Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Study Guide

In many ways, Toru Dutt's poetry sheds light on her status as a transitional or hybrid figure, situated not just at the crossroads of different cultures and traditions but also at a turning point in literary history. Within a single landscape or story, Dutt sees not just a stage for literary description or explanation, but rather a ground on which the very nature of human existence can be contested, opened up to discussion, and made nuanced.

In what are perhaps her most famous poems—those which, like "Sita," "Buttoo," and "Lakshman," retell traditional legends or stories from her native India—this tendency is put on full display. Not only does Dutt—as is suggested by the title of the collection in which these works appear, Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882)—rework these Indian stories to mostly fit within the constraints of an English verse form (i.e., the ballad), but she also is able to take these canonical stories and inject them with new, personal flourishes. "Buttoo," for example, is not just a poem which retells the Ekalavya story from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, but it complicates the Ekalavya story by adding in an element of class tension, the theme of rejection, and an explicit moral at the tale's close. Such additions not only lend the tales Dutt reworks an increased sense of reality or verisimilitude, but also serve to make them more understandable for the English-speaking audiences of her poems (though she was Bengali, Dutt is famous for her poetry written in French and English).

Still, Dutt is not content to simply make her own Eastern cultural heritage intelligible to a Western audience. Also present in Ancient Ballads are poems like "Our Casuarina Tree," "The Tree of Life," and "Baugmaree," which seek to wrestle with Dutt's life experiences as contextualized by her encounters with different cultures and religions in Colonial India (i.e., Indian and European, Christian and Hindu, etc.), exploring the porous and interpenetrating experiences she has of these different influences. In "Our Casuarina Tree," for example, Dutt seeks to find her own place as a poet in the shadow of Wordsworth but simultaneously looks down on English landscapes as unable to match the lasting influence of one of her favorite childhood trees. In "The Tree of Life," Dutt takes us, from an interior Indian scene with her father, deep into the space of Christian imagery where she finds an angel and the Tree of Life. Similar work is done in "Baugmaree," where Dutt links the garden home of her youth to the Biblical space of Eden.

Even though Dutt's "Christian training" and her "girlhood spent partly in France and partly in England" are influential in what English historian H.A.L. Fisher calls Dutt's unique "appreciation of [...] Western literature" and "hold upon the essential soul of the two languages in which she wrought"—it is not just this linking of East and West that is impressive and significant in Dutt's larger body of work. Indeed, even in the translations that Dutt undertakes in her first collection, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), what stands out is not just Dutt's multilingual and multicultural comprehension, but also her preoccupation and foregrounding of the themes of loss, youth, and the nature. Like many other authors whose work is translated in A Sheaf, Dutt has a deep, Romantic interest in the relationship or rift (depending on the context) between mankind and the natural world. Unlike some of these authors, however, Dutt's exploration of nature is not based in a singular understanding of nature as sublime and pure, nor an understanding of the natural world as deterministic; rather, Dutt allows nature to take on a variety of dynamic roles in her work that intermingle personal experiences of loss and growth, self-discovery, and deep reflection. These various roles played by nature in Dutt's work also relate closely to her own personal life, where her foundational experiences with her late siblings and with poetry in general are linked to the various natural environments in which she was raised.

However, even this nuanced understanding of Dutt is not sufficient to capture her unique genius and complexity. Though much scholarship and attention is devoted to her positioning as a poet of East and West, her attention to nuanced feelings regarding loss, and her role as a representative of a unique Romantic sensibility, Dutt must also be understood as an important woman writer. Among the many projects Dutt juggled before her death, one was a translation of French author Clarisse Bader's work on women in India. Moreover, in poems like "Sita," Dutt explores the shared experiences of women throughout time in linking herself to both her mother and Sita, who are also set up as parallels. This understanding of Dutt—not only a key figure of Indian and global Romanticism but also an important woman writer of Colonial India—positions her uniquely in both literary and conventional history and has contributed greatly to her posthumous popularity among both Indian and global readers.