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On Re-reading Sri Aurobindo

Author: Rod Hemsell

Last Updated: October 4, 2010

On Re-reading Sri Aurobindo

A Conference Sponsored by

The Department of English

University of Pondicherry

4-5 March, 2010


The Poetry of Sri Aurobindo " Mantra, Metrics and Meaning

by Rod Hemsell


As we re-read Sri Aurobindo in the most positive spirit of deconstruction, and with the most sincere aspiration toward the poetry itself " with which we have now been able to dwell for at least a few decades, those of us in our 40s, 50s, or 60s "it is his meaning that we should hope to hear, his intention that we should grasp, of which the text is merely a  vehicle and a form of expression. Its meaning, and his intention, lie far beyond the form. And yet, as he explains, the form has been uniquely developed to carry the intention in a way that is unusually powerful and direct.


In the course that I have developed for the University of Human Unity in Auroville (, titled The Poetry of Sri Aurobindo " Mantra, Metrics and Meaning, which you may download and either listen to or read, I have tried to show how the form and substance of his poetry are related, and how the technique that he developed conveys his intention in a particularly deliberate way. The technique he has called “mantra” and he has given the term a special meaning. Of it, he has written:


 “The Mantra is a direct and most heightened, and 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.”1


Let us emphasize these phrases " an intensest, and most divinely burdened, rhythmic word, which ensouls the mind with the inmost reality of things. These are not terms and ideas with which we are very familiar, I’m sure. In fact, he says that our age is farther from such a view of poetry than any other has ever been! And yet, he has given it a great importance. He has spent his yogic decades creating it, and he has said that it is somehow necessary for the future as a kind of intercessor:


“… a greater era of man’s living seems to be in promise, but first there must intervene a poetry which will lead him towards it.”2   This is a theory of poetry as revelatory power and guide, whose purpose is to “cleave the darkness, raise the Earth-soul to Light, and bring down God into the lives of men”.3


Sri Aurobindo’s intention is to bring the future closer to us, understanding by this term “future” the greater potentials of consciousness that are yet to be realized by us, according to his vision. His poetry is essentially the expression of those greater potentials which he had realized, in a form that has the power to raise the vibration and expand the capacity of consciousness. As such, it shows us glimpses of the future and leads us toward it.

In order to create a poetry which has this power, both the form and the intention of poetry as we know it must change, and he has stated specifically what the nature of the change must be:


“A spiritual change must come over the intention and form… It is a transition from the lyricism of life weighted by the stress of thought to the lyricism of the inmost spirit which uses but is beyond thought that has to be made.”4


It is a change from mind and its preoccupations with life, to what he calls a higher intuitive thought and vision which grasps the innermost reality of things themselves. It is a seeing and energizing consciousness of the being of things, which is beyond our customary ways of thought and perception. We are in the habit of thinking that what we know is a representation of things which we construct, and that we cannot know the being of things themselves. That is what we are taught. But Sri Aurobindo sees it differently.  (And we have been told this by Heidegger as well, who also believed poetry to be a path to the knowing of Being, as opposed to a mediated rational way of knowing.) That conventional way of knowing is a limitation of the mind as it has evolved thus far, but it is not a permanent or necessary limitation. We have to evolve another way of knowing and of relating to reality. And how is it that such a possibility exists? This question is answered by Sri Aurobindo in what I believe may be the most important statement he makes in his book The Future Poetry:


“The words which we use in our speech seem to be, if we look only at their external formation, mere physical sounds which a device of the mind has made to represent certain objects and ideas and perceptions,"a machinery nervous perhaps in origin, but developed for a constantly finer and  more intricate use by the growing intelligence; but if we look at them in their inmost psychological and not solely at their more external aspect, we shall see that what constitutes speech and gives it its life and appeal and significance is a subtle conscious force which informs and is the soul of the body of sound: it is a superconscient Nature-Force raising its material out of our subconscience but growingly conscious in its operations in the human mind that develops  itself in one fundamental way and yet variously in language. It is this Force, this Shakti to which the old Vedic thinkers gave the name of Vak, the goddess of creative Speech…”5 


It is the “soul of the body of sound” " this sound that you are hearing from me at this moment and which unites us all in a single consciousness of meaning carried by language. The innermost reality of this being of sound is a truth-force, a divine shakti, that has been evolving “in a fundamental way” " through language, for at least the past 40,000 years of human development, and perhaps since the beginning of life 3.5 billion years ago. This shakti, which manifests at the height of human evolution as inspired speech, is known in the Veda as Savitri, and it is this power of illumined speech that Sri Aurobindo has invoked to show us the way beyond mind into an intuitive consciousness of Being itself.


