Mrs Naidu is one of the two Indian poets who within the last few years have produced remarkable English poetry. The second of the two is, of course, Rabindranath Tagore, whose work has come to us a little later, who has published more, and whose recent visit to this country has brought him more closely under the public eye. Mrs Naidu is not so well known; but she deserves to be, for although the bulk of her work is not so large, its quality, so far as it can be compared with that of her compatriot, will easily bear the test. It is, however, so different in kind, and reveals a genius so contrasting, that one is piqued by an apparent problem. How is it that two children of what we are pleased to call the changeless East, under conditions nearly identical, should have produced results which are so different?
Both of these poets are lyrists born; both come of an old and distinguished Bengali ancestry; in both the culture of East and West are happily met; and both are working in the same artistic medium. Yet the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore is mystical, philosophic, and contemplative, remaining oriental therefore to that degree; and permitting a doubt of the Quarterly reviewer's dictum that "Gitanjali" is a synthesis of western and oriental elements. The complete synthesis would seem to rest with Mrs Naidu, whose poetry, though truly native to her motherland, is more sensuous than mystical, human and passionate rather than spiritual, and reveals a mentality more active than contemplative. Her affiliation with the Occident is so much the more complete; but her Eastern origin is never in doubt.
The themes of her verse and their setting are derived from her own country. But her thought, with something of the energy of the strenuous West and something of its 'divine discontent,' plays upon the surface of an older and deeper calm which is her birthright. So, in her "Salutation to the Eternal Peace," she sings
What care I for the world's loud weariness,
Who dream in twilight granaries
Thou dost bless
With delicate sheaves of mellow silences?
Two distinguished poet-friends of Mrs Naidu—Mr Edmund Gosse and Mr Arthur Symons—have introduced her two principal volumes of verse with interesting biographical notes. The facts thus put in our possession convey a picture to the mind which is instantly recognizable in the poems.
A gracious and glowing personality appears, quick and warm with human feeling, exquisitely sensitive to beauty and receptive of ideas, wearing its culture, old and new, scientific and humane, with simplicity; but, as Mr Symons says, "a spirit of too much fire in too frail a body," and one moreover who has suffered and fought to the limit of human endurance.
We hear of birth and childhood in Hyderabad; of early scientific training by a father whose great learning was matched by his public spirit: of a first poem at the age of eleven, written in an impulse of reaction when a sum in algebra 'would not come right': of coming to England at the age of sixteen with a scholarship from the Nizam college; and of three years spent here, studying at King's College, London, and at Girton, with glorious intervals of holiday in Italy.
We hear, too, of a love-story that would make an idyll; of passion so strong and a will so resolute as almost to be incredible in such a delicate creature; of a marriage in defiance of caste, a few years of brilliant happiness and then a tragedy. And all through, as a dark background to the adventurous romance of her life, there is the shadow of weakness and ill-health. That shadow creeps into her poems, impressively, now and then. Indeed, if it were lacking, the bright oriental colouring would be almost too vivid. So, apart from its psychological and human interest, we may be thankful for such a poem as "To the God of Pain." It softens and deepens the final impression of the work.
- An Excerpt by Mary C. Sturgeon,
Studies of Contemporary Poets, 1916