi successful poetry, particularly in rendering “over­head” values. For, unity of measure is not just our mind’s arbitrary demand: Nature operates on such a basis, all her multiplicities have fundamental types behind them – individuals grounded in species, species grounded in genera. A wide variation playing upon a persistent pattern is her creative mode everywhere. The overhead planes hold that basic oneness most intensely. Conscious being there does not forget as in our lower hemisphere the universal Self: every movement is fraught with awareness of the Infinite. The principle of metre translates most strikingly into speech Nature’s law of manifestation, the Spirit’s method of self-deployment: the Many modulating upon the basis of the One.

Savitri adopts the iambic five-foot line of English blank verse as the most apt and plastic for harmonies like those of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Its blank verse, however, has certain special characteristics, affiniting it still further to them. It moves in a series of blocks formed by a changing distribution of correctly proportioned sentence-lengths – lengths of one line, two lines, three or four or five lines, many lines. Scarcely any block breaks off in the middle of a line; the sentence seldom makes a full pause except when its last line is complete. Hence the blocks, connected as they are, have still an independence, a kind of self-sufficient structure like stanzas distinct without being equally long. And what applies to the sentence-unit applies in a general way to every part of it. Each line-unit seems itself a block on a small scale – telling in its own mass and force as if it could stand in vacuo and at the same time join in a concordant sentence-totality to develop the story and its spiritual perspective. Though enjambment is not avoided on any strict principle, it is less ingenious and precipitate than in Urvasie, Love and Death or Baji Prabhou. The scriptural mood demands a graver, more contained movement. To such a mood end-stopping comes with greater naturalness. But Sri Aurobindo does not make a fetish of end-stopping. What he does is a most careful moulding of the individual line so that it may not merely serve the broad scheme as in much present-day verse but be as well a power and perfection in its own rights, without of course the least rhythmic monotony occurring in the passage and impairing the vitality of the broad scheme.

The power and perfection of each line of Savitri lies in utter faithfulness to the fact, the atmosphere, the life-throb found on the overhead planes. Not that the poetry refuses to descend anywhere: there are lines which the ordinary mind recognises as akin to its coinage, but these are deliberately introduced as helpful connecting-links between flight and flight on the supernormal levels. Even these have usually a vague breath of the Overworld about them. In any case they are so few that the generalisation about overhead power and perfection is practically unaffected. From the very start we have the full grip on profound realities, the expanse and richness of a revelation beyond the mental meaning. Savitri, like Ilion, that experiment by Sri Aurobindo of three hundred and odd lines in the quantitative hexameter, begins with a picture of darkness passing into day: here it is the last dawn in Satyavan’s life, a phenomenon packed with significance of the immor­tal light which Savitri has to win for earth by challenging the decree of death so long accepted by man. The daybreak of Ilion combines the spirit of Greek myth and epic with the spirit of Indian Yoga. It is a vision charged with the illumination of the occult Orient but naturalis­ing itself to the atmosphere of heroic Hellas. Savitri knows no such tempering: its mysticism is naked to the depths, the Orient shows its true inward colour,India’s Yogic antiquity lives again to fill out with enormous rhythmic suggestions the Aurobindonian message. But the poem’s prelude is too long to quote in uninterrupted sequence; only a number of “views”, brief or extended, can be set together to limn the chief features of the symbolic dawn:

It was the hour before the Gods awake.

Across the path of the divine Event

The huge foreboding mind of Night, alone In her unlit temple of eternity,

Lay stretched immobile upon Silence’ marge

The impassive skies were neutral, empty, still.

Then something in the inscrutable darkness stirred;

Something that wished but knew not how to be

Gave room for an old tired want unfilled

At peace in its subconscient moonless cave

To raise its head and look for absent light,

Straining closed eyes of vanished memory,

Like one who searches for a bygone self

And only meets the corpse of his desire….

As if a childlike finger laid on a cheek

Reminded of the endless need in things

The heedless Mother of the universe,

An infant longing clutched the sombre Vast.

Insensibly somewhere a breach began:

A long lone line of hesitating hue

Like a vague smile tempting a desert heart

Troubled the far rim of life’s obscure sleep….

A thought was sown in the unsounded Void,

A sense was born within the darkness’ depths,

A memory quivered in the heart of Time—

As if a soul long dead were moved to live.

But the oblivion that succeeds the fall

Had blotted the crowded tablets of the past,

And all that was destroyed must be rebuilt

And old experience laboured out once more.

All can be done if the God-touch is there;

A hope stole in that hardly dared to be

Amid the Night’s forlorn indifference.

As if solicited in an alien world

With timid and hazardous instinctive grace,

Orphaned and driven out to seek a home,

An errant marvel with no place to live,

Into a far-off nook of heaven there came

A slow miraculous gesture’s dim appeal.

The persistent thrill of a transfiguring touch

Persuaded the inert black quietude

And beauty and wonder disturbed the fields of God.

A wandering hand of pale enchanted light

That glowed along a fading moment’s brink

Fixed with gold panel and opalescent hinge

A gate of dreams ajar on mystery’s verge.

One lucent corner windowing hidden things

Forced the world’s blind immensity to sight….

Then through the pallid rift that seemed at first

Hardly enough for a trickle from the suns,

Outpoured the revelation and the flame.

The brief perpetual sign recurred above.

A glamour from the unreached transcendences

Iridescent with the glory of the Unseen,

A message from the unknown immortal Light,

A blaze upon creation’s quivering edge,

Dawn built her aura of magnificent hues

And buried its seed of grandeur in the hours.

An instant’s visitor the godhead shone:

On Life’s thin borders awhile the Vision stood

And bent over earth’s pondering forehead curve.

Interpreting a recondite beauty and bliss

In colour’s hieroglyphs of mystic sense,

It wrote the lines of a significant myth

Telling of a greatness of spiritual dawns,

A brilliant code penned with the sky for page.

Almost that day the epiphany was disclosed,

Of which our thoughts and hopes are signal flares,

A lonely splendour from the invisible goal

Almost was flung on the opaque Inane.

Once more a tread perturbed the vacant Vasts.

Infinity’s centre, a Face of rapturous calm

Parted the eternal lids that open heaven,

A Form from far beatitudes seemed to near.

Ambassadress twixt eternity and change,

The omniscient Goddess leaned across the breadths

That wrap the fated journeying of the stars

And saw the spaces ready for her feet.

Once she half-looked behind for her veiled sun,

Then, thoughtful, turned to her immortal work.

Earth felt the Imperishable’s passage close.

