Allusions in Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri

In his epic poem Savitri, Sri Aurobindo sought to convey many of the superconscient experiences that he and the Mother Mirra Alfassa underwent. In order to bring home the touch of the Ineffable to the reader, he employed a number of literary devices as part of the diction, including what are known as “allusions“.  An allusion is a distinct phrase, assumed to be relatively familiar to the discerning reader, which is used in poetry to kindle specific images and symbols in the reader’s mind.  V.K.Gokak, a professor of English and Kannada literature, was able to uncover about 130 allusions to Romantic era poetry in Savitri (not unusual considering that Sri Aurobindo was a Cambridge-educated classics scholar). Gokak has discussed these allusions in his book Sri Aurobindo – Poet and Seer[1].   In this article, we cover a few of allusions that he discovered.

William Blake

Compelling transient substance into shape,
She hopes by the creative act’s release
To o’erleap sometimes the gulf she cannot fill,
To heal awhile the wound of severance,
Escape from the moment’s prison of littleness
And meet the Eternal’s wide sublimities
In the uncertain time-field portioned here.
Almost she nears what never can be attained;
She shuts eternity into an hour
And fills a little soul with the Infinite;

(Savitri, Book II, Canto VI)

In the second last line, the phrase “shut eternity into an hour” is used to convey the illimitable Shakti which has descended to take the form of the individual soul caught in the vagaries of Time.  This phrase originates in the well-known lines of William Blake.

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

(Blake, Auguries of Innocence)

John Milton

Now the dusk shadowy trees stood close around
Like dreaming spirits and, delaying night,
The grey-eyed pensive evening heard their steps,
And from all points the cries and movements came
Of the four-footed wanderers of the night
Approaching

(Savitri, Book XII)

While describing the climactic scene in the epilogue of the poem, Sri Aurobindo used the phrase “grey-eyed evening” seen above.  This is an allusion to the phrase “grey-hooded Even” found in Milton’s Comus. According to David Masson, in the following stanza, Milton sought to realize Evening succeeding Day in the image of a venerable grey-hooded mendicant slowly following the wheels of some rich man’s chariot.

They left me then when the grey-hooded Even,
Like a sad votarist in palmer’s weed,
Rose from the hindmost wheels of Phœbus’ wain.

(Milton, Comus)

Newton and Milton

Yet is he visited by intuitive light
And inspiration comes from the Unknown;
But only reason and sense he feels as sure,
They only are his trusted witnesses.
Thus is he baulked, his splendid effort vain;
His knowledge scans bright pebbles on the shore
Of the huge ocean of his ignorance.

(Savitri, Book VII, Canto IV)

At a certain stage of Yoga, when the subtle centers in the brain have awakened, one experiences the workings of intuition.  One may find that a sudden image flashing before the inner eye or a word whispered in the subtle ear spontaneously reveals the answer to a pressing problem.  To convey the workings of these intuitive powers, Sri Aurobindo uses the phrase “bright pebbles on the shore of the huge ocean of his ignorance”.

This phrase occurs in the following quote of Isaac Newton:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me” (Isaac Newton, wikiquote)

It can also be found in the Milton’s Paradise Regained.

As children gath’ring pebbles on the shore.
Or if I would delight my private hours
With music or with poem, where so soon
As in our native language can I find
That solace?

(Milton, Paradise Regained, lines 330-335)

William Butler Yeats

Amid the pageantries of day and dusk,
Long have I travelled with my pilgrim soul
Moved by the marvel of familiar things.

(Savitri, Book V, Canto III)

A point that disappears in the infinite,—
Felicity of the extinguished flame,
Last sinking of a wave in a boundless sea,
End of the trouble of thy wandering thoughts,
Close of the journeying of thy pilgrim soul.

