Sri Aurobindo was as prolific a writer of poetry as he was of prose. Indeed, as pointed out by Dr R. Y. Deshpande, 8 out of 36 volumes of ‘The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo’ are devoted to works of poetry or poetics such as the monumental poem ‘Savitri‘. Sri Aurobindo was emphatic that “All poetry is an inspiration, a thing breathed into the thinking organ from above; it is recorded in the mind, but is born in the higher principle of direct knowledge or ideal vision which surpasses mind. It is in reality a revelation. The prophetic or revealing power sees the substance; the inspiration perceives the right expression. Neither is manufactured; nor is poetry really a poiesis or composition, nor even a creation, but rather the revelation of something that eternally exists. The ancients knew this truth and used the same word for poet and prophet, creator and seer, sophos, vates, kavi.”
An article from the Sri Aurobindo Circle magazine (1958) written by Sisirkumar Ghose, Professor of English at Shantiniketan, is presented below. In it Ghose objectively analyses Sri Aurobindo’s book “The Future Poetry” to show that it contained not only literary criticism but a revelation of the future direction mankind and its poetic expression would take.
It becomes clear from the writings of Ghose, KR Srinivasa Iyengar, and K. D. Sethna that Sri Aurobindo envisioned a central place for the mantra –“that rhythmic speech which, as the Veda puts it, rises at once from the heart of the seer and from the distant home of the Truth”– in the future poetry. Sri Aurobindo also believed that the emergence of the mantra in the future poetry would be an evolutionary outcome of a revolutionary human progression from “the intellectual to an intuitive mentality”.
The Future Poetry
Sisir Kumar Ghose
A CRITIQUE of Sri Aurobindo is still to be written. Perhaps the time is not yet. In a way, he is the despair of all commentators. The exposition is so full and varied and suggestive, so fair to other points of view and other possibilities that there is little left for the critic to add or to take away. Also, he likes to present his own point of view in the form of a hypothesis. Let me give you an example. Says Sri Aurobindo: “The issues of recent activity are still doubtful and it would be rash to make any confident prediction; but there is one possibility which…is at least interesting and may be fruitful to search and consider. That possibility is the discovery of a closer approximation to what we might call the mantra in poetry…. Poetry in the past has done that in moments of supreme elevation; in the future there seems to be some chance of its making it a more conscious aim and steadfast endeavour.” You can hardly quarrel with so modest a proposal!
The Future Poetry as a Power for Truth, for Fullness of Life and for the Future of Man to be
From time to time this or that aspect of his works has been held up for admiration, dispute or discussion. But few have gone to the heart of the matter, or remarked on the unity and relation between his different works, or tried to see the workings of that genius steadily and see them whole. This essay does not pretend to any superior insight nor does it set out to supply that missing critique. Its aim is much simpler. I propose to take up one of his not-so-well-known books – from which I have already quoted – and try to give an outline of its contents and suggest, if I may, its place in the group of works with which his name is associated. My aim in all this is to find some reader or readers who will look at it with fresh eyes. A detailed criticism or exposition is not my present aim, it is also beyond my capacity.
The book is not one of yoga or philosophy but of literary criticism: The Future Poetry. Serially published in the Arya from 15-12-1917 to 15-7-1920 it has come out in book-form only recently (August 1953). However little known for the present, Sri Aurobindo’s work as a literary critic is of such importance, and agrees so well with his general view of life, that no apology is needed for drawing attention to it. And of his literary criticism the pith is, surely, in The Future Poetry. The Future Poetry is not an appendage to his major works.
It is itself a major work and in its own way quite as essential. Perhaps the one original contribution to the subject of aesthetics in our times, these essays have as their theme the “now vital question in this cultural evolution” in the midst of which we find ourselves. The vital question is whether modern man is to go ahead or fall back, and what poetry can do about it.
