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Rabindranath Tagore

Translated by Tony StewartTony Stewart and

Chase TwichellChase Twichell

From The Lover of God
Rabindranath Tagore's Songs of the Poet Sun-Lion

When Rabindrath Tagore was fourteen, he claimed to have found the Songs of the Poet Sun-Lion in the attic of one of his grandfather's friends. He published them. The poems appeared to be the work of an unheard-of 15th century Bengali religious poet writing in an obscure dialect. The critics were most enthusiastic, claiming to have discovered a new national treasure. Tagore continued to publish new poems under the pseudonym of Bhanusimha for another six or seven years, when he finally published a facetious biography in which he acknowledged that he was the author. By that time there were 22 poems in the set—the final number (although some of them were revised nearly perhaps as much as 80% in the next years). There was more than a little critical embarrassment— though some began to laud the episode as an exercise of a boy genius (compared explicitly to Thomas Chatterton), to demonstrate that the poems were not Vaisnava as advertised, thereby making them “inauthentic”, and basically to have their gaze diverted by Tagore himself. Tagore, for reasons no one really knows, did not seem to want people to look at these poems as poems, yet he revised them and published them repeatedly over some 66 years. They have never been translated into any language

There are two speakers in the poems, both women: Radha, a newly-seduced fourteen year old cow-herding girl (who speaks in italics) and Bhanu, her older confidante and advisor in the ways of the world. The seducer is Krishna, come to earth disguised as a handsome cowherd. On one level the poems are the story of an adolescent love affair, but they're also an allegory of the soul's relation to God. Most of the unfamiliar names, (Kan, Khanu, Syama, etc.) are other names of Krishna.


A warm breeze frets through the woods,
the yearning darkness of the girl's house,
keeping her company.
Over the restless Yamuna's silver voices,
and the rustling, chafing voices of the vines,
blue stars drift.
There's thirst in Radha's eyes
longing down the pathway, seeing nothing,
thirst in her fingers stringing flowers.
She tosses the garland aside, crying
Listen, friend, can you hear it?
Kala's flute pierces the forest's under-dark,
and the Yamuna's.
You listen, Kanu, Divine Lord among beasts,
she thirsts for the pure nectar of your love.
Let her drink.


Your flute plays the exact notes of my pain.
It toys with me.
Where did you learn such stealth,
such subtle wounding, Kan?
The arrows in my breast
burn even in rain and wind.
Wasted moments pulse around me,
wishes and desires, departing happiness—
Master, my soul scorches.
I think you can see its heat in my eyes,
its intensity and cruelty. So let me drown
in the cool and consoling Yamuna,
or slake my desire in your cool,
consoling, changing-moon face.
It's the face I'll see in death.
Here's my wish and pledge:
that tht same moon will spill its white pollen
down through the roof of flowers
into the grove, where I'll consecrate my life
to it forever, and be its flute-breath,
the perfume that hangs upon the air,
making all the young girls melancholy.
That's my prayer.

Oh, the two of you, way out of earshot.
If you look back you'll see, Bhanu,
warming herself at the weak embers of the past.


High in the blossoming canopy,
the cuckoo repeats himself.
Below him, the two of them
swim in each other's eyes.
May I dispense with modesty, friends?
Look at their beautiful bodies.
In daylight or darkness, moving together
or at rest, they seem washed by some
honey-colored light. It's their own light,
rippling and shuddering over them.
Look—she's seeing him now,
and not just herself-with-him,
even though he's undoing
the knot she protects with her hand.
She's a half-bloomed lotus
disheveled by wind; even her eyes
are disheveled. Petals spiral from the clouds
into her hair, fall singed at her feet.
Cooling Yamuna, quenching moon —
this is my pain, too.


I know who visits your dream, Dark One.
Say her name. Her smile streaks
like lightning through clouds of sleep.
Syama, she has nothing with which to repay you.

Such impatience, bihanga!
Don't wake my sleeping Syama.
And you, moon, pour down your cold milk
on the sun's too early fire.
Sometimes time is cruel in miniature,
as when dawn crowds the last hours.


Not only is it dark, but clouds roar
like the Yamuna, invisible and drenching;
lightning pillages the trees.
How can I see which way to go?
Alone I stand shaking in the dark hall
of the tamala, its fan-leaves my only roof.

Tell me, is Kan in this heartless place?
Is that why his flute goes on playing
the notes of my name? Friend, I'm going.
Help me fix this jasmine in my hair.
Open the gate— I'll free my soul from its cage.
Don't fly, little bihanga. My fear
builds like the thunder. Don't go.


When we're together, nights like this delight me.
But when the clouds come down between us
and thrash around so rudely in the trees,
then I fear, Lord, imagining your breath-taking words
lost out there among the swords of lightning.
Come, you're drenched, Madhava,
drenched again, in these incessant rains.
Through the war of weather you've come to me.
Take off your clothes. Let me dry you. I'll untie my hair.
Come lie with me among the stalks of lotus,
skin cold and thrilled.
He's the whole dark ocean of Love.
And for the sake of Love,
each being shall burn its own small flame.


Don't talk about love to me, Madhava.
Don't play rough games with my heart.
Why do you talk of love? Your words spill
as from a boat full of holes, and my soul
spills with them, beyond saving.

I'm plainspoken —does that shock you?
Oh, your mouth has been eating sorrow!
Madhava, I hear my own harsh voice
and am ashamed. Forgive me
the sharp arrows of my words, unfeeling one—
ah, I see where one grazed your heart . . .
She plays her part well,
one moment flushed and melting,
the next a petulant tease—
an ocean of love all by herself!