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Sri Aurobindo

The Harmony of Virtue

Early Cultural Writings — 1890-1910

Kalidasa

The Historical Method

Of Kalidasa, the man who represents1 one of the greatest periods in our civilisation and typifies so many sides and facets of it in his writing, we know if possible even less than of Valmiki2 and Vyasa. It is probable but not certain that he was a native of Malva3 born not in the capital Ujjayini4, but in one of those villages of which he speaks in the Cloud-Messenger and that he afterwards resorted to the capital and wrote under the patronage of the great Vikramaditya5 who founded the era of the Malavas in the middle of the first century before Christ. Of his attainments, his creed, his character we may gather something from his poetry, but external facts we have none. There is indeed a mass of apocryphal anecdotes about him couching a number of witticisms and ingenuities mostly ribald, but these may be safely discredited. Valmiki6, Vyasa and Kalidasa, our three greatest names, are to us, outside their poetical creation, names merely and nothing more.

This is an exceedingly fortunate circumstance. The natural man within us rebels indeed against such a void; who Kalidasa was, what was his personal as distinguished from his poetical7 individuality, what manner of man was the great king whose patronage he enjoyed, who were his friends, who his rivals and how he dealt with either or both, whether or not he was a lover of wine and women in practice as well as in imagination, under what special surroundings he wrote and who were the minds by whom he was most influenced, all this the natural man clamours to know; and yet all these are things we are very fortunate not to know. The historical method is certainly an attractive one and it leads to some distinct advantages, for it decidedly aids those who are not gifted with fine insight and literary discrimination, to understand certain sides of a poet's work more clearly and intelligently. But while it increases our knowledge of the workings of the human mind, it does not in the end assist or improve our critical appreciation of poetry; it helps to an understanding of the man and of those aspects of his poetry which concern his personal individuality but it obstructs our clear and accurate impression of the work and its value. The supporters of the historical method put the cart before the horse and placing themselves between the shafts do a great deal of useless though heroic labour in dragging both. They insist on directing that attention to the poet which should be directed to the poem. After assimilating a man's literary work and realising its value first to ourselves and then in relation to the eternal nature and scope of poetry, we may and indeed must, — for if not consciously aimed at, it must have been insensibly formed in the mind, — attempt to realize to ourselves an idea of his poetic individuality from the data he himself has provided for us; and the idea so formed will be the individuality of the man so far as we can assimilate him, the only part of him therefore that is of real value to us. The individuality of Shakespeare as expressed in his recorded actions and his relations to his contemporaries is a matter of history and has nothing to do with appreciation of his poetry. It may interest me as a study of human character and intellect but I have no concern with it when I am reading Hamlet or even when I am reading the Sonnets; on the contrary, it may often come between me and the genuine revelation of the poet in his work, for actions seldom reveal more than the outer, bodily and sensational man while his word takes us within to the mind and the reason, the receiving and the selecting part8 of him which are his truer self. It may matter to the pedant or the gossip within me whether the sonnets were written to William Herbert or to Henry Wriothesley or to William himself, whether the dark woman whom Shakespeare loved against his better judgement9 was Mary Fitton or someone else or nobody at all, whether the language is that of hyperbolical compliment to a patron or that of an actual passionate affection; but to the lover of poetry in me these things do not matter at all. It may be a historical fact that Shakespeare when he sat down to write these poems intended to use the affected language of conventional and fulsome flattery; if so, it does not exalt our idea of his character; but after all it was only the bodily and sensational case of that huge spirit which so intended, — the food-sheath and the life-sheath of him, to use Hindu phraseology; but the mind, the soul which was the real Shakespeare felt, as he wrote, every phase of the passion he was expressing to the very utmost, felt precisely those exultations, chills of jealousy and disappointment, noble affections, dark and unholy fires, and because he felt them, he was able so to express them that the world still listens and is moved. The passion was there in the soul of the man, — whether as a potential force or an experience from a past life, matters very little, — and it forms therefore part of his poetic individuality. But if we allow the alleged historical fact to interfere between us and this individuality, the feelings with which we ought to read the Sonnets, admiration, delight, sympathy, rapt interest in a soul struggling through passion towards self-realisation, will be disturbed by other feelings of