(Savitri, Book XI, Canto I)

The “pilgrim soul” was a phrase used by Yeats in his poem When you are old.  In Savitri, the  same phrase is judiciously employed to depict the indefatigable spiritual aspirant who must journey through ups and downs as he battles against his/her own failings and the greater occult forces which seek to keep him manacled to his narrow time-bound personality.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

(Yeats, When you are old)

Percy Shelley

A Maenad of the cycles of desire
Around a Light she must not dare to touch,
Hastening towards a far-off unknown goal
Earth followed the endless journey of the Sun.

(Savitri, Book IV, Canto I)

In Greek mythology, the Maenads are female followers of Bacchus who are known to engage in ecstatic frenzy.  In the above lines of Savitri, the image of the Maenad is used to depict the desire-driven life that earthly inhabitants lead as they circle around the luminous and fiery Sun.  The image of the fierce Maenad was used by Shelley in his poem Ode to the West Wind to convey the fury and the violence of the wind.

there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm.

(Shelley, Ode To The West Wind)

William Wordsworth

Lost in deep tracts of superconscient Light,
Or voyaging in blank featureless Nothingness,
Sole in the trackless Incommensurable,
Or past not-self and self and selflessness,
Transgressing the dream-shores of conscious mind
He reached at last his sempiternal base.

(Savitri, Book III, Canto III)

During deep meditation, the soul experiences a soothing comfort as if it were a fish floating in the  depths of the pelagic zone of the vast ocean, soaking in the sparkling waters of the eternal fountain, seemingly lost to the annoying clamour of ceaseless on-shore activity.  To convey this experience, Sri Aurobindo alluded to the memorable phrase of Wordsworth “voyaging through strange seas of thought” seen below.

And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

(Wordworth, Prelude)

Virgil

An ancient tale of woe can move us still,
We keep the ache of breasts that breathe no more,
We are shaken by the sight of human pain,
And share the miseries that others feel.
Ours not the passionless lids that cannot age.
Too hard for us is heaven’s indifference:
Our own tragedies are not enough for us,
All pathos and all sufferings we make ours;
We have sorrow for a greatness passed away
And feel the touch of tears in mortal things.

(Savitri, Book VI, Canto I)

In the lines above, while conveying the pathos of the human condition,  Sri Aurobindo says we “feel the touch of tears in mortal things”.  This phrase is an allusion to Virgil‘s poignant phrase “there are tears for events, and mortal things touch the heart” seen in the Aeneid.  The original line rendered in Latin is “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” and was used in the poem to portray Aeneas as he is overcome by the futility of warfare and waste of human life.   See Lacrimae_rerum.

We shall cover more allusions in future posts!

References

  1. V.K. Gokak.  Sri Aurobindo  Seer and Poet. (Abhinav, 1973).  (amazon) (google books)

See Also

  1. Summary of Savitri by Jyotipriya (Dr Judith Tyberg)
  2. Savitri
  3. Art as an aid in Yoga
  4. The inversion of day and night (Gita 2:69)
  5. Gita Chapter 4, Verse 18 – action and inaction
  6. Gita Chapter 6, Verse 5 – uplift the self by the self
  7. Gita Chapter 7, Verse 16 – Four types of Divine seekers
  8. The Divine child suckled by the Vedic day and night
  9. The Triple Cord
  10. The Golden Lid or Hiranmaya Patra
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18 thoughts on “Allusions in Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri

  1. Sandeep Post author

    Apropos the allusions given above, we have the following note from the Archives and Research journal of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, vol 2, page 217, detailing the poems that Sri Aurobindo used to recommend to students while he was a professor at Baroda.

