Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "My Vocation"


The poem "My Vocation" is from Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), and is a translation of a Pierre-Jean de Béranger poem. It describes an individual who has been mistreated greatly by both fate and other people, but who also finds comfort and inspiration in the work of a singer, a figure who is often used in literature as a representative of the poet. Though the best years of the speaker's youth are long gone, and though the speaker is without love, the speaker finds something like beauty and love in the task of creating song and poetry. Each stanza except the last ends with the refrain "Sing—said God in reply, / Chant, poor little thing." This refrain emphasizes the divine nature of the poet's work and its otherworldly importance when contrasted with things like "wealth" and "power." By the poem's end, the speaker asserts a lack of desire for any kind of physical compensation, and the refrain mentioning God is changed to read "Still—still comes that reply, / Chant, poor little thing." This final refrain emphasizes instead the ongoing nature and constancy of the poet's labor.


The poem is written in five stanzas of eight lines each (called octaves, or octets). Each stanza introduces four lines of new alternating rhymes, followed by four more lines of alternating rhymes—two lines of which are new, and two lines of which are part of a repeating refrain (i.e., the rhyme scheme is ABABCDCD EFEFCDCD GHGHCDCD IJIJCDCD KLKLCDCD, with the last two "CD" lines of each stanza constituting the refrain). This formal structure and rhyme scheme allows the poem to explore a different dimension of the speaker's life at length in each stanza, while still returning in the end to the central idea that—despite everything—the speaker feels a divine call to sing and create poetry.

In the first stanza, the speaker explores the moment of birth and links the cry that may accompany birth or subsequent sadness to a voice creating song or poetry. This moment supplies a literal link between the pain experienced by the speaker and the speaker's work at creating song—that is, the sound of the voice crying out in response to the world.

In the second stanza, this link is made figurative as Wealth—personified as someone with means in a carriage—drives by and figuratively covers the speaker with dirt (perhaps by driving through a dirty puddle or something similar). Here, the speaker also reflects on their dismissal by the general public—even by "minions" who serve more powerful people—and their search for comfort that eventually ends with the divine calling to write poetry.

A similar arc is traced in the third and fourth stanzas, where the speaker is forced to do hard labor with little monetary success and mourns the loss of their youth and past loves, respectively. Each struggle that the speaker faces ends with the voice of God calling the speaker to sing about their experiences and create poetry.

In the last stanza, then, the speaker turns their attention towards the self, commenting on how, despite the pain and hardship experienced, they feel that the occupation of singing is just as lofty as anything else, just as necessary and important in the divine order of things. The speaker even finds a place as a bard or poet at parties, among "glasses that ring."

Besides these central ideas that hardship can give rise to beauty and that the poet's task is as vital as any other line of work, the poem explores additional symbolic relationships and uses figurative language to diverse effects. For example, the poet's consistent comparison of the self to birds—an element that is present in Béranger's original but that Dutt chooses to emphasize through the flight in the second stanza and the "clipped wing" in the third stanza—links the poet's calling and work to the natural world. Further, the poem's use of personification raises interesting questions—for example, why are no people formally named except the figurative personas of Wealth, Love, Life, and Beauty, who are afforded the treatment of proper nouns? As in Dutt's other poems, the answer lies in the poet's unique ability to mediate between the realm of nature and the realm of the man-made, the poet's ability to create beauty where none existed beforehand, and the poet's focus and interrogation of the deeper meanings and concepts (such as loss, "love" and "beauty") behind everyday human interactions.