The waking ear of Nature heard her steps

And wideness turned to her its limitless eye,

And, scattered on sealed depths, her luminous smile

Kindled to fire the silence of the worlds.

All grew a consecration and a rite.

Air was a vibrant link between earth and heaven;

The wide-winged hymn of a great priestly wind

Arose and failed upon the altar hills;

The high boughs prayed in a revealing sky….

The impression is at first as of music afar and above – beautiful but not very distinguishable in its notes. There is, however, a pervad­ing intensity which cannot be missed even at a distance: the notes may not be clear at once but they are no blur, they stand fully formed, diminished without being dissolved. A little concentrated hearing – and the music takes a grip on us, stirring strange secret places within, to echo the rhythms that float down and to mirror the visions that fall across gigantic spaces. When our consciousness grows receptive enough, we observe that the spiritual and the material move here as one. Most of us who, when the night had run a long course but was still thick, have waited in the ambiguous atmosphere with our faces to the East, have had an inkling of a vigil by some cosmic Ignorance and have been faintly filled with the unplumbed prevision of a deific change because of both a tendency in the gloom and a beckoning from some masked splendour. Also, when watching daybreak, we have felt a deific revela­tion in the making, a beauty that was too great to be borne by earth-eyes and was soon lost in the familiar bright outlines of our world. Either of these two perceptions is caught by Sri Aurobindo with the utmost suggestive precision; we face occurrences, we might see with our physical eyes and touch with our physical hands. It is the combined sense of the closely possessed and the supremely illimitable that is the mark of true overhead poetry. For, the Spiritual is never tenuous or empty: it is dense and rich, containing the essence of all that we regard as substantial: whatever has shape and colour can therefore interpret it, bring it to a focus for our minds, be its revelatory figure. But shape and colour so often tend to overlay the Spirit’s secret values. Sri Aurobindo’s art is free from that tendency: he nowhere loses in the terms of Nature the stuff of Super-nature. A striking example of his success are the lines:

A wandering hand of pale enchanted light

That glowed along a fading moment’s brink

Fixed with gold panel and opalescent hinge

A gate of dreams ajar on mystery’s verge.

A keen atmosphere of Super-nature bathes what we are accustomed to look upon as natural objects – hand, panel, hinge, gate. And they are thus bathed not merely by being used as metaphors. There has hap­pened a merging of them in realities of planes beyond the earth, a spiritual concreteness fuses with their material concreteness and makes them affect our senses with forms instinct with an unearthly significance. Perhaps it will be easiest to appreciate this art of mystical fact by noting the lines immediately preceding the above:

Into a far-off nook of heaven there came

A slow miraculous gesture’s dim appeal.

The persistent thrill of a transfiguring touch

Persuaded the inert black quietude

And beauty and wonder disturbed the fields of God.

Sri Aurobindo’s response to criticism of his use of double adjectives and epithets in Savitri

It is possible to play the critic and ask: “Should there not be a restraint in the double adjective? On top of a general teeming of single qualifiers two epithets are put before a noun in the same way twice in three lines here and two lines further one more pair of similarly yoked adjectives is seen in ‘ pale enchanted light’: would it not be an improve­ment if some variety were introduced and a less obvious method follow­ed?”Sri Aurobindo, in a private letter, makes a most enlightening statement on the point at issue: “If a gradual wealth-burdened move­ment is the right thing, as it certainly is here in my judgment, the necessary means have to be used to bring it about — and the double adjective is admirably suited for the purpose. Do not forget that Savitri is spiritual poetry cast into a symbolic figure. Done on this rule, it is really a new attempt and cannot be hampered by old ideas of technique except when they are assimilable. Least of all by a standard proper to a mere intellectual and abstract poetry which makes ‘reason and taste ‘ the supreme arbiters, aims at a harmonised poetic intellectu­al balanced expression of the sense, elegance in language, a sober and subtle use of imaginative decoration, a restrained emotive element. The attempt at mystic spiritual poetry of the kind I am at demands above all a spiritual objectivity, an intense psycho-physical concreteness. According to certain canons, epithets should be used sparingly, free use of them is rhetorical, an ‘obvious’ device, a crowding of images is bad taste, there should be subtlety of art not displayed but severely concealed – Summa ars est celare artem. Very good for a certain standard of poetry, not so good or not good at all for others. Shakes­peare kicks over these traces at every step, Aeschylus freely and frequently, Milton wherever he chooses.   Such lines as

With hideous ruin and combustion down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

** In adamantine chains and penal fire

or

Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast

Seal up the shipboy’s eyes and rock his brain

In cradle of the rude imperious surge

(**Note two double adjectives in three lines in the last) – are not subtle or restrained or careful to conceal their elements of powerful technique, they show rather a vivid richness or vehemence, forcing language to its utmost power of expression. That has to be done still more in this kind of mystic poetry. I cannot bring out the spiritual objectivity if I have to be miserly about epithets, images, or deny myself the use of all available resources of sound-significance. The double epithets are indispensable here and in the exact order in which they are arranged by me. The rich burdened movement might be secured by other means, but a rich burdened movement of any kind is not my primary object, it is desirable only because it is needed to express the spirit of the action here; and the double epithets are wanted because they are the best, not only one way of securing it. The ‘gesture’ must be’slow miraculous ‘ – if it is merely miraculous or merely slow, that does not create a picture of the thing as it is, but of something quite abstract and ordinary or concrete and ordinary – it is the combination that renders the exact nature of the mystic movement, with the ‘dim appeal’ completing it, so that ‘gesture’ is not here a metaphor but a thing actually done. Equally a ‘pale light’ or an ‘enchanted light’ may be very pretty, but it is only the combination that renders the luminosity which is that of the hand acting tentatively in the darkness. That darkness itself is described as a quietude which gives it a subjective spiritual character and brings out the thing symbolised, but the double epithet ‘inert black’ gives it the needed concreteness so that the quietude ceases to be something abstract and becomes something concrete, objective but still spiritually subjective.

Every word must be the right word, with the right atmosphere, the right relation to all the other words, just as every sound in its place and the whole sound together must bring out the imponderable significance which is beyond verbal expression. One can’t chop and change about on the principle that it is sufficient if the same mental sense or part of it is given with some poetical beauty or power. One can only change if the change brings out more perfectly the thing behind that is seeking for expression – bring out in full objectivity and also in the full mystic sense. If I can do that, well, other considerations have to take a backseat or seek their satisfaction elsewhere.”

