Sri Aurobindo's Theory of Poetry
Author: Rod Hemsell
Last Updated: September 15, 2008
Sri Aurobindos Theory of Poetry an introduction (13/09/08)
In this course I would like to approach Sri Aurobindos theory of poetry in terms of three factors: meaning, metrics and music each of which I believe to be unique to Sri Aurobindo, although his theory concerns itself with the conventional literary dichotomy of content and form the what and the how. What poetry is, or should be, for SA however, is a special, peculiar intensity of speech, which he identifies as mantra which as such indicates both a form and a content. It is inspirational and transformational in a way that is not even generally associated with the term mantra. Even in its form, or metrical structure and sound, it is something unique to SAs conception and application, although there are precedents in both classical and modern literature to which he alludes. And the content, objects, images and subject matter are also equally unique to SA in many cases. In a letter on poetry he comments frankly on a certain criticism of his style of repeating so-called high-light words by saying, what of one who lives in an atmosphere full of these highlights in a consciousness in which the finite, not only the occult but the earthly finite, is bathed in the sense of the eternal, the illimitable infinite, the immensities or intimacies of the timeless? He sums up his defense by saying, "A new art of words written from a new consciousness demands a new technique. The best way to explore this new technique and the unique domain of experience that it reveals is to read the poems. And that will be the primary aim of the course to explore the full range of Sri Aurobindos poetic experience.
Let me now briefly review his theory of poetry under these three headings: meaning, metrics, and music, the 3 ms, with references to The Future Poetry. Each m could eventually require a separate presentation, but this will be only a brief introductory outline, in order to illustrate the uniqueness of the theory.
The Future Poetry (p. 218-219, 221): The Mantra is a direct and most hightened, an intensest and most divinely burdened rhythmic word which embodies an intuitive and revelatory inspiration and ensouls the mind with the sight and presence of the very self, the inmost reality of things
This is a theory of poetry, says Sri Aurobindo, which is very different from any that we now hold and in fact, he says perhaps no thinking age has been so far removed from any such viewBut a greater era of mans living seems to be in promise. And SA assigns a special role to the kind of poetry that is being suggested, in which he sees a special power and purpose: A greater era of mans living seems to be in promiseBut first there must intervene a poetry which will lead him towards it
This then is a theory of poetry as revelatory power and guide, a kind of intercessor, whose purpose is to cleave the darkness raise the earth soul to light and bring down God into the lives of men. And it is quite remarkable, let us note in this context, that Sri Aurobindo revised twenty chapters of The Future Poetry in 1950, another testament to the extraordinary value assigned to this highest faculty and art by the master of the Supramental Yoga. He clearly considered the potentials of poetry to be very important.
We also learn from the work of the archives that it was around 1942, when SA was well into the writing of both Savitri and Ilion, that the essay On Quantitative Metre was written. Here SA examines the principles of poetic structure that make such a mantric poetry possible the powerful sweep, the divine rush or the assured truth of tread of that greater word-music. It is the principle of quantity that he insists is foremost to be understood and applied in English, based upon the same essential principle found in the classical poetry of Greek and Sanskrit. True quantity, he said, must be something inherent in the tongue, recognizable everywhere in its rhythm, - not an artifice or convention governing its verse forms alone, but a technique of Nature flowing spontaneously through the very texture of the language as a whole (p. 323). It is this principle of rhythm and measure which is somehow synonymous with a free outflow of significant sound and harmonious word from the depths of the spirit.
SA defines three fundamental determinants of poetic metre or rhythm accent, stress, and quantity, and points out that accent and stress have generally been the dominant measures of English poetry, because the principle of quantity in English has not been well understood. And he points out that the lack of a certain subtlety and power has been responsible for this deficit. I would venture to say that it is especially because of a certain extraordinary subtlety and power of poetic consciousness that Sri Aurobindo was able to discover the secret in English which, he says requires a great poetic force, which adds the atmosphere of the unexpressed reality of the thing in itself which it is in the power of rhythm, of word-music as of all music, to create(p.327).
And the key is here: If we are to get a true theory of quantity, he says, the ear must find it; it cannot be determined by mental fictions or by reading with the eye. So listening, we shall find that intrinsic or inherent quantity... Then, proceeding with a detailed analysis of the characteristic sounds of English poetry, he finds that, with respect to accented and stressed syllables, the positional sound-values are not the only factors in metrical length, there is also another factor, the weight-length; it may even be said that all quantity in English is determined by weight, all syllables that bear the weight of the voice are long, all over which the voice passes lightly are short(332-333).
If we scan the lines of a poem for accent and stress, with only the silent and schooled mental eye, we simply miss this factor of quantity. Several interesting examples are given by Sri Aurobindo, among which is the line of Websters poem which reads: Cover her face; my eyes dazzle; she died young. Not anapest, and not iamb or trochee, but bacchius (my eyes daz) and spondee (died young), says SA. Then he points out that there are three hammer strokes of quantity that give the line its rhythmic power and enable the true accents to be heard (325,334). We will pursue such analysis a bit further during the course, and the technique will become clear. At the time of writing this detailed analysis, however, the important thing is that SA was also writing both Ilion and Savitri, and so there are hundreds of pages, thousands of lines that demonstrate what he discovered to be the natural structural lever of mantric power in English.
And so, can we say, perhaps, that this universal truth of poetry which was always present, though not prominent or conscious, especially in the most sensitive and powerful English poetry, required the power of a supramental inspiration and yogic perseverance to be brought forth consciously and made the fundamental unifying principle of poetic expression? SA seems to say as much. But he also said that we must know how to hear Savitri to understand its truth. If, as he also said, the verities of Beauty and Delight are most missing from this intellectual age of ours, can we discover them through the music of mantric poetry in a way that we have perhaps never before known them? I would say so.
And that brings us to Savitri, the goddess, to Ahana, and to Athene and Aphrodite.
Let us listen for a moment to Aphrodite in a quarrel with Zeus, from Ilion:
I am the womb of the world and the cause of this teeming of creatures,
And if discouraged I ceased, Gods world would lose heart and perish.
How will you do then without me your works of wisdom and greatness,
Hera, queen of heaven, and thou, O my sister Athene?
Yes, I shall reign and endure though the pride of my workings be conquered.
What though no second Helen find a second Paris,
Lost though the glories of form to the earth, though their confident goddess
Pass from a race misled and forgetting the sap that it sprang from,
They are eternal in man in the worship of beauty and rapture.
Ever while earth is embraced by the sun and hot with his kisses
And while a Will supernal works through the passions of Nature,
Me shall men seek with my light or their darkness, sweetly or crudely,
Cold on the ice of the north or warm with the heats of the southland,
Slowly enduring my touch or with violence rapidly burning.
I am the sweetness of living, I am the touch of the Master.
Love shall die bound to my stake like a victim adorned as for bridal,
Life shall be bathed in my flames and be purified gold or be ashes.
I, Aphrodite, shall move the world for ever and ever.
Yet now since most to me, Father of all, the ages arriving,
Hostile, rebuke my heart and turn from my joy and my sweetness,
I will resist and not yield, nor care what I do, so I conquer.
War I declare on you all, O my father and brothers and sisters.
Henceforth I do my will as the joy in me prompts or the anger. (502)