Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Christianity (Motif)

Toru Dutt's poetry is rich with references and details from the Christian religious tradition. In part, this is because most of the poems that Dutt translated in A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields were written by French authors, who themselves were tied into a rich Christian tradition that they wanted to explore and unpack in their writing. Such is the case with poems like "Christmas" and "Moses."

Still, the appearance of Christian imagery and content in Dutt's original work is not to be neglected. In "Baugmaree," for example, Dutt compares the elation she experiences among the pastoral scenes of her garden home to the amazement one would feel staring at Eden, the primeval Christian garden. Further, in "The Tree of Life," Dutt's speaker has a Christian religious vision of an angel, and it is this angel's divine love and piety—something like the concept of Christian agape—that brings her comfort while her father is ill.

Thus, throughout Dutt's body of work, Christianity and its imagery work dynamically in helping her speakers understand and interpret the world, though it is just one of many lenses that her speakers seek to look through.

Sanskrit (Motif)

Complementary to Dutt's interest and investment in Western religion and culture, her poetry also reflects a deep engagement with the Sanskrit epics and texts endemic to her native India. Though Toru Dutt's poetry notably does not engage with the Vedas, the oldest scriptural texts of Hinduism, her work does engage a wide variety of other Hindu literature, including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas. One possible reason that Dutt may have chosen to appropriate these non-Vedic works is because the Vedas and associated texts are considered to be divinely inspired (or Śruti), while these specific non-Vedic works are attributed to an author or sage (Smriti). Toru Dutt's fascination with authorship and what it means to herself recall a tale, tell it well, and tell it to others are some of the central concerns in many of the poems in Ancient Ballads—including "Sita" and "Buttoo." Thus, it is possible that Toru Dutt appropriates these specific texts in her work to explore and probe the nature of stories and their significance in shaping human imagination and interaction, and not just to call back to her specific cultural heritage as an originally Hindu, Indian woman.

Winter (Motif)

Many poems of Toru Dutt—including "Christmas," "The Retreat from Moscow," "The Broken Bell," "Our Casuarina Tree," and "The Tree of Life"—use imagery associated with wintertime (most prominently, snow). In each of these poems, winter is used to demonstrate something different—be it the amazement of a scene resembling starlight on snow (as in "The Tree of Life"), the desolation of winter on an army (as in "The Retreat from Moscow"), or loneliness and isolation (as in "The Broken Bell" and "Our Casuarina Tree"). However, one commonality between all Dutt's uses of winter and its imagery is that winter symbolizes the natural world—specifically, a time in the natural world that is marked by cessation or exception. During winter, trees lose their leaves and wildlife slumbers, and the exceptional splendor of a snow scene can be fully appreciated. As such, the status of winter as a special natural state or condition makes it ripe for analysis by Dutt, who places heavy emphasis in her work on the differences between humanity and nature, as well as the experiences of loss. After all, it is in winter that the much of the natural world seems to sleep or die away for a bit (mirroring loss), and it is also in winter that humanity must continue to bustle while the world seems to sleep (a differentiating factor).

Animal (Motif)

Many Toru Dutt poems also center on the relationship between humanity and nature by foregrounding and commenting on many different varieties of animal. These central animals in Dutt's poems—be they wolves, condors, baboons, or deer—more often than not stand in as symbols for humanity's encounters with nature, as well as the parts of nature that are more close to humanity than are traditionally thought. It is the presence of the wolves in "The Death of the Wolf," for example, that spurs the speaker to their realization about humanity's corruption of the natural, stoic order of things. In "The Sleep of the Condor," the veneration of the majestic condor that is reduced to a speck at the end sheds light on the relative smallness of humanity in the grand scheme of nature. In "Our Casuarina Tree," too, the baboon, birds, and bees are all mentioned as elements of nature that are sympathetic to the speaker's emotions and stand with her in isolation from the rest of humanity. Thus, Dutt's consistent focus on animal imagery throughout her body of work is meant to shed light on the often-porous boundary between humanity and nature, as well as the capacity for humanity's self-discovery in the natural world.

Vulture (Symbol)

One specific animal image that recurs throughout Dutt's work is that of the vulture. Unlike many of the other animal images deployed in Dutt's poetry, which have a dynamic and varied set of implications, the vulture seems to stand out uniquely as more straightforward, primarily being associated with death and ill-omens. When Napoleon mistakes a vulture's cry for the voice of God in "The Retreat from Moscow," for example, it is a portent of the loss and destruction that is yet to come for the emperor. In "Lakshman," when Lakshman leaves Sita to go in search of Rama, a vulture is heard, foreshadowing Sita's eventual abduction by Ravana and, in turn, her eventual abandonment. The use of the vulture image across both Dutt's translated work and her original work—combined with the fact that this ominous and negative connotation surrounding vultures was prominent in the Western canon by the time Dutt began writing—is also significant because it demonstrates Dutt's familiarity with and literacy surrounding Western literatures and their respective symbolisms.