The poem "The Lotus" is from Dutt's Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882). The poem enacts a type of fable, in which the personified figure of Love comes to Flora, the Roman goddess of flowering plants, asking her to create the most beautiful flower in the world. After the longstanding feud between the lily and the rose is described, Love expresses a desire to have a flower that carries elements of both: "Give me a flower delicious as the rose / And stately as the lily in her pride." When asked what color the flower should be, Love first says "Rose-red," then qualifies this by saying "No, lily-white,—or, both provide." The poem ends with Flora gifting Love the lotus, a flower that has both elements of the lily's beauty and the rose's beauty. The poem as such reflects one instance of Toru Dutt drawing a link between European culture (and knowledge) and Indian/Asian culture.
In terms of form, "The Lotus" is a Petrarchan sonnet, fourteen lines in length with enclosed rhymes in the octave (the first eight lines of the poem) and the overall rhyme scheme ABBAABBACDCDDC.
The octave develops the backstory of Love approaching Flora, and it also gives us the backstory of the conflict between the rose and the lily. The rose—red in color and actually native to Asia—is being used here as a symbol of the ideals of Asian beauty, while the lily—white in color and present in much European imagery such as coats of arms—is used as a symbol of Europe and the West in general. The poem is thus not just a fantastical and whimsical dialogue between mythic figures, but also a serious contest regarding the nature of beauty.
The poem has a turn (or volta) after the octave, and the interlocking rhyme schemes of the sestet (the last six lines) mirror the conversation conducted between Flora and Love. When the poem resolves itself, elements of both Western and Eastern beauty are united in the transitional figure of the lotus, a classic Indian symbol of beauty, youth, and divinity.
While superficially providing a pithy and entertaining explanation for the creation of the lotus flower, "The Lotus" also provides deeper interpretive meaning insofar as it discusses the ideals of beauty in different parts of the world. The creation of a liminal or transitional beauty—one that sits in between the ideals of East and West in the form of the lotus—evokes and suggests not only Dutt's home of India but also Dutt herself, whose life experiences in Colonial India and all around Europe fundamentally make her a figure of transition, intermixing, and cultural exchange. The poem also calls back to Dutt's larger body of work in its attention to and fascination with both natural beauty and world religions, including the pagan religion of ancient Rome.