Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "The Tree of Life"


The poem "The Tree of Life" is from Dutt's Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882). The poem relates the experience of a speaker who begins with her eyes closed and with her "hand [...] in [her] father's," passing time "in silence." Suddenly, this scene of quiet meditation is interrupted by a vision, where the speaker imagines her father and herself to be in a "vast plain," centered on "a tree with spreading branches and with leaves." There, the speaker imagines an "Angel," standing "beside the tree," who "pluck[s] / A few small sprays, and [binds] them round [her] head." When the leaves of the tree touch the speaker's head, "the fever in [her] limbs" disappears, and she asks for the Angel to also treat her father with the leaves. When the Angel moves to treat the speaker's father, however, he whispers "Nay" and does not go through with it. Still, the speaker is struck by the look "of holy pity and of love divine" in the Angel's face. As the poem closes, the speaker's vision of the Angel fades, and she finds herself once again by her father's bedside, with her hand "close-prest" in his.


In terms of its form, the poem is thirty-eight lines long and is written in blank verse—without regular rhymes and primarily using iambic pentameter for its meter (i.e., five units of one unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable).

This use of blank verse, as well as the "gold" leaves of the titular tree, closely aligns Dutt's tree of life with that of Milton in his blank-verse epic Paradise Lost, which blooms with "vegetable gold" (4.220). This proximity to Milton's epic not only reflects Dutt's familiarity with and appropriation of English poetry, but also foregrounds the religious influences at the heart of the poem. One clearly religious element in the poem is the angel, who is called "Angel" with a capital A to reflect his otherworldliness, as well as the awesome power of his "holy pity" and "love divine."

Perhaps a less obvious religious symbol in the poem, however, is the speaker's father. The word "father" has religious significance in Christianity and is evocative of the Christian God. Further, the action at the beginning of the poem—where the speaker sits in silence with her "eyes [...] closed, but [...] not asleep"—appear to be not only a moment of quiet reflection, but also a moment of prayer, where her intent is communicated through silence to the father: "What was the need / Of interchanging words when every thought / That in our hearts arose, was known to each, / And every pulse kept time?" It is out of this closeness to the divine father that her vision of the "open plain" then comes. However, by the end of the poem, we come to find the divine embodied in the Angel's "pity" and "love," and we understand that the father in the poem is all too human when the Angel refuses to treat him as he does the speaker. Still, in the moment at the poem's close, the Angel's face seems to become the father's, and the two's "close-prest" hands seem to evoke a new closeness and carry a new tenderness that they did not at the poem's opening. As much as it is a poem about a divine vision or prayer by the bedside of a sick father, then, the poem is also about recognizing the divine in the mundane, seeing the "holy pity and [...] love divine" in the love we have for our family members, and about the power of prayer to bring hope to desperate situations (such as serious illness).

Like Dutt's other poems, "The Tree of Life" blurs the boundaries between the personal experiences of religion (such as prayer) and the collective narratives of religion (such as the Biblical symbol of the tree of life), the domestic (her father's bedside) and the natural (the open plain), and the experiences of loss (her father's illness) and enlightenment (the vision). Moreover, it explores the natural as a stage for experiencing the divine, particularly within a Christian context and within the context of what appears to be Dutt's own personal life.