Image, Symbol and Myth in Sri Aurobindo's Poetry

— G. S. Pakle


Price: Rs 1200

Pages: 356
Dimensions (in cms): 14x21
ISBN: 978-81-86622-84-1
Hard Cover
Publisher: Harman Publishing House, New Delhi

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About Image, Symbol and Myth in Sri Aurobindo's Poetry

Beginning with a literary survey of the terms image, symbol, and myth, this critical study of Sri Aurobindo's poetry sets his unique use of these devices in the context of English poetic development. The author analyses Sri Aurobindo's use of imagery and symbolism by examining in detail the entire range of his poetry. He concludes by placing Sri Aurobindo as one of the greatest symbolists of modern English poetry for the way he uses image, symbol and myth to represent not only past and present realities but also the future. This fusion creates a new poetic mode, crafted to express Sri Aurobindo's spiritual vision of the future.


There have been critics who do not acknowledge Sri Aurobindo as a poet at all. They maintain that he might have been a great yogi or a philosopher or even a critic, but he can never be recognised as a poet. According to them the concrete, the tangible, the sense-perceived so necessary as a poetic faculty is lacking in him. The English critic and poetess Kathleen Raine considers his Savitri, for instance, a colossal failure. She argues that he has no capacity to go into William Blake's "minute particulars" which give to acceptable poetry its depth and subtlety. There are Indian critics also, such as Nissim Ezekiel, Alphonso-Karkala, and Keki Daruwala, among others, who go to the extent of saying that following Sri Aurobindo can only be disastrous to the creative spirit. Those who have defended him so far have been his own disciples, therefore creating the general tendency of dismissing them as idolaters. Some of the qualified professionals, on the other hand, tend to remain taciturn, partly awed by his personality, partly because of their inability to research patiently and perceptively some 3000 pages of his poetic work consisting of two epics, narratives, short poems, long poems, sonnets, experiments in different metres, poetic dramas, translations, and an equally vast body of his criticism in the form of essays and letters. Sri Aurobindo has yet to be thoroughly studied as a poet. In that respect the present work of Dr Pakle can be considered a commendable attempt. Coming as it does from an academician, it has the merit of a well-organised presentation rapidly covering a couple of aspects, essentially the aspects of simulacrum. Simulacrum in the broadest sense can be defined as "something that has a vague, tentative, or shadowy resemblance to something else". It could include features such as image, myth, symbol, simile, and metaphor that become powerful aids in describing what otherwise escapes representation. More than just algebraic substitutes or notations, they carry a breathing vibrancy which gives to them their true meaning and significance. Dr Pakle's work is concerned with these features that give poetry its unique character.

In his short introduction to the volume the author says that though there has appeared an enormous amount of literature in the form of books and articles, "there is very little in all this critical writing that attempts to understand how Sri Aurobindo's poetry operates." If there were attempts, they were only of the nature of "observations". Regarding the literary merit of Sri Aurobindo's poetry there has been raging a debate for a long time, but Dr Pakle feels that in the context of Indian poetry in English there is no useful set of critical values by which to decide the issue. "One must, therefore, fall back on the familiar grounds of 'New Criticism'… so as to arrive at a tentative value judgement." But, surely enough, we already have a vast corpus of Sri Aurobindo's own critical writings to help us enter into the spirit of his poetic creations. If people do not study them and yet make comments, then they themselves have to be blamed for their inelegance in this respect.

Image, Symbol and Myth broadly deals with four categories: a review of the terms image, symbol, and myth; short poems, poems in new metres and fragments, sonnets; longer poems; and epics. There is an extensive bibliography covering some 350 references. Apropos of myths in Sri Aurobindo's poetry the author says in the conclusion that Sri Aurobindo practised what he prescribed for others to do: "The modern poets should take up old myths and burnish them in order to give them a fresh appearance with some ancient strength, simplicity and sublimity and depth of meaning. It is here that he seems to have chosen the tale of Savitri for the epic. The theme of love's triumph over death in Love and Death based on a solemn idea found in the Ruru-Priyumvada tale from the Mahabharata; and the uplifting of a mortal by a divine being in Urvasie, both… compositions of the Baroda period, certainly bear companionship to Savitri." It is arguable that even Savitri was started by Sri Aurobindo when he was in Baroda; but to say the Savitri we have can bear "companionship" with the other two will be an unpleasant mistake. There is also the question if the modern poets should take up ancient myths for their creative expressions at all; it will be generally wrong to make any suggestion of any kind to a creative writer. For instance, why can't World War II be an excellent theme for a modern epic?

While reviewing the terms of image, symbol, and myth, the author first goes into their origins and discusses a few aspects connected with them. This presentation forms a basis for him to examine the poetic creations of Sri Aurobindo. Then we have a chronological survey of the short poems covering the entire period of his writings. Thus, commenting on one of the earliest lines of the poet, "Her life is but a bath of love", it is suggested that the word "bath" could mean a tub-bath, or a shower bath, possibly both, but the sense of being saturated in love is what is conveyed by it, an original and apt image indeed. The sonnets of the later days, mostly written in the mid 30s, have a different character. Dr Pakle takes a number of them to illustrate the visual aspect present in them. To illustrate: "the symbolic visual image of golden light dominates the sonnet 'The Golden Light'. The colossal transformation due to the Divine descent within the protagonist's self is expressed by using visual images of 'flame', 'wine', 'temple', 'playfield' and 'seat' illustrating the veritable changes that took place in his brain, throat, heart and feet." This indeed is an important sonnet, written on 8 August 1938, with rich autobiographical contents about the siddhi the yogi-poet had achieved. In that sense, his symbols, or visual images, go far beyond their immediate descriptive or literary connotations; they become living realities, powers that stand in front of us in vibrant and luminous form.

