Tagore was born in Calcutta (known since 2001 as Kolkata) on 7 May 1861, the fourteenth of fifteen children of the philosopher, religious reformer, landowner, and businessman Devendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi Tagore. His grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, a wealthy businessman and flamboyant personality who had led the movement for reform and modernization in Bengal and was an early advocate of English education in India, had sent Tagore's father to the Anglo-Hindu school run by the reformer Raja Rammohan Roy and to Hindu College, an institution set up by the British in 1817. That both Dwarkanath Tagore and Roy died in England indicates the close connection between leading Bengali reformers of the time and Britain, which the reformers saw not only as a colonizing power but also as a source of Enlightenment values. Devendranath Tagore remained in Bengal, where he revived his father's business and nurtured the reformist Brahmo Samaj (Theistic Church) sect founded by Roy.
Rabindranath Tagore was, thus, born into a family that was prominent in Calcutta not only because of its wealth but also because of its cultural and spiritual affiliations. Their home in Jorasanko, north of Calcutta, was a center of musical, literary, and theatrical events. Tagore's mind was formed by that rich cultural atmosphere and by his own reading, rather than by the various schools to which he was sent; he felt constricted by their teaching methods and preferred to study with family members and private tutors. Unlike some other leading Bengali authors, who tried to write in English before deciding that they could express themselves adequately only in their mother tongue, Tagore published his first poem in Bengali when he was thirteen; his first collection of poems in the language came out in 1878.
Tagore's father sent him to England in September 1878 to get an education that would prepare him for an administrative post in the Indian Civil Service. He began his studies at a school in Brighton and continued them at University College London but abandoned them and returned to India in February 1880. The songs and poems he wrote on his return show that he had absorbed Western musical styles, as well as the works of the English Romantics and eminent Victorian poets and dramatists. His poems and plays creatively mingled Eastern and Western traditions to strike a new note in Bengali literature. In 1882 he and his brother Jyotirindranath helped establish Sarasvat Samaj, a kind of academy of Bengali letters, which became Bangiya Sahitya Parishat ten years later. On 9 December 1883 he married ten-year-old Mrinalini Devi. The couple had a daughter, Madhurilata (also known as Bela); a son, Rathindranath; a daughter, Renuka; another daughter, Mira; and a second son, Samindranath. In 1884 Tagore became the secretary of Adi Brahmo Samaj, a religious society.
During the next two decades Tagore consolidated his reputation as a Bengali man of letters. In addition to poems, he wrote songs, short stories, plays, essays, and literary criticism. Constantly reinventing himself artistically and introducing new genres and styles to Bengali literature, he began as a late-Romantic aesthete and soon turned to social and political criticism in realistic verse and then to meditative religious poetry. He is widely acknowledged as one of the founders of the modern Bengali language.
In 1890 Tagore spent a few months in England, returning home to become active in nationalist and anti-British agitation and religious reform. That same year his father turned over to him the management of family estates in eastern Bengal (today Bangladesh), a responsibility that he took seriously and discharged efficiently. In 1891 he founded the literary journal Sadhana, and in 1894 he became vice president of the Academy of Bengali Letters. Between 1895 and 1902 he cofounded several businesses in Calcutta and Kushtia. On 22 December 1901 he started an experimental school at Santiniketan in a remote area of Bengal; later he set up a weaving school at Kushtia and an agricultural cooperative bank at Patisar. His wife died on 23 November 1902, his daughter Renuka in September 1903, and his father on 19 January 1905. His son Samindranath died of cholera in November 1907.
