Study Guide

Sarojini Naidu

by Sarojini Chattopadhyay

Sarojini Naidu Essay - Critical Essays

Naidu, Sarojini

Introduction

Naidu, Sarojini 1879-1949

Indian poet, lecturer, and politician.

Naidu is remembered as a virtuoso of English metrical forms and romantic imagery in her poetry, which she wrote in English. Her mastery of such difficult poetic constructs as the dactylic prompted the English writers Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons to praise her work widely and develop friendships with her. Equally concerned with India's freedom movement and women's rights as with writing poetry, Naidu became a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and lectured on behalf of Indian independence throughout India, Africa, the United States, and Canada. Her political career reached its peak when she was elected the first woman governor of the United Provinces in 1947.

Biographical Information

Naidu was born into a high-caste Bengali family in 1879. Her father, Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya, became, after obtaining his doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, a distinguished scholar and linguist who founded two Indian colleges, one for women. Naidu's mother, Varada Sundari, was a minor poet and noted singer. Naidu began writing poetry as a child and at the age of twelve passed the matriculation examination for the University of Madras. As a teenager, Naidu fell in love with Govindarajulu Naidu, a doctor who was neither Bengali nor of the Brahmin caste. Hoping to prevent their daughter from marrying outside her social group, her parents sent her to England in 1895. There Naidu attended King's College, London, and Girton College, Cambridge, where she further developed her poetic style and became friends with such well-known English critics and writers as Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons, who helped her to refine her work. In 1898 Naidu returned to India and married Govindarajulu Naidu despite her family's disapproval. Because of her family's high status, Naidu had access to many of the most prominent thinkers, writers, and political figures of India's modern intellectual renaissance. Her first volume of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in England in 1905; with an introduction by Arthur Symons. The book was well-received, and Naidu was encouraged to continue publishing her work until 1917, when she abruptly stopped. At this point, Naidu became active in Indian politics. She had met Gandhi in 1914 and soon decided to join him in the struggle for Indian independence. Naidu's first cause as a political activist was women's rights; she traveled throughout India lecturing on women's educational needs and promoting suffrage, and became the first woman to hold several prominent positions in the Indian government. In 1925 she was elected President of the Indian National Congress, and during the 1920s traveled throughout Africa and North America campaigning for Indian independence. Naidu was arrested and imprisoned for revolutionary activities several times during her career. In 1947-when independence was achieved-Naidu was elected acting governor of the United Provinces. She died in 1949.

Major Works

Naidu's early poetry evidences the strong Western influence of her Brahmin upbringing. Crafting poems in traditional English metrical forms, she concentrated primarily on Western themes and images. Edmund Gosse, upon reading her work when he met her in London, recognized Naidu's potential but encouraged her to incorporate Indian subjects into her work. Naidu followed Gosse's advice, and her first volume, The Golden Threshold, combines traditional poetic forms with lush images of India. The book achieved popular and critical success in England, where Edwardian readers admired Naidu's deft handling of the English language as well as the native view of Indian exotica it offered them. Naidu's second collection of poems, The Bird of Time (1912), confronted more serious themes such as death and grief as well as containing poems expressing Naidu's patriotism and religious convictions. Gosse provided the forward to this volume, noting Naidu's rich exploration of complex issues in delicate, romantic language. In her third volume, The Broken Wing (1917), Naidu included more poems of patriotism and description of Indian culture. More important, The Broken Wing contains the work many critics consider Naidu's greatest poetic achievement, "The Temple: A Pilgrimage of Love." A series of twenty-four poems, "The Temple" explores the joys, pain, and vagaries of a mature love relationship in graphic, sometimes violent, imagery, and concludes in a meditation on death. The Broken Wing was the last volume of poetry published in Naidu's lifetime. Many critics have wondered about the reason for her apparently sudden departure from literary pursuits to political involvement. Some speculate that her popularity dwindled, particularly in England, when she moved away from the flowery, romantic style of her early poetry to a comparatively morbid and contemplative tone in her later work. Others contend that her preoccupation with patriotic themes caused readers to lose interest. In 1961 Naidu's daughter published a collection of her previously unpublished poems, The Feather of the Dawn, but it met with little critical interest. Her poetry has since undergone reevaluation by Indian critics, many of whom regard her as one of India's greatest twentieth-century poets.

