Poetry and Poetics of Walt Whitman and Sri Aurobindo: A Review

Title: Poetry and Poetics of Walt Whitman and Sri Aurobindo. Author: Dr. Sarani Ghosal Mondal. Publisher: Delta Book World. Price: Rs. 950 (Hard cover). Number of pages: 296. ISBN: 978-81-926244-1-9.

To proclaim the advent of a new genre of poetry in the English language Sri Aurobindo has hailed mainly the contributions of three poets: Edward Carpenter (1844—1929) and Walt Whitman (1819—1892) from the West and Rabindranath Tagore (1861—1941) from the East. Though the poetry of Tagore—who was a contemporary of Sri Aurobindo—had charmed him to his depths it was the works of Walt Whitman which had cast a lifelong influence on him. In her well-researched book Poetry and Poetics of Walt Whitman and Sri Aurobindo which can be hailed as a masterpiece, Dr. Sarani Ghosal Mondal has beautifully analyzed the said influence and has also presented a comparative evaluation of the poetry and poetics of both the poets. According to her, Sri Aurobindo found in Whitman his predecessor due to which there was a ‘distinct memory of the epical sweep of the Whitmanesque lyrics’ (p. 10) in Sri Aurobindo’s poetry. Another important discovery she has made is that Sri Aurobindo has named his book The Future Poetry after Whitman’s essay The Poetry of the Future which had seen the light of day in 1881.

The authoress has placed Whitman on a higher pedestal as a poet than Sri Aurobindo. Though she has admitted that Sri Aurobindo has enriched the English language by his ‘Sanskritic vocabulary and themes’ Sri Aurobindo, the poet, seems to be a little less attractive (p. 15) and that his language sometimes lacks the rough and sweet form of Whitman’s poetry. Therefore the ‘sweeping impact’ of Whitman is somewhat absent in Sri Aurobindo’s creations. According to the authoress:

‘Whitman’s poetry bears identical memories and he is the pioneer of the Upanishadic strain in English poetry. Sri Aurobindo comes later to give it a more authentic colour with the help of his yogic experiences. Sri Aurobindo uses the “I” with a memory of the Whitmanesque “I”, but his spiritual experiences are deeper, even deeper than the Sanskrit poets. Whitman does not seem far from us. He is smooth and easy-moving. He is surely more modern and more attractive. His words belong to the vernacular. Like Tagore’s poetry, Whitman’s lyrics have the ability to lift the mass mind to higher planes of consciousness. He is the first spokesman and practitioner of mantric poetry or the poetry of incantation in a new age. Unfortunately, Sri Aurobindo seems to have been struggling to express his yogic experiences and suffered at times from the lack of objective correlative. To solve this problem, he has made efforts to explain things in some of his mature lyrics. That has made some of his lyrics a bit expository.’ (pp. 15-16)

The aforesaid remark might irk a devoted Aurobindonian or an admirer of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry and he might arrive at a pre-convinced conclusion. But a careful study of the book would reveal that the authoress has given Sri Aurobindo the respect he deserves as a poet. She has correctly remarked that what Sri Aurobindo saw and felt became poetry and that his lyrics were actually records of his own spiritual experiences. But let’s also not forget the fact that Sri Aurobindo considered Whitman as one of the pioneers of the new lyric poetry and he himself was one of the most important exponents of Whitman’s works. To prove the point mentioned above let’s read the following passages from The Future Poetry where Sri Aurobindo has paid a garland of glorious tributes to Whitman:

‘Whitman’s aim is consciently, clearly, professedly to make a great revolution in the whole method of poetry, and if anybody could have succeeded, it ought to have been this giant of poetic thought with his energy of diction, this spiritual crowned athlete and vital prophet of democracy, liberty and the soul of man and Nature and all humanity. He is a great poet, one of the greatest in the power of his substance, the energy of his vision, the force of his style, the largeness at once of his personality and his universality. His is the most Homeric voice since Homer, in spite of the modern’s ruder less elevated aesthesis of speech and the difference between that limited Olympian and this broad-souled Titan, in this that he has the nearness to something elemental which makes everything he says, even the most common and prosaic, sound out with a ring of greatness, gives a force even to his barest or heaviest phrases, throws even upon the coarsest, dullest, most physical things something of the divinity; and he has the elemental Homeric power of sufficient straightforward speech; the rush too of oceanic sound though it is here the surging of the Atlantic between continents, not the magic roll and wash of the Aegean around the isles of Greece… Whitman will remain great after all the objections that can be made against his method or his use of it…’ (pp. 165-166)

‘…in the region of poetic thought and creation Whitman was the one prophetic mind which consciously and largely foresaw and prepared the paths… He belongs to the largest mind of the nineteenth century by the stress and energy of his intellectual seeking, by his emphasis on man and life and Nature, by his idea of the cosmic and universal, his broad spaces and surfaces, by his democratic enthusiasm, by his eye fixed on the future, by his intellectual reconciling vision at once of the greatness of the individual and the community of mankind, by his nationalism and internationalism, by his gospel of comradeship and fraternity in our common average manhood, by almost all in fact of the immense mass of ideas which form the connecting tissue of his work. But he brings into them an element which gives them another potency and meaning and restores something which in most of the literature of the time tended to be overcast and sicklied over by an excessive intellectual tendency more leaned to observe life than strong and swift to live it and which in the practicality of the time was caught up from its healthful soul of nature and converted into a huge grinding mechanism. He has the intimate pulse and power of life vibrating in all he utters, an almost primitive force of vitality, delivered from the enormous mechanical beat of the time by a robust closeness to the very spirit of life,—that closeness he has more than any other poet since Shakespeare,—and ennobled by a lifting up of its earthly vigour into a broad and full intellectual freedom… 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 immenser 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.’ (pp. 195-197)

This book is an eye-opener for it deals with a subject which has never been discussed before. It not only introduces Whitman to the present generation of readers in a new light but also enables us to understand how his poetry has influenced the poetical works of Sri Aurobindo. The book is divided into six chapters: Whitman and Sri Aurobindo: Cultural Backdrops, Poetics of Yesterday and the Future, On the Borderline and Beyond, Mystic and Spiritual: Two Planes of Poetry, Poetic Technique: Two Inspired Versifiers and Leaves of Grass and Savitri: A Legend & A Symbol. Each chapter is a delight to read. Reading these chapters is like discovering an unknown island or a virgin forest where one comes across a great deal of priceless treasures. Perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book is the last chapter where a comparative analysis of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri has been made. The authoress has observed a link between the two books and illustrated the similarities in the said chapter. According to her, Savitri is ‘an extension of Leaves of Grass’ (p. 275) in which Sri Aurobindo has attempted to solve the ‘unsolved mystery of death and immortality’ (ibid) present in the poetry of Whitman.

Poetry and Poetics of Walt Whitman and Sri Aurobindo would certainly act as a most faithful guidebook for all those who are keen to study Sri Aurobindo and Walt Whitman as a theme. The authoress deserves to be congratulated for such a thought-provoking book.

With warm regards,
Anurag Banerjee
Overman Foundation


3 Replies to “Poetry and Poetics of Walt Whitman and Sri Aurobindo: A Review

  1. Thanks a lot Anurag Banerjee: This is one of your latest efforts to appreciate the genuine works on Sri Aurobindo. I hope this will help the book to reach all researchers on Sri Aurobindo, as the Overman Foundation is a highly respected forum in the gradually expanding Sri Aurobindo world.
    Goutam Ghosal

  2. Sri Aurobindo and Walt Whitman are the least comparable. Both have written strikingly original poetry. And they advocate different aesthetics.

    Arvind Chowdhary

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