Andreas L. Katonis1
Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki
I have deliberately chosen to use the words “thinkers”: Tagore and Sikelianos may be familiar to us more as national poets and writers, they are, however, both, something more, they are comparable, and their work and their universality connects them. One of the first in Greece to draw a parallel between them was the Indologist Vassiliades who remarked that they shared similar inspirations. Both of them founded, e.g., spiritual movements to promote global understanding (2000: 174). The two lives (Tagore: 1861-1941, Sikelianos: 1884-1951) ran, indeed, almost in parallel. Tagore, to be sure, is more known world wide; he came from a big country, he travelled a lot, whereas Sikelianos’ Greece was and remains small, and if the country is familiar, then, its reputation is generally meant for Ancient Greece. This was, in a sense, also the concern of the Greek thinker helped by his first, American wife: the revival of certain aspects of Ancient Greece, not for his actual homeland only but for the whole world. Now admired in his country and in Europe, Sikelianos is among the most renowned modern Greek poets, integrated by some critics, together with Cavafis and Seferis, into a “Modern Greek Triptych” (Ivanovici 1979).
As we know from different sources, Tagore visited Greece, during a series of travels in European countries. His Song Offerings or Gitanjali had already been translated into Greek, and this cycle was republished, for the last time in 1978.2 The collection contains 103 poems, so that it may be assumed that it relies on the English corpus that consisted largely of the translations made by Tagore himself. The Greek title, like the English one, may not render satisfactorily the strong devotional connotation of anjoli, something like a ‘prayer offering’, but, to be sure, the religious tenor is well apprehensible in all texts. Trikoglidis, who approaches his work with great respect, goes as far as to place Tagore’s figure between Jesus of Nazareth and Plato (Tagore 1978: 5). He adds that the Indian poet, with his calmness and his serene beauty, “paved for the Europeans the way to the orient”, and “graced the entrance to the Oriental temples with flowers; the exhausted western spirit found a new source of inspiration” (ib. p. 6).
There are several points where a comparison between the Indian and the Geek poet is relevant. Tagore may have been more successful reaching his objectives but the universalism3 of the two authors in thought and programme is similar. Both of them travelled a lot though, Sikelanos mostly to the West whereas Tagore visited also several other countries. Both of them originated from a respected family: a wealthy one, self-evident for a Brahmin family like in the case of Tagore, whereas Sikelianos was born into a good and educated milieu (his father was a language teacher) with an aristocratic attitude and traditions (Anton 1988b: 253), on the western Greek island of Leukas. Both of them had the possibility to read and learn at home, and, strikingly, both of them began to read law: prospective barrister Tagore left University College London to explore Shakespeare and more; Sikelianos enrolled at the Faculty of Law of Athens University in 1901. By 1902, it was clear that he took a much more intense interest in the cultural and literary life of the Greek capital, and he never transferred to the Bar. Tagore, as early as 1913, and as the first non-European, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Greek poet was not as lucky as that, but as a fact, he was nominated for this prize three times, in 1945, 1947 and 1949 (Frangou-Kikilia 1993/2001: 47). Tagore, in the wake of the family tradition, founded an ashram, and later the Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan (Vassiliades 2000: 191, Sen 2005: 114ff.); Sikelianos did much to develop the so-called Delphic Idea part if which would have been a “Delphic University” (Sikelianos 1930b). If he had been successful the university would have been, in continuation of the Delphic Oracle that was in a sense a centre in classical times, a universal educational establishment, open to the whole world (ib., e.g. p. 7), with a focus on art, literature, drama, dance and similar. One may recall here that in Delphi, on the site of very ancient centres of cult, from the 6th c. B.C. onward, a famous seat of oracle of international reputation had developed, and it was literally believed that Delphi was the centre (“the navel”) of the Earth: the omphalos, symbolizing the centre, an ancient religious stone artifact, is now on exhibition in Delphi Archaeological Museum. Similarly to the Olympic Games, the Pythian (i.e. Delphic) Games were important and had a panhellenic character. These were, however, not only athletic games but also various cultural events where drama and music had a paramount role.
