Last Updated on June 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2479
Article abstract: The prolific author of more than one hundred books of verse, fifty dramas, forty works of fiction, and fifteen books of essays, Nobel laureate Tagore is recognized as a pioneer in Bengali literature, particularly the short story, and is internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s finest lyric poets. The foundation for Tagore’s literary achievements is his vision of the universal man, based on his unique integration of Eastern and Western thought.
Rabindranath Tagore was born on May 7, 1861, into a prosperous Bengali family in Calcutta, India. The fourteenth child and eighth son of Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi, he grew up surrounded by the artistic and intellectual pursuits of his elders. Agricultural landholdings in East Bengal supported the family’s leisurely lifestyle, and their Calcutta mansion was a center for Bengalis who, like the Tagores, sought to integrate Western influences in literature, philosophy, arts, and sciences into their own culture. Young Tagore was a sensitive and interested child who, like his siblings, lived in awe of his father, a pillar of the Hindu reform group Brahmo Samaj. Cared for mainly by servants because of his mother’s ill health, he lived a relatively confined existence, watching the life of crowded Calcutta from the windows and courtyards of his protected home.
From an early age, Tagore’s literary talents were encouraged. Like the other Tagore children, he was thoroughly schooled in Bengali language and literature as a foundation for integrating culturally diverse influences, and, throughout his long career, Tagore composed most of his work in Bengali. In 1868, he was enrolled in the Oriental Seminary, where he quickly rebelled against formal education. Unhappy, transferring to different schools, Tagore nevertheless became appreciated as a budding poet during this time both in school and at home. In 1873, he was withdrawn from school to accompany his father on a tour of northern India and the Himalayas. This journey served as a rite of passage for the boy, who was deeply influenced by his father’s presence and by the grandeur of nature. It also provided his first opportunity to roam in open countryside.
Returning to Calcutta, Tagore boycotted school and, from 1873 on, was educated at home by tutors and his brothers. In 1874, he began to recite publicly his poetry, and his first long poem was published in the monthly journal Bhārati. For the next four years, he gave recitations and published stories, essays, and experiments in drama. In 1878, Tagore went to England to prepare for a career in law at University College, London, but withdrew in 1880 and returned to India. Tagore’s stay in England was not a happy one, but during those fourteen months, his intellectual horizons broadened as he read English literature with Henry Morley and became acquainted with European music and drama.
Returning to India, Tagore resumed his writing amid the intellectual family life in Calcutta, especially influenced by his talented elder brothers Jyotirindranath (writer, translator, playwright, and musician) and the scholarly Satyendranath. Tagore’s view of life at this time was melancholy; yet, with the metrical liberty of his poems in Sandhya Sangit (1882; evening songs), it became clear that he was already establishing new artistic and literary standards. Tagore then had a transcendental experience that abruptly changed his work. His gloomy introspection expanded in bliss and insight into the outer world, and Tagore once again perceived the innocent communion with nature that he had known as a child. This vision was reflected in Prabhat Sangit (1883; morning songs), and his new style was immediately popular. By his mid-twenties, Tagore had published devotional songs, poetry, drama, and literary criticism and was established as a lyric poet, primarily influenced by the early Vaishnava lyricists of Bengal and by the English Romantics. In 1883, he married Mrinalini Devi and continued to reflect his optimism in a burst of creativity that lasted for the next twenty years. During this period, he began to write nonsymbolic drama, and his verse Kari O Komal (1887; sharps and flats) is considered a high point in his early lyrical achievement.
In 1890, Tagore’s father sent him to Shelaidaha, the family home in eastern Bengal, to oversee the family estates, and thus began the most productive period of Tagore’s prolific career. His sympathetic observation of the daily activity of the Bengali peasant, as well as an intimacy with the seasons and moods of the rural countryside, sharpened Tagore’s literary sensitivity and provided him with subject matter for his poems and essays during the 1890’s. Tagore also wrote short stories—developing the genre in Bengali literature—and in 1891 started the monthly journal Sadhana, in which he published some of his work. In addition to literary output, Tagore began to lecture and write on his educational theories and the politics of Bengal, and he came more and more into public life. In 1898, he took his family to live in Shelaidaha, planning to spare his children the schooling against which he rebelled by educating them himself. The family soon moved to Santiniketan at Bolpur, where Tagore founded his experimental school, which became a lifelong commitment. He continued to write ceaselessly during this time: stories, poems, essays, textbooks, and a history of India. In 1901, he became editor of The Bengal Review and also launched into a period as a novelist, reflecting the political situation of the time in his work. Tagore’s Gora (1910; English translation, 1924) is considered by many to be the greatest Bengali novel.