A free diversity of style is practised by Sri Aurobindo to attain his goal. He does not immure himself in any one formula – not even the formula of lavish technique which he has defended. Where the spiritual mood and situation demand it, he can be quite sparing in epithet and image and sound. And not only differences in the texture of style does he exploit: he has in addition different tempers of it. The texture consists in simplicity or complexity, austereness or lavishness, concision or diffusion: the temper lies in a particular receptive attitude and exploratory process of the visioning word. One sort of temper may run through many sorts of texture, for its quality resides behind the obvious characteristics of the word-body. Roughly, there are four kinds of temper that can be described to some extent, while a fifth eludes all analysis and is the inmost circle of style, the magic of inevitability at its diamond point. The other kinds may also be inevitable, but here is, as it were, the sheer quintessence of their inevitabilities and we can say about it when we meet it that there it is but what exactly it is we cannot say. In the field of the definable style-tempers we have first the visioning word doing no more than equate itself to a mood and a situation: it accepts the mood, acknowledges the situation and gives them a just expression with any style-texture the poet is moved to adopt.   Thus Sri Aurobindo writes:

Something that wished but knew not how to be,

or,

All can be done if the God-touch is there.

This stylistic temper is mixed with a second type in the lines about “an old tired want” being given room

To raise its head and look for absent light,

Straining closed eyes of vanished memory

Like one who searches for a bygone self

And only meets the corpse of his desire.

Now the visioning word is not merely just, not merely equated to its contents: it has pressed out of them a vigorous subtlety: it does not stop with a felicitous possession of their appearance, it goes under the skin, so to speak, and startles them into throwing up effective sugges­tions of their inner vitality. A third temper of style is shown us, infused into the second, when Sri Aurobindo comes with

A long lone line of hesitating hue

Like a vague smile tempting a desert heart

Troubled the far rim of life’s obscure sleep.

The visioning word has begun to quicken with an inside glow – there is, besides the vividness and the subtlety from under the skin of mood and situation, a kindling in which many nuances from within arise and play and merge, the pulse of things becomes a gleaming varied flow of intense significances and not only a strong suggestive leap. This process arrives at its acme in a passage like:

A glamour from the unreached transcendences

Iridescent with the glory of the Unseen,

A message from the unknown immortal Light,

A blaze upon creation’s quivering edge,

Dawn built her aura of magnificent hues

And buried its seed of grandeur in the hours.

Nor is the process, of which I have spoken, the sole element in the above passage. Joined with it is another which bears the visioning word in a spelled exaltation of deep discovery, a fourth temper of style instilling into the theme a rapt self-transparency of meaningful design and vital inwardness. It is not easy to disengage this temper: more than the rest it must be felt by an instinct, for it is nearest the absolute style which refuses to be analysed. That absolute style is in the exquisite lines already cited about the fixing of “a gate of dreams “. There it comes into being with a kinship to the third temper, while it confronts us with a kinship to the fourth in the poignant wizardry of:

Air was a vibrant link between earth and heaven;

The wide winged hymn of a great priestly wind

Arose and failed upon the altar hills;

The high boughs prayed in a revealing sky,

or the august enchantment of:

Infinity’s centre, a Face of rapturous calm

Parted the eternal lids that open heaven.

It can also have a kinship to the first and second tempers. The first seems quietly alchemised into it by

An errant marvel with no place to live.

One of the lines from a group omitted in our quotation of Savitri’s prelude illustrates a mighty mutation into it from the second:

The abysm of the unbodied Infinite.

Overmind influences in Savitri

Of course this indefinable super-inevitable style is poetically the ultima thule, just as the Mantra is spiritually so. But in an epic of great length it cannot be present everywhere “neat”; nor can the Mantra. And the very plan of Savitri, comprising as it does the entire expanse of evolution into deity and covering most subjects of philosophical search and every possible aspect of mystical living, demands for the richness and complete­ness of the treatment variation of style-temper no less than of style-texture and inspiring plane. The only condition which cannot be waived is the overhead afflatus: it must be there in one form and degree or another if a direct poetising of the Divine is to be accomplished.

A direct poetising of the Divine runs through Savitri from end to end. But that does not imply a rejection of human interest: what is implied is an “unmasked” pervasion and interpretation of it by the beyond-human. In fact the human element is unavoidable, since the figure from which the poem derives its name is the divine Consciousness descended into flesh. Her work is among terrestrial creatures: it is among their joys and travails that she awakes on that fateful morning. Trees and animals and humans hold her in their midst, an Immortal prisoned in mortality, the high potencies of her soul wedded to a living that is but a slow dying:

At first life grieved not in her burdened breast…

In a deep cleft dug by silence twixt two realms

She lay remote from grief, unsawn by care,

Nothing recalling of the sorrow here.

Then a slow faint remembrance shadowlike moved

And sighing she laid her hand upon her bosom

And recognised the close and lingering ache

Deep, quiet, old, made natural to its place.

The origin of these lines is not the sheer overhead, they have not the masterful seeing through an amplitude of light. Still, they have a general overhead influence and their difference from fine poetry of the mental order can be marked if we put side by side with their last three verses a snatch from Keats which has a similar motive. In Hyperion an action almost identical with Savitri’s is given to Thea, the companion of Saturn during his fallen days:

One hand she pressed upon that aching spot

Where beats the human heart, as if just there,

Though an immortal, she felt cruel pain.

Sri Aurobindo has a more profound tone; the language is charged with suggestions that go below the thought-meaning; the tragedy of a luminous soul enduring the darkness of earth, taking upon itself the heartbreak that is mortal existence, finds voice in the very rhythm, so to speak, of that ancient heartbreak. The emotion in the excerpt from Keats does not draw upon this intense psychic sadness, it neighbours it in the phrase, “that aching spot where beats the human heart”, but passes on to the imaginative idea of the Immortal’s pain instead of plumbing the actual pathos of the entombed sweetness. Nor is there in it the sense of the height from which the celestial sweetness has fallen: the mere words, “though an Immortal”, convey no more than the conception, while Sri Aurobindo infuses into his less explicit yet keener turns some breath of the overhead atmosphere. The poetic seeing is from some psychic centre, and therefore not sweepingly large, yet like a sharp flame the poetry rises to touch the air of the Overworld and burn a little with a colour beyond its own mood.

This phenomenon plays in and out of Savitri. At times an occult feature joins in and assumes prominence, as when Savitri is further described as remembering the wrestle, within her heart, of huge dim figures – earth and love and doom – and then the image of some cryptic greatness emerges, with a psychic effluence of sweetness and light falling across the dread and the secrecy and with also a hidden sense of the Spirit’s overhead amplitude, but the main impression is of the puzzling occult:

At the sombre centre of the dire debate

A guardian of the unconsoled abyss

Inheriting the long agony of the globe,

A stone-still figure of high and godlike Pain,

Stared into space with fixed regardless eyes

That saw grief’s timeless depths but not life’s goal.