Sikelianos was helped by his wife, Eva, with her contributions, and in an altruistic fashion, with her whole fortune. Eva’s contribution is set out in a large autobiography (Palmer-Sikelianos 2010). Tagore was happier: the Visva-BharatiUniversity in Santiniketan provides education on Indian culture both to Indians and foreigners. The Delphic University would have been also part of a universalDelphic Union (on which cf. Sikelianos 1932). There is no direct information on any relationship between Sikelianos and Tagore. I don’t know if they knew each other personally or by repute but certainly, the Indian tradition and culture is present in the Greek thinker’s work. E.g., he writes on cultural and moral “revolution” and he acknowledges Gandhi’s achievements (1932: 3-4). He also invites East and West to meet at Delphi (ib. p. 16), and does not forget about Eastern and Western music either, for the cultivation of which he had ordered a special organ for his wife from Germany capable to analyze and play also Eastern tunes (ib. p. 17). One remembers that Tagore was a composer, too. In his treatise on the Delphic Union, in quest for the origins, Sikelianos alludes to “the clean foundations of primeval societies”, and Vedic India, together with “Orphic Greece”, is among them (1932: XI). Surprisingly, he cites Dhan Gopal Mukerji who wrote that “Europe cannot attract India any more since Greece is not any more with Europe; Greece, however, speaks to the heart of the Indians” (ib. p. 2). Last but not least, love is essential in the poetry of Tagore. Sikelianos may not have written on love and affection so often if compared, but in his Delphic Appeal this is, beside universality, very emphatically present: “Mankind needs love”, he repeats several times (e.g. 1930a: 4-5). Similarly, an important thought is expressed in his work on Digenis Akritas, a medieval Greek epic hero, when he declares that thought is unable to come up because love had come before (cited by Ivanovici 1979: 67).4 Whereas Tagore’s religiousness and spirituality cannot be questioned, his Supreme Lord was neither a Hindu god nor the Christian one but a universial spiritual being; similarly, as Keely and Sherrard remark, “Sikelianos felt no embarrassment in invoking ‘my Christ and my Dionysos’ in a single breath” (Sikelianos 1979: XVI). Both of them were prolific writers, and in any case, Sikelianos was much more prolific than Cavafy and Seferis, his two comparable fellow-travellers (ib. XIX). Last but not least, the “Delphic Idea” can be compared with the “Idea of India”, at least in Tagore’s interpretation, who thought that the idea “militates against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others” (Sen 2005: 72). Sen adds: “Celebration of Indian civilization can go hand in hand with an affirmation of India’s active role in the global world”. On Tagore, he writes further that “Tagore put the rationale well, in a letter to C.F. Andrews: ‘Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin’ ” (ib. p. 86).
Having a look at Tagore’s Nobel Prize Winner work, the Gitanjali, the Western reader is impressed by the fact how similar his poems to works of Christian inspiration are. This might be a “departure” from the prescribed course of Indian thinking. We know, however, that the moral worth of Hinduism and the Christian values are close. Sikelianos also “departed” from accepted values, but this was not a real departure: he remained in his native culture and native land. He only expanded various dimensions and stressed things differently. Beside universality of the two spiritual commitments, Hinduism and Christianity, there is also the universality, strongly felt, both in Tagore’s and Sikelianos’ work. One may consider Tagore’s short poem “Who is This?” meaning the Lord in whose company the poet is “ashamed to come to [His] door” – this finds a parallel in Christian liturgy. Cf. this New Testament passage:
“When Jesus entered Capernaum, a Roman officer met him and begged him for help: ‘Sir, my servant is sick in bed at home, unable to move and suffering terribly.’ ‘I will go and make him well,’ Jesus said. ‘Oh, no, Sir,’ answered the officer. ‘I do not deserve to have you come into my house. Just give the order, and my servant will get well’ (Matthew 8: 5-8). In the Catholic liturgy, during the Holy Communion, the passage beginning with “Just give the order” isadapted as a parable where the word “soul” substitutes the original “servant”.
Here is the famous “Prayer” by Sikelianos, where love is also present, comparable not only with Tagore’s “Give me Strength” using the word “prayer” but first of all with his “Face to Face”. Sikelianos writes:
“Naked the soul prays to You. Stripped of joy,
of suffering and pleasure,
naked the soul prays to You, Creator, with its
uncreated voice alone,
that voice which, before entering my flesh, in Your breast –
as a cicada hidden in the olive tree –
beat in my heart as Your will, crying “Victory,
victory in all things,”
and it was not my voice, it was Yours, Lord; with that
alone I pray to You: release in me
the secret purpose I tasted deeply outside time,
so that I may love, may love
beyond human images and all created things, beyond the single
pulse that throbs inside me,
one now for the living and the dead: grant me,
grant me deliverance,
to feel again the uncreated Eros
filling my breast,
and to be to all, to things near and far away,
as the wind’s sound and breath.”5
Tagore’s “Face to face” from the Gitanjali:
“Day after day, O lord of my life,
shall I stand before thee face to face.
with folded hands, O lord of all worlds,
shall I stand before thee face to face.
Under thy great sky in solitude and silence,
with humble heart shall I stand before thee face to face.
In this laborious world of thine, tumultuous with toil
and with struggle, among hurrying crowds
shall I stand before thee face to face.
