Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does Toru Dutt use poetic form to comment on the effectiveness of poetry as an art form?

    This is a complex question, because Dutt's faith in poetry to evoke an emotion or cause change seems to waver across her body of work. In some poems, like "The Broken Bell" and "Our Casuarina Tree," Dutt explicitly comments on the fragility of her poetry while using rigid rhyme schemes and fixed poetic forms. This would seem to suggest that Dutt believes that rhymed or overdetermined verse strays from the natural overflow of poetic sentiment that approximates the Romantic ideal.

    Still, in other poems like "My Vocation" and "The Young Captive," Dutt uses regular rhyme and meter to bring attention to the beauty of poetry and its power to make sense of or recreate powerful sentiments and experiences. It is likely that Toru Dutt felt quite conflicted about the nature of poetry herself, and the variety of forms she deploys to convey a variety of feelings about poetry suggest this.

  2. 2

    Is it possible to link Dutt's personal life to the sentiments conveyed in her translated poems?

    The answer to this question is likely to be highly individual, but all rigorous answers should take account of two particular facts. First, when Toru Dutt decided to undertake the task of translating A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields with her sister Aru, the two made a conscientious choice of which poems to translate—likely the ones that they found the most moving or relatable, as evidenced by the inclusion of Beranger and Hugo, two of Dutt's favorite authors. Second, when translating the words of a poem to another language, the translator has a significant degree of autonomy in choosing what rhymes to preserve, which words most closely approximate the original, and so on. Thorough answers about the faithfulness of translation and the connections between the translated work and the translator's personal preferences and experiences will acknowledge both these facts, though opinions may differ.

  3. 3

    In what ways does Dutt update or rework the Sanskrit legends that she references in Ancient Ballads?

    In truth, Dutt remains largely faithful to the original versions of the works that she adapts in Ancient Ballads, on a surface level only changing some names around (as she does when adapting the Ekalavya legend into "Buttoo"). However, a closer look at Dutt's adaptations reveals that she leaves her distinctive touch on many of these pieces. In some instances, this includes deepening the emotional stakes of the legends or linking them to her own life experiences (as she does in "Lakshman" and "Sita," respectively). Still, in others, she chooses to add elements that speak to her fascination with nature, such as the lengthy description of the natural environment that Buttoo finds peace in. Also noteworthy is her choice to add an explicit moral to "Buttoo," which the original text of the Mahabharata lacks.

  4. 4

    How does Dutt suggest the potential for a unification of Eastern and Western life in her work?

    Having herself grown up in between the Eastern culture of her native India and the Western culture of England and France, many of Dutt's works suggest that there is room for the unification of Eastern and Western sensibilities. In some of Dutt's poems, the sensibilities being spoken of are aesthetic, as in the "Lotus," where the ideals of Western beauty (symbolized by the lily) and the ideals of Eastern beauty (symbolized by the rose) find an intermediate or hybrid meeting place in the title flower. Still, in other cases, the sensibilities being spoken of are religious, such as in "The Tree of Life" and "Baugmaree," where Dutt inserts Christian imagery into the Indian domestic scenes of her family life.

  5. 5

    Does Dutt's work suggest there is anything that cannot be reconciled between Eastern and Western life?

    While much of Dutt's work is committed to exploring the intersections and interstices of Eastern and Western life, still other poems in her body of work are committed to her nostalgia and longing for India, which suggests that India has unique qualities that the West will never approximate. In "Our Casuarina Tree," Dutt suggests that one such element is her association of India with fond memories of her childhood and her departed siblings. Separately in "Our Casuarina Tree," Dutt refers to Wordsworth's poem on yew trees to suggest that the trees she encounters abroad lack the warmth, life, and tenderness of the landscapes she knows in India. It would thus appear that, while Dutt sees much ground for reconciliation or harmony between Europe and India, she still perceives each location to have a distinctive way of life and essential flavor that distinguishes it.

  6. 6

    How does Dutt choose to address Christian religious figures in her poetry?

    In both her translations and her original works, Dutt makes heavy reference to various figures from the Christian religion, both general and specific. In "Moses," and "Christmas," Dutt takes canonical scenes from the lives of certain Biblical figures and highlights nonconventional aspects of their stories—for example, Moses's isolation from normal society as a result of his power and Christ's birth in a rustic, pastoral setting. In other poems, like "The Tree of Life," Dutt sheds light on the less commonly discussed aspects of Christian figures—such as the failure of the Angel to save the speaker's father—while inserting these figures into an Indian setting and context. Overall, one could say Dutt's interest is in taking well-known Christian figures and exploring additional dimensions of their personalities and stories to make them more urgent or relevant to Dutt's own experiences.

  7. 7

    How does Toru Dutt reflect on the loss of her siblings in her poetry?

    While loss is a primary theme that Dutt explores in her original works and translations, the specific, more targeted loss of her siblings also takes center stage in some of Dutt's works. In "Our Casuarina Tree" for example, the loss of her siblings is mentioned explicitly and given as one of the reasons that Dutt adores and longs for the Casuarina tree she and her siblings used to play in. In "Sita" as well, Dutt mentions her two siblings and longs to be with both them and her mother once more, "as erst at eventide." Dutt's siblings provide a vehicle to link her meditations on loss and the family, as well as to link her personal experiences of loss to the losses of her poetic subjects.

  8. 8

    How might Toru Dutt be described as a "writer in exile?"

    This question is challenging because it takes the language of exile and applies it to Toru Dutt, a writer who was never physically banished from any of her home environments. Still, it is clear from what is known of Toru Dutt's biography that she felt neither entirely at home in India—on account of local rejection of her and her family's Christianity—nor in Europe—where racial and cultural differences (not to mention nostalgia for her homeland) made assimilation difficult. In splitting her life so fully between two worlds, then, Dutt is often critically received and perceived as a writer of "exile," one who takes her experience of transition and geographical in-betweenness and infuses it into her poetry.

  9. 9

    How does Dutt conform to or advance Romanticism, the predominant literary trend of her time?

    While almost all of Toru Dutt's translated poems are by Romantic poets and thus conform to the prevailing Romantic sensibilities of the 19th century, her original work both adheres to Romanticism and qualifies it in important ways. While some of Dutt's poems like "Baugmaree" and "The Lotus" take nature as a primary subject and explore the topic of the natural sublime—a key concern and focus of Romanticism—other Dutt poems challenge the idea that nature's splendor is in itself significant enough to warrant the creation of art or poetry. In "Our Casuarina Tree," for example, Dutt suggests that only the memory of her siblings both allows her to personally connect with the tree and moves her to write. Further, in "Our Casuarina Tree," Dutt criticizes the landscapes of England by quoting from important Romantic poet William Wordsworth, providing evidence that Dutt sought not only to engage Romanticism but also to push it further through a critique of its aesthetics and logic.

  10. 10

    How does Dutt explore the theme of politics in her works?

    Many of Dutt's works—including her translations and adaptations of Sanskrit legends—explore social and political themes. In "The Retreat from Moscow," for example, Dutt explores the fall of empire as well as the effects of politics on individuals, both physically on soldiers and mentally on leaders (specifically, Napoleon). Additionally, in other poems like "My Vocation" and "Buttoo," Dutt takes on the twin issues of class and caste, revealing not only Dutt's interest in these subjects but also her desire to see their limitations transformed productively. In "My Vocation," the speaker's hardships are transformed into divinely gifted poetry, and in "Buttoo," the title figure takes his rejection by Dronacharjya and uses it as motivation to master archery.