A similar composite inspiration of three-planed poetry is offered us a little later when another vision, picking up the abyss-element, is brought forward, a vision even more mysterious whom Sri Aurobindo gives no name:

One dealt with her who meets the burdened great

Assigner of the ordeal and the path

Who uses in this holocaust of the soul

Death, fall and sorrow for the spirit’s goads,

The dubious Godhead with his torch of pain

Lit up the chasm of the unfinished world

And called her to fill with her vast self the abyss.

But in these lines there is a crescendo of the overhead seizing the occult and the last three are tremendous both in sight and vibration. They conjure up from royal heights of the overhead the scene of the earth-drama in which Savitri is the chief protagonist. The rhythm travels with a huge intensity and makes us actually hear the work­ings of the divine mysteries which the language puts into the picture of Savitri as well as of the dark evolving universe she has come to help. Just as we compared Keats’s lines with Sri Aurobindo’s in order to feel the latter’s differentia, so we can best note the peculiar overhead enve­lopment and absorption of the occult by comparing to the style and the sound here those of the famous finale of Francis Thompson’s sonnet The Heart. Thompson recalls the act of that fierce Roman patriot Sextus Curtius who jumped, horse-backed and full-armoured, into the deep trench which according to the augurs had to be filled with what Rome deemed most precious if she was to escape heavenly punishment. Thompson creates an image magnificently profound about the human heart’s unrealised grandeur:

The world, from star to sea, cast down its brink —

Yet shall that chasm, till He who these did build

An awful Curtius make Him, yawn unfilled.

As sheer poetry this is equal to the Aurobindonian lines and the spiri­tual word-significance is as admirable. Word-significance, however, is not the sole ingredient of poetry. There is what Sri Aurobindo calls the imponderable significance beyond verbal expression. The rhythm set up by the words brings it home and awakes in us the reality they strive to portray. Thompson’s rhythm, like his expression, has grip and strength, it shakes up broad tracts of the mind but, except a little at the end, it does not break through the mind into the infinite overhead. A precisely moulded and forcefully imaged thought goes winging through us, stirring mystical suggestions with the aid of an historical incident. We are moved by the brilliant originality which enlarges that incident and strikes into it an inward spiritual truth, yet save for the effect produced by the sound and the meaning of the words “awful” and “yawn” we miss the cosmic unfathomable reverberations Sri Aurobindo induces in some concealed spaciousness of divine being. Tech­nically we might say that the second line in Thompson fails to be over­head because of the crowdedly repetitive clipped sounds “till” and “did” and “build”. The overhead rhythm needs a different art – and behind the art a different psychological disposition. Thompson’s opening line has nothing markedly counter to the overhead art; somehow the right psychological disposition is still lacking. In the last line he is on the verge of both, yet comes short because there is not the overhead lift completing the semi-overhead wideness; so the imponderable significance beyond verbal expression is much less spiritual than in Sri Aurobindo’s

And called her to fill with her vast self the abyss.

Unmistakably mantric seems this note – and that too in full cry. The pinions of the Mantra beat often in Savitri, but everywhere they are not completely unclosed to occupy the entire line. They mingle with wafts of other overhead utterances – the Spirit ideative or illuminative or intuitive. That the Spirit in nothing else than its identity is difficult to sustain for more than a few lines. Though in the Dawn-description it is a frequent presence, even there it is interspersed with less direct substantiality of the Spirit. The passage, however, where the avatarhood of Savitri is painted keeps the unalloyed Mantra ring­ing for dozens of lines! It is worth special attention both for this reason and for being poetically the longest and most comprehensive mystical portrait in all literature.

Special status for women in inspired poetry

To lead from darkness into light, from ignorance of God to know­ledge of Him is the work assigned by many poets to woman. There is the praise by Goethe of the Eternal Feminine calling us onward and upward. And there is Dante’s music about the santo riso, the saintly smile, of Beatrice which guided him from the sins of the flesh to the soul’s ecstasy of worship. Crashaw wrote a hymn in honour of St. Teresa, lauding her devotion to Christ and her transforming influence on men. Francis Thompson made a shrine for Alice Meynell: she was the religious calm-centre to the storm of his much-tossed and vagrant career. Wordsworth imagined how the “overseeing power” of Nature would build up the child Lucy into a woman aglow with a soulful beauty and character that would be in tune with pantheistic harmonies of wind and water. But none of these poets has left us a sustained mys­tical portrait. A few phrases pregnant with mysticism are all we have from them in the midst of a general diffused suggestion of goodness or else of religious zeal. There is also the imaginative picture drawn by Shelley from brief glimpses of Emilia Viviani in a convent, no nun herself but kept as a charge of the nuns by a tyrannical parent. Who among us, in the days of youthful dreaming, has not been intoxicated by the romantic idealism shot with Platonic mysticism in the apostrophe?

Seraph of Heaven! too gentle to be human,

Veiling beneath that radiant form of Woman

All that is insupportable in thee

Of light and love and immortality!

Sweet benediction in the eternal Curse!

Veiled glory of the lampless Universe!

or in the description ? —

the brightness

Of her divinest presence trembles through

Her limbs, as underneath a cloud of dew

Embodied in the windless heaven of June,

Amid the splendour-winged stars, the Moon

Burns inextinguishably beautiful.

But such passages are rare in Epipsychidion: most of the poem is idealistically romantic rather than mystically Platonic. And even in the exceptional places the mysticism is not what I have designated as direct. The language is of the poetic intelligence visited by the rapture and radiance of an occult sphere of mentality behind it: both vision and rhythm are, for all that occult visitation, indirect in their mystical import and impact: they are the outward mind thrilling to the occult yet rendering it in terms not altogether native to it. Indirect also are the excellent lines by a poet of our own day, Robert Hugh Benson, depicting a contemplative of St. Teresa’s Order:

She moves in tumult; round her lies

The silence of the world of grace;

The twilight of our mysteries

Shines like high noonday on her face;

Our piteous guesses, dim with fears,

She touches, handles, sees and hears.

In her all longings mix and meet;

Dumb souls through her are eloquent;

She feels the world beneath her feet

Thrill in a passionate intent;

Through her our tides of feeling roll

And find their God within her soul.

