The Poetic Genius of Sri Aurobindo

— Amal Kiran (K. D. Sethna)


Price: Rs 125

Pages: 138
Dimensions (in cms): 14x22
ISBN: 978-81-87916-07-9
Soft Cover
Publisher: Clear Ray Trust, Pondicherry

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About The Poetic Genius of Sri Aurobindo

This book examines and evaluates Sri Aurobindo's considerable poetic output in blank verse, his achievements in quantitative metre, a medium that had eluded English poets, and his creation of a new type of poetry that reached beyond the ranges of inspiration familiar to most poets to reveal new heights and intensities of mystical and spiritual expression. Before it was first published in 1947 it had the distinction of having been read out to Sri Aurobindo, who professed his admiration for the substance and style of this literary criticism by Sethna. The book is available again after a long time.


This classic study of Sri Aurobindo's poetry was warmly appreciated by Sri Aurobindo himself—though his modesty restrained his comments on a book that was written, as he noted, "in high eulogy" of his own work. The Poetic Genius of Sri Aurobindo was first published in 1947; but the last chapter, "Sri Aurobindo—A New Age of Mystical Poetry", forming almost half of the book, had appeared in Sri Aurobindo Circle in 1946. From a historical point of view, this essay has the distinction of having first introduced the public to passages from Savitri, whose opening cantos began to come out in fascicles and journal instalments soon after K. D. Sethna's article.

When he wrote these essays, Sethna had access to only a limited portion of Savitri, not always in its final form, and to an even smaller part of Ilion. But this makes little difference to the enduring value of his argument for Sri Aurobindo's poetic genius. For this purpose he needed only a sufficient sample of passages from the poet's early, middle and later work. After a short Prologue, the three chapters of the book bring out major aspects of Sri Aurobindo's poetic achievement in each of these periods through detailed analysis of representative examples.

"Genius," wrote Sri Aurobindo in The Synthesis of Yoga, "is one attempt of the universal Energy to so quicken and intensify our intellectual powers that they shall be prepared for those more puissant, direct and rapid faculties which constitute the play of the supra intellectual or divine mind." Swami Vivekananda also linked genius and Yoga, pointing out that the secret of genius is a tremendous power of concentration. He added that according to the science of Yoga we are all potential geniuses. There is much to be said for the Indian view of the Vibhuti or genius as one who manifests supernormal powers that are latent in all of us. The West, on the other hand, though it has produced remarkable geniuses in many fields, has labelled this mysterious phenomenon, but offers little satisfying explanation of it apart from recent developments in transpersonal psychology which are indebted to Eastern thought.

The connection between genius and Yoga is especially significant in the case of Sri Aurobindo. His experience of poetic inspiration evidently helped to prepare him for Yoga, while his practice of Yoga brought about the flowering of his poetic genius. It is hardly possible to speak of his genius apart from his Yoga. His natural talents were unusual enough, as Sethna shows in discussing Love and Death and Urvasie in the first chapter. But it was the heightening of these inborn abilities through Yoga that made him capable of writing Savitri, the epic on which his eventual reputation as one of the greatest poets of all time is likely to rest.

Due to the very nature of the subject, The Poetic Genius of Sri Aurobindo is not light reading. Those who have not been initiated into the intricacies of prosody may be especially daunted by the technical discussions in the second chapter, "Sri Aurobindo and the Hexameter". Here Sethna sums up much of Sri Aurobindo's own treatment, in On Quantitative Metre, of the problem of adapting classical metres to English. He goes on to discuss the opening passage of Ilion, which was all that was then available of that unfinished work. But technical as some of it is, this chapter forms an essential link in the demonstration of Sri Aurobindo's unique, many-sided achievement as a poet.

It may seem strange that an Indian mystic, in the midst of the most intensive Yogic sadhana, was so captivated by an ancient Greek theme and the possibilities of the Homeric metre that he worked for years on an epic about the fall of Troy, making it his major literary project until in 1916 he began to transfer his poetic energies to Savitri. But it is hinted in the poem itself that his interest in this subject was not merely literary. He says of the Greek warriors emerging from their tent:

So one can see them still who has sight from the gods in the trance sleep [.]

Not only the theme of Ilion, but the hexameter itself attracted Sri Aurobindo for reasons that are out of the ordinary, connected with his perception of the deeper role of metrical movement in making poetry a means of expressing higher realities than those to which we normally have access. Sethna observes: "Sri Aurobindo has taken up the hexameter with a consciousness unfettered by the labourer brain, a consciousness wholeheartedly given in all its intricate potency to his sense of secret superhuman rulers of art no less than life."

"Every poet is in essence a Platonist," begins the last and most important chapter, "Sri Aurobindo—A New Age of Mystic Poetry". "No poet but feels he is serving a sacred mission beyond his own self, the mission of some perfect beauty waiting to be revealed." I am reminded of my first meeting with Amal. He immediately and correctly sized me up as a Platonist and proceeded to recite a short poem:

          Said Aristotle unto Plato,
          "Have another sweet potato?"
          Said Plato unto Aristotle,
          "Thank you, I prefer the bottle."

This bit of nineteenth-century doggerel sums up a little crudely, but effectively enough that it has stuck in my memory for more than thirty years, the well-known (if oversimplified) contrast between Aristotle's down-to-earth empiricism and Plato's intoxication with the beauty of ideal forms. These represent two major sides of the development of Western civilization and can even be applied, with some reservations, to similar temperamental distinctions in other cultures. It could be said that the Aristotelian temper of our scientific age is what makes our times unfavourable to true poetry and delays the widespread recognition of a mystically inspired masterpiece such as Savitri. But those who are capable of appreciating this sublime poetry will find their understanding and enjoyment of it enhanced by Sethna's superb book.

— Richard Hartz
Richard studied philosophy at Yale University and South Asian languages and literature at the University of Washington. He first visited Pondicherry in 1972 and settled in the Ashram in 1980. He works in the Archives and Research Library.

November 2009