The year 1902 saw the school in serious financial condition and also brought the death of Tagore’s wife. Others close to him passed away—his daughter in 1903, his favorite pupil in 1904, and his father in 1905—and Tagore experienced a time of withdrawal. In 1905, he was pulled back into public life by the division of Bengal. Tagore served as a highly visible leader in the antipartition nationalist movement and composed patriotic prose and songs popular with the people. In 1907, however, concerned about growing violence in the movement and its lack of social reform, Tagore suddenly withdrew from politics and retired to Santiniketan, where he resumed a life of educational and literary activity and meditation. Tagore’s intuitive belief in the spirituality of life and the inherent divinity of all things was reflected in his work during this time: educational addresses at his school, a series of symbolic dramas that criticized monarchy, and an outpouring of religious poetry expressing his extremely intimate realization of God. A collection of such poems was published as Gitānjali (1910; Gitanjali (Song of Offerings), 1912). During this time in relative seclusion, Tagore the individual poet became, more and more, Tagore the universal man. When next he emerged, it would be to international acclaim.
Tagore became known outside India through the influence of the English painter William Rothstein, the organizer of the India Society in London. Rothstein arranged to publish a private edition of Gitanjali for India Society members, and, in 1912, Tagore’s English translation appeared with an introduction by William Butler Yeats. Tagore and his poetry were introduced to influential critics and writers such as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, John Masefield, Ernest Rhys, and Ezra Pound. His reputation spread to Europe and to the United States, where, in 1912, his work appeared in the journal Poetry and a public edition of Gitanjali was published in 1913. In 1912, and again in 1913, Tagore lectured in the United States on religious and social themes, bringing the wisdom of the East to the West in his desire to move the world toward a true humanity. In November, 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In December, the University of Calcutta conferred upon him an honorary doctorate of letters, and he was knighted by the British government in 1915. Underlying Tagore’s success at this time was his apprehension about the future. Essentially a nonconformist and solitary soul, Tagore believed that he would have no peace from that time on; this, indeed, did prove to be true. Sudden international recognition brought Tagore intense public response, ranging from adulation to disenchantment, and he was an often misunderstood public figure for the rest of his life. At the height of his popularity, Tagore published Balaka (1916; A Flight of Swans, 1955), which enhanced his reputation as a mystical poet and is considered by many to be his greatest book of lyrics. He also toured Japan and the United States, giving a series of successful lectures later published as Nationalism (1919) and Personality (1917). Yet Tagore’s reputation began to diminish almost as soon as it reached its peak. Some critics have proposed that the materialistic West was not able to appreciate the spiritual depth of the East, while others suggest that the poet and his publishers were themselves to blame for inept translation and unsystematic presentation. Forced to abandon his lecture tour in 1917 because of ill health, Tagore returned to India to a period of tragedy. Although he was greatly disturbed by World War I and denounced it in his writings, Tagore was also unable to endorse wholeheartedly the activities of his own culture. In 1918, with the money received from his writing, lectures, and the Nobel Prize, Tagore founded an international university—Visva-Bharati—at Santiniketan. Yet in 1919, as he was forming the nucleus of the faculty, political turmoil in India caused Tagore to resign his knighthood in protest against the British massacre of Indians at Amritsar. As Tagore sought to unify humanity in a world that seemed at odds with his philosophy, he began to find himself less and less popular.
In 1920, Tagore undertook another international lecture tour to raise funds for the school, but the receptions in England and the United States were particularly disappointing. During the last two decades of his life, despite increasing ill health, which often forced him to cancel lectures, and problems with public relations, Tagore traveled widely in support of his ideals of a universal humanity and world peace. He also continued to write until the end of his life, mainly poetry—which critics perceive as uneven—and essays. In addition, Tagore began painting as a hobby in his later years and pursued it with increasing seriousness. In 1930, Tagore delivered the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford University, which were published in 1931 as the Religion of Man, and, in 1940, Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters. Because of frail health, Tagore received this honor at Santiniketan, which had become a permanent residence in his later years. On August 7, 1941, Tagore died at his family home in Calcutta.