His other works, such as The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga, are all taken up, one way or the other, with this vital question. The expansion of consciousness, its levels and integration which are implicit in these works suggest the possibility of purer perceptions, a new vision, of self and the world. Here, in The Future Poetry, he examines and asserts the rationale of that unitive vision as well as of the inspired word. That is, of poetry as the leader of human evolution. The nature of his faith demands this defence of poetry. And now that Savitri has been published, you may well look upon these essays as a link between his other works and Savitri. That, briefly, is how The Future Poetry stands in relation to his other major works.It is a vital relation.
To believe our author the question of the future of man and his mind, is part of the problem that is poetry. Poetry, properly understood, is the key to the future. This means, naturally, a somewhat new theory of poetry, very different from the ones we now hold. Or if the theory is not quite new, the manner of statement and application certainly is. What is this view of poetry like? The essence of poetry, its peculiar intensity, says Sri Aurobindo, “comes from the stress of the soul-vision behind the word; it is the spiritual excitement of a rhythmic voyage of self-discovery among the magic islands of form and name in these inner and outer worlds”. Also, “poetry and art are born mediators between the immaterial and the concrete, the spirit and life. This mediation between the truth of the spirit and the truth of life will be”, says Sri Aurobindo, “one of the chief functions of the poetry of the future”. Again, “mankind satiated with the levels is turning its face once more towards the heights, and the poetic voices that will lead us thither with song will be among the high seer voices.” If it is a fact that, behind the surfaces of the present crisis, “the human intelligence seems on the verge of an attempt to rise through the intellectual into an intuitive mentality”, then “the aesthetic mind, whether it take form in the word of the illumined thinker, the prophet or the seer, can be one of the main gateways”. And since what the age will aim at will be a “harmonious and luminous totality of man’s being”, “therefore to this poetry the whole field of existence will be open for its subject, God and Nature and Man and all the worlds, the field of the finite and the infinite. It is not a close, even a high close and ending in this or any field that the future offers to us, but a new and higher evolution, a second and greater birth of all man’s powers and his being and action and creation”. Such is his notion of poetry, poetry as a power for truth, for fullness of life and for the future of man to be. Between this and most other prevailing theories of poetry – oh! the difference to me…
A Mystique of the Mantra which is “The Future Poetry”
These essays have, then, a thesis or a hypothesis. They are, you might say, essays with a purpose. Simply put, they are a plea for poetry as mantra. But what is mantra? Let our critic explain: “What the Vedic poets meant by mantra was an inspired and revealed seeing and visioned thinking, attended by a realisation, to use the ponderous but necessary modern word, of some inmost truth of God and self and man and Nature and cosmos and life and thing and thought and experience and deed. It was a thinking that came on the wings of a great soul rhythm… .The ancient poets of the Veda and Upanishads claimed to be uttering the mantra because always it was this innermost and almost occult truth of things which they strove to see and hear and speak and because they believed themselves to be using or finding its intimate soul rhythms and the sacrificial speech of it cast up by the divine Agni, the sacred Fire in the heart of man. The mantra, in other words, is a direct and most heightened, an in-tensest and most divinely burdened rhythmic word which embodies an intuitive and revelatory inspiration and ensouls the mind with the sight and the presence of the very self, the inmost reality of things and with its truth and with the divine soul-forms of it, the Godheads which are born from the living Truth. Or, let us say, it is a supreme rhythmic language which seizes hold upon all that is finite and brings into each the light and voice of its own infinite”. This may sound – the author is himself aware of it – a somewhat mystic account of the matter, but substantially there could hardly be a more complete description. Along with his own poetical works, especially the later poems and Savitri, the essays of The Future Poetry form a mystique of the mantra. They are the theory and practice of the mantra, the mantra which is “the future poetry”. And – pleasant surprise – the theory or thesis is supported with the help of the history of English poetry, from Chaucer to the beginning of the twentieth century. There is also a subsidiary suggestion that for the work in hand the Indian mind may have a part to play. And when it is Sri Aurobindo who chooses to play the double role – as poet and critic – we may be sure that the result will be rewarding.