And when my work shall be done in this world,
O King of kings, alone and speechless
shall I stand before thee face to face.”6
The “Signet of Eternity” by Tagore expands the horizon both in time and space: the poet waits for “the happy moment [when he is going] to see”, whereas in the “Brink of Eternity”, at which he has arrived to see “the allness of the universe” one feels an affinity with Christian hymns. Let’s stop here: this is not the place to analyze the amazing passage by Sikelianos on “The death of Digenis”. Beside “love”, already mentioned, that “overtakes thought”, there is an addition. Thought says “you can’t enter”, but the poet is defiant: “I’ll enter; and I enter free, and I will step out free” (Ivanovici 1979: 67).7
Sikelianos, like Tagore, “did not fit”, either. He was not cursed, like Tagore was in the end, by Yeats, yet Tagore gained a unique professional and social standing. For Sikelianos, there was the indifference instead. This may happen to great spirits. In such cases, it is Posterity that must discover them, and give them a just evaluation.8 Should, perhaps, Sikelianos have been born in India?
1. The paper is a revised version of the original read as a Special Address at Shri Venkateshwara College of Education & Shri Venkateshwara College of Arts & Science on 3.1.2011 at Peravurani, South India.
2. This is an edition by the Athenian publisher Iridanos, under the title “Lyric Offerings“, with the subtitle “Gitanjali“, containing the 1921 Foreword by the translator K. Trikoglidis, and a new note by Iridanos. The same publishing house, in the same year also issued the Indian Short Stories by Tagore, containing e.g. the story on the Ganges riverside, that of Kouzoum. The second edition of the “Lyrical Offerings” translated by Rena Kartheou (Athens, 1954) was comprised in the series “A Hundred Immortal Works” under no. 51. The volume contains also “The Gardener” (published by Tagore in 1913), translated by Kostas Kartheos, and “Stray Birds” (published by Tagore in 1916), translated by Kostas Kartheos and Rena Kartheou). This book gives, in Greek translation, the Introduction written by W.B. Yeats to the Gitanjali (pp. 5-14). Naturally, a number of other works of Tagore have also been translated into Greek.
3. Sen (2005: 95) relates that “Tagore’s many sided writings” did not fit “into the narrow box Yeats wanted to place – and keep him” so that the latter, whereas he admired the Gitanjali and helped its English edition, by 1935, arrived at Tagore’s denunciation: “Damn him”.
“Je me suis endormi dans un profond vertige,
Comme l’abeille une nuit entière dans la rose,
Et je viens de rouvrir les yeux pour veiller
Sur mes derniers moments, là où la pensée n’arrive pas,
Mais où l’ amour parvient,|
Là où la pensée écrit: «tu ne peux entrer», à quoi je réponds
«J’entrerai», car j’entre et sors comme je veux…” (Sikelianos 1960: 117-118). For the Greek original, cf. Sikelianos 1948: 76).
8.On the contemporary lack of understanding about Sikelianos‘ ideas, cf. Samoladas 1982: 25.Still, in a sense, posterity decided in favour of the Greek poet. Now, an International DelphicCouncil exists the founder of which is the German Christian Krisch. He could win for his plans lateMinister of Education Melina Mercouri whose death in the early 90’s was a serious setback. Yetsome international cultural events in recent years took place. But Delphi was not the only scene ofthe modern games. See some remarks on the ancient and modern importance of Delphi by M. Laser(1995) and by the archaeologist F. Lang (1995), in German, with parallel Greek texts.
1988(a) Eva Palmer-Sikelinos (in Greek). World Biographical Lexicon 9A (Athens: Ekdotiki Athinon), pp. 255-256
1988(b) Angelos Sikelianos (in Greek). World Biographical Lexicon 9A (Athens: Ekdotiki Athinon), pp. 253-255
1993/2001 Sikelianos, Angelos (in Greek). Encyclopedia Papyrous- Larousse-Britannica 54: 46-49
1979 A Modern Greek Triptych: Cavafis, Seferis, Sikelianos (in Greek). Athens: Exandas
1995 Die Pythischen Spiele von Delphi. Chronika 2, Nr.4: 1-2
1995 Wiederbelebung: Delphische Spiele der Neuzeit. Chronika 2, Nr.4: 3-5
2000 The Sacred Panic (Autobiography) (in Greek). Athens (Koropi Attikis): Militos (Translated and complemented with an Introduction from Upward Panic: The Autobiography of Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, Routledge 1993, by J.P. Anton)
1982 Sikelianos, the Delphic Idea, and its Future (in Greek). Thessaloniki: Graphic Arts ASE
2005 The Argumentative Indian. Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. London etc.: Penguin
1930(a) The Delphic Appeal (in Greek). Delphi: ©Author
1930(b) The Delphic University (A Preliminary Draft) (in Greek). Delphi: ©Author
1932 The Delphic Union (An Intimation) (in Greek). Athens: ©Author
1948 The Death of Digenes (in Greek). Woodcuts by Spyros Vassiliou. Athens: Ikaros
1960 Poèmes akritiques. La mort de Digénis. Tragédie. Adaptation française par Octave Merlier.
Bois de Spyro Vassiliou. Athènes: IFA
1979 Selected Poems. Translated and Introduced by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
[Bilingual Edition]. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press
1978 Lyric Offerings. Gitangali (in Greek). Translated by Kostas Trikoglidis. Athens: Iridanos