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. In this article, we cover a few of allusions that he discovered.
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)
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
(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.
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
(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)
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)
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.
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!
- Summary of Savitri by Jyotipriya (Dr Judith Tyberg)
- Art as an aid in Yoga
- The inversion of day and night (Gita 2:69)
- Gita Chapter 4, Verse 18 – action and inaction
- Gita Chapter 6, Verse 5 – uplift the self by the self
- Gita Chapter 7, Verse 16 – Four types of Divine seekers
- The Divine child suckled by the Vedic day and night
- The Triple Cord
- The Golden Lid or Hiranmaya Patra