The New Poetry: Tagore, Whitman and Sri Aurobindo

Dr Goutam Ghosal

Professor of English, Visva-Bharati University


Despite Sri Aurobindo’s problem of expression between 1917 and 1920, when he was serializing The Future Poetry in The Arya, he could speak a lot, in wonderful moments of revealed prose, about the possibility of a dynamic revival of poetry from the ancient times.  He finds traces of the revelatory utterance, the mantra of the Vedic seers, in the poetry of Whitman, Tagore and Carpenter, as also in Yeats and some other Irish poets. The letters and The Future Poetry taken together complete the entire theory, which sheds light on three of the great modern poets, Whitman, Tagore and Sri Aurobindo himself.  The present study seeks to explore the achievement of these three poets, the whole of Leaves of Grass, Tagore’s song-lyrics (Gitobitan) and Sri Aurobindo’s own poetry written between 1930 and 1950, through the lens of Sri Aurobindo’s theory of poetry.

Keywords: mantra, Kavi, agni, third production, rhythmic voyage.

Sri Aurobindo tried revisions of his unfinished poetic manifesto, The FuturePoetry, not once but many times, and being unsatisfied with the incompleteness of his theory, said a firm “no” to its publication. The book came out after his passing; it came out first with the permission of Nolini Kanta Gupta in 1953. It will be a mistake to believe that Sri Aurobindo did not know about the overhead or spiritual planes or the source of the mantra, but he could speak clearly about them with reference to poetry only later in his letters to K.D. Sethna written in the 1930s. When he wrote the Life Divine earlier, he was explaining those planes frequently with reference to yoga and spirituality.

The Overmind is a creator of truths, not of illusions or falsehoods: what is worked out in any given overmental energism or movement is the truth of the Aspect, Power, Idea, Force, Delight which is liberated into independent action, the truth of the consequences of its reality in that independence. There is no exclusiveness asserting each as the sole truth of being or the others as inferior truths: each God knows all the Gods and their place in existence; each Idea admits all other ideas and their right to be; each Force concedes a place to all other forces and their truth and consequences; no delight of separate fulfilled existence or separate experience denies or condemns the delight of other existence or other experience. (CWSA 21.278)

This he wrote much before he started the Future Poetry in 1917. It shows he was well aware of the location and the characteristics of this overhead zone. He sees well that it is the last summit of the Mind linking the Supramental territory with the lower hemispheres of human consciousness. He differentiates perfectly between the Overmind and the Supermind at least three years before he began writing The Future Poetry. The following passage is a more clarified view of this linking plane:

The Overmind is a principle of cosmic Truth and a vast and endless catholicity is its very spirit; its energy is an all-dynamism as well as a principle of separate dynamisms: it is a sort of inferior Supermind,—although it is concerned predominantly not with absolutes, but with what might be called the dynamic potentials or pragmatic truths of Reality, or with absolutes mainly for their power of generating pragmatic or creative values, although, too, its comprehension of things is more global than integral, since its totality is built up of global wholes or constituted by separate independent realities uniting or coalescing together, and although the essential unity is grasped by it and felt to be basic of things and pervasive in their manifestation, but no longer as in the Supermind their intimate and ever-present secret, their dominating continent, the overt constant builder of the harmonic whole of their activity and nature. (279)

This is the plane which gives one access to the feeling of cosmic awareness, a cosmic identification with all beings. The Supermind cannot be expressed in human language; if it wants to express itself, it has to express itself through the Overmind. One suspects, Sri Aurobindo was not able to connect the concept of the overmind with his theory of poetry between 1917 and 1920. He was struggling to connect it. The result was the repeated revisions of the Future Poetry and his ultimate dissatisfaction about it. 

Sri Aurobindo’s one-room life began from 24 November 1926. As a recluse he might be feeling more relaxed, as became evident in a drastic change in his prose style. His structure and language in general became lucid and smoother from the 1930 s onwards and with that came an improved communicative skill, a better way of expressing things as he wrote to K.D. Sethna on the Overmind and the other overhead planes with an absolute spontaneity and clarity with reference to poetry that comes from the higher planes of consciousness.

