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The Poetics Of Sri Aurobindo

In Sri Aurobindo’s idealist schema, spirituality is the truth content of a poem: The poet writes with ‘Godlight’, illumines ‘human sight’, and makes ‘all things divine’. He is “the craftsman of the magic stuff of self/who labours …/ in the wide workshop of the wonderful world/Modelled in inward Time his rhythmic parts.” He feels everything with an intuitive discernment, with a “mystic sense” from the regions of “illumined certitude” and seeks to transform “all experience to delight.” Delight, which is “God’s sweetest sign and Beauty‘s twin,” is his objective, which he can achieve by seeing all objects like “bodies of the God” and interpret them with “an authenticity of intuitive Truth”.He draws his “fiction ” from the “spirit’s authentic fact” and utters “the syllables of the Unmanifest” to be “identified in soul-vision and soul-sense”. By trying to lift the human words “near to god,s,” he can turn them into “syllables of the cosmos’ speech.” He composes with “universal sympathy” and works for the fulfillment of the human race by an inner oneness, devoting himself to raise man out of animal consciousness to the glories of spiritual existence:

In the symbol pictures drawn by work and thought,

It seeks the truth to which all figures point;

It looks for the source of Light with vision’s lamp;

It works to find the door of all works,

The unfelt Self within who is the guide,

The unknown Self above who is the goal.

The spiritual quest of the poet lies in understanding the inner vital principle which controls and expresses the soul-language of man. In Sri Aurobindo’s inwardly disciplined concept of poetry, spirit is its own evidence just as thoughts and emotions coalesce to dive deep into the depths of life; the poet expresses not merely the earthly but what is hidden and beyond the visible:

This bodily appearance is not all;

The form deceives, the person is a mask;

Hid deep in man celestial powers can dwell.

The poet does not waste time in “crude earthiness and muddy thrills” or incurable littleness” of “trivial amusements” or ” petty wraths and lusts and hates” ; he does not probe the world for mere sense appeal, nor does he try to turn “lust into a decorative art”. Rather, he seeks to present the world “that exists in the idea, the imagination and vision,” and attempts at “going beyond” the known. He promotes the cause of “the soul’s search for lost Reality”.

In Sri Aurobindo’s literary order poetry is a means of spiritual expression that “helps to open the consciousness.” The spiritual realizations of a poet get here a more real, dynamic and intimate nature than the physical things present. The imaginative activity, said to be the personal experience of the poet, is carried far beyond the personal self and its private perspectives, and what is expressed is the intuitively experienced truth, the truth of the universal human soul. It is the mimesis of human activity not as it is but as it can be in its ideal best. Transformation of the self to the soul, and of the soul to the greater soul, is the pervasive tone and thrust of poetry. The process involves an understanding of the evolution of the spirit in harmony with all things and the expression of the crises and conflicts on the way.

Imagination in its highest form is spiritual and is made to delineate the patterns and processes of inner evolution, reflecting “the fundamental passion of humanity for something beyond itself, something that is a dim foreshadowing of the divine urge which is prompting all creation to unfold itself and to rise out of its limitations towards its Godlike possibilities.” The poet, to Sri Aurobindo, is a seer and a revealer of truth who addresses himself to the inner senses; he struggles for a heightened, meaningful psychic identity with his unrestricted imaginative range, and opens the inner sight in us, feeling himself its intensity first. He tries to understand the content of his consciousness by turning within and the creative process admits of interpretation of the quotidian perceptual experiences, the ideas and impressions, through imagination. Every poet has a powerful interpretative and intuitive vision of Nature and life and man, says Sri Aurobindo. He transmutes the material observed into vision or poetic insight and his poetic expression, words and rhythm, gets the spontaneous form of his soul, innate, inspired and revealed, with the high emotion and radiant intuition and the “force of vitality.” He does not withdraw from life but lives life by the light and power of the spirit. He shows preference not for the fleeting or momentary, but for the everlasting, eternal, and tries to realise the immortal spirit, the infinite consciousness in him. He searches the world through and within him; he seeks to symphonize the natural and the divine, the outer and the inner, the limited and the absolute, the mental desires and the fullness of peace and eternity.