The whole thing started almost casually, began as a review of James H. Cousins’ little read and now well-nigh forgotten New Ways in English Literature. But Cousins was, we may safely presume, but an occasion and we hear little of him during the rest of these essays. In Sri Aurobindo’s mind, crossed with lightnings from beyond, this slender book with its examples from ‘recent’ poets raises the question of “the future of English poetry and of the world’s poetry”, indeed, “the whole question of the future of poetry in the age which is coming upon us, the higher functions open to it – as yet very imperfectly fulfilled, – and the part which English literature on the one side and the Indian mind and temperament on the other are likely to take in determining the new trends”. Or, as he explains a little later, “Taking the impression it [Cousins’ book] creates for a starting-point…but casting our view further back into the past, we may try to sound what the future has to give us through the medium of the poetic mind and its power for creation and interpretation”.
But before we can talk of these “higher functions” open to poetry and the “new trends” one needs to fix in one’s mind the true nature or, as our author calls it, the essence of poetry. It is this that sanctions his speculations, the expense of spirit in these elaborate and exalted expositions. In other words, before one can speak about the future of poetry one must first know what poetry is and why it is that it must have a future or rather this kind of future. It is only when we have known what poetry is – or has been – that we can say what it may be. The future is not a fiat, but the working out of a law or a line of development, an inner necessity. As Sri Aurobindo puts it quite early in his inquiry: “It will not be amiss to enquire what is the highest power we demand from poetry, or – let us put the matter largely and get nearer the root of the matter, – what may be the nature of poetry, its essential law, and how out of that arises the possibility of its use as a mantra of the Real”.
Here we must guard against two common enough errors. One of these looks upon poetry as “nothing more than an aesthetic pleasure of the imagination …a sort of elevated pastime”. The other thinks of it as “mainly a matter of a faultlessly correct or at most an exquisite technique”. Sri Aurobindo suggests a much higher function, based on a belief in poetry as Logos or the revealed Word, the mantra. As he puts it, “The privilege of the poet is to go beyond and discover that more intense illumination of speech, that inspired word and supreme inevitable utterance, in which there meets the unity of a divine rhythmic movement with a depth of sense and a power of infinite suggestion welling up directly from the fountain-heads of the spirit within us. He may not always or often find it, but to seek for it is the law of his utterance and when he can not only find it, but cast it into some deeply revealed truth of the spirit itself, he utters the mantra.”
This is what he believes, his idee fixe. And yet it is not so much a fixed idea as a dynamic notion. Sri Aurobindo’s ideas are, if nothing else, evolutionary. “Poetry, like everything else in man, evolves,” says Sri Aurobindo. And he puts it “that from this point of view the soul of man like the soul of Nature can be regarded as an unfolding of the spirit in the material world. Our unfolding has its roots in the physical life; its growth shoots up and out in many directions in the stalk and branches of the vital being; it puts forth the opulence of the buds of mind and there, nestling in the luxuriant leaves of mind and above it, out from the spirit which was concealed in the whole process must blossom the free and infinite soul of man, the hundred-petalled rose of God”.
“The work of a poet depends not only upon himself and his age but on the mentality of the nation to which he belongs and the spiritual, intellectual, aesthetic tradition and environment which it creates”
The evolutionary is also a psychological view of things and implies a special analysis and knowledge. The sense of these mysteries, known to earlier times, has been lost since then. As Sri Aurobindo presents it, it is a triumphant recovery, an extension of an ancient truth. But the theory is true not because it happens to be traditional but because it is living and whole, because it explains the facts better than others do. The right view of things is always the inner view. In the words of Sri Aurobindo, “poetry is a psychological phenomenon, the poetic impulse a highly charged force of expression of the mind and soul of man, and therefore in trying to follow out its line of evolution it is the development of the psychological motive and power, it is the kind of feeling, vision, mentality which is seeking in it for its word and idea and form of beauty and it is the power of the soul through which it finds expression or the level of mind from which it speaks which we must distinguish to get a right idea of the progress of poetry”.
