On Poetry--Truth and Beauty

This article is part 2 of 3 in the series On Poetry

I am of the firm opinion that a devoted study of literature is ātmasaṃskāraka—it refines us from within. The poet reveals in a suggestive manner the extent of our desires, strengths, and frailties. His world is one full of natural splendour: its current cleanses our character, its sunlight helps blossom the flower of our heart and bring out its fragrance, a mere touch of its wind transforms our bones into iron posts. To bring about such a magical transformation might not always be the poet’s objective. This is the underlying wonder in the poetic process. A jasmine blooms not to excite the bee; a cuckoo does not sing to sting the hearts of separated lovers. Similarly, it is the poet’s propensity to sing the song of beauty. Upon hearing this, the listener’s heart might turn from stone to butter or from mud to diamond. This is the natural order applicable to all humans.

What is beauty?[1] It is the power that attracts and fascinates our heart. This power manifests itself through a combination of various attributes in all objects that we perceive—colours and strokes (in objects we see), tone and rhythm (in objects we hear) etc. While one variety of form and colour attracts us, others do not. Why? The answer to this probably lies deeply hidden in Nature; I am not competent to find it. Why does a child savour a candy? And why does it shun spices? Why are we exceedingly drawn to the colour of the sky and so much to that of a donkey? We need not bother ourselves with untying this knot. Perhaps the taste cultivated over centuries has influenced us.

The word beautiful is at times used in the sense of cute and pretty. This is undoubtedly limiting, because the word connotes a much wider sense encompassing the lovely, pleasant, and captivating. Indeed, beauty is that which grabs our inner core, softens it, and transforms it. 

The power of beauty does not reside merely with objects graspable by our sense organs. Its presence is equally seen in situations open only to the heart. We usually speak of the following as endowed with beauty: mild sunlight, cool breeze, a peacock’s colourful feather, a lovely flower, twinkling smile, sidelong glance etc. But the multihued caprices of the heart, the situations they engender, and the actions they provoke are also beautiful. Likewise, the countless vows and punishments that ensue because of the mind’s influence over the heart are beautiful. Agitation, composure, quirkiness, sagacity and similar such conditions of the heart form the raw material for poetry.

We can clearly behold our inner constitution in the mirror of poetry. And since it reflects our-ness, we find it endearing. Love, hatred, suspicion, obstinacy, fortitude and the like are citizens of the mind’s kingdom. The poet skillfully describes how the King, Ātmā, rules over them. Rāma’s suspicion-free friendship, Lakṣmaṇa’s unconditional love, Karṇa’s mindless generosity, Aśvatthāma’s foolish valour, Uttara’s short-lived bravery, Rāvaṇa’s incessant hatred, Bhīṣma’s unshakeable devotion to his overlords, Suruci’s jealousy—each of this strikes a chord within us.

Beauty stems from the various strengths and glories of viśvaprakṛti (the nature of the world) and mānavaprakṛti (human nature). I have drawn attention to the fact that beauty does not mean just śṛṅgāra (love); it applies in the same measure to pathos, wrath, and wonder. Among these, certain forms of beauty calm the mind, while others stimulate action.  We experience this calmness when we stand dumbstruck on top of the Alps, or before the Niagara; when we encounter magnificent sculptures or mellifluous music. We are not, then, driven to action. But how about when we see the temples razed down at Hampi, think of the sad saga of Amritsar, listen to the song Vande Mataram, see the pitiable state of penury in our villages? We are impelled to act. The impulsion may be feeble—even fleeting—but nonetheless, it exists. Poetry includes beauty that can bring about both these effects.

That is indeed the truth, which lying unseen, directs human nature. It manifests itself in various ways, which are termed characteristic traits. We are drawn to them since they are deeply connected to us. The objects and situations that a person finds beautiful, which affect and transform his nature and bring out his latent strength—these are to him the ultimate truth. Seen this way, the poet works with truth and beauty that have a direct bearing on life. And because of this, he never faces a dearth of material to work with. Who can ever conduct a census of the passions and instincts of humans? One can count the number of stars and even put a number on the ocean’s waves, but never accurately mark out the territory of human likes and dislikes.