Vision is the raison d’etre of poetry as conceived by Sri Aurobindo, the nuclius of poet’s creation; other elements like moods and attitudes, tone, thought, theme or argument, imagery, rhythm and language group round the vision to accommodate and amplify it. A poet is a seer because he can envision and interpret experiences that may have external association but internal effect, vision and reason merging into one. The ideas come from within and from above and the cause of expression is within,as Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria also suggests. The poet can write only when there is a “genuine expression or coming of power to write,” when his spiritual imagination or the power of insight (which Emerson calls “a very high sort of seeing”) is active, when there is the Keatsian “spark of divinity”, the intelligence that comes from God . The intuitive seeing or the vision is the shaping spirit of imagination. What is Shelley’s “expression of the imagination” in poetry is Sri Aurobindo’s expression of the spiritual, which is the expression of the Overmind, an intermediary between the mind and the supermind.

Poetry to Sri Aurobindo is a part of Sadhana, “a means of contact with the Divine through inspiration.” The idea is closer to that of Aristotle, who says in his Rhetoric that poetry is an inspired thing. It is not mundane as it expresses the ideal of the inner being. The self-effective language confers on it a spiritual character when the sound and the sense conjoin and “there meets the unity of a divine rhythmic movement with a depth of sense and a power of infinite suggestion welling up directly from the fountain-heads of the spirit within us,” when the poet reveals the truth of the spirit itself, capturing the effects in poetry of what the Vedic poets considered as mantra (incantation), expressing their own realization as well as the realization for others, enkindling the spiritual within and bringing out the effective vision” in words “illumined and illuminating”; it is writing with God’s voice, sound and silence wending his poetic progression to create a vision of the spirit. Explaining the mantric quality in poetry, Sri Aurobindo writes:

“Its characteristics are a language that says infinitely more than mere sense of the words indicate, a rhythm that means even more than the language and is born out of Infinite and disappears into the Infinite and the power to convey not merely some mental, vital or physical contents or indications or values of the thing it speaks of, but its value and figure in some fundamental and original consciousness which is behind them all. “

The mantric effect in poetry is the intensest spiritual effect; it is the expression in
a state of perfect identity with the object.

Referring to the same inner structural harmony, V.K.Gokak points out that in the rhythmic revelation of Reality that mantra is lies the “closest possible union of music and meaning, of thought and image, of sense and suggestion, of imagination and intuition.” It is the intuitive perception of some aspect of Reality; word, rhythm, idea, image and attitude arise simultaneously and body forth the moment of vision . The process of turning within culminates in the vision that reveals truth or beauty. Sri Aurobindo says: “It is sufficient that it is the soul which sees and the eyes, sense, heart and thought-mind become the passive instruments of the soul.” Here poetry is the soul in action, lying not in the intellectual thought-matter but in the spiritual sight that inheres its conception, thought, emotion, presentation, structure and form.The process of creation is subjective because “the poet really creates out of himself and not out of what he sees outwardly”; the outer objects only stimulate his inner vision. He metamorphoses into higher organic forms the things he sees externally. It is most important that the poet “should be able to go beyond the word or image he uses or the form of the thing he sees, not be limited by them, but get into the light of that which they have the power to reveal and flood them with it until they overflow with its suggestions or seem even to lose themselves and disappear into the revelation” , and a stage comes when his personality is lost in the vision, or poetic imagination, which is, as Blake calls, “sensation”.