A public reception in Calcutta on 12 January 1912 confirmed Tagore's standing as a leading Bengali writer. Up to this time he had not done any work in English, but some of his Indian admirers who lived in England had translated his short fiction and verse and had extolled their virtues in a bid to introduce his achievement to the West. The British art critic Ananda Coomaraswamy, who had been born in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka), had also translated a handful of Tagore's poems in the Modern Review. Many Europeans at the time were becoming interested in the mystical traditions of the East, and Tagore received letters from some Bengali admirers in England, inviting him to meet the English literati and acquaint them with his work. He booked passage for London on a ship that was departing in March 1912; but the day before he was to leave Calcutta, he fell ill and was forced to postpone his trip. While convalescing in Shelidah, he translated some of his poems into English prose so that he could circulate them in England. He sailed for England in June, continuing to work on his translations en route. When he reached London, he had completed a collection of 103 prose poems. The painter William Rothenstein, a friend of the Tagore family, sent a copy of the manuscript to Yeats. Tagore read the pieces at a literary evening at Rothenstein's home on 30 June; among the writers who attended were Yeats, Ernest Rhys, and Ezra Pound. The reading was a great success and was followed by other readings and receptions.
In October 1912 Tagore sailed for the United States to visit his son, who was graduating from the University of Illinois. In November the India Society of London published a limited edition of his collection of translations as Gitanjali (Song Offerings) , with a pencil sketch of the author by Rothenstein and an introduction in which Yeats recorded that the poems had "moved" him so much that he obsessively carried them everywhere, stirred by their lyrical beauty and spirit. The poems are devotional songs addressed to God; though mystical, they make abundant use of imagery from nature. Even in the English prose versions the poems strike a meditative note and have a haunting, melodic tone. The qualities that endeared the collection to Western readers are summed up by the comments of the Swedish poet Verner von Heidenstam, who played a key role in the Nobel Committee's choice of Tagore for the 1913 prize in literature: "The intense and loving piety that permeates his every thought and feeling, the purity of heart, the noble and natural sublimity of his style, all combine to create a whole that has a deep and rare spiritual beauty."
The 750 copies of the India Society edition sold out quickly, and Rothenstein persuaded the Macmillan firm to publish the book under its imprint. Reviewing the volume in the Fortnightly Review in October 1912, Pound said that he found in the poems "pure Hellenic" phrases, "poetic pieties" that reminded him of Dante, and a "sense of a saner stillness" that came from nature itself. An anonymous reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) wrote that the poems had a "harmony of emotion and idea" lacking in contemporary European writing and added: "That divorce of religion and philosophy which prevails among us is a sign of our failure in both. . . . As we read his pieces we seem to be reading the psalms of a David in our time."
Pound persuaded Harriet Monroe to publish six of the poems in the American journal Poetry, and Tagore visited Monroe in Chicago in January 1913. He lectured on metaphysics at the Unity Club in Urbana, Illinois; on ancient Indian civilization at the University of Chicago; and on the problem of evil at the Unitarian Hall in Chicago. He also gave lectures at the Philosophical Club and the Divinity Club at Harvard University. He returned to England in April and to India in October. In the latter month a second volume of his verse, The Gardener, was published in England. Dedicated to Yeats, it consists of prose translations of eighty-five poems Tagore had written over a period of several years. They are not as religious in tone as the poems in Gitanjali but are more concerned with romantic love and other human emotions. Tagore abridged and even paraphrased the original poems in the process of rendering them in English. Reviews of the volume were mixed.
Sadhana: The Realisation of Life , a collection of eight lectures Tagore had given in the United States between October 1912 and April 1913, was published by Macmillan in London in October 1913. Dealing with issues such as the relation of the individual to the universe, the problem of evil, and the revelation of the infinite, they embody the philosophy underlying the Gitanjali poems; perhaps for this reason, they were received enthusiastically. They thus contributed to Tagore's image in the West as a prophet and mystic who combined love of God with a belief in the essential divinity of humanity. Among the most popular of Tagore's English works, Sadhana was reprinted eight times in England within a year of its original publication.
The success of Gitanjali and the consequent demand for his works in English led Tagore to bring out The Crescent Moon: Child-Poems in November 1913. Most of the forty poems in this collection deal with childhood as seen from a variety of angles. But the speed with which the poems were rendered into English led the anonymous reviewer for TLS to describe the poems as "more childish than childlike," although the reviewer for The Nation (30 November 1916) saw in the book "a vision of childhood which is only paralleled in our literature by the work of William Blake ."
