From Gitanjali to Song Offerings: Story of a metamorphosis by Subhayu Bandyopadhyay

If there is one book that changed the whole literary scene of a country or even a continent, it is most likely to be ‘Gitanjali: Song Offerings’ by Rabindranath Tagore. The book contains a small collection of poems and is written in an Indian context but is at the same time universal; it is philosophical but at the same time musical.

nobel prize

In India, Tagore was well known long before he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. He was a prolific writer of short stories, novels, drama, poetry and songs.

The first time Tagore came to Britain was in his youth to study law, though he left before receiving a degree. While visiting Britain for the next time in 1912 aboard the ship ‘City of Glasgow,’[1] he spent much of his time on the deck translating some of his poetry into English. In a letter to Indira Devi, his niece, Tagore wrote:

“You may wonder why such a crazy ambition should possess one in such a weak state of health, but believe me, I did not undertake this task in a spirit of reckless bravado. I simply felt an urge to recapture, through the medium of another language, the feeling and sentiments which had created such a feast of joy within me in these days gone by.”[2]

Very quickly, Tagore filled two exercise books with his translations of poems from different books that had been published in Bengali. Unbelievably, in London he lost his briefcase carrying the only manuscript of translation of Gitanjali (later known as ‘Song Offerings’ in English) in the Baker Street Underground, but luckily found it in the ‘lost property office’ the next day.

Gitanjali was first published in Bengali on 14th of August 1910 and was a collection of one hundred and fifty-seven poems. To him, these poems were an expression of his quest for the omnipresent and the manifestation of his feelings. It also might have depicted the crescendo of his spiritualism and philosophy. In a letter to Surendra Nath Kar, he wrote, “In these songs the flowering of my consciousness has been expressed …these songs are the treasure of my life…even if no one else accepts them, that these songs inspire me is undoubted”[3].

Though Song Offerings is widely regarded as a translation of the Bengali book Gitanjali, the book contains translations from a number of other books: 53 poems are from the Bengali Gitanjali and 50 poems are translated from Achalayatan, Naibedya, Gitimalya and Kheya.

Once Tagore had settled in London in 1912, he met up with William Rothenstein, the famous artist and arts administrator, who was instrumental in introducing Tagore to British society. Rothenstein, who loved Indian art and culture, had already met Rabindranath Tagore in Calcutta during his visit to India in 1910.[4]

When Tagore came to England in 1912, he showed his translations to Rothenstein. Rothenstein was so impressed that he decided that the poems should be published. Rothenstein invited a number of literary dignitaries like Evelyn Underhill, Ernest Rhys, Alice Meynell, and Arthur Fox Strangways into his house present Tagore’s poetry to them on July 7, 1912, where W.B. Yeats read out the poems.[5] The reading moved the audience immensely.

Rhys later wrote: “Nothing could exceed the simplicity and unpretentiousness of this visitor from an older world. He was content to take things as he found them’’[6]. Rothenstein later asked WB Yeats to write an introduction for Tagore’s book. Yeats agreed and praised the beauty of Tagore’s poems in his introduction.

Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound

On the other side of the Atlantic, Ezra Pound wrote in a letter to Harriet Monroe (Editor, Chicago Tribune): “I’ll try and get some of the poems of the very great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore… they are going to be the sensation of the winter.”[7, 8]

Gitanjali was originally published by India Society, who published only a small number of copies (750) as the first edition. MacMillan Publishing (Yeats’ main publisher) saw the potential of the volume and published the first trade hardcover edition. The book was an instant success and was reprinted nearly ten times in this year. The Press called Tagore “the creator of a new age in literature.”

The poet Thomas Sturge Moore proposed Tagore’s name to the Nobel Committee.[9] Moore received huge support from the Swedish poet Verner von Heidenstam, who was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature [10] this year and eventually won it in 1916. Among the members of the Nobel Committee, only the Orientalist Esaias Henrik Vilhelm Tegner knew Bengali.

The nomination was not without controversy. The other person nominated that year was Thomas Hardy, who was this year’s  favourite with the backing of ninety-seven members of the Royal Society of Arts, London. Yet the Committee justified the award going to Tagore instead, because of his “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.[11]

Tagore received the message from the Nobel Committee at Santiniketan by telegram on 16 November 1913 – the day on which Edward Thompson, Tagore’s first serious foreign biographer and critic, happened to be visiting the school for the first time.

Rabindranath Tagore accepted the award by sending a telegram back to the committee saying “I beg to convey to the Swedish Academy my grateful appreciation of the breadth of understanding which has brought the distant near, and has made a stranger a brother.”[12] Because it was nearly impossible to travel to Europe safely during that time, as Europe was preparing for WWI, Tagore was unable to attend the ceremony in Stockholm.

The British Chargé d’ Affaires in Stockholm, Ambassador Clive, accepted the Gold Medal and the Diploma on his behalf. On 29th of January 1914, the Nobel Prize was formally handed over to Tagore by the Governor General of India Honorable Carmichael of Skirling in presence of Swedish Counsel, Lord Skirling.