In poetry Sri Aurobindo feels the need of a “strong tradition of form,” which is the shaping principle or which, as Frye says, manifests the “universal spirit of poetry.” It is the organization of experience, the other face of content, the exterior “visible sign of inner spiritual reality.” It provides inner continuity to literature and expresses what is called ‘beauty‘. Like Edgar Allan Poe, Sri Aurobindo wants the creation of Supernal Beauty, beauty that is beyond and above, through the form and subject matter of poetry. In Sri Aurobindo’s conception, beauty is an effect rather than a quality for the elevation of soul and not of intellect or heart. It is the form that assimilates beauty to give joy: “Beauty is Ananda taking form,” i.e. joy is the spiritual principle of the structure of a poem, seeing the divine everywhere, the original bliss of existence, the beauty of eternal existence in all things. Ananda is the essence of expression or form.

Sri Aurobindo does not endorse intellectualism — richness of images and symbols without the corresponding essence of experience of ideas and feelings that are in the spirit. The poetic vision of life is not a critical or intellectual or philosophical view of it, “but a soul-view, seizing by the inner sense.” The intensity of rhythm and word is important but what is more important is the intensity of vision, the classic quality of “comprehensiveness”, concealing “the whole genius of a people,” to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase. Spirituality in Sri Aurobindo’s poetic design is not something abstract, nor is it intellectual or philosophical, but vivid, living and concrete and the use of images and symbols is inevitable in that it is the “straight way to avoid abstractness.” Formulated by the mind, images and symbols are the harmonizing elements in the structure of any poetic creation. The objects and ideas contemplated by the creative mind turn into symbol standing for something different from and beyond themselves, as Kant also points out in this Critique of Judgment. The poet realizes his images as very real and concrete to express his spiritual vision.

The aesthetics of Sri Aurobindo propounds not only the dynamic mythic quality of languages but also its mythopoeic possibility as an index of cultural and spiritual evolution. Poetry-making is a symbolic act as long as it is a means of spiritual upliftment, the raising of consciousness to the ideal divine and the heightening and concentrating of simple sense experiences in truth. The poetic imagination, to quote Northrop Frye, “presents us with a vision, not of personal greatness of a poet, but of something impersonal and far greater: the vision of a decisive act of spiritual freedom, the vision of the recreation of man.” It is archetypal to the extent it concentrates on the motifs of totality, spirituality, universality, mythic consciousness and vision; symbols and images that appeal to the soul-culture of man, that bring out the spirit of the universe and the inner life, the essence of the eternal in the synthetic or harmonizing vision of the poets: poetry as the imaginative projection of man’s desires revealed in the form and expression of the poet.

Symbol in Sri Aurobindo’s ideal is the natural body of the inner truth or vision, itself an intimate part of the experience. It is no intellectual abstraction but the native medium for the expression of the experiences of things realized inwardly. It induces inseeing and brings the high feeling of significance to what would otherwise be mere ordinary perception of the world. He wants an “imaginative use of tale and legend” and aspires after a “noble kind of poetry” with “the power to lay a great hold on the ancient figures and re-create them to be symbols of a new significance.” His concept of intuitive- spiritual poetry, that is the product of a direct spiritual perception and vision, stresses the total image which alone can bring out the beauty and power of thought and make it one with life. The spiritual reverie blends with the poetical, the personal fuses into the universal, and the self-knowledge leads to the cosmic knowledge.

Poetry is the rhythmic voice of life, but it is one of the inner and not one of the surface voices. The creative-interpretative use of myths, legends and symbols opens up “new realms of vision, new realms of being” and not mere crude actuality of life. Sri Aurobindo drives at the interpretative function of the poetic imagination which is identical with the power of representation in terms of images and symbols. He uses myths to manipulate a relationship between antiquity and contemporaneity, and at the same time as a symbolic device to seek self-knowledge and express the emotions experienced in the process of intuitive perception. As an evolving form myth adapts to the inner voice of the poet, as Lillian Feder confirms. Sri Aurobindo believes that the use of myths and legends will reconstruct the world for us and interpret the realities behind the veil. He writes:

The poetry which voices the oneness and totality of our being and Nature
and the worlds and God, will not make the actuality of our earthly life less
but more real and rich and full and wide and living to man.