In simple language, “the poetic vision, like everything else, follows necessarily the evolution of the human mind and according to the age and environment, it has its levels, ascents and descents and returns”. That is, “the work of a poet depends not only upon himself and his age but on the mentality of the nation to which he belongs and the spiritual, intellectual, aesthetic tradition and environment which it creates”. Even if “it is not to be understood by this that he is or needs be entirely limited by this condition or that he is to consider himself only as a voice of the national mind or bound by the past national tradition and debarred from striking out a road of his own, still the roots of his personality are there in its spirit and even his variation and revolt are an attempt to bring out something that is latent and suppressed or at least something which is trying to surge up from the secret all-soul into the soul-form of the nation”.
The reference to the nation-soul and its utility helps Sri Aurobindo to pass on to the character and course of English poetry which, in spite of some severe limitations, he chooses for his main text. This is because English poetry has, on the whole, “covered the field that lies before the genius of poetry by successive steps which follow the natural ascending order of our developing perceptions”. The following sketch – there are a few more of the kind, brilliant apergus, -shows how. According to Sri Aurobindo, English poetry “began by a quite external, a clear and superficial substance and utterance. It proceeded to a deeper vital poetry, a poetry of the power and beauty and wonder and spontaneous thought, the joy and passion and pain, the colour and music of Life, in which the external presentation of life and things was taken up, but exceeded and given its full dynamic and imaginative content. From that it turned to an attempt at mastering the secret of the Latins, the secret of a clear, measured and intellectual dealing with life, things and ideas. Then came an attempt, a brilliant and beautiful attempt to get through Nature and thought and mentality in life and Nature and their profounder aesthetic suggestion to certain spiritual truths behind them.
This attempt could not come to perfect fruition, partly because there had not been the right intellectual preparation or a sufficient basis of spiritual knowledge and experience and only so much could be given as the solitary individual intuition of the poet could by a sovereign effort attain, partly because after the lapse into an age of reason the spontaneous or the intenser language of spiritual poetry could not always be found or, if found, could not be securely kept. So we get a deviation into another age of intellectual, artistic or reflective poetry with a much wider range, but less profound in its roots, less high in its growth; and partly out of this, partly by a recoil from it has come the turn of recent and contemporary poetry which seems at last to be approaching the secret of the utterance of profounder truth with its right magic of speech and rhythm”.
Substantially, this is, I think, a right account, whatever one may think of this approach to English poetry and the use made of it. To this account Sri Aurobindo adds a note on what he calls recent poetry, from the works of such poets as Meredith, Stephen Phillips, Carpenter, Whitman, Tagore, A.E. and Yeats. Unequal and uncertain as this poetry is, “not always very clearly envisaged even by those who are most active in bringing it about”, it contains “certain original indications which may help us to disengage the final whither of its seekings”. That ”final whither” is of course the coming of “the poet who is also a Rishi, master singers of Truth, hierophants and magicians of a diviner and more universal beauty”.