Tagore published one other book in English in 1913: Chitra: A Play in One Act, translated from a Bengali play that he had written many years earlier. But as was increasingly the case with his verse translations, the English work is a truncated form of the Bengali version, which is a delightful lyrical celebration of spring based on a story from the Indian epic The Mahabharata. Responses to the English work were muted, and Chitra did not add to Tagore's reputation in the West.
Tagore was at his school in Santiniketan when he learned on 14 November 1913 that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for that year; he was the thirteenth writer, and the first Asian, to receive the honor. The award transformed his life: demand for his works in English increased substantially, and he became the center of attention wherever he went; he acquired almost mythical status both in India and in the West and drew attention to Indian writing in English in a way that was unprecedented.
A consequence of the demand for Tagore's work fueled by the Nobel Prize was the publication in 1916 of Fruit-Gathering , a collection of poems that he had translated from a recent volume of his Bengali verse. One of the poems, "The Trumpet," had been published in The Times of London on 26 November 1914 with a headnote that indicates that Tagore's verse was still appreciated in England:
The author of this poem, Mr. Rabindranath Tagore, is the famous Indian poet, whose lyrics, plays and essays have brought in recent years a new delight to lovers of English literature. Mr. Tagore, who is personally not unknown in the country, himself translates many of his works from the original into English; and his command of our language has done much to make the West acquainted with the finest Indian thought.
Like Gitanjali, Fruit-Gathering is essentially religious in orientation, although it also includes some narrative poems about historical figures and some long philosophical poems. The English versions, however, fail to retain the sublimity of the spiritual verse or the distinctive qualities of the narrative and meditative poems in Bengali.
Nevertheless, Tagore's international reputation was still on the rise. On 3 June 1915 he was knighted by the British government, and in May 1916 he undertook his fourth foreign trip in response to invitations to give readings and lectures in Japan, Canada, and the United States. Biographer Krishna R. Kripalani suggests that the idea for his next book in English, Stray Birds (1916), a collection of epigrams and short verses, came from the many occasions on the trip when women asked him to write a few lines in autograph books or on fans. Many of these pieces, some of which may have been influenced by Japanese haiku, seem to have been written in English and can, therefore, be seen as original works in the language.
On the Japanese portion of the trip Tagore spoke out against the aggressive nationalism he saw in the country. In lectures such as "The Nation" and "The Spirit of Japan" he criticized Japanese expansionist policies and warned against blind imitation of Western imperialism, reminding his audiences in the latter talk that "True Modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste. It is independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European schoolmasters." In Seattle in September 1916 Tagore continued to critique what he saw as a disturbing worldwide phenomenon in the lecture "The Cult of Nationalism." He also spoke out on the evils of materialism.
The lectures Tagore gave on his 1916 tour were collected in two books in 1917. Nationalism is based on lectures he gave in Japan and in the United States and is dedicated to C. F. Andrews, an English missionary who was one of his closest associates at his school in Santiniketan. While Tagore's criticism of the virulent nationalism he had witnessed in Japan and America was widely denounced in those countries at the time, Nationalism has proved to be one of his most enduring works in English and is still cited in discussions of the subject. The English historian E. P. Thompson observes in his introduction to a 1992 edition of the work that the lectures, written in the shadow of World War I, link nationalism with "the self-destructive tendency of the organized modern nation." In their biography, Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (2000), Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson describe the book as an "indictment of power politics and commercialism." The other book published in 1917, Personality: Lectures Delivered in America, is also dedicated to Andrews. It is a collection of six of the lectures he gave on his American tour: "What Is Art," "The World of Personality," "The Second Birth," "My School," "Meditation," and "Women."
In 1918 Tagore published Lover's Gift and Crossing, a volume of religious poems in English based on poems and songs he had written in Bengali over the last few years. The translations continue to deteriorate in quality; some are no more than partial English paraphrases of the originals. The volume did not attract a great deal of attention.