    We have recently found, in a notebook used by Sri Aurobindo at about the time he wrote the lectures (i.e. about 1898), lists of authors and poems which seem to be either selections for a course he was giving or the contents of a compilation he intended to publish. One of the lists consists of the names of a number of mostly minor eighteenth-century poets, many of whom are mentioned in the written lectures. But more prominence is given to three major poets: Keats, Milton and Dryden. Sri Aurobindo’s lists of their works, entitled collectively “English Extracts”, run as follows: Keats: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”; “On the Grasshopper and Cricket”; “When I have Fears . . .”; “Staffa”; Endymion — “Hymn to Pan”, “Beneath my palm trees. . .”; “On Fame”; “On the Sonnet”: “On a Dream”; “To the Nile”; “La Belle Dame sans Merci”; “On Ailsa Rock”: “In a drear-nighted December…”; “Ben Nevis”; “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; “To Homer”; “To Fancy”; “On Melancholy”; “The Human Seasons”; “Ode to Maia”; “Ode to Psyche”; “Ode to Autumn”; “Ode to a Nightingale” (omitting the stanza, “Fade far away . . .”); “Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb…”; “Bright Star! would I were steadfast as thou art”. Milton: “On the Death of a Fair Infant”; “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” — “It was the winter wild . . .”; “On Shakespeare”; “L’Allegro”; “II Penseroso”; “Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester”; “Nymphs and Shepherds, dance no more . . .” [from Arcades]; “The star that bids the shepherd fold . . .”, “Sabrina fair . . .” [both from Comus]; “To Cyriack Skinner”; “Lycidas”; “When the Assault Was Intended on the City”; “To the Lord General Cromwell”; “On his Deceased Wife”; “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”; “On his Blindness”; “It is not virtue, wisdom, valour, wit . . .”; “While their hearts were jocund and sublime . . Dryden: “The longest tyranny that ever swayed . . . Had been admired by none but savage eyes” [lines 1-20 of “To Dr. Charleton”]; “The Tears of Amynta”; “St. Cecilia’s Day”; “Alexander’s Feast”; “Great God of Love…” (Song to Chloris) [i.e. “A Song to a Fair Young Lady”]: “Chloe and Amyntas” [“Rondelay”]: “Fair, sweet and young . . .” [“A Song”].

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Allusions in Savitri – part 2 | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  3. Mahesh CR

    Sandeep – Nothing I can say would convey how much I need just about every post on your blog. Bless you!

    Now, few comments on the allusions, with the disclaimer that am not a trained literary critic or even studied any of this even informally.

    – Blake’s ‘..eternity in an hour’. Strong candidate for a deliberate allusion because the meaning to be conveyed and its expression are almost the same.

    – Milton ‘..grey-eyed pensive evening..’ The case for deliberate allusion is a tad weak. In the import and the setting of the scene there is a superficial similarity though.

    – Newton and Milton ‘Pebbles on the shore’. This is a very commonplace expression for most peoples that live near the coastal regions. Newton and Milton might be the first to use this in english and may be Aurobindo wanted to make that allusion but I doubt it. Tamil has an equivalent saying that paraphrased means, ‘what we have learnt is but a handful of sand, what remain unlearned is vast as the world’. Prof Gokak gives too much credit to Newton/Milton here, in my opinion at least.

    – Yeats ‘Pilgrim soul’. This does seem to be deliberate. And it syncs so perfectly with the meaning and expression of it required in this context.

    – Shelly ‘Maenad’. This is definitely not a deliberate allusion to Shelly at all. If Aurobindo was familiar with Greek/Latin, then Maenads would have been par for the course in Greek. So to highlight Shelly’s phrase as target seems incorrect.

    – Wordsworth ‘voyaging in blank featureless nothingness’. Again, does not seem an allusion to this specific usage. ‘Voyaging’ would be common verb to convey the sense of travel over a vast expanse of anything. I would say usage here indicates a superficial affinity between both contexts here, and not a deliberate reference to Wordsworth.

    – Virgil ‘touch of tears in mortal things’. I remember reading quite many comments by Aurobindo on these lines of Virgil. Dont recall precisely the details though. Here again there is the general idea of ‘grief filled play of life’ expression of Virgil that Aurobindo was definitely familiar with, but he takes it to a level that leaves it completely alien to the idea and expression that Virgil offered it. If this were a deliberate allusion then Aurobindo must have felt like bringing down his line from its highest heights to the minor heavens of Virgil!