It is again the poetic intelligence speaking – with a difference in two respects from Shelley’s passages. First, the inner mind has contributed a certain intuitive intimacy of touch on mystical experience rather thana wash of bright and colourful vision. Second, the emotion does not so much rise upward to echo something of the wide overhead power as plunge inward to contact a little the profound delicacy of the psychic.

All that is indirect in Shelley and Benson grows a directness the most complete and at a stretch not found in either the Vedas and the Upanishads, when Sri Aurobindo builds up the portrait of Savitri as one in whom the Godhead of Love finds perfect incarnation. Every­thing in her pointed to a nobler kind than the human:

Near to earth’s wideness, intimate with heaven,

Exalted and swift her young large-visioned spirit

Winging through worlds of splendour and of calm

O’erflew the ways of Thought to unborn things.

Ardent was her self-poised unstumbling will,

Her mind, a sea of white sincerity,

Passionate in flow, had not one turbid wave.

As in a mystic and dynamic dance

A priestess of immaculate ecstasies,

Inspired and ruled from Truth’s revealing vault,

Moves in some prophet cavern of the Gods,

A heart of silence in the hands of joy

Inhabited with rich creative beats

A body like a parable of dawn

That seemed a niche for veiled divinity

Or golden temple-door to things beyond.

Immortal rhythms swayed in her time-born steps;

Her look, her smile awoke celestial sense

Even in earth-stuff and their intense delight

Poured a supernal beauty on men’s lives.

A wide self-giving was her native act;

A magnanimity as of sea or sky

Enveloped in her greatness all that came.

Her kindly care was a sweet, temperate sun,

Her high passion a blue heaven’s equipoise.

So deep was her embrace of inmost help,

The whole world could take refuge in her single heart.

The great unsatisfied godhead here could dwell.

Vacant of the dwarf self’s imprisoned air,

Her mood could harbour his sublimer breath

Spiritual that can make all things divine:

For even her gulfs were secrecies of light.

At once she was the stillness and the word,

A continent of self-diffusiug peace,

An ocean of untrembling virgin fire.

In her he met a vastness like his own;

His warm high subtle ether he refound

And moved in her as in his natural home.

It is not necessary to understand the passage in detail in order to feel its magnificence. The phrases have an enormous weight of vision that strikes us to our knees, as it were, impressing us with a finality we dare not question. The rhythm has an overpowering fidelity to the inner thrill of the experience suggested and symbolised. Here are the figures and values of a superhuman state of consciousness at the very top, breaking upon us in their own stuff and vibrancy through the medium of language. This is not the mind imagining the highest it can beyond itself. This is an Overmind actually holding all the magnitudes that are pictured; its vision is from within, composed of its own subs­tance and lit up with its own vast vitality. As a result, the pictures are at once extra-immediate and extra-remote: they make, as A. E. Housman would have said, an impact upon our solar plexus as no mental reflection of mystical realities can, but while convincing us of their living concreteness they dodge our mental apprehension by refus­ing to yield their meanings easily and to affine themselves to what our thought can size up. To adopt Sri Aurobindo’s own turn, the ways of thought are overflown, worlds of splendour and calm above the human level are crossed and unborn things reached. Not that everything is difficult to conceive: Savitri’s “magnanimity”, “kindly care” and “inmost help” reach us through emblems that are not resistant to analysis, though we shall be deprived of a considerable amount of their stimulus unless we use the Eye behind the eye and the Ear behind the ear to sense that the elemental or cosmic analogies and metaphors with their supporting breadth of phrase and sonance are no eloquent exagge­rations but are accurately intrinsic to the special nature of Savitri’s “self-giving”. The “sea of white sincerity” too is within our imagina­tive grasp and so, again, in this era of the psychoanalysed subconscious are the gulfs which are “secrecies of light”. A no less Overmind intuitiveness the language and rhythm of the lines where they are mentioned above, and it would be poor justice to them if we did not thrill to the rapturous wideness drowning all thought in the one case and in the other the ecstatic opening of depth beyond depth unsounded by the Freudian intellect; but we are able to adapt ourselves without much strain to the general vision. The two lines driving home Savitri’s being at the same time the stillness and the word –

 A continent of self-diffusing peace,

An ocean of untrembling virgin fire.

have an expressive force more hard to absorb. Savitri’s word-aspect could have been served well enough by being called an ocean of virgin fire and her stillness-aspect a continent of peace without the two epi­thets “untrembling” and “self-diffusing”. As soon as the fire is “untrembling” and the peace “self-diffusing”, the intense movement is seen as superbly steady, the extreme rest as gigantically spreading its influence. So in the very fact of movement there is rest, in the very fact of rest movement: the two are a single miracle most aptly figured to suggest, by their playing into each other’s hands, the omnipotent essence of the Divine. Our mind has usually little experience of opposites meeting, much less coalescing; even Thompson’s poetic idea-Passionless passion, wild tranquillities falls slightly outside easy conception. Sri Aurobindo’s direct mystical sight, packed with an inward sense of the superhuman, is still more enigmatic: it grips us by its intimacy with its object but we do not grip it enough by our ideative powers.

Coupling of the overmind vision with the overmind word-rhythm is the achievement par excellence of Sri Aurobindo

In the central picture of the passage – the nine lines, beginning with “As in a mystic and dynamic dance“, which are perhaps Sri Aurobindo’s grandest achievement in mantric poetry – there is no obstacle to our imaginatively realising how apt are the glorious figures – “a parable of dawn“, “a niche for veiled divinity“, “a golden temple-door” – for Savitri’s body with its finite-looking beauty admitting us into a Presence that has no limit. Nor is there any bar to our conjuring up “a priestess of immaculate ecstasies.” But what is “truth’s revealing vault” inspiring and ruling her? Is the sky used here as a symbol of the light of Eternity? Evidently some infinitude of being that stretches above like a sky and is higher than our obscure and erring conscious­ness is meant. Yet immediately afterwards we have the “prophet cavern of the Gods“: it is in a cavern that the priestess is moving and a cavern by definition cannot have a sky, it must be a closed place. The word “vault” is admirably dual and suits the cavern-suggestion no less than the sky-suggestion, but how are we to mingle the two? We must think of the cavern as having a “revealing” roof, which means really a roof that, instead of shutting out light, is one dense mass of light, Truth’s own stuff. Such a cavern with such a roof is neither closed in nor dark: it is somewhat like our universe as viewed from the earth at midday, an immense “inverted bowl” of brightness under which we seem cooped. What special point is made by bringing in that cavernous view? The answer is that no other will present the profound secrecy of the world Sri Aurobindo is speaking of – a spiritual state which is to be entered by drawing the consciousness further and further away from outward phenomena as into a cavern but which, when entered, is discovered to be a boundless space of being, full of a knowledge capable of prophecy, a time-transcending knowledge which is a radiance poured from above where Truth is like some huge sun. This strange world appears to be a fusion of two levels.