This enlargement of consciousness is characteristic of that archetypal process which expresses itself through a genuine language with its own principle of structure and its own logic. There is no need of any intellectual sequence or linked-argument or even logical structure. What is significant and most desirable is “a sequence of feeling and of ideal perceptions with an occult logic of their own that sustains the lyric and makes it a faultless whole.” The poet attempts to effect the eternal spiritual reality. What is realized as the “mysterious sense of the aspects of existence” by Mallarme is the spiritual reality Sri Aurobindo comprehends in the poetic vision. The sense of ‘eternity in words’ is basic to Sri Aurobindo’s poetics that treats the poet as a voyant or seer, capable of “revealed seeing and visioned thinking” in terms of words and symbols, howsoever primitive in their derivation, from the Vedas for specific effects and purposes.

Imagination gets a new dimension in Sri Aurobindo’s mantric organization of poetic material, which is the revival of a primitive phenomenon. Archetype is the formal cause. Life can be divinized by assimilating all that is around us: “…all life is one and a new human mind moves towards the realization of its totality and oneness.” The idea of mantra as the highest intensest revealing form of poetic thought and expression imbibes an archetypal concept that envisages the individual self, the self of man and the self of the universe, intellectually. Beauty, Reality, Truth, Ananda all are expressions of the fullness of experience that he calls mantra. It is a penetrating and comprehensive discovery of the realm of the
spirit by the instrumental use of the overmental or supramental mechanism that helps to see the truth vision: “Poetry turns into Mantra only when it is the voice of the inmost truth and is couched in the highest power of the very rhythm and speech of that truth.” The Vedic mantric effect that Sri Aurobindo seeks to exhibit in poetry is itself, in its origin, symbolic; the Vedas themselves have a symbolic significance in that their verse, “creation of an early intuitive and symbolical mentality,” are intended to give a divine meaning in words and images that are sublime and project the poets’ “cast of vision.” The poetic creation of the Vedic bards is not the result of a logical reasoning or aesthetic intelligence but of intuition and inspiration. Myths were images in their poetic utterance, very much real and full of suggestions and colours: “Image and myth were freely used, not as an imaginative indulgence but as living parables and symbols of things that were very real to their speakers…”. The Vedic ideals, the constant sense of the infinite, cannot be captured unless the literary sensibility has an infinite expansion and the experiences are expressed in archetypal symbols.

The lever of Sri Aurobindo’s poetic philosophy is evolution (like Emerson’s ascension’) or the passage of soul into higher forms. The process of the evolution of soul or the poetic creativity is not only after the nature of myth –quest myth–but also vibrantly alive in the recreation of the conscience of human race. Sri Aurobindo says :

The archetypal poet in a world of original ideas is, we may say, a Soul that sees in itself intimately this world and all the others and God and nature and the life of beings and sets flowing from its center a surge of creative rhythm and word-images which become the expressive body of the vision; and the great poets are those who repeat in some measure this ideal creation….

This widening of imagination to an all-embracing level, leading to a direct intuition of essences what Overmind can capture, equips the poet with what Allen Tate calls an ‘angelic imagination’. It is a cosmic awareness, a plane of consciousness from where the poet can derive the experiences of universal beauty, universal love and universal delight. Poetry exhibits the development of man’s psychological motive and power in words and ideas that form the aesthetic expression of his soul and mind. Mere intellect cannot create poetry unless it gets impetus from the spirit within.