Principal Works

Speeches and Writings (speeches and essays) 1904; revised edition, 1925

The Golden Threshold (poetry) 1905

The Bird of Time: Songs of Life, and Death, and the Spring (poetry) 1912

The Broken Wing: Songs of Love, Death, and Destiny, 1915-1916 (poetry) 1917

The Soul of India (essays) 1917

The Sceptered Flute: Songs of India (poetry) 1928

Select Poems [edited by H. G. Dalway Turnbull] (poetry) 1930

The Feather of the Dawn (poetry) 1961

Criticism

Arthur Symons (essay date 1905)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Golden Threshold, by Sarojini Naidu, William Heinemann, 1905, pp. 9-23.

[In the following introduction of Naidu's The Golden Threshold, Symons expresses his strong admiration of Naidu's poetry and relates the friendship he developed with her through letters.]

It is at my persuasion that these poems are now published. The earliest of them were read to me in London in 1896, when the writer was seventeen; the later ones were sent to me from India in 1904, when she was twenty-five; and they belong, I think, almost wholly to those two periods. As they seemed to me to have an individual beauty of their own, I thought they ought to be published. The writer hesitated. "Your letter made me very proud and very sad," she wrote. "Is it possible that I have written verses that are "filled with beauty,' and is it possible that you really think them worthy of being given to the world? You know how high my ideal of Art is; and to me my poor casual little poems seem to be less than beautiful I mean with that final enduring beauty that I desire." And, in another letter, she writes: "I am not a poet really. I have the vision and the desire, but not the voice. If I could write just one poem full of beauty and the spirit of greatness, I should be exultantly silent for ever; but I sing just as the birds do, and my songs are as ephemeral." It is for this bird-like quality of song, it seems to me, that they are to be valued. They hint, in a sort of delicately evasive way, at a rare temperament, the temperament of a woman of the East, finding expression through a Western language and under partly Western influences. They do not express the whole of that temperament; but they express, I think, its essence; and there is an Eastern magic in them.

Sarojini Chattopâdhyây was born at Hyderabad on February 13, 1879. Her father, Dr. Aghorenath Chattopâdhyây, is descended from the ancient family of Chattorajes of Bhramangram, who were noted throughout Eastern Bengal as patrons of Sanskrit learning, and for their practice of Yoga. He took his degree of Doctor of Science at the University of Edinburgh in 1877, and afterwards studied brilliantly at Bonn. On his return to India he founded the Nizam College at Hyderabad, and has since laboured incessantly, and at great personal sacrifice, in the cause of education.

Sarojini was the eldest of a large family, all of whom were taught English at an early age. "I," she writes, "was stubborn and refused to speak it. So one day when I was nine years old my father punished me the only time I was ever punished by shutting me in a room alone for a whole day. I came out of it a full-blown linguist. I have never spoken any other language to him, or to my mother, who always speaks to me in Hindustani. I don't think I had any special hankering to write poetry as a little child, though I was of a very fanciful and dreamy nature. My training under my father's eye was of a sternly scientific character. He was determined that I should be a great mathematician or a scientist, but the poetic instinct, which I inherited from him and also from my mother (who wrote some lovely Bengali lyrics in her youth) proved stronger. One day, when I was eleven, I was sighing over a sum in algebra: it wouldn 't come right; but instead a whole poem came to me suddenly. I wrote it down.

"From that day my "poetic career' began. At thirteen I wrote a long poem à la "Lady of the Lake' 1300 lines in six days. At thirteen I wrote a drama of 2000 lines, a fullfledged passionate thing that I began on the spur of the moment without forethought, just to spite my doctor who said I was very ill and must not touch a book. My health broke down permanently about this time, and my regular studies being stopped I read voraciously. I suppose the greater part of my reading was done between fourteen and sixteen. I wrote a novel, I wrote fat volumes of journals: I took myself very seriously in those days."

