Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Themes


Dutt foregrounds nature in the vast majority of her poems, whether they are translations of others' works or lyrics she herself wrote. This, in no small part, is rooted in Dutt's exposure to a wide variety of pastoral landscapes from a young age (whether in India at her garden home or abroad in England or France). Throughout Dutt's body of work, nature is a place of wonder, where sublime beauty can be observed directly (as in "The Sleep of the Condor" and "Baugmaree"), but it also stands for much more. In some places, nature is not just a site of discovery, but rather self-discovery and instruction (as in "Buttoo," and "The Death of the Wolf"); in others, it is a place of revelation, where light is shed on the nature of human society and mankind in general (as in "The Tree of Life" and "The Sower"); still, in others, it is a place where we are invited to recall and contend with memories of the past (as in "Our Casuarina Tree" and "The Broken Bell"). In Dutt's work, then, nature is a dynamic stage in which we humans encounter ourselves, each other, things different from ourselves (such as animals and plants), and the divine. For Dutt, then, to explore nature is to explore the nature of being itself and the things which separate or connect humans to other elements within Creation, both living and inanimate.


Religion—both in the personal sense of individual encounters with the divine and the more canonical sense of established religions—appears time and again in Toru Dutt's poetry. In translation, this reflects not only her family's conversion to Christianity and her exposure to European religions abroad, but also a deep preoccupation with the overlooked, personal elements and nuances of more established religious experiences (for example, painting the title character as a burdened poetic thinker in "Moses"). This thread is also present in her original works (such as the Christian Angel who she interacts with personally in "The Tree of Life"), but another element that receives additional attention in her original works is Ancient India and its Hindu traditions. In poems like "Sita," "Lakshman," "Buttoo," and the others in Ancient Ballads, Dutt seeks to also play with established religions and stories, maintaining their essences while at the same time opening them up to more personal and individualistic interpretations. As examples, consider how Dutt changes the name of the Ekalavya myth's protagonist to Buttoo and adds the element of class prejudice, or how she expands on the dialogue between Sita and her brother-in-law in "Lakshman." Most notably, the qualification of established religion and exploration of its connection to the individual is explored in "Sita," where Dutt links her own mother to the abandoned central figure and relates the Sita myth to her childhood.


The idea of in-betweenness, transition, or liminality is also present in many of Dutt's works, especially her original poems. Born in Colonial India—a place that itself was situated at the intersection of British culture and Indian culture—and having travelled extensively in Europe, where she received her education, Toru Dutt was immensely invested in probing the many exchanges and interchanges between cultures. For example, in her Ancient Ballads, many of her poems appropriate European poetic forms like the sonnet and the ballad, while also addressing topics like classical Indian stories and legends. Moreover, in poems like "Moses" and "The Sower," Dutt explores certain figures as liminal, serving as crucial intermediaries between mankind and, respectively, the divine or nature. In other poems, like "The Lotus," Dutt explores what it means for beauty itself to be liminal and relish its status as in between two cultures and traditions. This prevailing interest in transitional figures in Dutt's works also extends to the poet, who through the power of poetry is able to figuratively travel among various historical periods (as in "Our Casuarina Tree" and "The Broken Bell"), or perhaps mixes their own words with those of others to create something new (as in "The Young Captive").

Ars Poetica

Many of Dutt's poems also involve a speaker who mentions explicitly that they write poetry, sing, or speak in celebration of or in reaction to a moving encounter or experience. In using the poetic form to meditate on the nature of poetry, these poems of Toru Dutt's, such as "Our Casuarina Tree," "The Young Captive," and "My Vocation," can be said to be Ars Poetica poems, poems that are about the art and craft of writing poetry. Sometimes, these Ars Poetica poems end with the speaker accurately being able to capture reality or create moving art through their craft (as in "The Young Captive"), but a great number of these poems end with the speaker lamenting their failure to touch the sublime beauty of nature or divinity (as in "Our Casuarina Tree" and "The Broken Bell"). Toru Dutt is then interested throughout her works in exploring the various elements and dimensions of creating poetry, as well as in opening up some key questions—for example, is poetry a worthwhile endeavor? Is it a divine calling, as in "My Vocation," or is it something that only imitates nature, as in "Our Casuarina Tree"? Dutt presents us with both sides of the argument in her work and lets readers come to their own interpretive conclusions.


In many of Toru Dutt's poems, youth is paradoxical—it is a time of great loss and sadness (as in "The Broken Bell" and "The Young Captive"), yet also a place of fond memory and nostalgia (as in "Sita" and "Our Casuarina Tree"). This dual nature of youth in Dutt's work was likely foregrounded by her own tragic youth, which she recalls as both the time she had to spend with her siblings and the time in which her siblings were taken away from her by consumption. This exploration of the bittersweet nature of youth and its more nuanced contours also connects to Dutt's larger interests in loss, the family, and memory. At the same time, it takes the Romantic ideal of the child—the picture of a figure untainted by worldly society and close to nature—and complicates it in a way that distinguishes Dutt from other poets of her time.


As someone who experienced the loss of both her siblings at a young age, much of Toru Dutt's poetry focuses on the experience of loss or the experience of being surrounded by death. In poems like "My Vocation," "The Young Captive," and "Sita," loss is framed as something painful, yet also something which can give rise to art or transcendent reflection if viewed from the right perspective. Still, other poems of Dutt's like "The Retreat from Moscow," "Our Casuarina Tree," and "Moses" paint experiences of loss—lost battles, lost loves, lost family members, and lost opportunities—as unproductive, experiences which seek only to make her speakers doubt the future, look back on the past with unease, and move uncomfortably through the present. Like other themes explored in Dutt's poems, such as youth and nature, Dutt's exploration of loss is multidimensional and nuanced—showing us that there is always more to something than is popularly conceived of or written about.

The Family

Another consistent theme across much of Dutt's work is the relationship between members of a family and how these relationships, which might be considered mundane or everyday, can be opened up into the realms of poetry and art. The tenderness and care inherent to the family relationship are explored in poems like "The Death of the Wolf" and "The Tree of Life." Other poems, like "Sita" and "Our Casuarina Tree," explore the time when Dutt's speakers long for or miss the closeness they once felt among members of their families. Still others, like "Lakshman," take care to invest more minor familial relationships with meaning and importance, even within the context of a well-known mythological story. Much like Dutt's interest in other phenomena that are fundamental to human existence and the relationships that undergird human society, Dutt's interest in the family is at once bred from both inquisitive dissatisfaction—a desire to excavate the family and get to the heart of the sentiments that are common among family members—and a quiet contentment—a desire to let the quiet rhythms of family life settle on the page, bringing us to our own revelations and conclusions.