Internationally known as a humanist who sought to reconcile such apparent opposites as man and nature, materialism and spiritualism, and nationalism and internationalism, Rabindranath Tagore expressed a philosophy that was uniquely his own. His vision of the underlying wholeness of life was based on intuitive synthesis of classic Eastern religious texts and the works of early Indian poets and philosophers with Western thought and modern European literature. Although critics sometimes find it difficult to separate his distinguished literary career from his considerable role in transforming the Indian culture from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, Tagore’s place in history is nevertheless a literary one. In the East, he is known as a great poet and thinker; in the West, he is best known as the author of Gitanjali, which is characteristic of his work and considered to be his masterpiece. Recognized as a prolific and accomplished writer in all genres, Tagore is internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest lyric poets.
Tagore, a man of great courage and gentleness, of nobility and grace, is generally viewed as a symbol of the integration of East and West. Yet, many critics believe that the West has known him only superficially. They suggest that much of Tagore’s best work remains accessible only in Bengali, and reading Tagore in translation—even his own translation—offers no real appreciation of his scope or the depth of his genius. Tagore’s biographer, Kripalani, stated that “he lived as he wrote, not for pleasure or profit but out of joy, not as a brilliant egoist but as a dedicated spirit, conscious that his genius was a gift from the divine, to be used in the service of man.” Although his writing is deeply rooted in Indian social history, Tagore’s gift for expressing the unity of life and the grandeur of man gives it universal appeal.
Banerjee, Hiranmay. Rabindranath Tagore. 2d ed. New Delhi: Government of India, 1976. One of a series about eminent leaders of India, this biographical narrative presents the depth and diversity of Tagore’s character and his contributions to the heritage of India. It includes genealogical tables and a chronological list of his important works.
Ghose, Sisirkumar. Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi: Sahitya Adademi, 1986. This short, interesting survey focuses on Tagore’s life and his poetry, drama, short stories, and novels. It also includes chapters on Tagore’s thoughts about religion, beauty, art, and education.
Henn, Katherine. Rabindranath Tagore: A Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985. This impressive, comprehensive bibliography will be useful both for general readers and for serious Tagore scholars. With short annotations, it includes Tagore’s works—classified into nineteen categories—and works written in English about him up to the early 1980’s.
Kripalani, Krishna. Rabindranath Tagore. 2d ed. Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1980. Written by a scholar well acquainted with the Tagore family, this interesting, 450-page work is considered the best English biography of Tagore. Includes twenty-three photographic illustrations as well as a detailed bibliography of Tagore’s fiction, nonfiction, and musical compositions.
Lago, Mary M. Rabindranath Tagore. Boston: Twayne, 1976. This literary study concentrates on representative works by Tagore as a lyric poet and writer of short fiction. It suggests a perspective from which to view national and international response to Tagore’s distinguished career and includes a chronology and selected bibliography.
Mukherjee, Kedar Nath. Political Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi: S. Chand, 1982. In this volume, Mukherjee presents an analysis of Tagore’s political philosophy—in order to fill what he perceives as a gap in the literature on Tagore—and emphasizes the value of Tagore’s philosophy in contemporary political situations, both in India and the world.
Singh, Ajai. Rabindranath Tagore: His Imagery and Ideas. Ghaziabad, India: Vimal Prakashan, 1984. One of the few comprehensive considerations of Tagore’s imagery available in English, this study relates Tagore’s images to his thoughts on life, love, beauty, joy, and infinity. It also includes a selected bibliography.
Thompson, Edward. Rabindranath Tagore: His Life and Work. 2d ed. New York: Haskell House, 1974. A reprint of an earlier edition, this brief survey of Tagore’s writing prior to 1921 includes commentary based on Thompson’s own translations of Tagore’s work.
Thompson, Edward. Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist. London: Oxford University Press, 1926. This was among the first detailed literary studies of Tagore’s work as poet and dramatist and is still considered to be one of the best.