The calculations of the mind, desires of the heart, facets of truth, perspectives of beauty are all infinite. Similarly, living beings, the world, and the possibilities of their mutual interaction are infinite. Amidst this mind-boggling multitude, the scientist secures a patch of solid land to stand upon; the poet provides a morsel of food. As far as the poet is concerned, svabhāva (personal nature), satya (truth), saundarya (beauty), dharma (the principle of sustenance), ānanda (unadulterated bliss), jīvana (life) are all various facets of the same entity.

            Mammaṭa, one of our popular poeticians, described Poetry as the following:

niyatikṛtaniyamarahitām—not tied down by rules;

hlādaikamayīm—characterized by enjoyment alone;

ananyaparatantrām—over and above external influence.

            This is the final verdict on this topic. The poet is indeed independent in creating a virtual world. He does this to find personal joy and experience self-fulfillment. In the above description, ‘hlāda’ does not merely mean gratification of the senses; it connotes an unalloyed, limitless joy the poet experiences when he discovers beauty hitherto unknown. Beauty thus discovered may, at times, have the potential to override the accepted social standards and pave the way for new customs. The poet is under no obligation to adhere and subscribe to the moral codes followed since time immemorial. Suppose a person accepts everything he comes across as flawless. How then does he find the impetus to create something new? Surely, this impetus originates from a feeling of insufficiency. The poet finds a lacuna in his surroundings and embarks on the journey of creating an ideal world—one that is error-free on all counts. This is how revolutionary literature comes into being. The poet does not enlist a set of reformist activities; he motivates the folks who create such a list. He thus is capable of granting boons to the society.

            What finds prominence in poetry? Is it the head or the heart? Cold logic or emotional fervour? Intellect sans emotion produces science; emotional outburst devoid of intellectual rigour ends up as a hopeless babble. Just like sunlight has both warmth and brightness, good poetry comprises both emotion and intellect. Doubtless, from line to line, from stanza to stanza, there might be difference in proportion of the two. But poetry expects both excitement and composure, just like a lamp requires both oil and wick.

In Austerity of Poetry, Matthew Arnold narrates a story that is worth recounting: There lived a poet in Italy, who on a festive occasion went with his wife to the city’s central junction. He wanted to take in the festive spirit. His wife was young and beautiful. She had worn a dress and decked herself up with ornaments that enhanced her beauty. They sat on a bench beneath a tree. Due to an unfortunate turn of fate, the bench gave way. The poet’s wife fell, suffered severe injuries, and passed away on the spot. The people who had gathered around examined the corpse and to their absolute surprise, they found her clad in saffron robes—a sign of detachment—beneath the pretty dress. The Muse of Poetry is similar: charm, slyness, and beauty on the outside; logic, procedure, and contentment on the inside.

           There is an unrefined element of the poetic attitude in all of us, which is in turns subtle and pronounced. That we have in us even a fraction of the poet’s emotional wealth accounts for the fact that we understand and find communion with his words. While poetry occupies the centre space of the heart; music extends to all its nooks and corners. One is a rose in bloom and the other, perfume. Poetry is one half of the language of the heart; the other half is music. The behaviour of children is a stark illustration of this fact. Whenever they come across something special—be it a circus or a joyride—they do not contain their joy and wonder. Instead, they scream, sing, and mimic. That is silent poetry. Upon hearing a song they stop crying at once. That is appreciation for music. In most of us, sharpness of sight and eloquence in expression do not mature with age. As a result, we lose all vivacity once we advance in years. This is not the case with the poet. Unlike us, he experiences intense emotions, willfully bears them, and expresses the same through poetry. And that awakens the poetic attitude slumbering within us.          

[1] The word ‘sundara’ is derived from the root ‘undī kledane.’ ‘Unda’ means, ‘to wet,’ ‘to soften,’ ‘to dampen’—“yaḥ pṛthivīṃ payasondanti.” That which softens our heart—makes it sarasa—is sundara.

To be continued

[This is a translation of select portions of the Kannada essay Kelavu Sāhitya Samsyegaḻu, taken from the work Jīvanasaundarya mattu Sāhitya. This was a part of the author’s Presidential Address at the eighteenth Karnataka Sahitya Sammelana.]




Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Shashi Kiran B N holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master's degree in Sanskrit. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit and Kannada literature, and philosophy. A literary aficionado, Shashi enjoys composing poetry set to classical meters in Sanskrit. He co-wrote a translation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh’s Kannada work Kavitegondu Kathe.

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