It is not quite removed from what Sri Aurobindo elsewhere hints as “an aureate opening in Time.” The “aureate opening” refers to the psyche, the gate of communication bet­ween our ignorant time-process and the splendour of the eternal Spirit: it is the authentic soul or divine spark as distinguished from the elan vital and the mind-force, behind and between which it is hidden and upon which it sheds its mystical influence. In Yoga the psyche is found at the back of that juncture of the elan vital and the mind-force—the emotional being whose physical effects we feel in the heart-region. It is the true heart of us, of which our emotional being withits physical counterpart is an outward diminished representation. It has its own experience of the Divine, exquisite and passionate, yet it has not in itself the amplitude and puissance as experienced in the overhead planes, the amplitude and puissance which attain their extreme in the consciousness whence the Mantra comes. This consciousness is implied in Sri Aurobindo’s mention of Truth’s inspiring and ruling vault as well as of the Gods in whose cavern the priestess is dancing. The spiritual state he describes is, therefore, a domain where the psyche has opened up to the Overworld and got suffused with the highest light. Savitri has an embodied emo­tional being that is not merely merged in the psyche: it is merged also in a denizen of the Overworld descended into the psyche and making the inspiration of that Height one with it. The double character is suggested again when the “heart of silence” is said to be in the “hands of joy.” Usually in Yoga a poise free from aching desire is taken hold of and enveloped by a vast bliss that is independent of finite objects and circumstances, but here more is meant than this mystical experience: the in-drawn dedicated stillness caught by a masterful bliss as though with hands commanding and directing corresponds to the samadhi-wrapt priestess rhythmically swaying to the luminous and beatific will invading her from Truth’s empyrean.

All this, of course, is just an effort at an imaginative re-creation of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual symbols. It can serve merely as a prop, it cannot deliver the full sense of them. Intuitive vision is the means to compass both their subjective and objective values, for they are plucked from Super-nature with an absolute loyalty to its extreme altitudes. We must go very far indeed from the imaginative intellect’s grasp in order to feel their coherence and their living force. Without submit­ting ourselves in intuitive sympathy to an invasion from worlds of a Consciousness that is divine and deathless, ours will be a surface appreciation, at most admiring certain similes and felicitous turns of language, scarcely stirring to the hidden immensity of the revelation and its concrete mystical drive and scope. And if we do not read the passage aloud like a spell of superb potency and let the rhythm break through secret sound-spaces within us we shall never awake wholly to the fact that the entire description of Savitri, and especially the part I have been commenting upon, is word and vibration charged with actual deific states – the highest spiritual plane with its own native accent.

Failure to tackle the Mantra, and in general all overhead poetry, in the right receptive way will lay its contents, more than those of any other type of mystical verse, open to the accusation of being what Yeats called “Asiatic vague immensities”. For in it Asia’s difference from the European dealing with God is most prominent. Europe finds its natural element in definite philosophical ideas, it governs even the Infinite by the laws of logic and constructs a self-consistent picture by following a single track of thought.   Asia is at home in multiple tracks: though philosophers have tried to be logically bound down to systems clear-cut out of one dominant trend, the instinct is to give way to multitudinous incompatibilities harmonising and uniting in a supra-logical vision.   Overhead poetry, particularly at its apex, is supra-logical vision embodied without the intellect playing the interpreter. Whatever is seizable by the intellect is an adaptation by the overhead planes of themselves to its mode and not its shaping of them according to its own desire and proclivity.   Much must escape the intellect almost altogether and call for a very extended development of the faculties in us which respond to poetic values through intuition and rhythm-feeling. Large ambiguities, therefore, arise in the mind, especially the European.

But, on the other hand, from the standpoint of intrinsic character we may say that overhead poetry is the least exposed to the Yeatsian accusation, since in it the supra-logical seeing is mated with an expression spring­ing from the very planes on which that seeing is inherent to conscious­ness.   The expression is organic to the sight and consequently carries an authentic and convincing power.   If the word and the rhythm are from elsewhere, there is for the reader either a medley that floats unconvincingly on the mind’s surface or a spaciousness that can be reflected only by blurring its infinite contents.   The many-sided nature of the Divine becomes “confused”, the essential unity “thin”. In short, both turn “vague”. No matter how much we yield to the poetry through intuition and rhythm feeling, the supra-logical will never quite achieve in non-overhead language the needed degree of directness, of substan­tial and detailed presence.   We may get complete intellectual satisfac­tion and aesthetic pleasure – the meaning may stand out clear and the beauty may be vital and absolute; yet neither the meaning nor the beauty may do justice to what we cognise as pressing for poetic manifestation.   The suggestive aura round the significant phrase and round the aesthetic form will not be enough dense and tense with the sheer Godhead.

Even the inspiration from the occult and the psychic is, in comparison to the overhead speech, attenuated in its suggestive aura. It has not the God-grip and the God-sweep of Savitri’s accent. To get that accent, however, is no facile task. A poet who has not himself reached the overhead planes can be occasionally a vehicle for their messages, but only if he lets nothing of his ordinary mind interfere. And in his case the ordinary mind must be understood to comprise not merely what has to be kept in abeyance in the writing of all genuine poetry; to get overhead inspiration we must regard as the ordinary mind the whole poetic urge too of the planes that are usually tapped. One who aspires for the speech of Savitri must be on guard against the very best he can achieve from another psychological level, unless of course that level has to be brought in for a special purpose like giving the reader an easy hold on an idea before lifting him into the spiritual reality to which the idea is a pointer. Where no such aim is present the natural tendency to create poetry from a more accessible plane must be closely watched.   Look at the line:

Concealed because too brilliant for our eyes.

It occurs in an earlier draft of Savitri and is quite effective for express­ing the excess of light which shuts out scrutiny. Stand it against the line Sri Aurobindo put in its place:

Veiled by the Ray no mortal eye can bear.

