It was at my persuasion that The Golden Threshold was published. The earliest of the poems were read to me in London in 1896, when the writer was seventeen; the later ones were sent to me from India in 1904, when she was twenty-five; and they belong, I think, almost wholly to those two periods. As they seemed to me to have an individual beauty of their own, I thought they ought to be published. The writer hesitated. ‘Your letter made me very proud and very sad,’ she wrote. ‘Is it possible that I have written verses that are “filled with beauty,” and is it possible that you really think them worthy of being given to the world? You know how high my ideal of Art is; and to me my poor casual little poems seem to be less than beautiful—I mean with that final enduring beauty that I desire.’ And, in another letter, she writes: ‘I am not a poet really. I have the vision and the desire, but not the voice. If I could write just one poem full of beauty and the spirit of greatness, I should be exultantly silent for ever; but I sing just as the birds do, and my songs are as ephemeral.’ It is for this bird-like quality of song, it seems to me, that they are to be valued. They hint, in a sort of delicately evasive way, at a rare temperament, the temperament of a woman of the East, finding expression through a Western language and under partly Western influences. They do not express the whole of that temperament; but they express, I think, its essence; and there is an Eastern magic in them.
Sarojini Chattopâdhyây was born at Hyderabad on February 13, 1879. Her father, Dr. Aghorenath Chattopâdhyây, is descended from the ancient family of Chattorajes of Bhramangram, who were noted throughout Eastern Bengal as patrons of Sanskrit learning, and for their practice of Yoga. He took his degree of Doctor of Science at the University of Edinburgh in 1877, and afterwards studied brilliantly at Bonn. On his return to India he founded the Nizam College at Hyderabad, and has since laboured incessantly, and at great personal sacrifice, in the cause of education.
Sarojini was the eldest of a large family, all of whom were taught English at an early age. ‘I,’ she writes, ‘was stubborn and refused to speak it. So one day, when I was nine years old, my father punished me—the only time I was ever punished—by shutting me in a room alone for a whole day. I came out of it a full-blown linguist. I have never spoken any other language to him, or to my mother, who always speaks to me in Hindustani. I don’t think I had any special hankering to write poetry as a little child, though I was of a very fanciful and dreamy nature. My training under my father’s eye was of a sternly scientific character. He was determined that I should be a great mathematician or a scientist, but the poetic instinct, which I inherited from him and also from my mother (who wrote some lovely Bengali lyrics in her youth), proved stronger. One day, when I was eleven, I was sighing over a sum in algebra; it wouldn’t come right; but instead a whole poem came to me suddenly. I wrote it down.
‘From that day my “poetic career” began. At thirteen I wrote a long poem à la “Lady of the Lake”—1300 lines in six days. At thirteen I wrote a drama of 2000 lines, a full-fledged passionate thing that I began on the spur of the moment, without forethought, just to spite my doctor, who said I was very ill and must not touch a book. My health broke down permanently about this time, and, my regular studies being stopped, I read voraciously. I suppose the greater part of my reading was done between fourteen and sixteen. I wrote a novel, I wrote fat volumes of journals: I took myself very seriously in those days.’
Before she was fifteen the great struggle of her life began. Dr. Govindurajulu Naidu, now her husband, is, though of an old and honourable family, not a Brahmin. The difference of caste roused an equal opposition, not only on the side of her family, but of his; and in 1895 she was sent to England, against her will, with a special scholarship from the Nizam. She remained in England, with an interval of travel in Italy, till 1898, studying first at King’s College, London, then, till her health again broke down, at Girton. She returned to Hyderabad in September 1898, and in the December of that year, to the scandal of all India, broke through the bonds of caste, and married Dr. Naidu. ‘Do you know I have some very beautiful poems floating in the air,’ she wrote to me in 1904; ‘and if the gods are kind I shall cast my soul like a net and capture them, this year. If the gods are kind—and grant me a little measure of health. It is all I need to make my life perfect, for the very “Spirit of Delight” that Shelley wrote of dwells in my little home; it is full of the music of birds in the garden and children in the long-arched verandah.’ There are songs about the children in this book; they are called the Lord of Battles, the Sun of Victory, the Lotus-born, and the Jewel of Delight.