Before she was fifteen the great struggle of her life began. Dr. Govindurajulu Naidu, now her husband, is, though of an old and honourable family, not a Brahmin. The difference of caste roused an equal opposition, not only on the side of her family, but of his; and in 1895 she was sent to England, against her will, with a special scholarship from the Nizam. She remained in England, with an interval of travel in Italy, till 1898, studying first at King's College, London, then, till her health again broke down, at Girton. She returned to Hyderabad in September 1898, and in the December of that year, to the scandal of all India, broke through the bonds of caste, and married Dr. Naidu. "Do you know I have some very beautiful poems floating in the air," she wrote to me in 1904; "and if the gods are kind I shall cast my soul like a net and capture them, this year. If the gods are kind and grant me a little measure of health. It is all I need to make my life perfect, for the very 'Spirit of Delight' that Shelly wrote of dwells in my little home; it is full of the music of birds in the garden and children in the long arched verandah." There are songs about the children in this book; they are called the Lord of Battles, the Sun of Victory, the Lotus-born, and the Jewel of Delight.

"My ancestors for thousands of years," I find written in one of her letters, "have been lovers of the forest and mountain caves, great dreamers, great scholars, great ascetics. My father is a dreamer himself, a great dreamer, a great man whose life has been a magnificent failure. I suppose in the whole of India there are few men whose learning is greater than his, and I don't think there are many men more beloved. He has a great white beard and the profile of Homer, and a laugh that brings the roof down. He has wasted all his money on two great objects: to help others, and on alchemy. He holds huge courts every day in his garden of all the learned men of all religions Rajahs and beggars and saints and downright villains all delightfully mixed up, and all treated as one. And then his alchemy! Oh dear, night and day the experiments are going on, and every man who brings a new prescription is welcome as a brother. But this alchemy is, you know, only the material counterpart of a poet's craving for Beauty, the eternal Beauty. 'The makers of gold and the makers of verse,' they are the twin creators that sway the world's secret desire for mystery; and what in my father is the genius of curiosity the very...

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Edmund Gosse (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Bird of Time: Songs of Life, Death & Spring, by Sarojini Naidu, New York: John Lane Company; London: William Heinemann, 1912, pp. 1-8.

[In the following introduction to Naidu's The Bird of Time, Gosse remembers his early meetings with Naidu in London and how he encouraged her to write poetry.]

It is only at the request, that is to say at the command, of a dear and valued friend that I consent to write these few sentences. It would seem that an "introduction" can only be needed when the personage to be "introduced" is unknown in a world prepared to welcome her but still ignorant of her qualities. This is certainly not the case...

(The entire section is 1436 words.)

Poetry (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: A review of 'The Golden Threshold ', in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. X, No. 1, April, 1917, pp. 47-49.

[In the following review of The Golden Threshold, the anonymous critic praises the volume not only for its contribution to Indian literature, but also its contribution to the further development of the English lyric verse.]

Perhaps because one catches flame from Arthur Symons' beautiful introduction, through which shines the radiantly elusive personality of this young Hindu woman, these poems [in The Golden Threshold] are strangely alluring.

They are subtle, delicately-wrought lyrics, self-conscious with the same quiet...

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James H. Cousins (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Saojini Naidu: A Critical Appreciation," in The Modern Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1917, pp. 410-16.

[In the following essay, Cousins offers an appreciative overview of Naidu's work.]

The almost simultaneous reception within the pale of English literature of two poets, Indian by ancestry and birth, and acutely Indian in conscious purpose Sarojini Naidu and Rabindranath Tagore is an event that offers a fascinating challenge to the student of literature. The challenge is capable, however, of only a partial acceptance: its full implications and significance remain for the disclosure of the future. One special circumstance in each case makes a...

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Poetry (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: A review of 'The Sceptered Flute: Songs of India ', in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. XXXV, No. III, December, 1929, pp. 169-70.