In December 1918 Tagore laid the cornerstone for Visva-Bharati, a university that replaced his school in Santiniketan. He conceived Visva-Bharati as an "international center of humanistic studies" where scholars and artists from all over the world could meet, do research, teach, and create. The institution also had a practical side, as evidenced by the Departments of Village Reconstruction and Rural Development. Leonard Elmhirst, a young Englishman who had a degree in agriculture from Cornell University, became an important associate in this venture. In 1919 Tagore founded the literary journal Santiniketan Patra, which began publication in April.
On 13 April 1919 British troops killed nearly four hundred Indians and wounded more than a thousand at Jallianwalah Bagh in the Punjab in what became known as the Amritsar Massacre. In response, Tagore resigned his knighthood on 30 May in a letter to the viceroy of India. One of the most famous letters in Indian English prose, it testifies to the eloquence of which he was capable in English: "The time has come when badges of honor make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who for their so-called insignificance are liable to suffer a degradation not fit for human beings." At the same time, Tagore spoke out against Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's campaign of passive resistance to British rule in India, since he believed that this tactic should not be used as a weapon until Indians understood the principles underlying it. Tagore and Gandhi were, however, united in their opposition to British rule, and they maintained a warm relationship over the years.
Tagore's novel The Home and the World (1919) is the story of a romantic triangle: the idealistic landowner Nikhil's wife, Bimala, is attracted to her husband's seductive college friend, Sandip, an activist in the nationalist cause. Based on the tensions and ambivalence created in many educated Bengalis by the Swadeshi (Nationalist) movement of 1905 and the terrorist violence that followed, it depicts a society changing rapidly because of the introduction of Western ideas. It is a moral work that is implicitly critical of violence as a tool of emancipation; it is also a daring work that treats women's attempts to break out of the confines of the home and enter the wider world. The mood of the novel is somber; Dutta and Robinson place it "among Tagore's darkest works." Nevertheless, it is one of Tagore's most popular novels, and its reputation has been boosted by Satyajit Ray's 1984 movie version.
Tagore's need for funds to sustain and expand his university led to his fifth foreign tour in May 1920. His reception by the English was much less enthusiastic than it had been on his earlier trips: he had recently spurned the country by resigning his knighthood in such a dramatic fashion, and he persisted in criticizing British rule in India at every opportunity. On the Continent, however, where his works had been translated into various languages by eminent writers such as André Gide , he was feted by the literati in Paris, Strasbourg, Geneva, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and Prague. In the United States, as in England, his reception was not as warm as it had been on his previous visits. He traveled again to Britain and the Continent before returning to India in July 1921.
In 1921 Tagore published The Fugitive , which includes his prose "translations" not only of his own poems but also of seventeen religious poems by other Bengali mystical writers. Like his other translations of his own work after Gitanjali, the verses rendered into English in The Fugitive fail to do justice to the emotional intensity or the craft he displays in the Bengali originals. Most of the poems are religious in tone and spirit, but the reader will find it difficult to trace the borders between the sacred and the secular: in Tagore's verse the beloved can be either God or a woman. The Fugitive also includes five short plays based on Indian myths.
Also in 1921 Tagore published Thought Relics , a collection of 109 brief devotional essays. Some of them originated in Bengali pieces he had written earlier and had translated during his 1920 voyage to England. Many, however, are original works and testify to Tagore's status as one of the earliest Indian writers of English prose of high quality. In number 16, for example, he writes feelingly and sensitively of the human quest for the infinite:
We are like the stray line of a poem, which ever feels that it rhymes with another line and must find it, or miss its own fulfillment. The quest of the unattained is the great impulse in man which brings forth all his best creations. Man seems deeply to be aware of a separation at the root of his being; he tries to be led across it to a union; and somehow he knows that it is love which can lead him to a love which is final.
The volume did not attract much attention in England or America, indicating that Tagore was no longer the literary phenomenon in the English-speaking West that he had once been. (Even so, Macmillan commissioned Andrews to publish an edition of the book in 1929 that included eighty-nine more pieces and was retitled Thoughts from Tagore.)