    Anyway, Prof Gokak has to be commended for his work but approaching Aurobindo’s works and figuring out what he intended to allude to is rather tricky. Unless he commented on why something was rendered the way it was, or if the Mother has clarified, then one is on relatively stable ground. Otherwise its like hunting origins of an intuition!

    Sorry, if I have wasted your time. Have not studied this formally, so my terminology may be off!

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Mahesh

      I have nursed doubts about some of these allusions as well but refrained from expressing them since I was a dilettante in the field of poetry myself. Unfortunately, Dr Gokak is no longer with us to address your criticism.

      You may be interested in reading the articles on allusions in the Invocation Journal. See Shraddhavan’s article in vol 31 and Sumeet Kumar’s article in vol 24.

      -Sandeep

      Reply
      1. Mahesh CR

        Thanks for the response Sandeep. Sorry to hear Dr.Gokak is not amongst us. Shall read the Journal link now.

        Again, thanks for your time.

      2. John Bryant

        The reference to Blake’s metaphor in Auguries of Innocence seems so blatant as to indicate intentional reader recognition. Sri Aurobindo was certainly capable of refining and distilling this aphorism, but chose not to. And due to the number of these occasions, I believe there exists a subtext within the form of Savitri issuing commentary on the individual bodies.

        My, abet inner-world, poetic dilettante. 😉

        Thank you gentlemen,

        -John

  4. Neil

    Allusion does not mean direct reference to similar content in thought or verse per se but allusion to the thought substance behind the original idea, or idea complex or enthousiamos (Inspiration), which articulates not just what is on the surface but (and especially in Aurobindo’s case), the essence of what is said, used and taken, if you will, to another plane(s) of experience. Generally speaking, when “successful”, we can say, in terms of more direct symbolism the plane of articulation as experienced in essence by the Inner ear of the poet and borrowed or molded, in part ,according to new planes of seeing. And most certainly throughout Savitri an inner certitude and concreteness of inspiration that defies the imagination and comes from the heights or the depths (or rather where the heights meets the depths) in a new unified and empathic vision of direct seeing.

    Reply
    1. Mahesh CR

      Neil

      Your definition of allusion is more comprehensive than what is commonly understood. If that were to be admitted then perhaps Aurobindo could have alluded to the sources Dr.Gokak mentioned.

      My view is that every shade of consciousness has its characteristics and when coupled with poetic inspiration from specific levels it can result in similar output. But to imply there was a conscious decision to allude to a work or idea will remain on flimsy ground, unless there are unmistakable markers or the author confirms that to be the case.

      Thanks!

      Reply
  5. Neil

    Mahesh,

    I did not mean a conscious decision in how we ordinarily define the term “conscious.” Poetic inspiration (particularly in what has been referred to in higher planes of Intuitive seeing or mystical utterance) does not come from arduous mental labor – or to paraphrase Aurobindo somewhere, “something slips between the pounding of hammer (mental labor) and the anvil (hammering out of verse)”, that is, where the solar plexus and higher cerebral cortex are in accordance. In some other poets but in Savitri through and thorough (which is a kind of fifth Veda) other voices, other similar planes of seeing, of vision, are visited are exchanged/shared.on an Inner level.

    The poet hears-sees-and-feels it in the moment of sculpting his vision (inspiration) the roads or horizons glimpsed by others in his/her flights of fancy, There is a summoning of similarity of “visiting plateaus” (or depths) part of the kindred collective human spirit. That is why certain verses, for example, “Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.” Or “Those thoughts that wander eternity.” And one I am particularly fond of “The Winds come to me from the Fields of Sleep” are minted with a certain timeless certitude of Knowing (and then, if one is so inclined, in turn used consciously to create from one’s own inspiration). At the very least something is captured and put to voice from an Inner knowing. There is a certain type of exchange or empathic communication there. It is conscious. But one has to go there to know that, that is to know that it is felt and used consciously to re-create in the light of one’s own vision-and-inspiration.