Instead of the striking and clever point the first version makes, we have a straight presentation of some high reality, the actual fact is before us without any explaining of its peculiar attribute, the attribute is con­cretely offered and an atmosphere of the spiritual brought up. The rhythm comes with a more inward thrill, a more intrinsically wide movement as if without the effort mental speech has to put forth for suggesting the ample and the majestic. Indeed it is the changed rhythm which, even more than the changed form of vision, produces the necessary directness – as can be proved by choosing a line in which the imagery can be kept intact and even the language unaltered in every word but only a small modification introduced in the rhythm and by that modification the living thrill transferred from spiritual to mental.   This verse, for example, from Savitri –

The old adamantine vetoes stood no more

loses the overhead wideness of sound and with it the overhead expe­rience that is caught by the words, if we write:

No more the old adamantine vetoes stood.

Apart from the undue emphasis “stood” gets by closing the line and occupying that final position divorced from “no more”, the inner suggestion stops dead short with a staccato rhythm: the huge escape from ancient barriers lacks the profound spiritual thrill. Losing that thrill, the line drops in the directness which is born of the vision being coupled with the word-rhythm natural to the plane where the vision originates.

The coupling of the overhead vision with the overhead word-rhythm is the achievement par excellence of Sri Aurobindo. The former is rare enough, but at times it does occur in other mystical poets. There are a few snatches in Yeats, many in A. E., for Yeats, for all his attraction towards the unseen world, had no strong eye for the supremely spiri­tual. A. E. had a far closer acquaintance with it, yet he too did not go beyond the heart’s lyrical God-drunkenness, the glamour of the Celtic mid-worlds and the mind’s first few entranced steps above philosophy into direct touch on the Spirit. Though the Upanishads cast their light on him, the overhead accent visited him at scattered moments only and then also, as a rule, in a weakened form.   The line

And by their silence they adore the lovely silence where He dwells

has something of it, tuned with extreme liquid beauty to a more deli­cate, more loosened note than is proper to the overhead. A greater intensity is in

White for Thy whiteness all desires burn,

yet the rhythm and the vision do not hail from much above the eye and ear of spiritualised thought. Some tone of the overhead at its intui­tive pitch is:

Like winds and waters were her ways.

They heed not immemorial cries;

They move to their high destinies

Beyond the little voice that prays.

What A. E. lacks on the whole in dealing with the ultra-mental afflatus is fullness of rhythm – his genuine seizures of it are often thin in sound-stuff and hence unable to drive home its varied cosmicity, so to speak. This is not to deny his poetic merit on planes where he can seize word and vision at once, nor his value as a mystical messenger. That he is not a frequent assured dweller on the Aurobindonian levels detracts nothing from his status as the most spiritual of English singers, the first among them to be a Yogi in the oriental sense.

Even in an oriental poet like Tagore the overhead language-stir is mostly absent.   Tagore is the ideal mystic of the emotions – emotions not feverishly uncontrolled and rendered a confusing flame as in so many devotee-poets of the West but harmoniously psychicised and tinged by the superb serenity which enters into all Indian mysticism – the calm shadow of the overhead. The overhead, however, is an undifferentiated influence in him, far and faint, never intimately known. It maybe argued that after all his Gitanjali is prose-poetry and is thus prevented from the absolute overhead ring. But, though not so clearly as in poetry proper, that ring can still make prose its medium. Two of the most clearly overhead strains from the Upanishads retain something of their charac­teristic rhythm in Sri Aurobindo’s translations in prose. Listen to this suggestion of the transcendental supra-cosmic Divine: “There the sun shines not and the moon has no splendour and the stars are blind. There these lightnings flash not nor any earthly fire. For all that is bright is but the shadow of His brightness and by His shining all this shineth.” Now hear what Yeats offers in his collaboration with Purohit Swami: “Neither sun, moon, star, neither fire nor lightning lights Him. When He shines, everything begins to shine. Everything in the world reflects His light.” Evidently the attempt is to imitate the pithiness of the Upanishadic utterance, but where is the sonority accompanying the pithiness in Sanskrit, the sound subtly conveying the colossal Presence underlying the apparent concentrated points like the huge hidden bulk of an iceberg below the crystalline taperings that show above the sea’s surface? Besides, Sanskrit is more naturally polysyllabic than English and the pithy statement in it does not appear bare and clipped. To make the English version equally polysyllabic would be to risk bom­bast; the same holds in translations from Greek and Latin. To com­pensate for the missing majesty a certain sweep of word and volume of sound have to be achieved by a special skill in phrase-formation and sentence-construction.

Yeats is devoid of the true Upanishadic reso­nance as well as intonation in also his rendering of the stanza about the cosmic Divine: “Spirit is everywhere, upon the right, upon the left, above, below, behind, in front. What is the world but Spirit?” How poor in comparison to the Aurobindonian vividness and vibrancy: “The Eternal is before us and the Eternal is behind us and to the south and to the north of us and above and below and extended everywhere. All this magnificent universe is nothing but the Eternal.” As prose-poetry it rises head and shoulders over the Yeats-Purohit team-work; but its most choice quality is the overhead breath – a quality which we might expect from an Indian like Tagore in the mystical prose-poetry of Gitanjali. Tagore, however, gets the overhead afflatus to a recognisable degree no more than once – in a semi-reminiscence of the Upanishad’s verse about the Transcendental. As he originally wrote them, the words run: “There, where spreads the infinite sky for the soul to take her flight in, reigns the stainless white radiance.   There is no day nor night, nor form nor colour, and never, never a word.” Yeats, in the Oxford Book of English Poetry edited by him, touched up the Tagorean sentences: “Where thine infinite sky spreadeth for the soul to take her flight, a stainless white radiance reigneth; wherein is neither day nor night, nor form nor colour, nor ever any word.” Perhaps the Yeatsian tightening and connectivity add to the overhead intonation; the Irish poet’s greater intimacy with the poetic potentials of English seems to help out better the accent which the Indian has acquired.

The poetry written by Harindranath Chattopadhyaya before he turned Marxist and started versifying proletarian slogans is haunted by the Unknown as puissantly as anything composed by Tagore. His lyrics are a colourful subtlety that lays keen fingers on truths of the inner life, yet instead of plucking the word native to those truths the fingers bring back a creative impress for handling spiritually the speech of ideas and feelings in our normal mind and heart. Except in rare pieces there is very little of the Upanishadic inspiration. The Shelleyian “white radiance” of which Tagore gave an Indian avatar in the passage quoted from Gitanjali becomes in Chattopadhyaya:

…the naked everlastingness

That nor by pleasure nor by pain is stirred,

Being a hush that bears no human word

Nor deed nor dream nor passion as a burden.

