This ClassicNote on Toru Dutt focuses on poems from her two collections of poetry: A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876) and Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882, published posthumously). Sixteen poems, which represent a mix of both original work and translations from French authors, have been selected from these collections to shed light on Dutt's work as a translator, her use of personal narrative in her poetry, and her fusion of traditional Indian cultural elements with European cultural elements, poetic styles, and forms. When considered as a complete body of work, these poems reflect Dutt's fascination with the natural world, storytelling, mythology, and the fundamental relationships and experiences that make us human—for example, love, family ties, loss, and wonder. The deftness with which Dutt navigates personal reflection, retellings of traditional stories, and recasting others' work in different languages testifies to Dutt's poetic ability, her questioning of how we choose to express ourselves in writing, and appreciation for different cultures.
The first collection of poetry that will be examined is A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields which contains the poems "The Young Captive," "My Vocation," "Moses," "The Death of the Wolf," "The Sower," "Christmas," "The Sleep of the Condor," "The Broken Bell," and "The Retreat from Moscow." As the collection's title implies, these poems, which Toru Dutt translated with her late sister Aru, consist of translations from some of the most important French Romantic poets—including Victor Hugo, Pierre-Jean de Béranger, Théophile Gautier, Sully Prudhomme—as well as some translations from other European poets, like Heinrich Heine. The collection's epigraph, a quotation from Friedrich Schiller, not only reflects Dutt's wider interest in European literature and culture, but also underlies a greater sense of importation, the process of bringing cultural treasures from one place to another: Ich bringe Blumen mit und Früchte / Gereift auf einer andern Flur / In einem andern Sonnenlichte, / In einer glücklichern Natur ("I bring flowers and fruits / Matured in another meadow / In another sunlight, / In a happier nature"). Because the original text of the poems in this collection are sourced from European Romantic poets, Dutt's translations like "The Sower" and "My Vocation" celebrates strange encounters and the spontaneous overflow of emotions that stir a poet to write. Others, like "Moses" and "Christmas," shed light on Christian traditions and inhabit the moments of important Biblical narratives. Still, others like "The Retreat from Moscow" shed light on the state of European continental politics earlier in the 19th century.
After A Sheaf, Dutt worked on two long-form pieces of fiction—Bianca, or the Spanish Maiden (1878, published posthumously) and Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers (The Diary of Mademoiselle D’Arvers; published posthumously in 1879)—for the rest of her life, but also stayed engaged with poetry. Her Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan represents Dutt's continued and final engagement with poetry as a form, and includes poems such as "The Lotus," "Sîta," "The Tree of Life," "Buttoo," "Lakshman," "Baugmaree" (also called "A Sea of Foliage") and "Our Casuarina Tree." These poems were originally written in English and sought to blend personal stories of Indian life, folklore, and mythology (such as stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) with European poetics and style. Poems like "Buttoo," "Lakshman," and "Sîta" retell well-known Indian stories and recast them in the style of personal encounters and stories. Other poems, such "Our Casuarina Tree," "Baugmaree," and "The Tree of Life," are more personal and emphasize Dutt's deep preoccupation with both family life and the natural world.
Each of the poems in these collections carefully straddles the boundary between Europe and India, and between personal and national histories. As such, Dutt's poems represent a type of crossroads or intersection, but they should hardly be read as ambiguous and equivocal. Rather, Dutt's poems are rich with the pleasures of life, and each of the poems' meeting points between different people, cultures, and histories should provide an interpretive basis with which to engage Dutt as a creative and unrestrained thinker, both representative of and ahead of her time.