The Overmind is  essentially a spiritual power. Mind in it surpasses its ordinary self and rises and takes its stand on a spiritual foundation. It embraces beauty and sublimates it; it has an essential aesthesis which is not limited by rules and canons; it sees a universal and an eternal beauty while it takes up and transforms all that is limited and particular. It is besides concerned with things other than beauty or aesthetics. It is concerned especially with truth and knowledge or rather with a wisdom that exceeds what we call knowledge; its truth goes beyond truth of fact and truth of thought, even the higher thought which is the first spiritual range of the thinker. It has the truth of spiritual thought, spiritual feeling, and spiritual sense and at its highest the truth that comes by the most intimate spiritual touch or by identity. Ultimately, truth and beauty come together and coincide, but in between there is a difference. Overmind in all its dealings puts truth first; it brings out the essential truth (and truths) in things and also its infinite possibilities; it brings out even the truth that lies behind falsehood and error; it brings out the truth of the Inconscient and the truth of the Superconscient and all that lies in between. When it speaks through poetry, this remains its first essential quality; a limited aesthetical artistic aim is not its purpose. It can take up and uplift any or every style or at least put some stamp of itself upon it (Sethna 50).

Poetic lines become mantra by the touch of the Overmind inspiration or by the touch of very high Intuition, which is a plane just below the Overmind (1.Higher mind 2.Illumined mind 3.Intuition 4.Overmind).  The Overmind is a gateway to the Supermind, which is no more to be called Mind, because it is above the human mind forming a bridge with the Ananda or the Sacchidanada. Neither the Supermind nor the Sacchidananda can be expressed in human language. But then something of the supermind percolates down into the Overmind and expresses something of the divine afflatus through it. Poetry then becomes a living image of the Truth in human language. The mantric poetry is an inspired Word, a supremely inevitable utterance that is born with the influence or the direct intervention of the Overmind or the mixed influence of the Intuitive-Overmind. 

The Overmind is not strictly a transcendental consciousness – that epithet would more accurately apply to the supramental and to the Sachchidananda consciousness – though it looks up to the transcendental and may receive something from it and though it does transcend the ordinary human mind and in its full and native self-power, when it does not lean down and become part of mind, is superconscient to us. It is more properly a cosmic consciousness. (13) 

That clarifies a part of the Overhead aesthetics and the poetic theory of Sri Aurobindo. But then, Overhead planes may be mixed in their action and influence on the poetic lines. Sri Aurobindo offers specific characteristics of the Overhead planes including its highest range, that is, the Overmind:

…of course all Overhead poetry is not from the Overmind, more often it comes from the Higher Thought, the Illumined Mind or the pure Intuition. This last is different from the mental intuition which is frequent enough in poetry that does not transcend the mental level. The language and rhythm from these other Overhead levels can be very different from that which is proper to the Overmind; for the Overmind thinks in a mass; it’s thought, feeling, vision is high or deep or wide or all these things together: to use the Vedic expression about fire, the divine messenger, it goes vast on its way to bring the divine riches, and it has a corresponding language and rhythm. The Higher Thought has a strong tread often with bare unsaddled feet and moves in a clear-cut light: a divine power, measure, dignity is its most frequent character. The outflow of the Illumined Mind comes in a flood brilliant with revealing words or a light of crowding images, sometimes surcharged with its burden of revelations, sometimes with a luminous sweep. The Intuition is usually a lightning flash showing up a single spot or plot of ground or scene with an entire and miraculous completeness of vision to the surprised ecstasy of the inner eye; its rhythm has a decisive inevitable sound which leaves nothing essential unheard, but very commonly is embodied in a single stroke. These, however, are only general or dominant characters; any number of variations is possible. (11-12)

And the variations are caused by the mixed influence of these overhead planes; one line may be from the illumined mind, the next may come from the Higher mind and yet a third may be from Overmind or Intuition, Or there can be the blend of the Overmind-Higher mind or Overmind-Illumined Mind or Overmind-Intuition on a line or lines. Sri Aurobindo could not clarify this aesthetics when he was writing the Future Poetry, although there were excellent intuitive observations on Whitman and Tagore in the book, supported by a sound intellect. And he was entering the soul of Whitman with his great inlook:

