"All men have a task, And to sing is my lot— No meed from men I ask But one kindly thought. My vocation is high— 'Mid the glasses that ring, Still—still comes that reply, Chant, poor little thing."
This quotation from Toru Dutt's translation of Béranger is significant because it demonstrates Dutt's early interest in the question of what constitutes the art of poetry (Ars Poetica). Here, after recounting constant rejection by society and lack of successes, the speaker of the poem turns to something more positive. Up to this point, the speaker has suggested that she turns to poetry as a means of responding to or crying out against the injustices she has suffered, but in this final stanza, the speaker suggests that she turns to poetry not just as a means of responding to misfortune. Instead, the speaker suggests here that the choice to "sing" (i.e., write poetry) constitutes a divine and lofty calling all its own. The speaker is no longer just a "poor little thing" who chants in prayer or supplication to the divine, but now also has a "vocation" that "is high," respectable, and plays into the divine order of things.
"The soul-bell in me, can but give one cry, Like that, a wounded soldier—o'er whom pass Riders and horses, and around whom lie The dead and dying in a tangled mass— Utters, unable or to move or die."
This quotation from Toru Dutt's translation of Baudelaire is significant because it reflects the uncertainty or fragility of the poet in making art, and also links the task of the poet to the experiences of loss and memory that are present throughout Dutt's other works. The "soul-bell" in the speaker, in contrast to the noise of the bell that tolls throughout the night, is representative of the noise of the speaker's own soul, a common stand-in or turn of phrase used to mean art or poetry. That the speaker insists their "soul-bell" "can but give one cry," in combination with what follows in the quote, implies that the speaker feels art or poetry is insufficient and does not touch the same kind of tranquil, serene beauty that the real bell does. In doing so, however, the speaker uses a rather violent metaphor which suggests that she had first-hand experiences of war or loss that poetry is unable to fully give voice to. This is why the speaker's "soul-bell" is like a "wounded soldier" who lies "unable to move or die" while her/his comrades are surrounded. An alternative interpretation is that the speaker feels that her/his poetry is ineffective because it is unable to bring "the dead and dying" back in reality, but only serves to bring them back, in fragments, on the page.
"Alas! I thought, in despite of the name, Believed so great, the lofty name of man, How weak we are, how abject! And I felt A shame for all our race. Life to forsake, And all its weight of sorrows and of ills, With dignity, mute, touching and sublime, Is known alone to animals contemned."
This quote from Toru Dutt's translation of Alfred de Vigny is significant because it brings up the central question of the relationship between man and nature that is central to much of Dutt's work. Just before this quote is spoken by the poem's speaker, who is part of a hunting team tracking a family of wolves, the speaker has witnessed the death of the wolf family's patriarch at the hands of his hunting party. While the father wolf sacrificed his life, the mother wolf was busy tending to her cubs and making sure they were safe. This picture of the mother and father wolves each selflessly giving themselves up in service of their children strikes the speaker as a transcendent embodiment of the natural order—that is, the way life should be. Reacting to this thought, then, the speaker downplays the world of human affairs in this quote, suggesting that going to a quiet death as the animals do is the most dignified thing one can do. Humans, then, are seen as "weak" in comparison to wolves because they have corrupted the natural order of things, despite mankind's "lofty name."
"But nothing can be lovelier than the ranges Of bamboos to the eastward, when the moon Looks through their gaps, and the white lotus changes Into a cup of silver. One might swoon Drunken with beauty then, or gaze and gaze On a primeval Eden, in amaze"
This quote is significant in that is describes Toru Dutt's own encounter with the sublime in the naturalistic setting of her garden home, and also because it links this contact with the sublime to a Christian religious experience. Up until this point, Dutt's speaker has been reflecting on the diversity of natural forms of beauty and plant life that surround her garden home, but here, she turns to what she perceives as the supreme form of beauty in the environment—the moon changing the color of the "white" lotus to "silver." Here, just as the alternating rhymes of the first 4 lines of the sestet end and we move into the couplet that closes the poem, Dutt refers not just to earthly or material "beauty," but also something more pure. It is this contact with the purity of the sublime that turns the profane "drunken" into something spiritual and that brings "a primeval Eden" into the present. Thus, by experiencing nature in a mundane—yet direct and intimate—setting, Dutt's speaker is able to not just contact an overarching sense of beauty, but also the divine, thus showcasing the dynamic role played by nature in Dutt's works.
"And Flora gave the lotus, 'rose-red' dyed, And 'lily-white,'—the queenliest flower that blows"
In this quotation from Toru Dutt's "The Lotus," we are told of the end result of Love's dispute with Flora over how to make the perfect flower. In showcasing the rivalry between the rose (coded as Eastern) and the lily (coded as Western), then showing how the lotus is able to bridge the space between these two flowers, Dutt's speaker endeavors to convey two central messages. First, Dutt suggests that in the Colonial-era struggle between Eastern subjects (India being of particular interest to Dutt) and Western colonizers (in the case of India, England, and France), binary or monolithic distinctions are not useful and only serve to advance conflict further. Second, by showing that there is a form of beauty that incorporates the best of both worlds—metaphorically, the lotus, but in reality, something like Dutt and her family who incorporated elements of Eastern and Western culture in their daily lives—Dutt's speaker suggests that there is additional nuance to the conflict and the possibility of a peaceful, hybrid resolution. This quote is thus significant in not only showcasing Dutt's interest in political and cultural affairs across borders, but also advancing her central interest in liminality and transition that undergirds much of her other work.
