Allusions in Savitri – part 2

This article continues a previous article “Allusions in Savitri” in which we discussed some allusions employed by Sri Aurobindo in his epic poem Savitri.   Sri Aurobindo had to evolve a new diction in English to describe his supernatural experiences and towards this end, he occasionally employed images, symbols and phrases from English Romantic poetry.  All allusions discussed herein were discovered by Dr V.K. Gokak(1909-1992), a professor of English and Kannada literature, and have been extracted from his book “Sri Aurobindo – Seer and Poet”[1].

Prof. Gokak was fortunate to have a Darshan of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.  His experience can be read in a previous article Modalities of the Initiation process (Diksha).

Wordsworth – Behold him

The emergence of the primitive man, unconscious of the effulgent soul within, is depicted in the following lines of Savitri.

Behold him ignorant of his godhead’s force,
Timid initiate of its vast design.
An expert captain of a fragile craft,
A trafficker in small impermanent wares,
At first he hugs the shore and shuns the breadths,
Dares not to affront the far-off perilous main.

(Savitri, Book I, Canto IV)

The beginning is patterned on the opening lines of the stanza in the Intimations Ode of Wordsworth.

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,     
A six years’ darling of a pigmy size!
See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,
With light upon him from his father’s eyes!

(Wordsworth, Ode to Immortality)

The structure “Behold…” is eminently suited to romantic reflection.  Sri Aurobindo reuses it to depict the evolving imperfect soul.

Wordsworth – obstinate questionings

In the Ode to Immortality, Wordsworth uses the mysterious phrase “obstinate questionings”.

The thought of our past years in me doth breed     
Perpetual benediction: not indeed     
For that which is most worthy to be blest—     
Delight and liberty, the simple creed     
Of childhood, whether busy or at rest,     
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:
Not for these I raise     
The song of thanks and praise;     
But for those obstinate questionings     
Of sense and outward things,     
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature     
Moving about in worlds not realized,     
High instincts before which our mortal Nature     
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:

(Wordsworth, Ode to Immortality)

Readers had wondered why Wordsworth would have “obstinate questionings” over the testimony of the senses.  In response, Wordsworth had remarked, “I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality. At that time I was afraid of such processes. In later periods of life I have deplored, as we have all reason to do, a subjugation of an opposite character, and have rejoiced over the remembrances, as is expressed in the lines” [2].

Sri Aurobindo deftly utilizes the phrase to characterize the precarious state of Man, caught up in the bewildering play of Chance unfolding on Earth.  See “unanswered questionings” below.

In this dense field where nothing is plain or sure,
Our very being seems to us questionable,
Our life a vague experiment, the soul
A flickering light in a strange ignorant world,
The earth a brute mechanic accident,
A net of death in which by chance we live.
All we have learned appears a doubtful guess,
The achievement done a passage or a phase
Whose farther end is hidden from our sight,
A chance happening or a fortuitous fate.
Out of the unknown we move to the unknown.
Ever surround our brief existence here
Grey shadows of unanswered questionings;
The dark Inconscient’s signless mysteries
Stand up unsolved behind Fate’s starting-line.

(Savitri, Book I, Canto IV)

Wordsworth and Keats – Solitary star

In Savitri, Sri Aurobindo depicts the solitary aspirant in an aimless world, who is awaiting some dawn of God.

As shines a solitary witness star
That burns apart, Light’s lonely sentinel,
In the drift and teeming of a mindless Night,
A single thinker in an aimless world
Awaiting some tremendous dawn of God,
He saw the purpose in the works of Time.

(Savitri, Book II, Canto IV)

The “solitary star” is a double allusion.  Wordsworth had used the image of a solitary star to describe the beauty of Lucy while Keats had applied it to indicate the steadfastness that he himself would like to have.

“Fair as a star when only one
Is shining in the sky.

(Wordsworth, Lucy)

Bright star! Would I were steadfast as thou art
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
But watching with eternal lids apart.
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,

(John Keats, Bright star)

The image of a single thinker awaiting some dawn of God is rendered unusually vivid and meaningful by relating it to Keats “Nature’s eremite“.

Wordsworth – Prison-house

Towards the end of Book II-Canto IV, Sri Aurobindo equates the instrumental personality of a human being with a prison-house, because it does not know the Immortal within.