But beyond this representation of the largest thought and life and broadest turn to the future possible to his age, there is something else which arises from it all and carries us forward towards what is now opening to man around or above, towards a vision of new reaches and a profounder interpretation of existence. Whitman by the intensity of his intellectual and vital dwelling on the things he saw and expressed, arrives at some first profound sense of the greater self of the individual, of the greater self in the community of the race and in all its immense past action opening down through the broadening eager present to an immense future, of the greater self of Nature and of the eternal, the divine Self and Spirit of existence who broods over these things, who awaits them and in whom they come to the sense of their oneness. (CWSA 26 196-97)

Sri Aurobindo was meaning the incantatory verse of Whitman, the rhythmic journey into the subjective self, the large music and the great choric chants in Homeric inspiration. He offers an example too, which may be aptly explained by his clarified aesthetics of the letters written to Sethna in the mid-1930s.  Sri Aurobindo quotes the following famous lines from Whitman:

O Thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath,
Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them,
Thou mightier centre of the true, the good, the loving, . . .
How should I think, how breathe a single breath, how speak, if

out of myself
I could not launch to those superior universes?
Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,
At nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,
But that I, turning, call to thee, O soul, O actual Me,
And, lo, thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death,
And fillest, swellest full the vastnesses of space… (198)

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One hears here the rolling cadences of a vast ocean, and to borrow Wordsworth’s phrase, “breathless in adoration” (Palgrave 273). Here is that mighty majestic sweep of mantric poetry which comes from the Overhead planes, and surely from the Overmind in the first seven lines of the cited passage. But there are other great passages, not referred to by Sri Aurobindo, which speak of the Infinite in moments of great inspiration in the American poet, who, according to Sri Aurobindo, is the beginner of the new trend in modern poetry to be followed by Carpenter, Tagore and the Irish poets.

I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;

I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it;  

I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,  

In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,

In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me. (Blodgett and Bradley 162)

The large sweeping rhythm of the epanaphoral “I” suddenly grows quiet with a sublime realization at night, at bed time. One is tempted to go back to Sri Aurobindo’s own words on the greatest and the truest poetry, the poetry that rises from the fountainhead of the Spirit. For neither the intelligence, the imagination nor the ear are the true or at least the deepest or highest recipients of the poetic delight, even as they are not its true or highest creators; they are only its channels and instruments: the true creator, the true hearer is the soul. The more rapidly and transparently the rest do their work of transmission, the less they make of their separate claim to satisfaction, the more directly the word reaches and sinks deep into the soul, the greater the poetry. Therefore poetry has not really done its work, at least its highest work, until it has raised the pleasure of the instrument and transmuted it into the deeper delight of the soul. A divine Ananda, a delight interpretative, creative, revealing, formative,—one might almost say, an inverse reflection of the joy which the universal Soul felt in its great release of energy when it rang out into the rhythmic forms of the universe the spiritual truth, the large interpretative idea, the life, the power, the emotion of things packed into an original creative vision,—such spiritual joy is that which the soul of the poet feels and which, when he can conquer the human difficulties of his task, he succeeds in pouring also into all those who are prepared to receive it. This delight is not merely a godlike pastime; it is a great formative and illuminative power. (CWSA 26 12)

These words fit in the lines of Whitman, most appropriately, fittingly, opening our eyes and ears to the “deeper delights of the soul”, “spiritual joy”, and “illuminative power”. But there are other variations of the incantatory verse, not in the power of Whitman but in the sweetness of Tagore.

Aji joto tara tobo akashe
shobe mor o pranvori prokashe
aji joto tara tobo akashe
nikhilo tomar eseche chutiya
mor majhe aji poreche tutiya he.
tobo nikunjer monjori
joto amari onge bikashe
aji joto tara tobo akashe
shobe mor o pranovori prokashe
aji joto tara tobo akashe
dike digonte joto anondo
loviyache ek govir gondho
amar chitte mili ekotre
tomaro mondire ucchashe
aji konokhane kareo na jani
shunite na pai aji karo bani he.
nikhilo nisshasho aji e bokkhe
bashorir shure binashe
aji joto tara tobo akashe
shobe moro pranovori prokashe
aji joto tara tobo akashe
. (Gitobitan Visva-Bharati, 33)

