Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) wrote essays, plays, stories, and poems, all of which gather a mature Hindu philosophy of life into a cornucopia of lyric depth and expression. Yet the death poems are especially attractive, perhaps because they reflect deep emotional links to far-flung cultures and peoples everywhere. Death is universal but reflections on death must be likewise in order to reach the standards of art and ring authentic. In the death poems, Tagore adds an existential dimension that other writings need not have. We want to read the soaring and beautiful Sadhana on a different plain, and the pungent dramas and lyric poems. These are like simple flowers gazed upon as for the first time on a trodden path. Not so the death poems.
Lyricism marks the death poems, reflective of similar efforts of poets and artists treating this theme. The poems are not, however, like like the famous Japanese death poems, intended as ultimate statements in short rasping verse, sharp and riddling the complacent mind. Tagore is lyrical always, but as deft and serene as a storm-tossed craft that can move and shift with each change of fortune.
One set is titled On the Shores of Eternity, assembled by Deepak Chopra. The poems are scatterings of Tagore, like identifiable leaves from throughout his career. Chopra wants to show how Tagore saw life and death as partners, as friends, as lovers, as intimate sides of a single reality. Here Tagore sees death as an intrigue, an expectation, a piquancy, and awaits it with anticipation, if not joy. How can Tagore maintain such aplomb? This familiarity comes from meditation and silence. Says Chopra:
He went to the core of inner silence. What did this silence tell him? First it made him aware that death is always stalking us, every moment of our lives, not as an enemy but as part of the Unknown that surrounds existence. You have only to look over your shoulder to see that death is a little closer than the last time you looked. Having faced this fact, should you live in perpetual anxiety? For Tagore this knowledge made life magical, because he was forced to change his priorities. ‘Things that I longed for and things that I pursued, let them pass away,’ Tagore writes. ‘Instead let me truly possess what I overlooked and ignored.’
But while many of the poems here do reflect an optimism, even triumphalism, about death, not all do, and that is redemptive for the average reader who cannot share this confidence nor climb Tagore’s heights, or at least cannot always keep up with him. Indeed, the somber rings truer, as if philosophical or religious tenets have evaporated, cleared the mist before us, revealing, unveiled, our lone sentiments. Tagore often speaks of the flower, the flower that is born and cries out to the world “Do not fade away.” Or of the tears of grief that water our days, but like earth’s rains, give life to the flower. Or of the lowly fireflies that say to the stars that one day the light of the stars will fail, and the stars listen and do not reply.
Here is the poem to which Chopra alluded, “The Stars Look On”:
The day will come
When the sight of this earth will be lost
I will take my leave in silence
As the stars look on
I know the sun will rise again
The hours will still bring pleasure and pain
In heaving waves.
When I think of the end, time crumbles
I see by the light of death
That the lowliest existence is rare
And the worst moments are precious
What I longed for will be set aside
The things I pursued in vain —
Let them pass
Let me turn
To things I overlooked
And carelessly threw away
To possess them truly until they are mine
As the stars look on.
But it is in Tagore’s final poems that the economy of expression deepens and the sense of immediacy prevails. This set is a collection by Wendy Barker and Saranindranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s nephew) is titled simply Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems. They are the poems of his final year. He writes of the sickbed, the pain, the weakness, the bleakness, the solitude. But Tagore grasps at the core of what is happening, if not seizing the mystery itself, exploring it without fear or dissembling. Images of night abound: “deep-night interior,” “ancient dark-swept night,” “long painful night,” “an ashen moment of dusk,” “cruel night.” And daytime is never the same as when he walked in the fields or orchards. All is quiet now in languorous days. Tagore the artist is even so ever vigilant of self, and just as he recorded in poetry the very process of living, he records faithfully the process of dying.
From time to time I feel the moment for travel has come.
On the day of leaving, cast a veil
of humble sunset-glaze.
Let the time to leave
be quiet, still. Let no pompous memorials
build the hypnosis of grieving.
Let the lines of trees by the departure door
bestow the tranquil chanting of earth
on quiet heaps of leaves.
Let night’s soundless blessing slowly descend,
iridescent offerings of the seven stars.
And always the container of day and night, of ebb and flow, of youth and dying. What does this cycle reveal? How do we extract its meaning — or is this an arrogance that belies the simplicity of the flowers and the stars …?
The first day’s sun
the new appearance of being —
Who are you?
There was no answer.
Years went by.
Day’s last sun
asked the last question from the shores of the west
in the soundless evening —
Who are you?
There was no answer.
Like all sages, Tagore shows us that the consciousness of death gives meaning to life — or, rather, gives us the opportunity to craft this meaningfulness, and to extend these values to everything around us. The flowers and the stars and the fireflies are not projections of ourselves, not alien works. They teach us about equanimity and the cycles of the universe. We have to pay attention to them more than to the preoccupations of society, culture, and the pursuits of the world.