In Savitri, the Lord of Love addresses the Goddess with these words that define her nature and her mission:

“O Savitri, thou art my spirit’s Power,

The revealing voice of my immortal Word,

The face of Truth upon the roads of Time

Pointing to the souls of men the routes to God.”6


“O beautiful body of the incarnate Word,

Thy thoughts are mine, I have spoken with thy voice.”7


With this understanding, Savitri ceases to be merely a mythical figure and becomes the body of rhythmic sound. As such she carries Sri Aurobindo’s intention to us through mantric speech. This is Savitri. She is not in this book. She is in this sound, and in nature and in the universe. And She puts us in touch with reality itself.


Here we may begin to perceive the unity of form and intention. But there is yet another essential element of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry that we must take into consideration, which he has also written about at length: quantitative metre. If we scan his poetry according to the conventions of English prosody, we will not experience its power and we will miss a large portion of its meaning. As he explains:


“If we are to get a true theory of quantity, the ear must find it. It cannot be determined by mental fictions or by reading with the eye. The ear too, in listening, must exercise its own, uninfluenced, pure hearing, if it is not to go astray. So listening, we shall find that intrinsic or inherent quantity and the positional sound values … the traditional scansion is probably not accurate. …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.”8


I have dwelt at length on this principle in my course because Sri Aurobindo wrote a very detailed 45 page essay late in his life on what is perhaps the most unique and powerful feature of his poetry. His essay On Quantitative Metre, included in recent editions of both the Collected Poems and The Future Poetry, examines the metric structure of English poetry in detail, in relation to classical quantitative metre, and shows how he has employed his extraordinary poetic genius and yogic concentration to blend the two, as the key to creating mantric rhythms in English which convey the innermost meanings of things. He refers repeatedly to this metric structure as “intrinsic or inherent”. It is a fundamental, natural element of spoken language, and yet it had not previously been deliberately employed in English poetry in a systematic way, as he has succeeded to do.

In an amusing example, he writes: “If you hear an irate voice shouting ‘Get out of there, or I’ll kick you,’ and have sufficient leisure and equanimity of mind to analyse the rhythm of this exhortation, you will find yourself in the presence of an excited double iamb followed by a vehement antispast, and can then conscientiously determine the rhythm of your own answer.”9  This is in fact the way we speak naturally in English.

Now, let us try to hear the master at work in the poem Savitri, which may ostensibly be considered a poem in iambic pentameter, but where the principle of quantity, or the natural weight of the voice, determines both the rhythm and the meaning of the line. In most cases we will hear either three or four quantitative feet overriding and determining the variations of the underlying five accentual feet of each line. And we will begin to understand how this rhythmic pattern carried out consistently for pages and pages of lines sets up a resonance and receptivity in the listener that allows the lucid and vivid transmission of realities that we would probably otherwise not be aware of at all. Here, again, is the voice of the Lord of Love to Savitri:


“While the dim light from the veiled Spirit’s peak

Falls upon matter’s stark inconscient sleep

As if a pale moon beam on a dense glade,

And Mind in a half-light moves amid half-truths

And the human heart knows only human love

And life is a stumbling and imperfect force

And the body counts out its precious days,

You shall be born into man’s dubious hours

In forms that hide the soul’s divinity

And show through veils of the earth’s doubting air

My glory breaking as through clouds a sun,

Or burning like a rare and inward fire,

And with my nameless influence fill men’s lives.”10


In just these few lines we can hear distinctly and see clearly, in the ambient space of hearing and seeing (not on the page), both the essential form and the intention of this poetry. Especially if we can sense a burning inward fire, and are aware of the limitations of our narrow, culturally conditioned intellectual knowledge, we will certainly appreciate the possibility that an inspired poetry might move us towards new ranges of consciousness. As for the sound, can you imagine reading the last two lines above as an iambic scansion would dictate?:


Or burn/ ing like/ a rare/ and in/ ward fire

And with/ my name/  less in flu/ ence fill/ men’s lives


Instead of:

[Or burning]  [like a rare]  [and inward]  [fire]

[And with]  [my nameless influence]  [fill men’s lives]


And when we read the four lines that begin with “And…” we can hear a perfect illustration of one of Sri Aurobindo’s most explicit characterizations of the mantric form; “the powerful sweep, the divine rush, or the assured truth of tread of that greater word music.” These are the principles of that poetry of the future already seen, heard and expressed by him in thousands of inspired and perfectly structured lines.




1. Sri Aurobindo, The Future Poetry, 1997 ed., p.324

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid, p. 282

5. Ibid, p. 289

6. Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, 1993 rev. ed., p.703

7. Ibid, p. 698

8. Op. cit. (FP), p. 332

9. Ibid. (FP), p. 341

10. Op. cit., Savitri, p. 703


On Re-reading SA.doc