Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "Moses"


The poem "Moses" is from Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), and is a translation of an Alfred de Vigny poem. It describes the death of Moses, the major prophet of the Jewish religion, at Mount Nebo within sight of the Promised Land. In the Bible, Moses had lead the Israelites out of Egypt and then through the desert for 40 years before arriving at the Promised Land, which he was forbidden to enter on account of his earlier mistrust of God. "Moses" then takes the occurrences at Mount Nebo as a setting, and within them stages a dialogue between Moses and God atop the mountain.

After viewing all the lands of Canaan that he may not enter, Moses complains to God that, though he has the power to make men do his will and to influence the world through God's grace, he has heretofore been unable to die, unable to love, and unable to find someone who truly understands the struggles of someone imbued with divine power. Throughout his complaints, he begs God to let him die, saying "let me sleep the sleep of all the earth." This dialogue, throughout which we fail to hear God's voice and hear Moses speak in the first person, constitutes most of the body of the poem.

At the poem's end however, the speaker's focus turns back to the Israelites waiting for Moses at the foot of Mount Nebo. When the storm that had heretofore been shielding Moses from sight dissipates, Moses is gone—having finally been accepted into the Kingdom of Heaven by God—and Joshua stands to take Moses's place and accept his burden.


The poem is of formidable length, totaling over 130 lines, and is written in rhyming couplets with certain rhymes being occasionally repeated. It is broken up into seven irregular stanzas, with each stanza introducing another element of the story of Moses's death.

The first, incredibly lengthy stanza details Moses's ascent of Mount Nebo while the Israelites bow below him in prayer. In this stanza, Moses looks around him and notices the vast expanses of land that he will not be able to enter on account of his earlier transgression against God.

The second stanza, a couplet, shifts the poem's momentum and places great emphasis on the face-to-face encounter between Moses and God at Mount Nebo.

Moses then goes on to speak, uninterrupted, in the following four stanzas about the burdens he feels as God's elected prophet. First, he speaks of his weariness with having had to lead the Israelites, suggesting that the work of leadership has made him "lonely." He exhorts God to let him die, despite what he describes in the next stanza as the power that his works and words will have in the generations to come. The next stanza describes Moses's vast command over the forces of nature, such as the "stars," "clouds," "mountains," the "ocean," and the "sun." Still, despite this power, Moses insists that is "not happy here" on Earth and in leading his people. Moses final spoken stanza describes the total isolation that Moses has experienced throughout his life—scaring some, fixing others in reverence, and unable to make any normal person love him. Moses's last words to God in this stanza are the refrain which has been heretofore repeated in the poem, "let me sleep the sleep of all the earth."

In the final stanza, a violent storm is seen to engulf and disappear Moses, and the Israelites watching below follow Joshua, the next to lead the people, into the Promised Land. Crucially, Joshua is described as "pensive and pale, [with] the weight of rule to bear," suggesting that he too will feel the same pressures that Moses did in leading the Israelites.

Many careful contrasts are set up in the poem that provide grounds for interpretive nuance. For example, there is the imagistic and thematic contrast between the calm desert as described in the first stanza and the violent storm that engulfs Moses in the last stanza. The increase in momentum that accompanies this shift in setting emphasizes the transitional nature of Moses's death for the Israelites. The storm itself might stand in as representative of Moses's own life, which is marked by a series of unseen difficulties that others may simply look on with awe.

As another example, Moses's divine power to command both other people and the elements also links Moses with the figure of the poet, who seeks to control nature and the emotions of others through verse and song. Moses is thus not only a prophetic figure weighed down by divinity, but also a poetic figure whose genius burdens him and his encounters with others in the world. Finally, Moses's central craving throughout the poem to die and "sleep the sleep of all the earth" implies that death to Moses (a stand-in for the Romantic poet) is an ultimate unity between humanity and nature, a sublimation of one to the other that is absent in his simple ability to command the elements.

Like many of Dutt's other poems, then, "Moses" preoccupies itself thoroughly with the nature of poetic inquiry, the true significance that underlies human relationships (in this case, the secret burden of those in leadership positions), familial and relational ties, the relationship between the poet and nature, and the experience of death or loss.