[In the following review of The Sceptered Flute: Songs of India, the anonymous critic notes that Naidu's poetry needs further development but nonetheless possesses the qualities of "high inspiration. "]

These songs of India [in The Sceptered Flute: Songs of India] have been transmuted into the language of the western world, and at first glance the imagery and allusions seem no more genuine than those which we have found in many English imitators of oriental mystery and glamour. But a more careful reading will show...

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Mulk Raj Anand (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: "Sarojini Naidu," in The Golden Breath: Studies in Five Poets of the New India, John Murray, 1933, pp. 102-21.

[In the following essay, Anand surveys Naidu's life and works.]

Sarojini Naidu is affectionately called by her countrymen "the nightingale of India." A higher compliment than this, implied in the poetess's comparison with the celebrated bird that pervades the whole of Hindustani poetry, could not have been paid, and an apter nickname could hardly be imagined. For Sarojini sings of life as the bulbul of the rose, glorying in all its loveliness, longing to realise its many-coloured forms, and weaving melancholy strains about it when the cold, bare, stark...

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Jawaharlal Nehru (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Sarojini Naidu," in Independence and After, The Publications Division: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1949, pp. 399-403.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented as a speech delivered at the Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on March 3, 1949, Nehru eulogizes Naidu, pointing out her social and political achievements.]

It has been my painful duty, Sir, as Leader of this House, to refer from time to time to the passing away of the illustrious sons and daughters of India. Recently I referred to the passing away of a very eminent son of India, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. Then the Governor of a province suddenly died. He was...

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K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Sarojini Naidu," in Indian Writing in English, Asia Publishing House, 1962, pp. 207-225.

[In the following essay, Iyengar provides a biographical and critical sketch of Naidu.]

Like Tagore and Aurobindo, Sarojini Naidu too was more than a poet; she was one of Mother India's most gifted children, readily sharing her burden of pain, fiercely articulating her agonies and hopes, and gallantly striving to redeem the Mother and redeem the time. It was as an English poet Sarojini Naidu first caught the attention of the public, but that was only the beginning. In course of time the patriot exceeded the poet, and Sarojini Naidu came to occupy some of the highest...

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Rameshwar Gupta (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Sarojini's Art," in Sarojini: The Poetess, Doaba House Publishers, 1975, pp. 120-135.

[In the following essay, Gupta discusses the influence of English Romanticism on Naidu's work.]

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS

One cannot miss in Sarojini's poetry her ease in the English language, her sense of the sounds of English words, and her mastery over the metrical system of English poetry.

Although her life spans across the late Victorian, Decadent, Edwardian and Georgian, and the Hulme-Eliot-Pound, and the Yeatsean, and the Auden-Spender, and the avant garde free verse periods of English poetry, Sarojini, born and brought up in the...

(The entire section is 5884 words.)

Fritz Blackwell (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Krishna Motifs in the Poetry of Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Das," in Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Fall, 1977, pp. 9-14.

[In the following essay, Blackwell examines imagery used by Naidu and Kamala Das of "the soul's quest for God (Krishna). "]

Let us consider four poems, two each by two Indian poets writing in English. The older of the two is Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), who is the author of three volumes of poetry: The Golden Threshold (1905), The Bird of Time (1912) and The Broken Wing (1915-1916). This first poem is taken from the second volume:

"Song of Radha the Milkmaid"

...

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B. S. Mathur (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Sarojini Naidu: A Poetess of Sweetness and Light," in Indo-English Literature: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by K. K. Sharma, Vimal Prakashan, 1977, pp. 61-70.

[In the following essay, Mather discusses the delicacy of Naidu's language and imagery.]

John Keats has very beautiful lines:

When old age shall this generation waste
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say't
"Beauty is truth truth beauty," that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need, to know.

These lines are taken from his "Ode on a...

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Asloob Ahmad Ansari (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Sarojini Naidu," in Indo-English Literature: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by K. K. Sharma, Vimal Prakashan, 1977, pp. 61-70.

[In the following essay, Ansari presents an overview of Naidu's poetry.]

"I am not a poet really. I have the vision and the desire, but not the voice. If I could write just one poem full of beauty and the spirit of greatness, I should be exultantly silent for ever, but I sing just as the birds do, and my songs are as ephemeral". This statement of Sarojini Naidu should be examined carefully before it is accepted as a judicious judgment on her poetry. No critical criterion can pronounce any one of her poems as...