Absorbed in the little works of its prison-house
It turned around the same unchanging points
In the same circle of interest and desire
But thought itself the master of its jail.

(Savitri, Book II, Canto IV)

The prison-house image comes from Wordsworth’s Ode to Immortality.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:     
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,     
Hath had elsewhere its setting,     
And cometh from afar:     
Not in entire forgetfulness,     
And not in utter nakedness,     
But trailing clouds of glory do we come     
From God, who is our home:     
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!     
Shades of the prison-house begin to close     
Upon the growing Boy,     
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,     
He sees it in his joy;

(Wordsworth, Ode to Immortality)

Keats – deep-browed Homer

Keats wrote the sonnet “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer” to express his astonishment on reading the great epics of Homer in English for the first time, through the translations of Chapman.  In the poem, he uses the famous line on the “deep-browed Homer” in admiration of the genius of Homer, who was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific -and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

(Keats, Chapman’s Homer)

The line on the “deep-browed Homer” gives to Sri Aurobindo the significant adjective in these lines of Savitri.

Man the deep-browed artificer had not come
To lay his hand on happy inconscient things,
Thought was not there nor the measurer, strong-eyed toil,
Life had not learned its discord with its aim.

(Savitri, Book V, Canto I)

Dryden and Milton – diapason

The diapason is the entire compass of tones.   Sri Aurobindo uses the image of the diapason to convey the  enchanting experience of being immersed in the throbbing waters of vast world-consciousness.

A universal vision that unites,
A sympathy of nerve replying to nerve,
Hearing that listens to thought’s inner sound
And follows the rhythmic meanings of the heart,
A touch that needs not hands to feel, to clasp,
Were there the native means of consciousness
And heightened the intimacy of soul with soul.
A grand orchestra of spiritual powers,
A diapason of soul-interchange
Harmonised a Oneness deep, immeasurable.

(Savitri, Book III, Canto III)

The image of diapason was used by Dryden in his Ode to St Cecilia’s Day.  Dryden wrote this song in 1687 for the festival of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, but in it added an allusion to Pythagoras, who believed that the motions of heavenly bodies were accompanied by a melodious harmony known as “the music of the spheres” which could be heard. Dryden wishes to convey that Man is the most evolved product in Creation – hence the line “The diapason closing full in Man”.

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man.

(Dryden, Ode to St Cecilia’s Day)

The image of the diapason also occurs in Milton’s “At a Solemn Music“.

That we on Earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer that melodious noise;
As once we did, till disproportion’d sin
Jarr’d against nature chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion sway’d
In perfect Diapason, whilst they stood
In first obedience, and their state of good.
O may we soon again renew that Song,
And keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite,
To live with him, and sing in endles morn of light.

(Milton, “At a Solemn Music“)

We shall cover more allusions in future posts!


  1. V.K. Gokak.  Sri Aurobindo: Seer and Poet. (Abhinav, 1973).  (amazon) (google books)
  2. Francis Turner Palgrave. Palgrave’s Golden treasury of songs and lyrics. (London: Macmillan and Co, 1901) book 4, p 241.

Related Posts

  1. Allusions in Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri (part 1)
  2. Summary of Savitri by Jyotipriya
  3. Savitri page on this blog
  4. Savitri Bhavan in Auroville
  5. Invocation Journal published by Savitri Bhavan
  6. Blog dedicated to Savitri
  7. M.P. Pandit’s readings on Savitri (audio files)
  8. Nirodbaran’s recitation of Savitri (audio files)
  9. Vedic Vak: illustration of Para Vak
  10. Vedic Vak: four levels of sound

2 thoughts on “Allusions in Savitri – part 2

  1. mw

    For anyone who would like to learn more about poetry, I have found books by Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) to be very helpful (imo):

    The Poetics of Reverie
    The Right to Dream
    On Poetic Imagination and Reverie
    The Poetics of Space
    The Psychoanalysis of Fire
    The Flame of the Candle
    The Poetics of Fire
    Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement
    Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter
    Earth and Reveries of Will: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter

    ” In times of great discoveries, a poetic image can be the seed of a world, the seed of a universe imagined out of the poet’s reverie.” The Poetics of Reverie, Gaston Bachelard


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