The Future Poetry will “Voice a Supreme Harmony of Five Eternal Powers, Truth, Beauty, Delight, Life and Spirit”
At the end of the survey he takes a pause, considers the question of “New Birth or Decadence”. “A collapse to the lower levels which may bring human civilisation with a run to a new corrupted and intellectual barbarism…the possibility of such a catastrophe is by no means absent from the present human situation.” “The hope of the race in this crisis lies in the fidelity of its intellect to the larger perceptions it now has of the greater self of humanity, the turning of its will to the inception of delivering forms of thought, art and social endeavour which arise from these perceptions and the raising of the intellectual mind to the intuitive supra-intellectual spiritual consciousness which can alone give the basis for a spiritualised life of the race and the realisation of its diviner potentialities”. There will no doubt be grades of this vision, different degrees of its potency. But at its highest, the ideal spirit of this poetry will “voice a supreme harmony of five eternal powers, Truth, Beauty, Delight, Life and Spirit”. Appearances notwithstanding, it is towards this that the age is moving. The result will be “a new great age of his creation different from the past epochs which he counts as his glories and superior to them in its vision and motive”. A deeper Nature poetry and “a larger field of being made more real to men’s experience will be the realm of the future poetry”. “This change will mean that poetry may resume on a larger scale, with a wider and more shining vision the greater effect it once had on the life of the race in the noble antique cultures”. “These new voices must needs be the result of the growth of the power of the spirit on the mind ofman which is the promise of the coming era”. And this power, when it arrives,is bound to change the existing forms of poetry – the lyric, the drama, the narrative, and even the epic – “at least some subtle and profound alteration”. The recent voices we already have are early, if imperfect, indications of this coming change. The assured speech is yet to be found. And “it is possible that it maybe rather in eastern languages and by the genius of eastern poets that there will come the first discovery of this perfection: the East has always had in its temperament a greater constant nearness to the spiritual and psychic sight and experience and it is only a more perfect turning of this sight on the whole life of man…that is needed for the realisation of that for which we are still waiting”.
But which nation leads is not so important as that the thing be done. The poets of whatever tongue and race who most completely see with this vision – “a clearerand more inspiring vision of the destiny of the spirit in man – and speak with the sure inspiration of its utterance are those who shall be the creators of the poetry of the future.” So says Sri Aurobindo.
This, in brief, is what the essays have to say. That poetry which is “the rhythmic voice of life” follows the curve of the human evolution. That the way to look at both – poetry and evolution – is from within. That the example of English poetry and the present crisis strongly suggests that there is going to be a change and expansion of man’s self-vision and world-vision. This the poetry of the future will reflect – as does the ‘recent’ poetry – more than that it will reveal it too, and this will be its chief glory, its real service to the life of an evolving humanity.
Such is the thesis, to be “read and more than once re-pursued with a yet unexhausted pleasure and fruitfulness”. And this quite apart from the fact whether we agree with its findings or not, whether the evidence from English poetry strikes us as being relevant or not. The findings are, at first sight, a bit unusual, the tone, the theme and the manner of illustration prove that at every turn. But that it is a consistent view, at least provocative, it will be idle to deny. This is a view of poetry of the peaks, passionate, profound, prophetic. Once admitted it may change one’s entire perspective, it is truly a trans-valuation of all values.
The Essence of Poetry Pre-exists but it also Evolves through Existence
With these general observations we may now venture upon some comments of our own. First about Sri Aurobindo’s competence to write on the related topic of poetry and human evolution, and to write as he does. This none will deny. Only Sri Aurobindo could have written like this, and only he has. The superb assurance with which he embraces transcendental views is backed by a rare sensitiveness to poetic nuances which makes one regret that there is so little of it. The easy eloquence, the lucid exposition and the subtle appreciation are beyond the reach of reason and formula. He speaks with authority and his tone is one of perfect justice and persuasion. The happy blending of critical and visionary powers is a constant miracle.
And though he has his own ideas on the subject, indeed a master idea, this is not a dogma but a revealing hypothesis. He states a principle and not a system. Throughout the essays this central idea is used in the manner of a refrain or a leitmotiv. But in this he is careful of distinctions and qualifications. There is nothing arbitrary or exclusive about his poetics. His many-sided knowledge of levels makes him patient of every variation. That is why even though his emphasis is his own, even if he does not write anything that cannot be related to his insight, the point lies in the relations he establishes and not in the emphasis alone. This is the very opposite of the one-track mind or being imprisoned by a phrase or a theory. Much rather is it a proof of the theory that it explains and relates all known data much better than any other principle of recovery and reconciliation put forward so far and does far less violence to the facts. Like his exposition of yoga, the theory explains and is the secret of all variations and the goal of all progress. That the critical activity could be so exciting we would not have believed had we not heard Sri Aurobindo speak out loud and bold.
