Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "Our Casuarina Tree"


The poem "Our Casuarina Tree" is from Dutt's Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882). It is one of Dutt's most famous poems, and it describes a tree near the speaker's home that she associates heavily with memories of her childhood and her siblings that have since died, "Who now in blessed sleep, for aye, repose." The word "our" in the title hints at this significance—it is not just an ordinary tree for the poet, but rather a part of her life and an integral part of her childhood that she shared with her siblings.

The poem's opening lines describe the grandeur of the Casuarina in minute detail, standing erect and wearing the "scarf" of the "creeper" that clutches it like "a huge python." The tree is a source of life, filled with "bird[s] and bee[s]," though the children who used to play under its branches are long gone. This liveliness that surrounds the tree is further detailed in the second stanza, which tells of a "baboon," "kokilas," and "cows" in its vicinity.

Still, in the third stanza, the speaker tells us explicitly that it is "not because of its magnificence / [that] Dear is the Casuarina to my soul"—rather, it is because of her memories of her departed siblings. At the thought of their deaths and their past memories, even the tree seems to "lament" and ushers forth "an eerie speech." In the fourth stanza, the speaker recalls various foreign shores (namely, "France or Italy") where she heard noise similar to the tree's mournful sighs, and recalled the tree and her "own loved native clime."

As the poem closes, the speaker meditates on the "deathless trees" in "Borrowdale" that carry the same grim weight as those in William Wordsworth's poem on yew-trees, which she quotes: "Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton, / And Time the shadow." By contrast, the speaker tells us, she yearns to return to the Casuarina tree of her youth, which she hopes will be saved "from Oblivion's curse."


In terms of its form, the poem consists of fifty-five lines, written in five stanzas of eleven lines each. Each stanza consists of an octave of two enclosed-rhyme quatrains, followed by a rhyming tercet (three lines which rhyme). Its overall rhyme scheme is thus ABBACDDCEEE FGGFHIIHJJJ KLLKMNNMOOO PQQPRSSRTTT UVVUWXXWYYY. The enclosed-rhyme octave of each stanza allows Dutt to develop a new line of thought in each stanza, while the rhyming tercet at the end of each stanza reinforces not only the constancy and finality of death, but also—because they evoke previous stanzas in their repetition—the echoes of the past that resurface through memory. Further, the fact that each stanza ends with a rhyming tercet rather than a rhyming couplet (two lines) gives the impression of overflow or transcendence, which mirrors the feelings that the speaker imparts to the Casuarina tree at the center of the poem.

The linkage of the speaker's personal life and emotional state to the natural world is not limited, however, to the Casuarina tree. For example, the birds and bees singing their "one sweet song" from the tree's branches provide solace to the poet through the night "while men repose," which suggests that the poet lies sleepless at night and can be soothed only by the rhythms of the natural world. The "grey baboon" in stanza 2, which sits "statue-like [and] alone" on top of the tree while "watching the sunrise," also reinforces this idea, suggesting that the poet too has watched in solitude as the sun rises the behind the Casuarina tree.

In the third stanza, the speaker makes this linkage explicit as she explains that the tree's memory is "blent with [...] images" in her head of her departed siblings. The shared mourning of the speaker and the tree, as conveyed by the "dirge-like murmur" that resembles the waves breaking on a pebble beach, continues to reinforce this connection. In the fourth stanza, this image of the waves breaking carries us to foreign shores, where "waves gently [kiss] the classic shore" but evoke similar mourning in our speaker's mind. This is why, while the rest of the world "l[ies] trancèd in a dreamless swoon," the speaker stays awake as the music of her youth, the music of the tree, swims to her in her "inner vision."

In the final stanza, the speaker's care to distinguish the trees of England from the Casuarina tree of her youth further shows the way in which the speaker associates nature at large with her various emotions. While the Casuarina tree stands in for nostalgia, longing, and memory, the trees of England reflect isolation and "verse" that is not true to her own experiences.

This final moment in the poem is also particularly interesting because it implicates the poet herself and the poem itself. The poet is hesitant about her gift of writing poetry, and she feels that her own words are "weak," but she appeals to "Love" in her plea for the tree to be protected from time's ravages. This links the poem not only to Dutt's preoccupation with loss, the natural world, and the complexity of family relationships, but also to her interest in the nature of the poetic craft and how much of life's complexities can be accurately captured in a poetic format. This moment also lends itself to a larger interpretive discussion about how Dutt envisions the potency of one of her major poetic projects—that is, her choice to use English verse forms like those used by Wordsworth (who she simultaneously seems to respect and dismiss in the poem) to describe Indian scenes like those of the tree and her youth.