Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "The Sleep of the Condor"


The poem "The Sleep of the Condor" is from Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), and is a translation of a Leconte de Lisle poem. The poem opens by describing the expansive landscapes of the South American mountain, atop all of which, even higher than "black eagle's eyrie[s]," the Andean Condor is roosting. As the day gradually turns to night and the world below seems to slumber and rest, the condor is the only living thing which stirs. The poem closes with the condor taking flight by starlight, soaring far away from the earth, and the image we are left with is of the condor "sleep[ing] in the air, with his wings wide-extended." The setting of the poem in the "New World" and Leconte de Lisle's own experiences growing up abroad in Réunion mirror Toru Dutt's own interest in global cultures and fascination with places other than her native India.


In terms of its rhyme scheme, the poem is thirty-two lines and written mostly in rhyming couplets. However, at two key moments in the poem, the rhyming couplets give way—once to a four-line phrase of alternating rhyme (where the first and third lines rhyme and the second and fourth rhyme), and once to a four-line phrase of enclosed rhyme (where the first and fourth lines rhyme and the second and third rhyme). The overall rhyme scheme is thus AABBCCDDEEFFGGHHIJIJKKLLMMNNOPPO. While the main body of rhyming couplets describes the natural surroundings, situating us in the "Cordillières" of the Chilean Andes, these two quatrains with different rhyme schemes are significant because they frame the condor, the central subject of the poem, against this landscape.

The first quatrain, which is written in alternating rhyme, reads, "On the peak which is topmost, where still a red lustre / Stains with a blood-streak the glaciers that shimmer, / He waits with a courage he knows how to muster, / Alone, like a spectre, growing dimmer and dimmer." Before this point, the only color that has been mentioned is the "dun" hue of the "fogs" in line 2, and the landscape dominated by darkness, with only the sun itself "blaz[ing] bright." The "red lustre" of the condor's surroundings thus stands out in its brightness and vibrancy of color, which impart both majesty and "power" to the condor itself. Further, while the world around the condor is beginning to "[slumber] profound," the condor itself is merely waiting to take flight, and this isolation of the condor—its supreme power among natural things—is highlighted by the use of the word "alone."

Interceding details between this rhymed quatrain and the next rhymed quatrain then describe the final darkening of the landscape and the appearance of the stars in the sky (i.e., "The Cross of the South"). Only once the condor is "surround[ed]" and "bound" by the darkness of night does it finally take to the sky with a "hoarse cry that grand is."

The final four lines, which consist of the quatrain of enclosed rhyme, then describe the actual motion of the condor while the rest of the world sleeps: "Far, far from this globe, by night's banner defended, / Far, far from its noise, from its strife, its endeavour, / A speck, but a speck, and as frozen for ever / He sleeps in the air, with his wings wide-extended." The first two lines of this quatrain open with "far, far," once again emphasizing the impressiveness and singularity of the condor's majesty, unparalleled anywhere on earth. The second line's introduction of "strife," "noise," and "endeavor" paint the earth (and, implicitly, the world of men) as a place of conflict and violence that the graceful condor alone can supersede and escape. The third line frames the condor, in all its greatness as a mere "speck," in the sky, highlighting the expansiveness and awe-inspiring quality of the natural world. Finally, the last line frames the condor's flight as a kind of figurative "sleep," taking place while the rest of the world literally slumbers yet more dynamic and beautiful than any other kind of sleep in the world.

Overall then, the poem seeks to praise and admire the beauty of the condor, even against the stunning backdrop of the Andes, while subtly praising the natural world at large and talking down to the world of men. Like other poems translated by Toru Dutt, it is notable for its Romantic praise of the natural world, negative feelings towards the world of human affairs, and a desire to capture the beauty of the natural world through language and poetry.