Innumerable stars in your sky tonight
jewelled in my inmost,
Hurried comes the entire earth

Prostrate at my door
all flowers in your sprawling fields
Bloom in my self
Waking up from each cell in me
 Alive, awakened  and free
Ananda  many motioned from all directions
wakes up into a deep strange smell,
mingled and absorbed in  my heart,

Merges into your temple floor in a wide ecstatic delight.
Today I know none

No words come to my ears
A fragrant breath from the cosmos rises in my inmost heart
Ringing with the sound of a divine flute. (my translation)


Sri Aurobindo begins from where Whitman ended, making his verse more disciplined to echo the sublime quietude of his self, a self-withdrawn in the inmost centres and a self often  pushed up to the highest  heights of consciousness. Can there be poetry from those heights? Maybe Sri Aurobindo’s answer is “Yes”. But who are his audience? The question baffles us as we probe deeply into the texture of his lines. Outwardly, one listens to the rhythmic voices of Whitman. A deeper look reveals the poet’s invitation to a new adventure of consciousness. The following lines from a sonnet will speak of the essence:

I feel the greatness of the Power I seek

Surround me; below me are its giant deeps,

Beyond, the invisible height no soul has trod.

I shall be merged in the Lonely and Unique

And wake into a sudden blaze of God,

The marvel and rapture of the Apocalypse. (CWSA 2 606)

More baffling lines appear for the critics when Sri Aurobindo goes beyond Whitman in his experience of new worlds:

Calm heavens of imperishable Light,
Illumined continents of violet peace,
Oceans and rivers of the mirth of God
And griefless countries under purple suns. (Savitri, Book 2 Canto 3, 108)

Can this poetry be explained with the help of critical tools we have with us in the present times? The question of objective correlative naturally arises while standing in helpless awe before such lines, which Sri Aurobindo writes frequently and with absolute spontaneity between 1930 and 1950. Even the poetry of yearning and aspiration takes on a new incantation as he writes in quantitative metre a maturer statement of Yeats’s mystic rose:

Rose of God, like a blush of rapture on Eternity’s face,
Rose of Love, ruby depth of all being, fire-passion of Grace!
Arise from the heart of the yearning that sobs in Nature’s abyss:
Make earth the home of the Wonderful and life beatitude’s kiss. (CWSA 2 564)

The Earth’s aspiration takes an incantatory leap through the poet, pressing the wonderful fire, the Universal Cosmic Shakti, the agent and essence of the Divine, to come down on the world and make a permanent dwelling place here on this suffering planet. The new spirit in poetry that began with Whitman and crept in the great Bengali poet subsequently finally reaches a peak of spiritual glory in the hands of Sri Aurobindo.

Works Cited:

Aurobindo, Sri. Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1951-52.

—. The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo. Vols. 2, 21 and 26, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2009.

Blodgett, Harold W. and Bradley Sculley. Leaves of Grass: Reader’s Edition. U of London P, 1965.

Palgrave, F. T. The Golden Treasury. Oxford UP, 1976.

Sethna, K.D. Overhead Poetry, Poems with Sri Aurobindo’s Comments. Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1972.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Gitobitan. Visva-Bharati, 1973.

About the Author:

Goutam Ghosal, D.litt., is Professor of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. A leading interpreter of Sri Aurobindo’s literature, psychology, philosophy and sociological thoughts, he was the chief editor of The Visva-Bharati Quarterly from 2005 to 2007. His major books include The Rainbow Bridge: A Comparative Study of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo (2007), Indian Literarture: Points of View (1987), Sri Aurobindo’s Prose Style (1992), Sri Aurobindo and World Literature (1997), Notes on Prayers and Meditations (2002), Notes on the Renaissance (2002), and Magic Mirror and Other Poems (2001). Ghosal has published more than two hundred papers and articles in various journals, especially on Sri Aurobindo and other Indian English poets. His areas of specialization are Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Rabindrasangeet and his contemporary Bengali composers, Nineteenth Century British and American literature. He is the recipient of Sri Aurobindo Puroshkar and Nolini Kanta Gupta Puroshkar.