‘My ancestors for thousands of years,’ I find written in one of her letters, ‘have been lovers of the forest and mountain caves, great dreamers, great scholars, great ascetics. My father is a dreamer himself, a great dreamer, a great man whose life has been a magnificent failure. I suppose in the whole of India there are few men whose learning is greater than his, and I don’t think there are many men more beloved. He has a great white beard, and the profile of Homer, and a laugh that brings the roof down. He has wasted all his money on two great objects: to help others, and on alchemy. He holds huge courts every day in his garden of all the learned men of all religions—Rajahs and beggars and saints, and downright villains, all delightfully mixed up, and all treated as one. And then his alchemy! Oh dear, night and day the experiments are going on, and every man who brings a new prescription is welcome as a brother. But this alchemy is, you know, only the material counterpart of a poet’s craving for Beauty, the eternal Beauty. “The makers of gold and the makers of verse,” they are the twin creators that sway the world’s secret desire for mystery; and what in my father is the genius of curiosity—the very essence of all scientific genius—in me is the desire for beauty. Do you remember Pater’s phrase about Leonardo da Vinci, “curiosity and the desire of beauty”?’
It was the desire of beauty that made her a poet; her ‘nerves of delight’ were always quivering at the contact of beauty. To those who knew her in England, all the life of the tiny figure seemed to concentrate itself in the eyes; they turned towards beauty as the sunflower turns towards the sun, opening wider and wider until one saw nothing but the eyes. She was dressed always in clinging dresses of Eastern silk, and, as she was so small, and her long black hair hung straight down her back, you might have taken her for a child. She spoke little, and in a low voice, like gentle music; and she seemed, wherever she was, to be alone.
Through that soul I seemed to touch and take hold upon the East. And first there was the wisdom of the East. I have never known any one who seemed to exist on such ‘large draughts of intellectual day’ as this child of seventeen, to whom one could tell all one’s personal troubles and agitations, as to a wise old woman. In the East maturity comes early; and this child had already lived through all a woman’s life. But there was something else, something hardly personal, something which belonged to a consciousness older than the Christian, which I realised, wondered at, and admired, in her passionate tranquillity of mind, before which everything mean and trivial and temporary caught fire and burnt away in smoke. Her body was never without suffering, or her heart without conflict; but neither the body’s weakness nor the heart’s violence could disturb that fixed contemplation, as of Buddha on his lotus-throne.
And along with this wisdom, as of age or of the age of a race, there was what I can hardly call less than an agony of sensation. Pain or pleasure transported her, and the whole of pain or pleasure might be held in a flower’s cup or the imagined frown of a friend. It was never found in those things which to others seemed things of importance. At the age of twelve she passed the Matriculation of the Madras University, and awoke to find herself famous throughout India. ‘Honestly,’ she said to me, ‘I was not pleased; such things did not appeal to me.’ But here, in a letter from Hyderabad, bidding one ‘share a March morning’ with her, there is, at the mere contact of the sun, this outburst: ‘Come and share my exquisite March morning with me: this sumptuous blaze of gold and sapphire sky; these scarlet lilies that adorn the sunshine; the voluptuous scents of neem and champak and serisha that beat upon the languid air with their implacable sweetness; the thousand little gold and blue and silver breasted birds bursting with the shrill ecstasy of life in nesting time. All is hot and fierce and passionate, ardent and unashamed in its exulting and importunate desire for life and love. And, do you know that the scarlet lilies are woven petal by petal from my heart’s blood, these little quivering birds are my soul made incarnate music, these heavy perfumes are my emotions dissolved into aerial essence, this flaming blue and gold sky is the “very me,” that part of me that incessantly and insolently, yes, and a little deliberately, triumphs over that other part—a thing of nerves and tissues that suffers and cries out, and that must die to-morrow perhaps, or twenty years hence.’