(The entire section is 5417 words.)

R. K. Das Gupta (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Sarojini Naidu: The Poet as a Politician," in Indian and Foreign Review, Vol. 17, No. 6, January 1-15, 1980, pp. 13-15.

[In the following essay, Das Gupta discusses ways in which Naidu's poetic sensibilities affected her political career and actions.]

When John Stuart Mill drew up an antithesis between eloquence and poetry and said that while the one was heard the other was over-heard, he did not add that one could not at once be an orator and a poet. Mill, however, did not know of any fine public speaker who was also a fine poet. The combination of the two in Sarojini Naidu is unique in the history of letters even in the language she used in speech and song....

(The entire section is 2316 words.)

A. N. Dwivedi (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Muse's Bower: Sarojini's Poetic Achievement," in Sarojini Naidu and Her Poetry, Kitab Mahal, 1981, pp. 121-144.

[In the following essay, Dwivedi presents an overview of Naidu's career.]

Sarojini's poetic output has been meagre but qualitative. Her early verses were entirely English in form and content, but a timely advice of Sir Gosse turned her to her native land for themes and raw materials. Exquisitely did she sing about the beauty of the Indian landscape, about the common man and woman, about the Hindu-Muslim unity, and about the country's subjection under the Britishers. With a stroke of good luck, she came in touch with such distinguished literary...

(The entire section is 8602 words.)

Izzat Yar Khan (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Poetic Outlook," in Sarojini Naidu: The Poet, S. Chand & Company Ltd., 1983, pp. 26-55.

[In the following essay, Khan examines major themes and images in Naidu's work.]

Sarojini was once a name to conjure with. She magnetised and attracted the young.1 The quantity of her verse is not large, but her verse, in her own words, is a treasure "of song and sorrow and life and love."2

VARIETY OF SUBJECTS

Sarojini's poems tell us of her fancies and longings, her moments of ecstasy and moments of loneliness. In her thought-provoking poems she speculated on the transitoriness of life and the caprice of...

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Meena Alexander (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Sarojini Naidu: Romanticism and Resistance," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 17, No. 4, October, 1986, pp. 49-61.

[In the following essay, Alexander examines feminism in Naidu's life and works, noting in particular the conflict between the turn-of-the-century English poetry and lifestyle she absorbed while studying in London and the tumultuous social and political atmosphere of India prior to the country's independence.]

I

What follows is a brief inquiry into the complex feminism of a woman who lived at the interface of two cultures, that of the Hyderabad she was born into and the colonial culture of...

(The entire section is 4872 words.)

Harish Raizada (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Indian Ethos in Sarojini Naidu's Poetry," in Perspectives on Sarojini Naidu, edited by K.K. Sharma, Vimal Prakashan, 1989, pp. 78-113.

[In the following essay, Raizada discusses Naidu as an Indian poetrather than an Indian writing English poetryand reassesses her work in those terms.]

I

With the change in literary fashions, critical attitudes and critical values also change. The canons of criticism which are highly esteemed in one age are discarded in favour of new ones in another. In the changed perspective, the great writers of the preceding age wane into mediocity in the succeeding one, and old idols become new...

(The entire section is 10840 words.)

N. K. Sharma (essaydate 1989)

SOURCE: "The Evolution of the Poetic Persona in Sarojini's Poetry," in Perspectives on Sarojini Naidu, edited by K.K. Sharma, Vimal Prakashan, 1989, pp. 114-128.

[In the following essay, Sharma discusses Naidu's poetic persona, which is assessed as "invariably objective, impersonal, or universal. "]

Sarojini Naidu is a powerful exponent of the poetic Persona in her poetic explorations. Undoubtedly, the Persona is the poetic nucleus from which her poetry originates and constitutes its chief motivating force. She (the Persona) is the light of Sarojini's life and is the centre of her existence and vision. The "I" and "Me" are not always personal and can stand for any...

(The entire section is 5552 words.)