Deeply inspired are these lines, a true echo by the poetic mind to the overhead harmonies. As poetry they are faultless; as word-rhythm capturing mystical vision, they come close to the overhead stuff Chatto­padhyaya is handling but do not arise from it – as does, for instance, Sri Aurobindo’s description of the Yogic self-release of Savitri’s father, Asvapati, into the spiritual ether by breaking “the intellect’s hard and lustrous lid”:

The toiling thinker widened and grew still,

Wisdom transcendent touched his quivering heart:

His soul could sail beyond thought’s luminous bar;

Mind screened no more the shoreless infinite.

Across a void retreating sky he glimpsed

Through a last shimmer and drift of vanishing stars

The superconscient realms of motionless peace

Where judgment ceases and the word is mute

And the Unconceived lies pathless and alone.

Speech and sound are sovereignly adequate to the concrete vision of the mystical altitudes. Not echoes but actual voices are reproduced. The emotional seeker and the philosophical seer are both transfigured, raised towards a mighty moving God-realisation and the profound actuality of the experience conveyed in an accent leaping from its core. In the last three lines the Mantra is heard -and a remarkable technique of labials, sibilants, liquids, nasals and long vowels create at once hauntingly and lullingly, wideningly and envelopingly the impression of a single-mooded unthinkable infinitude of silence. But this technique succeeds because of a special inner rhythm, and it succeeds in a manner which is different from that of any similar outer technique normally possible to Chattopadhyaya. He too can surely bring about fitting effects of vowel and consonant and fill them with inspiration. What is typical here is that the inspiration carrying such effects is received by Sri Aurobindo by breaking completely the “lustrous lid” which divides the overhead from the ranges whence poetry usually springs.

The breaking of the “lustrous lid” is a very real spiritual experience. Upanishads speak of the face of Truth having a golden cover which has to be removed. This cover is composed of the concepts and percepts through which we ordinarily turn our sight towards the Divine. Our concepts and percepts are indeed means of knowledge, rays of Truth, but indirect ones: they acquaint us with the appearance of the Divine, not with the reality of Him; they constitute a brilliant formation like a shield or a lid which falls over the Divine’s reality. The formation is not easy to break through: it is “hard” as well as “lustrous” and obs­tructs a new poise as if there were a mental skull corresponding to the physical. Influences of the Truth-Sun can percolate into the mind and produce now and then a perfect result if the poet trains himself to be sensitive to them. But a sustained stream of light can arrive only if the poet practises that self-training in a deliberate integral way. Yoga is the desideratum – and an important part of Yoga for the poet of the Spirit is a tuning-up to the overhead speech by constantly revolving within his consciousness the Mantra and its approximations. Even for the non-poet the Mantra and its approximations are a potent means for evolving man into superman: they are the Infinite and the Eternal in one of the most veilless forms of manifestation possible. Therefore, a gift to the world precious in the last degree is Savitri. It is also a gift appropriate in the extreme to the position of the giver himself.

The Life Divine complements Savitri in the drive towards earth-transformation

Philo­sophical statement lending logical plausibility to facts of the Spirit is necessary in a time like ours when the intellect is acutely in the fore­front and Sri Aurobindo has answered the need by writing that exposi­tory masterpiece, The Life Divine. There too it is not the bare intellect chopping logic: a greater faculty executes deft and many-aspected designs of argumentation and through them appeals to some intuitive intelligence behind the seat of analytic and synthetic judgment. But since the method of logic is accepted, the language of abstract speculation, is used as a framework; this, though serving to hold the attention of the intellectuality of our day, lessens the impact of the living Reality that is far removed from abstract speculation, be it ever so magnificent and cogent. To create a poetic mould equally massive and multiform as The Life Divine for transmitting the living Reality to the furthest bounds of speech – such a task is incumbent on one who stands as the maker of a new spiritual epoch. Without it he would not establish on earth in a fully effective shape the influence brought by him. All evolutionary influences, in order to become dynamic in toto must assume poetic shape as correlate to the actual living out of them in personal consciousness and conduct. In that shape they can reach man’s inner being persistently and ubiquitously over and above doing so with a luminous and vibrant suggestiveness unrivalled by any other mode of literature or art. But scattered and short pieces of poetry cannot build the sustained and organized Weltanschauung required for putting a permanent stamp upon the times. Nothing except an epic or a drama can, moving as they do across a wide field and coming charged with inventive vitality, with interplay of characters and events. Nor can an epic which teems with ultra-mental realisations be wholly adequate to its aim if it does not embody these realisations in ultra-mental word and rhythm. Hence, Savitri is from every angle the right correlate to the practical drive towards earth-transformation by India’s mightiest Master of spirituality in his Ashram at Pondicherry. Next to his own persona] working as Guru on disciples offering them­selves for a global remoulding of their lives, this poem that is at once legend and symbol will be the chief formateur of the Aurobindonian Age. Out of its projected fifty thousand lines, about twelve thousand only are said to be ready yet in final version, but even that number is enough to give it a central place, for the whole length of Paradise Lost is exceeded and in no other art-creation so continually and cumulatively has inspiration, the lightning-footed goddess, “a sudden messenger from the all-seeing tops”, disclosed the Divine’s truth and beauty:

Even was seen as through a cunning veil

The smile of love that sanctions the long game,

The calm indulgence and maternal breasts

Of Wisdom suckling the child laughter of Chance,

Silence, the nurse of the Almighty’s power,

The omniscient hush, womb of the immortal Word,

And of the Timeless the still brooding face,

And the creative eye of Eternity.

From darkness’ heart she dug out wells of light,

On the undiscovered depths imposed a form,

Lent a vibrant cry to the unuttered vasts,

And through great shoreless, voiceless, starless breadths

Bore earthward fragments of revealing thought

Hewn from the silence of the Ineffable.

*The quantitative system adopted by Sri Aurobindo founds itself in the view that a syllable’s mass quantitatively increases both by the intrinsic length of a vowel and the weight of stress. Stress in English cannot be ignored ; it must be the main support of a foot. But together with it the intrinsic long, even if unstressed, must be given full voice-value. Their various combinations with of course a basic pattern sub­sisting subtly behind the variety, must be reckoned the genuine English quantitative metre. There is no place in English, except in rare cases, for a quantitative increase due to a cluster of consonants in a word, much less to any cluster following a word : the stress switches away the voice too much from all unstressed syllables that are not intrinsic longs, to let any appreciable quantity accumulate.

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Renaissance, the monthly e-journal of Sri Aurobindo Foundation of Indian Culture (SAFIC), features inspiring articles, essays, book reviews, interviews, and reflections that speak of how the eternal spirit and creative genius of India are being reborn and renewed in various domains – spiritual, artistic, literary, philosophic, scientific, aesthetic.

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