Although Tagore's stay in America was, on the whole, a disappointment for him, he did give at least two significant lectures there. In "The Meeting of the East and the West," given at a reception organized by the Discussion Guild and the Indian Society on 1 December 1930 at Carnegie Hall in New York City, he remembered the aspect of the West that had stirred him and his fellow Indians in the nineteenth century: "the ideal of the freedom of man, freedom of self-expression for all races and all countries." Cherishing the period in Indian history when East and West came together, he lamented the "terrible menace" of power that he sees in "the conflagration of war and misery" in the contemporary West. In the other lecture, "The Poet's Religion," delivered at the Brooklyn Civic forum, Tagore declared that "the faith in God, in the reality of the ideal of perfection, has built up all that is great in the human world" and that when "the faith of the infinite reality of Perfection" fails to ignite, materialism destroys all values and stifles creativity.
As early as 1921 Tagore appears to have realized the disservice he had done to himself by rushing volume after volume of his translations into print to meet the demand for his work in English-speaking countries. He wrote to his admirer Edward J. Thompson on 2 February: "I know I am misrepresenting myself as a poet to the western readers. But when I began this career of falsifying my own coins I did it in play. Now I am becoming frightened of its enormity and I am willing to make a confession of my misdeeds and withdraw into my original vocation as a mere Bengali poet."
"The Poet's Religion" is the inaugural essay in Tagore's 1922 book in English, Creative Unity. The other essays are "The Creative Ideal," "The Religion of the Forest," "An Indian Folk Religion," "East and West," "The Modern Age," "The Spirit of Freedom," "The Nation," "Woman and Home," and "An Eastern University." "The Spirit of Freedom" is a letter that he wrote in New York urging Indians to avoid the "spirit of the machine" in the civilization of the West as well as the repressive nature of contemporary Indian civilization. In these essays Tagore articulates his ideas in English prose with clarity and conviction.
For the rest of the decade Tagore did not publish much in English, although collections of his letters in English to Andrews and collections of his lectures abroad came out from time to time in India and in the West. Much of his energy in these years was devoted to building and raising funds for Visva-Bharati and responding to speaking invitations at home and abroad. In 1922 he traveled to Ceylon, and in 1924 he spent several months in China and Japan. In September 1924 he sailed for Peru to attend the ceremonies celebrating the centenary of Peruvian independence, but he fell ill en route and spent three months recuperating in the home of the Argentine publisher and writer Victorio Ocampo in Buenos Aires. Returning home via Italy, he arrived in India in February 1925. In 1926 he returned to Italy as the guest of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. From Italy he traveled to Switzerland, where the writer Romain Rolland showed him statements in the Italian press depicting him as sympathetic to Mussolini. In response, Tagore published a letter in the Manchester Guardian (5 August 1926) protesting the distortion of his views and expressing his aversion to Fascism. He went on to England, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, and Egypt before returning to India in December 1926. In July 1927 he traveled to southeast Asia and in May 1928 to Ceylon. In 1928 he published an English work, Fireflies; like Stray Birds, it consists of epigrammatic verse.
In 1929 Tagore visited Canada, the United States, and Japan, returning to Calcutta in July. In March 1930 he departed for England; en route he stopped in Paris, where friends and admirers celebrated his sixty-ninth birthday. The main reason for his visit to England was to deliver the Hibbert Lectures at the University of Oxford in May. The subject of the lectures was "the idea of the humanity of our God, or the divinity of Man the Eternal." They offered his English audience an insight into the faith that underlay Tagore's verse: "For it is evident that my religion is a poet's religion. . . . Its touch comes to me through the same unseen and trackless channel as does the inspiration of my songs." The lectures were well attended and earned glowing reviews, the Manchester Guardian commenting on 27 May that "the personality of the poet as he spoke with the sunshine falling on his white head and lighting up his beautiful face made comparatively easy even his most difficult thoughts." The lectures were published in 1931 as The Religion of Man . Reprinted many times, the book ranks with Nationalism as one of his most enduring works in English. Going beyond institutionalized religion and drawing lovingly on the rural religious traditions of Bengal, Tagore discourses on reality, the world of the spirit, and the nature of prophecy and of the artist. But Tagore's humanism is the quality that most impresses the reader: "We can never go beyond man in all that we know and feel."
