Many of Toru Dutt's poems, both original and in translation, involve a speaker who is moved to write poetry in celebration of or in reaction to a moving encounter or experience. This is generally in line with the Romantic view of the poet, who is stirred by spontaneous overflows of emotion and writes poetry to capture these encounters with the sublime. In poems like "Our Casuarina Tree," "The Sleep of the Condor," and "The Death of the Wolf," these transcendent encounters occur against the backdrop of the natural world and often end with the speaker-poet reflecting insecurely on the artificial and fragile nature of their own craft. Though this speaker-poet's mentality is often humble and at times even self-effacing, the speaker-poet is still moved enough by the world to write, hoping (much as Dutt herself did) to wrestle with the question of the relationship between man and nature, as well as how the poet serves as a crucial mediating force between these two worlds.
The sower serves as the subject of "The Sower" by Victor Hugo, translated by Toru Dutt. The sower is of "old" age and dresses in clothes of "rags," suggesting a humble socioeconomic background in line with the agricultural work he undertakes—namely, scattering seeds, or sowing. While the speaker of "The Sower" sits isolated in a "porchway" and observes him, the sower is directly engaging with the natural world, "dominat[ing] the furrows" with his planting and assuming a complementary grace as he does so, "strid[ing]" as he scatters his "precious grain." By the poem's end, the speaker comments that the sower's "gestures to mine eyes / Are august; and strange," implying that the sower's engagement with nature is both unfamiliar and dazzling to the more sedentary speaker.
The Young Captive
The young captive serves as the subject of "The Young Captive" by André Chénier, translated by Toru Dutt. She is a woman who, while imprisoned, laments both the fact that she fears for her life in prison and the fact that her life will be cut short while she is in the prime of her youth. While decrying the unfairness of her imprisonment, she makes use of extensive natural metaphors, first comparing herself to a "budding shoot," and a crop awaiting harvest. She also notably compares the journey of life to a banquet, at which she had "barely sat down." After she speaks "these sorrows [and] wishes" out loud, the speaker of the poem, who is also "a prisoner [themself]," is moved to write the poem and record the sorrows he just heard vocalized, "to rhyme and to measure [marrying] each word / As softly and simply she spoke."
Moses is the major prophet of the Jewish religion and the protagonist of "Moses" by Alfred de Vigny, translated by Toru Dutt. Over the course of the poem, he ascends Mount Nebo to view the Promised Land while the other Israelites wait at the mountain's base. When he finally reaches the summit, he communicates with God and expresses the heavy burden that he has felt all his life as someone invested with divine power: people cower in fear of him and "Ben[d] low their eyes before [his] eyes of flame"; "virgins veil themselves" before him and he is unable to feel kinship or love; and, though he has the power to control the natural world, with "mountains o'erturn[ing] by winds at [his] command," he is alone and is unable to enjoy the Promised Land he has been led to. Eventually, God accepts his repeated plea ("let me sleep the sleep of all the earth") and allows him to die, and Joshua takes his place in leading the people into Israel. Moses is also a stand-in for the poetic figure, whose insight and knowledge into the world, as well as the ability to "command" things with words on the page, might also be isolating and seen as a kind of burden.
Napoleon is an important figure in "The Retreat from Moscow" by Victor Hugo, translated by Toru Dutt. When his army is destroyed by the Russian forces of "the Czar" and the hostile weather of "the North," he is forced to retreat from the Russian capital, which he found burned and ruined upon his invasion. Despite this crippling defeat, however, Napoleon and his men still believe that he has "a work to do, a destiny." When he finds himself wondering about the future, he turns to God and asks, "is this the vengeance" for his earlier conquests of Europe. He imagines that he hears God reply "No, / not yet," but in reality, this noise turns out to be nothing more than "the vulture's scream," a reminder of the loss and desolation he has already suffered.
Sita is a figure from the Hindu epic Ramayana. After picking Rama as her husband, Sita orders him to fetch her a golden deer, which turns out to be a demon. Upon Rama's killing of this demon, she is tricked into sending her brother-in-law, Lakshman, out to look for him. When Lakshman has gone to look after Rama, Sita is abducted by the demonic king Ravana. After being rescued from Ravana, rumors nonetheless persist about Sita in her kingdom, so Rama abandons her in the forest, where she gives birth to twins. These two experiences are described respectively in "Lakshman" and "Buttoo" by Toru Dutt.
Lakshman is the brother of Rama and the brother-in-law of Sita in the Ramayana, after whom a poem is titled by Toru Dutt. When Sita claims she hears Rama in the woods in need of assistance, Lakshman endeavors to convince Sita that she is mistaken. When Sita accuses Lakshman of wanting to deliberately ignore Rama so that he can take over the kingdom and take Sita for himself, Lakshman knows that he cannot refuse Sita, draws a line in the sand with an arrow that she is not to cross, and goes off to look for Rama.
Buttoo is the protagonist of Dutt's poem "Buttoo." His is based on the story story of Ekalavya from the Mahabharata. Buttoo is the son of a forest-dwelling hunter king who goes to Dronacharjya to learn archery. When he is rejected by Dronacharjya, he goes into the woods and makes a statue of Dronacharjya, who he claims will be his guru or teacher. After practicing extensively and mastering archery, he silences a dog without killing it through the use of arrows. Later, when Dronacharjya and Arjuna happen to be passing through the woods, they find the dog and are amazed at the degree of mastery such archery would require (since Dronacharjya promised Arjuna he would be the best archer alive). When Dronacharjya and Arjuna meet Buttoo in this setting, Dronacharjya says that, if he were truly Buttoo's teacher, he ought to extract a fee or donation from him. The poem ends with Buttoo gladly giving up his thumb as a fee to Dronacharjya, and Dronacharjya praising Buttoo for his humility.
Dronacharjya is a figure from the Mahabharata who plays a major role in Dutt's poem "Buttoo." Dronacharjya is the master teacher of archery, and his students include several of the Kurus and Pandavas (including Arjuna). He rejects Buttoo as a student on account of his caste, and later, upon finding him in the woods, asks for his teacher's fee in the form of Buttoo's thumb. After this sacrifice, Dronacharjya is the last to speak in the poem, saying that, on account of Buttoo's sacrifice, "fame / Shall sound [his] praise from sea to sea, / And men shall ever link [Buttoo's] name / With Self-help, Truth, and Modesty."
Arjuna is the central figure of the Indian epic Mahabharata, and an important figure in Toru Dutt's poem "Buttoo." He is told by Dronacharjya that no greater archer in the world exists than him, so when he finds the dog that Buttoo has silenced with arrows, he is "indignant" and demands that Ddronacharjya remedy the situation. This ultimately results in Buttoo's sacrifice of his thumb.
Toru Dutt: Poetry Questions and Answers
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