The assimilation and creation of the world in a symbol is what is suggested, Man and nature conjugate to experience in full what is spiritual. Poetic activity is what Emerson calls the activity of the “divine energy” in man, and three elements, according to Sri Aurobindo, go into the making of poetry: the original source of inspiration, the vital force of creative beauty which contributes its own substance and often determines the form, and the transmitting outer consciousness of the poet. If the inspiration is “perfect”, the form, substance, rhythm, words – all will come automatically from the plane of consciousness. The source of inspiration may be anywhere: the physical plane, the higher or lower vital, the dynamic or creative intelligence, the plane of dynamic vision, the psychic mind, the illumined mind, the intuition, or even the rare superhuman consciousness which is the ultimate source of mantra or intuition with its characteristic undertones and overtones, not analyzable through the inner sight and inner ear. In true poetry, however, form and content will reproduce the inspiration “exactly”. It is the power of inspiration that differentiates between the poet and the verse writer. A poet cannot be effective if he has no mastery over the language and technique of poetic and rhythmic expression. Poetry may originate from any plane of consciousness, but if it is to be alive, it must “always come through the vital” which sustains the “joy of expression of the psychic being.” All the same, without the proper poetic handling, emotional sincerity and poetical feeling, he cannot appeal to his readers. Poetry is an art and a poet ought to be an artist of word and rhythm, but what is enduring is perfection of both form and substance without any “harshness and roughness” or aggressiveness.

Rhythm is of primary importance in poetic expression. Poetic rhythm or word-music reflects the “mental emotions” and “inner experiences”, the sound and sense that have a direct spiritual bearing. Like Ezra Pound’s, Sri Aurobindo’s genius was inclined to the use of quantitative metres of the Greeks. He points out that in ancient times quantitative metres were used for expression and that there was no necessity for rhyme but the present-day languages need the use of rhymes to support their metrical form. He does not appreciate the modernist metreless verse as it is ineffective in most poets, though he admits that it may be successful if it has the “fundamental quality, power, movement of the old poetry – which is the eternal quality of all poetry.” Expression in a metrical mould, according to Sri Aurobindo, is natural for creative emotion and vision: “it is much more natural and spontaneous then a non-metrical form; the emotion expresses itself best and most powerfully in a balanced rather than in a loose and shapeless rhythm.” Rhythm and imagery springing from words are the basic formal units within the metrical convention of the Blank Verse, which is his ideal, though, he adds, it can be used effectively only by “a very masterly hand.” He praises the “cadenced beat and concentrated rhythm” of the ancients which has not yet exhausted itself. The experiments for innovation in recent poetry to revolutionize the fundamental method of poetic rhythm are unsatisfactory as they fail to reveal the creative vigour, “the essential faculty of artistic form and poetic beauty.” Sri Aurobindo notes: “There is an inspiration of language and there is an inspiration of rhythm and the two must fuse together for poetic perfection to come.” Sri Aurobindo, like Ezra Pound , believes in an “absolute rhythm, a rhythm, that is in poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.

A man’s rhythm must be interpretative; it will be, therefore, in the end, his own uncounterfeiting, uncounterfeitable.” Seizing the soul of rhythm, that which lies ” behind the music of words and sound and things,” is what is more important than mastering the technique of metrical construction. He allows, nevertheless, for experimentation and adds that ” the technique does not go by any set mental rule – for the object is not perfect technical elegance according to precept but sound-significance filling out the word-significance. If that can be done by breaking rules, well, so much the worse for the rule.”

Apart from rhythm and word-music, there should be supreme inevitability of expression, that is, “a quintessential essence of convincingly perfect utterance” which is unanalysable:

Any rioting in words, colour, images, emotions, sound, phrase for their own sake, for their own beauty, attraction, luxury of abundant expression, would, I suppose, be …..ucchvasa.

Sri Aurobindo’s systematics echoes the Longinian “sublime” which comes from the power of noble conception, inspired emotion, formation of figures, noble diction, and rhythmic and harmonic composition. As far as length in a poem is concerned, Sri Aurobindo is one with Poe, and opines: “Length in a poem is itself a sin, for length means padding – a long poem is a bad poem, only brief work, intense, lyrical in spirit can be throughout pure poetry …. To be perfect you must be small, brief and restrained, meticulous in cut and style.” Coleridge, too, nearly thirty years before Poe, argued in Biographia Literaria that a “poem of any length, neither can be, nor ought to be, all poetry.”