Then there was her humour, which was part of her strange wisdom, and was always awake and on the watch. In all her letters, written in exquisite English prose, but with an ardent imagery and a vehement sincerity of emotion which make them, like the poems, indeed almost more directly, un-English, Oriental, there was always this intellectual, critical sense of humour, which could laugh at one’s own enthusiasm as frankly as that enthusiasm had been set down. And partly the humour, like the delicate reserve of her manner, was a mask or a shelter. ‘I have taught myself,’ she writes to me from India, ‘to be commonplace and like everybody else superficially. Every one thinks I am so nice and cheerful, so “brave,” all the banal things that are so comfortable to be. My mother knows me only as “such a tranquil child, but so strong-willed.” A tranquil child!’ And she writes again, with deeper significance: ‘I too have learnt the subtle philosophy of living from moment to moment. Yes, it is a subtle philosophy though it appears merely an epicurean doctrine: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow we die.” I have gone through so many yesterdays when I strove with Death that I have realised to its full the wisdom of that sentence; and it is to me not merely a figure of speech, but a literal fact. Any to-morrow I might die. It is scarcely two months since I came back from the grave: is it worth while to be anything but radiantly glad? Of all things that life or perhaps my temperament has given me I prize the gift of laughter as beyond price.’
Her desire, always, was to be ‘a wild free thing of the air like the birds, with a song in my heart.’ A spirit of too much fire in too frail a body, it was rarely that her desire was fully granted. But in Italy she found what she could not find in England, and from Italy her letters are radiant. ‘This Italy is made of gold,’ she writes from Florence, ‘the gold of dawn and daylight, the gold of the stars, and, now dancing in weird enchanting rhythms through this magic month of May, the gold of fireflies in the perfumed darkness—”aerial gold.” I long to catch the subtle music of their fairy dances and make a poem with a rhythm like the quick irregular wild flash of their sudden movements. Would it not be wonderful? One black night I stood in a garden with fireflies in my hair like darting restless stars caught in a mesh of darkness. It gave me a strange sensation, as if I were not human at all, but an elfin spirit. I wonder why these little things move me so deeply? It is because I have a most “unbalanced intellect,” I suppose.’ Then, looking out on Florence, she cries, ‘God! how beautiful it is, and how glad I am that I am alive to-day!’ And she tells me that she is drinking in the beauty like wine, ‘wine, golden and scented, and shining, fit for the gods; and the gods have drunk it, the dead gods of Etruria, two thousand years ago. Did I say dead? No, for the gods are immortal, and one might still find them loitering in some solitary dell on the grey hillsides of Fiesole. Have I seen them? Yes, looking with dreaming eyes, I have found them sitting under the olives, in their grave, strong, antique beauty—Etruscan gods!’
In Italy she watches the faces of the monks, and at one moment longs to attain to their peace by renunciation, longs for Nirvana; ‘then, when one comes out again into the hot sunshine that warms one’s blood, and sees the eager hurrying faces of men and women in the street, dramatic faces over which the disturbing experiences of life have passed and left their symbols, one’s heart thrills up into one’s throat. No, no, no, a thousand times no! how can one deliberately renounce this coloured, unquiet, fiery human life of the earth?’ And, all the time, her subtle criticism is alert, and this woman of the East marvels at the women of the West, ‘the beautiful worldly women of the West,’ whom she sees walking in the Cascine, ‘taking the air so consciously attractive in their brilliant toilettes, in the brilliant coquetry of their manner!’ She finds them ‘a little incomprehensible,’ ‘profound artists in all the subtle intricacies of fascination,’ and asks if these ‘incalculable frivolities and vanities and coquetries and caprices’ are, to us, an essential part of their charm? And she watches them with amusement as they flutter about her, petting her as if she were a nice child, a child or a toy, not dreaming that she is saying to herself sorrowfully: ‘How utterly empty their lives must be of all spiritual beauty if they are nothing more than they appear to be.’
She sat in our midst, and judged us, and few knew what was passing behind that face ‘like an awakening soul,’ to use one of her own epithets. Her eyes were like deep pools, and you seemed to fall through them into depths below depths.