Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "Sîta"


The poem "Sîta" is from Dutt's Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882). It tells the story of "Three happy children in a darkened room" being told the legend of Sîta by their mother. The mother tells the children all about the scene of Sîta's abandonment, ranging from the animals in the woods to the presence of the "poet-anchorite" Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana. The children sympathize with the plight of Sîta, but in the middle of the story, the mother is "hushed at last" by an unknown figure, likely her husband. The poem ends with a description of the children, rapt with attention at their mother's story, and the last two lines consist of the speaker's nostalgia for the days when she—likely one of the children herself—would gather around her mother and listen intently to stories in the evenings.


In terms of its form and rhyme scheme, the poem is twenty-two lines and consists of three quatrains of enclosed rhyme, one quatrain of alternating rhyme, and three rhyming couplets—such that the overall rhyme scheme is ABBACDDCEFFEGHGHIIJJKK. The poem makes liberal use of exclamation marks and question marks—evidenced even in the first two lines—which mirror the call-and-response nature of a mother telling stories to young children.

The first three quatrains develop the scene of the forest in which Sîta is abandoned by Rama—"a dense, dense forest, where no sunbeam pries," whose darkness parallels the "darkened room" in which the children sit. The quatrains describe the scene as peaceful and tranquil—bursting with life like "swans," "deer," and a "peacock."

However, the tone immediately switches up when the poem's focus shifts to Sîta herself: "She weeps,—for lo! at every tear she sheds / Tears from three pairs of young eyes fall amain, / And bowed in sorrow are the three young heads. / It is an old, old story." The alternating rhyme of this quatrain emphasizes the response of the children to Sîta's pain and their empathy with her struggle.

As we move into the couplets, the long pause after "is by a mother sung" both formally evokes the hushing and fundamentally changes the rhythm of the poem, quickening it as the rhymes occur more quickly in couplet form.

Moving into the conclusion of the poem, the fast passage of the rhymes not only evokes the quickness with which the storytelling atmosphere dissipates, but also the passage of youth that leaves the speaker nostalgic for the time when she could simply listen and be enraptured by a mother's stories.

The parallels established between the world of Sîta and the world of the storytelling serve to link Sîta to the mother who tells the story. Much as Sîta is mistreated by her husband Rama, left in the forest to care for children on her own, so too does the mother carefully entertain the children with stories before being rudely cut off by her husband's hush. Moreover, the linking of the children to Sîta through empathy and the "melting" together of the storytelling scene with the memory of the speaker's childhood show that "Sîta" is a poem that attempts to bridge the gaps between the personal and the cultural, between the small stories told by mothers and epic myths. Thus, like much of Dutt's other poetry, "Sîta" not only examines the possibility of relating Indian culture and English verse forms, but it also seeks to deeply interrogate the role of individuals in telling and retelling stories, the place of gender in culture and stories, and—through the small detail of Valmiki and the mother's lengthy descriptions of natural scenery—the place of the poet in describing and inhabiting nature.