"When shall those children by their mother's side Gather, ah me! as erst at eventide?"
This quote is significant because it shows the heavy emphasis placed in Dutt's work on both family life and the lost experiences of youth. Here, Dutt's speaker laments the loss of the times that she and her siblings would gather around their mother and listen to her tales from the Indian cultural tradition. This not only connects to Dutt's own experience of losing her siblings at a young age, but also to what is perhaps a longing to return to her youth and reconnect with the Indian cultural heritage she spent so long apart from. Additionally, the fact that the mother in this poem is set up as a parallel to Sîta in the Ramayana—silenced or incapacitated by her husband—brings attention in this quote to the speaker's desire to comfort and empathize with both the mother and Sîta once more. The quote is thus also a quote of tenderness, one that yearns for the intimacy of a family life that is no longer possible for Toru Dutt.
"One leaf the Angel took and therewith touched His forehead, and then gently whispered 'Nay!' Never, oh never had I seen a face More beautiful than that Angel's, or more full Of holy pity and of love divine."
This quote is significant because it foregrounds not only Toru Dutt's exposure to and adoption of the Christian faith, but also her ability to reckon with the experience of loss by submitting herself to this faith. Just before this point in the poem, Dutt's speaker has found herself miraculously transported with her father from an interior domestic scene to the scene of the tree of life, where an Angel stands in waiting. While the Angel cures the speaker's own fever, this quote reflects that the Angel is to assist the speaker's invalid father in the same way, more or less guaranteeing that the father will die. Nonetheless, the speaker's focus is not on the injustice or unfairness of her own father's death, but rather on the face of the Angel and the "holy pity and [...] love divine" that she sees in it. This is expressive of Dutt's faith in divine will, her belief that her father will truly move on to a better place after his death, a place full of "pity" and "love."
"But not because of its magnificence Dear is the Casuarina to my soul: Beneath it we have played; though years may roll, O sweet companions, loved with love intense. For your sakes, shall the tree be ever dear! Blent with your images, it shall arise In memory, till the hot tears blind mine eyes!"
This quote is significant because it highlights Dutt's connection with the natural world through her investment of the natural with personal memories. Here, the speaker makes explicit what was only implicit in the stanzas before—though the Casuarina tree is lovely and bustling with animal life, the speaker loves it not because of any intrinsic qualities, but because of the memories she has playing in the tree with her siblings. Moreover, Dutt's speaker suggests that the image of the Casuarina tree will recur throughout time in her memory because it is so intertwined with the experiences of her youth. This idea—that nature is not just a site of self-discovery or contact with the sublime, but also a place where individuals can also leave traces of themselves and rediscover these traces through memory—adds an additional element to Dutt's complex picture of nature, and also does work to complicate and qualify her predominant Romantic sensibility.
"But then thy leader stood beside! Dazzles the cloud when shines the sun, Reft of his radiance, see it glide A shapeless mass of vapours dun; So of thy courage,—or if not, The matter is far darker dyed, What makes thee loth to leave this spot? Is there a motive thou wouldst hide?"
This quote is significant because it reflects Dutt's impulse to open up and expand on old legends, as well as her interest in adding personal dimensions to these tales that increase their verisimilitude. These lines, spoken by Sita to Lakshman, are not present in, nor have any precursor in, the Ramayana, meaning that this specific accusation of Lakshman was penned by Dutt herself rather than just adapted or rewritten. This excerpt raises the emotional stakes of Sita and Lakshman's argument by complicating and deepening Sita's accusations, thus making the scene appear more realistic, more human, and less removed from the realm of myth. Moreover, it introduces an additional naturalistic element to their argument, with Sita comparing Lakshman to a cloud which steals the sun's radiance. Dutt's mark is clear in this quote, then, because it reflects not only her interest in complicating and opening up poetic treatments of myths and family relationships, but also her deep fascination with nature.
"Glanced the sharp knife one moment high, The severed thumb was on the sod, There was no tear in Buttoo's eye, He left the matter with his God. 'For this,'—said Dronacharjya,—'Fame Shall sound thy praise from sea to sea, And men shall ever link thy name With Self-help, Truth, and Modesty.'"
This last stanza of Dutt's "Buttoo" is significant because it showcases Dutt's treatment of traditional Indian cultural influences in her poetry, specifically her tendency to alter them and make them more Westerrnized (through the use of European forms and conventions) and more personal. In this specific section, where the speaker recounts Buttoo's sacrifice to Dronacharjya of his thumb, this can be seen in Buttoo leaving "the matter with his God" and in Dronacharjya's ending quotation. In the case of the former, Buttoo's faith and cosmic sense of right and wrong is a new addition by Dutt, going unmentioned in the original Mahabharata. This not only reflects her own, personal Christian faith and ability to face loss when supported by that faith, but also her desire to convey the virtue of Christian humility to a Western audience (who would read the poems in English). Along these lines, Dronacharya's explicit statement of the tale's moral at the end is also new to Dutt's retelling of the Ekalavya story, and serves to convey the story's essential meaning to an audience that might be less familiar with the Mahabharata.
Toru Dutt: Poetry Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Toru Dutt: Poetry is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.