The author then goes through the longer poems, mostly written during the Baroda period. He gives a number of examples of the poetic imagery present in them, bringing out the quality of the poems written in those early days. As an illustration, let us see the remark about the 'star' image in Urvasie: "The poet sets before his readers the symbols of 'star' and Pururavas and Urvasie with purpose. They set an example of a Divine adventurer; and they anticipate the descent of the Light into the inner being of the whole human race, which gains thereby immortality. Immortality to Sri Aurobindo is the spiritual continuity of the divinised soul rather than that of bodily existence. Really, it seems a very difficult task to separate the yogi from the poet, the mystic from the worldly man in Sri Aurobindo and this unique achievement is the true mark of his exploration of symbolic potentialities in the objects that surround mankind." Very true indeed.

Coming to the epics, about Ilion written in quantitative hexameter natural to the English language, Dr Pakle says that "the poet has achieved the rare accomplishment of making the abstract thing like the divine reality." This has been done successfully "with the help of images of particularly visual and kinaesthetic and abstract kinds". A fairly elaborate discussion of some of these aspects follows. Thus, about the images of Troy, we have a beautiful example in the following:

     Dreamed by the harp of Apollo, a melody caught in the marble,
     Out of his mind it arose like an epic canto by canto;
     Each of its halls was a strophe, its chambers lines of an epode,
     Victor chant of Ilion's destiny…

This Apollo's epic, perfect in beauty as a visual symbol, has the power to set the destinies of men and countries into motion.

The Savitri section in Image, Symbol and Myth in Sri Aurobindo's Poetry covers roughly one-fifth of the book. The author writes: "Sri Aurobindo has used here the myth of Savitri that certainly comes from the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata. The myth of Savitri that he calls a legend, he intends to present in a more realistic vein. And he has presented it as a symbol of the triumph of Love over Death, his most favourite theme." About the symbolism in Savitri: "The symbolism in Savitri, even by way of a tentative generalisation, one could say is multiple and complex. If the poem were considered as one integrated symbol, it could be read to mean (i) the poet's spiritual autobiography, (ii) the genesis and history of human evolution, (iii) the dialectics of consciousness and reality, and (iv) the poet's quest for an aesthetic perfection."

Surely, Savitri is all this. But, in the case of Sri Aurobindo, reality is as much a symbol as symbol a reality; they become indistinguishable. What we get in that fused identity is the shining concretisation of the potentialities. When symbolism arrived in Europe following Mallarmé, who proposed the view that the act of creation lies in not naming but in suggestion, it was thought that the ever-changing objective world was not a reality but only a reflection, that all that one could do was to hint at the inner, eternal truth underlying it. "The resulting poetry of this philosophy was intense and complex, full of condensed syntax and symbolic imagery. Their poetry also emphasised the importance of the sound of the verse, creating music through words." No wonder, these sounds and these words, these charged symbols, will find a most appropriate place in any genuine mystical poetry, poetry coming from the depths of the soul or descending from the heights of the superconscient spirit poised for expression. It is good this aspect has been quite perceptively presented by our author. Yet there are other considerations also.

About the opening line of Savitri-"It was the hour before the Gods awake"-the author conjectures if one of the gods mentioned in it is the Muse, Saraswati. There is a tradition that epics open with an invocation to the Goddess of Poetry, and here too it could be so. "Because when on the temporal level of the poem the gods do wake up the change in the atmosphere assumes a lyrical tone. Suddenly the universe becomes synonymous with poetry, as if the waking up of the gods were the revelation of a divine poetry." The suggestion could be that Sri Aurobindo was invoking Saraswati before he started writing the epic. Is it so? But this line appeared for the first time in his twenty-fifth draft. This would mean that only after those many attempts did she oblige him in giving him the opening line; or else that he realised late in the day that he should make an invocation to her. We wonder. One has to make a distinction between the poetry written by a seer-poet and others, and this must be borne in mind in every respect when comparisons are made.

In that respect the tools of poetry for the poet of Savitri acquire the luminosity and keenness of something else, shaped by the powers of the spirit itself. He is the hearer of the Ineffable's Word and the seer of the Invisible's Truth-and-Beauty in the calm delight of the creative rush; he is kavayah satyasrutah. In his case a symbol, for instance, always expresses a living reality or inward vision or experience of things, making that experience a realisable possibility for awakened souls; it never is just a "conceptual representation", an abstraction of some observation, as the professional critics might like to maintain. A symbol in mystic poetry can never be considered as a "detachable ornament". This is particularly so in the case of Sri Aurobindo's later sonnets and Savitri. Therefore, while studying the literary aspects of his works, a distinction has to be made as far as his several works are concerned. In other words, there seems to be a difficulty in combining the predictable academic criteria with what Sri Aurobindo calls the Overmind Aesthesis. Maybe some of these issues could be tackled with focused attention in a future work by the author.

On the whole we must say that Dr Pakle's Image, Symbol and Myth in Sri Aurobindo's Poetry is a fine piece of professional examination. It should prove to be a valuable aid in scholarly and academic work. In fact, it can very well serve as a textbook at the postgraduate level for students of English literature. However, an exhaustive index and careful proofreading would improve its value. The publishers should also check if the price could be made more affordable for the student community.

— R. Y. Deshpande

Deshpande-ji, a research physicist and currently a professor of physics at SAICE, is a published poet and the author of several book-length studies of Savitri, in addition to other prose works. He also served as associate editor of Mother India for several years.

May 2007