The theory put forward here may be called the theory of essential criticism. In his Three Philosophical Poets Santayana speaks of the highest poetry as the “poetry of essence”. If anything, Sri Aurobindo extends Santayana’s description even further.But this doctrine of essence is based on certain assumptions or pre-suppositions. It implies, for instance, a theory of knowledge, a special world-view. Essays with a purpose, they presume that purpose. A subtle sense of levels and motives, a theory of crisis and an emergence of new faculties, or new modes of insight, are all part of this view and this purpose. All this gives his essays an unusual sweep and sublimity, the background of a vast evolution. It is poetry in a new light, the light of a cosmic correlation.
His scholarship – which he wears lightly – and his insight are at their best and a rare thrill runs throughout the pages. The soul of poetry and humanity are a reality to Sri Aurobindo and he makes them real to the readers as well. This is no small gain. At the first blush this “in-view” of poetry, especially English poetry, may appear somewhat strange but in the long run it stands out as the most satisfying one. This is not because he natters us with pleasing possibilities but because this is a view of things that satisfies both faith and reason, satisfies the human urge for a knowledge that sees all sides of the question in the light of a reconciling vision. Also because it offers a point of mediation between the East and the West. Like the poetry he speaks of, his own criticism offers a “new reconciling and fusing vision”.
There is Hope for Poetry, the Hope of “a song in the ears of men yet to be born”
Sri Aurobindo, we have said before, is concerned with the essence of poetry and evolution. But the essence, naturally, pre-exists. Pre-exists, in a double sense, both metaphysically and historically. In other words, mantric poetry is not only a possibility of the future but it has been an actuality in the past. That which is to be has already been. prajñā prasṛtā purāṇī. Or, to put it a little differently, “the goal of evolution is also its cause”. The mantra, the archetypal pattern, is the source as well as the end of that “rhythmic imaginative self-expression” which we call our poetry.
The essence pre-exists, but it also evolves through existence. Else we would not know of it. The theory of evolution is the key to much, if not all, of Sri Aurobindo’s thought and analysis, not only about poetry and its future but about most problems of human destiny. The fact that the mantra has already existed in the past gives his evolutionary account a cyclical rather than a unilinear character. In his own words, for our critic is extremely self-conscious and there is nothing we can tell him that he does not know: “This is a theory of poetry, a view of the rhythmic and creative self-expression to which we have given that name, which is very, different from any that we now hold, a sacred or hieratic ars poetica, only possible in days when man believed himself to be near to the gods and felt their presence in his bosom and could think he heard some accents of their divine and eternal wisdom take form on the heights of his mind. And perhaps no thinking age has been so far removed from any such view of our life as the one through which we have recently passed and even now are not well out of its shadow, the age of materialism, the age of positive outward matter of fact and of scientific and utilitarian reason. And yet curiously enough – or naturally, since in the economy of Nature opposite creates itself out of opposite and not only like from like, – it is to some far-off light at least of the view of ourselves at our greatest of which such ideas were a concretised expression that we seem to be returning. For we can mark that although in very different circumstances, in broader forms, with a more complex mind and an enormously enlarged basis of culture and civilisation, the gain and inheritance of many intermediate ages, it is still to something very like the effort which was the soul of the Vedic or at least the Vedantic mind that we almost appear to be on the point of turning back in the circle of our course.” The wheel has come full circle. In our beginning is our end. To the mantra we return.
Such an idea of evolutionary recurrence may not be everybody’s cup of tea. But even bolder is his suggestion about mantra in a modern language and in modern times, the return of the Rishi. The base of his theory may be orthodox but the rest is progressive, indeed revolutionary. This meeting of the East and the West, of the old and the new is perhaps a sign of the times. This, his creative experiment, is his challenge and contribution to modern thought. Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. As our author puts it, “Much has been done by the art of rhythmic self-expression; much remains to be done.” East or West, there is hope for poetry, the hope of “a song in the ears of men yet to be born”.
All the quotations in this article are from Sri Aurobindo’s The Future Poetry.