disgust and nausea or at the best pity for a man who with such a soul within him prostituted its powers to the interests of his mere bodily covering. Both our realisation of the true Shakespeare and our enjoyment of his poetry will thus be cruelly and uselessly marred. This is the essential defect which vitiates the theory of the man and his milieu. The man in Dr. Johnson expressed himself in his conversation and therefore his own works are far less important to us than Boswell's record of his daily talk; the man in Byron expresses himself in his letters as well as his poetry and both have therefore to be read. It is only the most sensational and therefore the lowest natures that express themselves mainly by their actions. In the case of great poets with whom expression is an instrument that answers spontaneously and accurately to the touch of the soul, it is in their work that we shall find them, the whole of them and not only that meagre part which struggled out brokenly and imperfectly in the shape of action. It is really this difference that makes the great figures of epic poetry so much less intimately and thoroughly known to us than the great figures of drama. Kalidasa was both an epic poet and a dramatist, yet Shiva10 and Parvati11 are merely grand paintings while Dushyanta, Shacountala, Sharngava12, Priyamvada13,14 Anasuya, Pururavas15 and Urvasie and Chitraleqha, Dharinie and Iravatie and Agnimitra are living beings who are our friends, whom we know. The difference arises from the importance of speech in self-revelation and the comparative inadequacy of action16, except as a check or a corroboration17. The only epics which have creations equal to dramatic creation in their nearness to us are the Mahabharata and Ramayana18; and the art form of these19 far more closely resembles the methods of the modern novel than those of epic poetry as it is understood in Europe; they combine, that is to say, the dramatic method with the epic and introduce a minuteness of observant detail with which European poets would have shrunk from tempting the patience of the sensational and soon-wearied West. The importance of the milieu to criticism has likewise been immensely exaggerated. It is important as literary history; but history is not criticism; a man may have a very wide and curious knowledge of literary history and yet be a very poor critic and the danger of the present times lies in the immense multiplication of literary historians with their ass's load of facts and theories and opinions and tendencies and the comparative rarity of really illuminating critics. This20 is at least the case with all poets who represent their age in some or most of its phases and with those who do not do this the milieu is of very small importance. The21 milieu of Shakespeare or of Homer or of Kalidasa, so far as it is important to an appreciation of their poetry, can be gathered from their poetry itself, and knowledge22 of the history of the times would only litter the mind with facts which are of no real value as they mislead and embarrass the judgment instead of assisting it. (I do not say that these things are not in a measure necessary but they are always the scaffolding and not the pile.) The tendency of the historical method beginning with and insisting on the poet rather than the poem is to infer from him as a “man” the meaning and value of his poetry — a vicious process, for it concentrates the energies on the subordinate and adds the essential as an appendix. It has been said that in a rightly constituted mind the knowledge of the man and his milieu will help to a just appreciation of his poetry; but this knowledge in its nature rather distorts our judgment than helps it, for instead of giving an honest account to ourselves of the impression naturally made by the poem on us, we are irresistibly led to cut and carve that impression so as to make it square with our knowledge and the theories, more or less erroneous and ephemeral, we deduce from that knowledge. We proceed from the milieu to the poem, instead of arguing from the poem to the milieu. Yet the latter is the only fair method; for it is not the whole of the milieu that affects the man nor every part of it that affects him equally; the extent to which it affects him and the distribution of its various influences can only be judged from the poem itself. We know from literary history that Marlowe and Kyd and other writers exercised no little influence on Shakespeare in his young and callow days; and it may be said in passing that all poets of the first order and even many of the second are profoundly influenced by the inferior and sometimes almost worthless work which was in vogue at the time of their early efforts, but they have the high secret of mental alchemy which can convert not merely inferior metal but even refuse into gold. It is only poets of a one-sided minor23 genius who can afford to be aggressively original. Now as literary history, as psychology, as part of the knowledge of intellectual origins, this is a highly important and noteworthy fact. But in the task of criticism what do we gain by it? We have simply brought the phantoms of Marlowe and Kyd between ourselves and what we are assimilating, and so disturbed and blurred the true picture of it that was falling on our souls, and if we know our business, the first thing we shall do is to banish those intruding shadows and bring ourselves once more face to face with Shakespeare.