Sri Aurobibndo refers to five kinds of poetic style: the adequate, the effective, the illumined, the inspired, and the inevitable, and prescribes simplicity as a sound basis for poetic style. He cautions: “Even if one has to be complex, subtle or ornate by necessity of the inspiration, the basic habit of simplicity gives a greater note of genuineness and power to it.” Contrary to Goethe’s view that a poet should keep philosophy out of his work, Sri Aurobindo, like W.B. Yeats, allows the poet freedom to philosophize but asks him to be “careful not to be flat or heavy.” For the sake of philosophy or spiritual thought, a poet should not sacrifice the essential poetic force that appeals through beauty implicit in form. “A poem is a poem, nor a doctrine,” and it should be treated as such.

As for the critic’s job, Sri Aurobindo lays down that he should first take note of the spirit, aim, essential motive from which a type of artistic creation starts and asserts that he must know the “technique” of poetry. He must judge a poet’s work “by the ideative truth and the power, the perfection and beauty of his presentation and utterance of it.” His criticism must be suggestive and discerning and objective enough to force one to see and think. He supports the objective and contextual approach. The critic must be able to do away with all “that is accidental and unessential” for right poetical appreciation. Sri Aurobindo seems to endorse the spirit of Eliot’s statement that the emotion of art is impersonal:

It is, we may say, the impersonal enjoyer of creative beauty in us responding to the impersonal creator and interpreter of beauty in the poet, for it is the impersonal spirit or Truth and Beauty that is seeking to express itself through his personality, and it is that which finds its own word and seems itself to create in his highest moments of inspiration.

The movement of poetry from the “objective to the inward , from the inward to the spiritual… through the souls of the nations and peoples” necessitates a view “not so much of things external to poetry, but of its own spirit and characteristic forms and motives.” As the process of creative faculty of the mind is itself mysterious, the critic cannot appreciate a poetic work without a spiritual feeling and sensibility. In fact, Sri Aurobindo repeatedly refers in Savitri to “spiritual sense” for discovering the truth. What is most desirable is a change in critical sensibility and development of an archetypal aesthetics:

A fundamental and universal aesthesis is needed, something also more intense that listens, sees and feels from deep within and answers to what is behind the surface. A greater, wider and deeper aesthesis than which can answer even to the transcendent and feel too whatever of the transcendent or spiritual enters into the things of life, mind and sense.

Sri Aurobindo seems to be sympathetic to certain modernist trends in writing and study of poetry and, in fact, himself adopts some of the methods followed by the modern poets. If the critic chooses to compare one poet with another, the purpose of comparison should not be to ascribe “any superioty in poetic excellence to one over the other”but to illuminate the reader’s understanding of the poet.

To sum up, at a time when “the woods of England, and even more of America, are teeming with critical wolves, in numbers exceeding their literary prey,” Sri Aurobindo’s views on literary creation, analysis and evaluation are of considerable significance. He considers poetry writing somewhat closely related to the creative perception of meaning in the world, with emphasis on individual passion and inspiration, a taste for symbolism, and historical awareness. A poet derives his strength from his luminous vision; his appeal lies in his spiritual insight into the dynamics of mankind, in bringing about integral change in human nature to effect the change of collective consciousness, as evidenced in Savitri. As in the Romantics, the poet in Sri Aurobindo has an inner urge to live more deeply, more fully, more richly, and with greater awareness, going away from the beaten path to make a new path.

Sri Aurobindo reestablishes in our time the autonomy of the spirit in the in the “self-contained literary universe” just as he defines the job of a critic in interpretation of a work of art; while the critic must be familiar with the art of the past to be able to provide a perspective on the present, he must also demonstrate some kind of a universal sympathy to be relevant. In his idealist-spiritualist scheme, the critic’s response, though analytical and text-based, is not devoid of the synthetic-perceptual component of criticism. “The proper task of criticism,” the poet-philosopher seems to endorse, “is to offer not authoritative judgements of works of art but insights into how an experienced and informed individual who holds certain conviction, responds to the work of art he is discussing.” Sri Aurobindo seems to reconcile the critic’s interpretive stance with actual experience (affirming the enjoyment of a poem) which is a healthy sign for the vitality of criticism.

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