“Language of eternal silence”
A Reading of Poems by Rabindranath Tagore (1861—1941)
The dust of the dead words clings to thee
Wash thy soul with silence.
Stray Birds, (CXLVII)
The contradicting and perplexing aspects of silence, both as a state of mind and a natural phenomenon, seem to be an area of persistent investigation in many poems and songs by the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. This continual preoccupation with the theme of silence appears more explicitly in his book of verse entitled Stray Birds (1916).
The poems of the Stray Birds can be called meditative pieces, as they present impressions and contemplations on life and the art of living: some are exhortations and warnings, while others are pure clinical analyses of human experiences. These pieces show, perhaps more clearly than all other texts by Tagore, his tendency towards precision, his habitual economy of form and his assiduous attempt to achieve a high level of intensity.
In one of these pieces, silence is depicted as the true basis of the universe, for out of it comes all activity:
LEAD me in the center of thy silence to fill my heart with songs. (CCLXXXV)
Silence is praised as the ideal state of love, sympathy and beauty:
THE silent night has the beauty of the mother and the clamorous day of the child. (CCXVII)
TO-NIGHT there is a stir among the palm leaves, a swell in the sea, Full Moon, like the heart-throb of the world. From what unknown sky hast thou carried in thy silence the aching secret of love? (CCCIII)
Moreover, silence is the safe haven that shelters wandering and exhausted thoughts:
SILENCE will carry your voice like the nest that holds the sleeping birds. (CLV)
This power of silence is attributed to its heavenly origins. Silence is the voice of God, as well as the place where everyone finds and worships his God:
GOD’s silence ripens man’s thoughts into speech. (CCCIV)
In another poem, this eternal silence of Heaven is juxtaposed with the eternal quest of earthly creatures, a process that affirms the superiority of the former as the ultimate province of trust, beyond the doctrines and divisions created by the mind with their ensuing doubt and uncertainty:
“WHAT language is thine, O sea?”
“The language of eternal question.”
“What language is thy answer, O sky?”
“The language of eternal silence.” (XII)
Having such heavenly qualities, silence is the only means to purify man’s soul of sinful and harmful blemishes, which are due partly, as suggested in another poem, to “the noise of this little earth”(CCIII):
THE dust of the dead words clings to thee
Wash thy soul with silence. (CXLVII)
“HOW may I sing to thee and worship, O sun?” asked the little flower.
“By the simple silence of thy purity.” Answered the sun. (CCXLVII)
In another poem, silence demonstrates its irony, of being more competent and more communicative than speech. This ironic aspect is revealed through an analogy between the small truth and a little water, on the one hand, and between the great truth and the water in the sea, on the other:
THE water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark.
The small truth has words that are clear; the great truth has great silence. (CLXXVI)
Here, as in other poems, the efficacy of language is called into question. Words can only describe simple things and emotions, while no language can encompass “the great truth” which belongs to the world of “great silence”.
Again silence is portrayed as the long-awaited expression of the deepest emotions, to which giving utterance may be distorting and damaging:
YOU smiled and talked to me of nothing and I felt that for this I had been waiting long. (XLII)
The expressive power of silence manifests itself in this incomplete dialogue between the firefly and the star:
“THE learned say that your lights will one day be no more,” said the firefly to the stars.
The stars made no answer. (CLXIII)
The “no answer” of the stars gives rise to a great deal of interpretations. It can be seen as a sign of acceptance or of refusal, of protest or of submissiveness, of its inability to confute the argument of “the learned”, or of being indifferent to the whole issue.
The remarkable brevity of these poems, each of no more than four lines, and of many poems in other collections by Tagore, such as Crossing and Lover’s Gift, reflects a deliberate and conscious endeavour to be economical in using language, by depending upon highly concentrated images instead of diffuse description or exposition.
This extreme condensation lends emphasis to each word, and enhances the significance of both the spoken and the unspoken. The process of compression, especially when adopted as a persistent strategy, unavoidably leads the poet to exclude, and thus silence, certain words or groups of words. Nevertheless, these excluded, silenced or unspoken words are incessantly spotlighted by those included or spoken in the text. The spoken, on the other hand, “is doubled by what remains silent,” revealing what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls the “inner dimension of multiplication” which is assigned to every word. This dialectic relationship between the spoken and the unspoken constantly generates a language “charged with meaning to the utmost… degree,” to use a famous phrase by Ezra Pound, and accordingly impels the reader to explore what is hidden, or rather absented, behind the surface meanings of the text’s words.
Silence, therefore, is not merely a recurrent theme in the poems of Tagore, nor is it a distinct element that can be extracted from the rest of the poem. It is organically interwoven with other elements, establishing the unity of the poem, its coherence and its uniqueness as well.
 Rabindranath Tagore, Collected Poems and Plays (Delhi: Macmillan India Ltd., 1991), pp. 285:329.
 Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, “Introduction,” Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. XVII.
 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. Garrett Barden and John Cumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), p. 415.
 Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1934), p. 29.
© Muhammad Hesham 2000/2008