Tagore traveled from England to Germany in July. Moved by the performance of the Passion Play in Oberammergau, he wrote his only long poem in English, The Child (1931), in the course of a single night. Combining biblical allusions with Hindu traditions, the poem alludes to Christ's coming and to Gandhi's travails as "a man of Faith" in a world where people seem to have lost their way. The poem did not attract much critical attention.
Tagore went on from Germany to Switzerland, Russia, and the United States. On 25 November 1930 a banquet was held in his honor in New York City. He met President Herbert Hoover, lectured to thousands at Carnegie Hall, and was honored by a dance performance given at the Broadway Theater by Ruth St. Dennis to help him raise funds for Visva-Bharati. He returned home in January 1931. To commemorate his seventieth birthday that year, admirers from all over the world sent messages and tributes that were compiled as The Golden Book of Tagore. Remembering "the incomparable purity" of Gitanjali, which he had translated into French in 1913, Gide observed that "through the war and beyond all our political and confessional dissensions, this fixed star has continued to shine and pour on the world a tranquil light of love, confidence, and peace." The British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: "He has contributed as much as any man living to the most important work of our time, namely, the promotion of understanding between different races. Of what he has done for India it is not for me to speak, but of what he has done for Europe and America in the way of softening of prejudices and the removal of misconceptions I can speak, and I know that on this account he is worthy of the highest honor." Despite becoming disillusioned with Tagore's translations in the 1920s, Yeats declared that "of recent years, I have found wisdom and beauty, or both, in your prose--The Home and the World, your short stories, and your Reminiscences." (It should be noted that both The Home and the World and Reminiscences  were translated into English not by Tagore but by his nephew, and some of his short stories were translated by others.) The American philosopher Will Durant noted that "something of the ancient idealism of the East has been poured into our blood by the wine and music of your verse, by the example and majesty of your life." The physicist Albert Einstein resorted to almost biblical cadences to praise the Indian poet and sage: "Thou hast served mankind all through a long and fruitful life, spreading everywhere a gentle and free thought in a manner such as the Seers of thy people have proclaimed as the ideal."
In the 1930s Tagore became absorbed in painting, and his creative energies were devoted to this medium, as well as to composing songs, verse, and fiction in Bengali. Others took on the task of translating his works into English. His only significant work in English to appear during the decade was the 1936 Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore. On 21 October 1935 he wrote a long letter to Thomas Sturge Moore, one of his earliest admirers and the man who had nominated him for the Nobel Prize, in which he described translations as "acrobatic tricks" that "in most cases" constitute "treason against the majesty of the original." He went on to declare that he ought not to have dared to intrude into the "realm of glory" of English verse with "offerings" that he had polished "hastily" to "a foreign shine" by "assumed gestures." He noted that he had done "injustice" to himself and had abased himself by "clamoring for one's immediate due in wrong times and out of the way places." He added that his realization of the futility of his bid to represent himself in English had led him to instruct his admirer, the Bengali poet Amiya Chakravarty, at that time a student at Oxford, "not to participate in perpetuating my offence of transgression by arranging a collected edition of my own translations" that Macmillan was planning. He was convinced that "casual visitors must not overstay their welcome" and must know when it is time "for them to leave the stage, withdrawing themselves from a too prolonged stare of the critical footlight."
And yet, Tagore allowed Chakravarty to compile the Collected Poems and Plays with the help of Andrews and Rhys. When the work was published, Tagore wrote to Rhys and Macmillan expressing his satisfaction, seemingly having forgotten the qualms he had had about such a volume.
The Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore remained in print for decades, giving English-speaking readers of successive generations an impression of Tagore's achievement. But Dutta and Robinson argue that the collection was "disastrous" in the long-term impact it had on his reputation. Since there is no editorial commentary, readers are not informed that they are being offered translations from the Bengali or that some of the translations are not by Tagore but by others. Furthermore, of the translations done by Tagore, those of works after Gitanjali are not of high quality. Amazingly, works Tagore had written in English, such as Fireflies and The Child, are not included. Finally, the poems chosen are mainly those that represent him as a mystic poet; thus, the selections do not represent the full range of his work.