He said in his speech: “I congratulate you Dr. Robindra Nath Tagore, and I have the pleasure of handing you the gold medal and diploma of Nobel Prize for Literature.”[13] Normally, every laureate has to deliver an acceptance speech at the ceremony. For Tagore, this happened only after seven years. In 1920, during his America visit, the Secretary of the Swedish Academy Dr Erik Axel Karfeldt came to know about the possibility of the poet’s visit to Europe.

He sent a telegram to Tagore, saying, “If you intend going to Sweden, Swedish Academy bids you welcome to Nobel Feast December 10.”[14] Tagore did not manage to reach on time. Instead, he arrived in Sweden on 24th of May 1921. He received a warm welcome at the Stockholm railway station.

On May 26th, Tagore delivered his long-awaited Nobel acceptance lecture. The sixteen-page lecture commenced with these words: “I am glad that I have been able to come at last to your country and that I may use this opportunity for expressing my gratitude to you for the honour you have done to me by acknowledging my work and rewarding me by giving me the Nobel Prize.”[15]

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats

There are contradictory articles on Yeats’ motivation to help Tagore to success. Yeats was the key figure in the process of Tagore winning The Nobel Prize. We came across Yeats’ overwhelming response when he read Gitanjali (Song Offerings) for the first time. The reaction was almost school-boyish: “if someone were to say he could improve this piece of writing, that person did not understand literature.”[15]

Some authors suggest that Yeats’ agenda for supporting Tagore might have been to reduce the mistrust for the empire by the Indian people, who loved Tagore and his poetry: “The prize would be a piece of wise imperialism from the English point of view.”[16] Yet it seems unlikely that Yeats, who was worthy of the Nobel Prize himself, would have supported Tagore only for colonialist benefits.

It is more likely that Yeats supported Tagore because he thought he was worthy of the prize regardless of where he came from. Tagore dedicated his most famous book, Song Offerings, to Rothenstein, possibly to show gratitude for all the links he established, and not to WB Yeats. He dedicated his very next book to WB Yeats, which was The Gardener.

Rabindranath Tagore was a literary phenomenon in India and became an international literary figure from 1912. Through Gitanjali, which fortunately did not get lost in Baker street tube station, Tagore climbed the pinnacle of glory and transformed the literary scene of Asia.


Bibliographical Notes

  1. 2015. ‘Exhibition/Film: Cameos & Memoirs Of A Journey – Gurudev 1861-1941 – Nehru Centre’.
  2. Dutta, Krishna, and Andrew Robinson. 1997. Selected Letters Of Rabindranath Tagore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 117.
  3. Mukhopadhyay, Tapati, and Amrit Sen. 2013. ‘From Gitanjali to Songs Offerings: Rabindranath’s Transition to Viswakabi.’ Occasional Paper 8, Celebrating The Centenary Of The Award And Hand Over Of The Nobel Prize To Rabindranath Tagore. Kolkata: Raj Bhavan in collaboration with Viswa Bharati, p. 5.
  4. 2015. ‘William Rothenstein: Making Britain’.
  5. Hampstead Highgate Express. 2015. ‘Heritage: The Hampstead Years Of Rabindranath Tagore – First Indian Writer To Become Nobel Laureate’.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Perry, Seamus 2015. ‘Rabindranath Tagore revived.’ Times Literary Supplement, 16 September 2011.
  8. Hurwitz, Harold M. 1964. ‘Ezra Pound And Rabindranath Tagore’. American Literature 36 (1): 53. doi:10.2307/2923500.
  9. Radice, William. ‘Introduction.’ In Rabindranath Tagore. Gitanjali. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, p. xxiii.
  10. Jack, Ian. 2005. ‘Ian Jack On Controversies Around Literary Prizes’. The Guardian.
  11. 2015. ‘The Nobel Prize In Literature 1913’. .
  12. 2015. ‘Rabindranath Tagore – Banquet Speech’. .
  13. Majumdar Uma, ‘An Account of the celebration of Handing Over the Nobel Award to Rabindranath Tagore by the Governor Lord Carmichael at Government House, Calcutta on 29 January, 1914’. 2013. Occasional Paper 8, Celebrating The Centenary Of The Award And Hand Over Of The Nobel Prize To Rabindranath Tagore. Kolkata: Raj Bhavan in collaboration with Viswa Bharati, p. 2.
  14. (a) 2015. ‘World Celebrates Centenary Of Rabindranath Tagore’S Nobel Prize’. tagore-s-nobel-prize-1.1253889 (b) 2015. ‘Stories Behind 1913 Nobel Award’. .
  15. (i) Tagore, Rabindranath. 2007. The English Writings Of Rabindranath Tagore, Volume 5. Edited by Mohit Kumar Ray. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, p.1. (ii) Tagore, Rabindranath. 1996. The English Writings Of Rabindranath Tagore: A Miscellany. Edited by Sisir Kumar Das. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. Appendix B, p. 961.
  16. (i) Sen, Malcom. 2010. ‘Mythologising A “Mystic”: W.B. Yeats on the Poetry of Rabindranath Tagore’. 20Th-Century / Contemporary History, Features 18 (4): 20-21. (ii) History Ireland. 2013. ‘Literature: Mythologising A “Mystic”: W.B. Yeats On The Poetry Of Rabindranath Tagore’.