Rabindranath Tagore is surely one of the most remarkable writers ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you’re a veteran of this project you might recall that a few years back when Bob Dylan won the same Nobel there were objections from poets and novelists that song-writing wasn’t literature, and that giving such a Nobel to Dylan was unprecedented and wrong.
While “Wrong” is a debate, unprecedented was an error on the part of the objectors, even though they often stated their objections from a stance of knowledge, craft, and learning. I was explaining this to someone earlier this summer, who had innocently asked your hosting windbag here if songwriters hadn’t taken over some of the place that poets occupied a century or more ago. The concise person would have just agreed with a “Yes,” but I wanted to tell him the story of the 1.5 songwriters who like Bob Dylan had already won a Nobel Prize for Literature.
The .5 songwriter in my tale was William Butler Yeats, a great poet who once decided that if the ancient bards presented their poems with music, that he should revive that practice. He went so far as to commission the building of instruments to accompany his poems and setup a tour from a professional performer* to realize this aim. “Yeats, The Musical” was not a success, and when Yeats won his Nobel it was largely for his poetry printed on paper.
Tagore was a much more significant songwriter than Yeats’ case, though Tagore wasn’t just a songwriter. He made other 20th century polymaths like Albert Schweitzer look like pikers, with copious literature in all forms, political activism, painting, teaching in several areas, social reform work, and more. But for those who spoke his native language, Bengali, he was a very well known and liked songwriter. Nor was he just a poet with a sideline as a lyricist. Tagore the composer had his hand in not one, not two, but three South Asian national anthems.
When Tagore won his Nobel for literature, there was one book most Westerners could read of his: Gitanjali, a work he had translated himself into English. That title references songs, and from what I’ve read it consisted of Tagore’s prose-poem-ish adaptations of his song lyrics. Yeats himself knew this, remarking in an introduction in the 1912 English edition of the book that because Tagore was a songwriter all strata of his society knew his work intimately.
Today’s song is my adaptation of the 45th piece in that 1912 collection, using my own music. “Silent Steps” may seem familiar even if you are not familiar with Tagore or his beliefs. I hear echoes of Hebrew psalms and prayers, and the other Middle-Eastern-origin religions such as Islam and Christianity too. Are you instead secular? I’ll come back to you.
I lightly adapted Tagore’s phraseology for much of this piece to make it more singable in English, because one of Gitanjali’s chief issues is that it often doesn’t sing in our tongue. I departed more widely for the final verse. Tagore’s image there is hard for me to follow, and even if I haven’t clarified it much, I was moved to modify the image.
Tagore originally wrote this in English as the final stanza:
In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart,
and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.
See what I mean about hard to sing? But let’s get to the overall issue. What are, or whose are, the poem’s titular “silent steps?” To those familiar with Tagore’s beliefs, it’s the godhead, manifesting itself through nature and human consciousness attuned to it. Tagore is saying that human awareness that the godhead is present and manifest in its creation is consolation in times of sorrow. His “press upon my heart” is perhaps more at “seal,” as in the Hebrew Song of Songs “Set me as seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm.” And the touch of the feet more at something like the Christian “If I could touch the hem of His garment, I know I would be made whole” line that has been used in many Christian song-settings.
The text of my adaptation used for today’s song-setting of Tagore.
To be audaciously critical of the great man Tagore, his concluding stanza lacks visceral power. I thrashed around a bit to come up with a different image that may be adjacent to Tagore’s. My last stanza says in effect: as we walk in the footsteps of our life, trying to follow our precepts and finding in that journey the inescapable sorrows of infirmities and imperfection, we feel not only our own lowly footsteps on the path, but the pressures of (unrealized) perfection and completeness pressing on ourselves. All of our footsteps polish the surfaces of the paths we trod — and that the higher consciousness (the godhead consciousness for believers) does the same to us. We try to make life shine in our footsteps — and the limits of trials, troubles, and tribulations that press down upon us in turn polish us. Our joy shines because of those pressures, those rubs.
I said I would get back to the secular among this readership, because I don’t think the poem requires agreement with Tagore’s beliefs, or any adjacent religious beliefs either, to retain power. The godhead manifesting in a chariot would please the Biblical prophet Ezekiel, or 20th century Midwestern Afro-American Fenton Johnson, and so too the onrushing, unstoppable “time’s winged chariot” of 17th century English poet Andrew Marvell, who recasts that cosmic sound as a booty call. In American sports idiom, “hearing footsteps” is when a player senses a play-ending tackle is forthcoming. The successful player knows that, just as the unsuccessful one does — but the successful ones are able to continue to complete their task despite that knowledge.
For all I know, the heaven of death and reunion with the godhead and the heaven of oblivion may be two neighborhoods of the same city.
The small graphical player will appear below for some of you to hear my adaptation and performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Silent Steps.” If you are reading this where that player doesn’t appear, this highlighted hyperlink will also open a new tab window to play it. Thanks for reading and listening!
*From accounts Yeats was (like myself) somewhat pitch-challenged as a singer. And he didn’t exactly want his poems sung, thinking that a complex melody might detract from the words. Yeats instead choose some kind of middle-ground for the vocalist of which we have no extant recordings to demonstrate. From some research I did a few years back, the closest we may have to understanding what he was proposing was his “Song of the Wandering Aengus” which Burl Ives and Dave Van Ronk and then Judy Collins performed back during the midcentury “Folk Scare.” Van Ronk said in performance that he learned it from an actor Will Holt who was also a folk singer, and it’s speculated that Ives and/or Holt may have learned the melody he used from another actor (Sara Allgood) with connections to the Abbey Theater, where Yeats was a foundational force. Here’s how I recounted that story a few years ago back here.