    Thus these are no “ordinary fields” of Wordsworth. But one has to Feel its impact upon one’s traveling soul (or breadth of one’s solar plexus) . One has to have analogous experiences, if you will, where the Winds that come are no ordinary winds and the “Fields of Sleep” is in reality an inwardly awakened eye (“that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude” as he says elsewhere), that feels the subtle counterpart to the physical winds – which again are the subtle winds of inspiration, which strikes with an exactitude of mantric verse and vision . This is done by various poets and consciously sustained verse to verse (with countless allusions) in Savitri. However, one has to have a certain similarity of taste or predilection for that to occur, for that to be experienced..

    What i mean by allusion is somewhat that is inwardly sensed, felt and seen…And somehow by virtue of that Inner ear (or if one is a painter, that Inner eye), it is palpably felt, traveled to and known on an Inner level. I know this might all sound rather “subjective” but I am speaking as a poet..and one who was drawn at an early age to Savitri, When I originally open it had a similarity of inner knowing for me…and that I could not account for anywhere else. It was not so much the story of Savitri as much as the mantrically felt planes of sustained articulation, that spoke to my being, which to me felt like a new type of language.(or rather a new concretization of verse). A more empathic voicing of articulation, which we find scattered in many poets but given a certain conscious (intended) stamp of authority in Savitri.

    Neil

    Reply
    1. Mahesh CR

      Neil – Beautiful. Will not pretend to have understood this in its entirety but at an intuitive level I get it :). Affinity born through ‘seeing’ or experiencing the same state of consciousness, can superficially be seen as an ‘allusion’ but in essence its an outcome of the shared/similar experience. It does make sense.

      Thankful that you took the effort to explain, appreciate it!

      Reply
  6. amsha

    Use of similar phrase is not always allusion to the same idea or somebody’s particular poetry, and even so Divine Consciousness unfolding touches first best things which people have disregarding whatever field it is – poetry, art, their actions or something else.

    Reply
  7. Neil

    Thank you kindly, all

    Mahesh: Yes. It is shared experience but at the same time an allusion rendered but given new voice from one’s own vision…in the sense that what is felt in the heart is borrowed, a comaraderie of (silent) acknowledgement on an Inner level and then used to create anew from one’;s own voice to new sustained heights…or to bring out from the depths, nuances sensed (by others) but not given conscious voice in time. The fields of Savitri are indeed rich in that sense! I believe that he (Aurobindo) was showing what was possible..and the “miracle” was NOT something in “addition to” but from within the sheaths of the same human tongue seamlessly unfolded.. a different type of density, a palpable transparency and the fluency of a different type of sustained articulation (although in the poem there are many heights and depths and many things in-between), that comes from empathic consciousness. (or perhaps he would say beginning to formulate more and more from the supramental).

    Reply
  8. Tusar N. Mohapatra

    Semiologically speaking, Dr. Gokak’s list under the caption, “Sri Aurobindo’s Allusive Style” placed as Appendix to his 1973 book tells the story of his own moments to pause (and ‘stand and stare’) while reading Savitri. Sensing allusions occur in response to the inventory of one’s own universe of experience, and hence, for each reader such lists would be different. Thus, Dr. Gokak’s pointer might be one of the possible sources of Sri Aurobindo’s inspiration or it might not be at all. With this as the starting point, the debate would have followed an altogether different trajectory. [TNM55]

    Reply
  9. KalpanaS

    Sri Aurobindo’s poems are so rewarding to read – I have been discovering his earlier poems, the allusions are so rich – touching heart, mind and spirit – a wonderful aid to sadhana.
    Each person who reads his poems comes away with something that resonates deeply, at a personal level. I have recently come across a new blog by a young enthusiast of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry and liked the way he shared his exprience of the poem The Vedantin :

    http://theeternalvoyage.blogspot.com

    Reply

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