According to Dutta and Robinson, Tagore's reputation in the English-speaking world, already declining in the decades following the publication of Gitanjali, "took a nose-dive" with the publication of The Collected Poems and Plays, even though the work aroused "minimal interest" from critics at the time. They note, for example, that the author Graham Greene wrote in his introduction to R. K. Narayan's novel The Bachelor of Arts (1937): "As for Rabindranath Tagore, I cannot believe that anyone but Mr. Yeats"--who had included Tagore in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936)--"can still take his poems very seriously."
But Dutta and Robinson point out that "while Tagore's literary stock among English writers was extremely low, his personal reputation was Olympian." They cite a reviewer of a 1939 Tagore biography who characterized Tagore as "the most famous of living poets," one whose "renown is worldwide." Further evidence of Tagore's enduring reputation as a literary figure was the honorary D.Litt. conferred on him by the University of Oxford in July 1940. In his speech at the event, Sir Maurice Gwyer, the chief justice of India, called Tagore "the myriad-minded poet and writer, the musician famous in his art, the philosopher proven both in word and deed, the fervent upholder of learning and sound doctrine, the ardent defender of public liberties, one who by the sanctity of his life and character has won for himself the praise of all mankind." Tagore was too frail to travel to Oxford to receive the degree, and he fell seriously ill in September. He died on 7 August 1941.
Although Bengali was always Tagore's preferred language for his creative work, the quantity of his English writings is substantial: the three-volume edition of The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (1994-1996), edited by Sisir Kumar Das, runs to more than two thousand folio pages. The two standard literary histories of Indian writing in English, by K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar (1962) and M. K. Naik (1982), devote considerable space to him. Srinivasa Iyengar comments: "He belongs unquestionably to Bengali literature, but he belongs to Indo-Anglian literature too." Naik notes that "Tagore presents a case of literary bilingualism which is perhaps without parallel in literary history" and insists that his English verse must be evaluated on its own merits. Treating it thus, he considers the religious poems of Gitanjali and the love poems of The Gardener far superior to the later collections. He believes, however, that the verse epigrams of Stray Birds and Fireflies have been unjustly neglected. He finds Tagore's "verse in English essentially lyrical in quality" and points out that it deals with "the elemental subjects of all lyrical poetry--God, Nature, Love, the Child, Life and death." Tagore brings to his English lyrical works, Naik says, "the born poet's simplicity, sensuousness and passion," although they are steeped in the "Indian ethos" and touched with the spirit of the Hindu holy book, the Upanishads. According to Naik, Tagore's English prose shows him to be "an internationalist and humanist preaching the gospel of universal harmony between Man and man, Man and nature, and Man and the Divine." For Naik, "Tagore's prose is remarkable less for qualities of precision and logical argumentation than for its frequent spells of impassioned, semi-poetic utterance." Finally, Naik says that Tagore's plays suffer the most in his English translations because he subjected them to "rigorous condensation," though at their best they are comparable to "the modern imaginative drama of W. B. Yeats and Maurice Maeterlinck ."
The current generation of South Asian writers in English appears largely unwilling to acknowledge Rabindranath Tagore as a forerunner. But the poet Nissim Ezekiel thought that he was too important a figure to be passed over, saying in a 1980 lecture that "any educated Indian today and for a long time to come who has not had the profoundest possible experience of Tagore has missed a crucial element in the shaping of modern Indian culture." And in his introduction to selections from Tagore's writings in The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature (1961), the novelist Amit Chaudhuri considers Tagore's efforts as crucial in Indian culture's movement toward modernity. Perhaps, then, Tagore's importance is that he not only brought Indian writing in English to the world stage but also brought South Asian writing in English to the brink of modernity.
Alam, Fakrul. "Rabindranath Tagore." South Asian Writers in English, edited by Fakrul Alam, Gale, 2006.