Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "Lakshman"


The poem "Lakshman" is from Dutt's Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882). It tells a story from the Hindu epic Ramayana, in which the hero Rama is told to procure a golden deer for his wife, Sita. After Rama leaves Sita with his brother, Lakshman, for safekeeping, he finds out that the deer is actually a demon and kills it. However, when the demon dies, it calls out for help using Rama's own voice. Though Lakshman knows Rama is invincible and does not worry, Sita panics at the sound of the cry for help and asks Lakshman to go and investigate. So that he can both please Sita and also ensure that she stays put, as ordered by Rama, Lakshman draws a line in the ground that Sita is not to cross while he leaves to search for Rama. While he is absent, however, Sita crosses the line and is abducted by the demon king Ravana.

The poem takes this story from the Ramayana and opens up the discussion between Sita and Laskhman, expanding it beyond what is present in the epic. Still, much of the core elements of their dialogue are preserved from the epic. First, Sita warns Lakshman to take heed of what are allegedly Rama's cries. When Lakshman tries to counsel Sita otherwise, she accuses him of conspiring to bring Rama down and take her for his own wife. Lakshman is harmed by her words and finally bows to her wishes, drawing a circle with an arrow that she is not to cross while he goes out to assist Rama. Despite the fact that Sita is enraged and has hurt Lakshman's feelings, however, he is calm, only speaking to bless Sita and pray that the deities of the forest will keep her safe when he leaves. The poem ends with a "sorrow dark" on Lakshman's face and a "vulture scream[ing]" as he departs.


In terms of its form and rhyme scheme, the poem is written in twenty-two stanzas of eight lines each and closely mirrors a standard ballad, with each stanza consisting of alternating rhymes. Importantly, however, the stanzas of a standard ballad are only four lines, so the doubling of the line count per stanza in "Lakshman" might be meant to reflect the dialogue occurring between Lakshman and Sita. Also important to Dutt's rendition of the legend is her preservation of language that mirrors other translations from the Sanskrit original, such as "succour" and "Videhan Queen" in reference to Sita. This lends Dutt's rendition the authority of an accurate and rigorous account while still allowing her to innovate greatly on the story.

Where Dutt chooses to embellish the original account, then, is in providing additional descriptions of both the surroundings and Rama, so as to round out the sentiments conveyed by both Lakshman and Sita. First, when Lakshman begins speaking in stanza 4, he quickly begins listing a series of figures that would cower before Rama, adapted from the original, including "the lion and the grisly bear," "sun-staring eagles," "pythons and cobras," "Rakshases, Danavs, demons, [and] ghosts." The rhymes that are set up between these beings and their surroundings reinforces not only their connection to nature, but also Rama's supremacy—his power both to make the world and her children bow before him and his might. Further, the move from natural animals such as lions and bears to supernatural figures such as Raskshases and ghosts emphasizes that Rama is a being who commands not only things of natural significance, but also things of divine import.

Second, Dutt has Sita taunt Lakshman and his supposed cowardice by means of a new, original metaphor: "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?" Sita here is comparing Lakshman to a cloud that seems to shine only when it borrows the light or radiance of the sun. She suggests that Lakshman's courage is similar, only present when his brother (who is like the sun) is around; otherwise, Sita suggests, Lakshman is cowardly, just as the cloud is "shapeless" and "dun" without the sun's light. This metaphor connects Lakshman to the natural world as well, conveying the message that he himself is also inferior to Rama, who is the master of nature. The later detail of Sita shooting "flames from her eyes" paints Sita also as a goddess or supernatural being that Lakshman must not deny, further isolating Lakshman from the couple of Sita and Rama.

Finally, at the poem's close, Lakshman turns to nature and prays that it will keep Sita safe from harm, in a manner adapted from the original but far more explicit and extensive: "And oh ye sylvan gods that dwell / Among these dim and sombre shades, / Whose voices in the breezes swell / And blend with noises of cascades / Watch over Sita." As a merely loyal servant to the more powerful Rama and Sita, he must entrust nature with the task of protection when he fails. Further, the "hoarse" scream of a vulture serves as an ill omen that foreshadows Sita's eventual abduction by Ravana. Here, too, nature seems to play an important role as it mirrors the affairs of the demigods and legendary figured depicted in the Ramayana.

The poem is thus characteristic of many of Dutt's interests—the relationship of humanity, divinity, and nature; the complexity of family relationships; the experience of loss or bereavement; and the merging of English verse forms and poetic traditions with her own innovations and Indian inspirations. At the same time, its more formal tone and register—as distinct from those of other, more personal poems in the collection such as "The Tree of Life" and "Our Casuarina Tree"—also shows that, in writing this poem, Dutt was intentionally calling back to something other than her own experience, something deeply rooted in tradition and timeless in its telling and retelling over time.