The historical method leads besides to much confusion and is sometimes a veil for a bastard impressionism and sometimes a source of literary insincerity or at the best anaemic catholicity. As often as not a critic studies, say, the Elizabethan age because he has a previous sympathy with the scattered grandeurs, the hasty and vehement inequalities, the profuse mixture of flawed stones, noble gems and imitation jewellery with which that school overwhelms us. In that case the profession with which he starts is insincere, for he professes to base his appreciation on study, whereas his study begins from, continues with and ends in appreciation. Often on the contrary he studies as a duty and praises in order to elevate his study; because he has perused all and understood all, he must sympathise with all, or where is the proof of his having understood? Perfect intelligence of a man's character and work implies a certain measure of sympathy and liking; antipathy has only half sight and indifference is blind. Hence much false criticism misleading the public intelligence and causing a confusion in critical weights and measures, a depreciation of the literary currency from which in the case of the frank impressionist we are safe. In more24 truth the historical method is useful only with inferior writers who, not having had full powers of expression, are more interesting than their work; but even here it has led to that excessive and often absurd laudation of numberless small names in literature, many of them “discoveries”, which is the curse of latter-day criticism. The historical method is in fact the cloven foot of Science attempting to insinuate itself into the fair garden of Poetry. By this I mean no disrespect to Science. The devil is a gentleman and Shakespeare himself guaranteed25 his respectability; but he is more than that, he is a highly useful and even indispensable personage. So also is Science not only a respectable branch of intellectual activity, — when it does not indulge its highly civilized propensity for cutting up live animals, — but it is also a useful and indispensable branch. But the devil had no business in Paradise and Science has no business in the sphere of Poetry. The work of Science is to collect facts and generalize from them; the smallest and meanest thing is as important to it as the highest, the weed no less than the flower and the bug that crawls and stinks no less than man who is a little lower than the angels. By introducing this method into criticism, we are overloading ourselves with facts and stifling the literary field with the host of all the mediocrities more or less “historically” important but at any rate deadly dull and uninspiring who at one time or another had the misfortune to take themselves for literary geniuses. And just as scientific history tried26 to lose the individual27 genius into28 movements, so the historical method tries29 to lose the individual poem in tendencies. The result is that modern poets, instead of holding up before them as their ideal the expression of the great universal feelings and thoughts which sway humanity, tend more and more to express tendencies, problems, realisms, romanticisms, mysticisms and all the other local and ephemeral aberrations with which poetry has no business whatever. It is the sign of a decadent and morbid age which is pushing itself by the mass of its own undigested learning into Alexandrianism and scholasticism, cutting itself off from the fountainheads of creation and wilfully preparing its own decline and sterility. The age of which Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes and30 Simonides were31 the Homer and the age of which Tennyson is the Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling the Milton present an ominous resemblance.

 

Later edition of this work: The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.- Set in 37 volumes.- Volume 1.- Early Cultural Writings (1890 1910).- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2003.- 784 p.

1 2003 ed.: who thus represents

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2 2003 ed.: Valmekie

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3 2003 ed.: Malwa

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4 2003 ed.: Ujjaini

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5 2003 ed.: Vicramaditya

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6 2003 ed.: Valmekie

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7 2003 ed.: poetic

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8 2003 ed.: parts

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9 2003 ed.: judgment

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10 2003 ed.: Sheva

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11 2003 ed.: Parvatie

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12 2003 ed.: Sharngarava

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13 2003 ed.: Priyumvada

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14 and

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15 2003 ed.: Pururavus

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16 2003 ed.: acts

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17 2003 ed.: corroboration or a check

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18 2003 ed.: and the Ramayan

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19 2003 ed.: those

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20 In the edition of 2003 this sentence is placed before the sentence We know from literary history that Marlowe

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21 In the edition of 2003 this sentence is placed before previous one

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22 2003 ed.: and a knowledge

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23 2003 ed.: onesided or minor

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24 2003 ed.: mere

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25 2003 ed.: himself has guaranteed

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26 2003 ed.: tends

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27 2003 ed.: lose individual

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28 2003 ed.: in

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29 2003 ed.: tends

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30 2003 ed.: were the

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31 2003 ed.: and

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