Column | A nostalgic pilgrimage to the world of literature


No other book has made me more nostalgic about my days as a student and teacher of English Literature as Jaya Chandrasekhar's A Walk to Tintern Abbey and Beyond, which is a meditative walk through majestic vistas and scenic labyrinths of the world of poetry.

Like an all-knowing and sensitive guide, she takes the readers through an enchanted world of poetry and drama to rediscover the gems of the masters from Shakespeare to TS Eliot. I had known each of them before, but they appeared in a new light as Jaya pointed to them as yet unknown attractions of selected timeless masterpieces.

The twelve essays, written in the form of personal appreciation of the works of the masters, impart insights into their lives, times and thoughts.

It is not literary criticism in the traditional sense of the term as the author approaches the poets and their works not as a critic but as an adoring reader, passionate about what she has enjoyed over the years of reading and teaching them.

Reading them will rekindle in the readers a desire to go back to them and savour them more than before. The level of enjoyment of the poets will be enhanced after reading these essays.

Instinctively, I looked for my old copy of Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics to revisit the poems that enthralled us years ago and found the difference that Jaya’s book had made to my perceptions.

On Wordsworth

For Indian students, the beginning of an appreciation of literature is with William Wordsworth.

Most of them can recite Daffodils and relate the scenery. That is probably the reason why the first and last chapters of the book are on Wordsworth.

Jaya makes the revelation that though Wordsworth is known as the poet of nature, he himself was preoccupied with the mind of man. “The mind of man my haunt - and the main region of my song,” he said.

She believes that Wordsworth explores the relationship between the power of nature and the rescue of the individual mind from degradation, seeing Tintern Abbey as exploring effects of memory, time and nature on the human heart. Rereading Wordsworth with this perspective will be a rewarding experience.

On Shakespearean plays

King Lear is my favourite Shakespearean play and Jaya has chosen it for her analysis.

She considers that Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth outperform Lear. But she concedes that “we are terrified, our hearts are stirred with pity, unusually strong emotions inspire us.”

Despite the structural deficiency of the play she points out, "I like it because it embraces the whole of mankind and the mysterious forces of nature and the universe. I also feel that the theory of the tragic flaw is best illustrated in the play. Vanity of paternal love is not as much a tragic flaw as indecision, jealousy or ambition, but it hurts the hero beyond imagination. I once acted as Lear in the storm scene and felt the passion of a tormented soul as never before."

Jaya quotes Bradley as saying that there is no figure in the world of poetry at once so grand, so awe-inspiring, so poignant, so beautiful as Lear and I agree. The chapter on Tempest is also a piercing study of the play.

Ibsen's works and women

Henrik Ibsen has found a place in the book even though he is neither a poet nor English.

Jaya was, perhaps attracted by the early phase of the feminist movement which A Doll’s House embodies. Every sensitive woman must have been moved by Nora’s words, “ I have stopped believing in miracles. The miracle did not happen. I saw you were not the man I imagined” as she shut the door behind her, which reverberates in the minds of women in love even today.

I would never miss a performance of A Doll’s House anywhere in the world, whether it is on Broadway or at a college arts festival in Kerala. Jaya has vetted my appetite for Henrik Ibsen.

Milton’s masterpiece

I read John Milton’s Paradise lost as a duty than a pleasure, as many others have done. But it transformed my sensibility for epic poetry and made me aware of what Jaya calls “this stupendous masterpiece of intellectual energy and creative power.”

Jaya has thrown new light on the character of Satan, whose significance is often missed. The characterisation of Satan is on a different plane than Adam and it makes Satan a magnificent creation, as acknowledged by Blake and Shelley.

As Dr Johnson predicted, I forgot to pick up 'Paradise Lost' after I had done with my study of literature, but now I am tempted to enjoy the brilliance of this epic poem again.

Tennyson's eternal truths

I find myself quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson more than anyone other than Shakespeare because he seems to turn his personal experiences into eternal truths.

We are able to relate to his sense of grave losses in his elegies as he goes beyond the personal to the universal.

The determination of Ulysses “to follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought” is contrasted with the philosophy of 'the Lotos-Eaters', but the message is to seek, to find and not to yield.

As Jaya rightly observes, “he expresses the persistent desire of man for something fuller, richer and more satisfying than life presently affords.”

The last frontier for students

I shall skip WB Yeats, WH Auden and Philip Larkin and go straight to TS Eliot, the last frontier post for students of English Literature of my generation.

Though Jaya belongs to a younger group, she too stops with TS Eliot.

The joke during my time at the University College was that an English Professor asked, “Who the hell is this TS Eliot?” when he was asked to assess Eliot’s place in English literature.

Times had changed when Prof Ayyappa Paniker was mocked as “Kerala’s TS Eliot” when he published Kurukshetra which read a lot like The Wasteland.

But Paniker transformed Malayalam poetry beyond recognition with the introduction of a new genre of poetry a la TS Eliot.

Jaya dwells at length on Eliot’s The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock and Burnt Norton rather than The Wasteland. But in my view, The Wasteland is his masterpiece, encapsulating his worldview.

It reads like a book of quotations as he has a grim view of everything like his immortal lines, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.” But after reading what Jaya says about the other poems, I shall go back to those again.

An omission and regret

The book concludes with another poem of Wordsworth Tintern Abbey which Jaya has chosen for the title of her book.

Her conclusion summarises the whole book in her inimitable style. “In their finest moments of inspiration, these timeless literary souls have touched a chord in the heart of mankind, which resonates with the power and beauty of their imagination and lights up with the magic of the written word.

Mysteriously, Jaya did not find a single female poet or playwright worthy of her approbation in her collection.

I have regretted occasionally that I gave up my calling as a teacher of English Literature at the Mar Ivanios College for the lure of the Civil Service and reading this book was one such occasion.

How many literary gems I would have read and taught many generations of students for half a century! I envy Jaya as she has the best of both worlds, an academic career and a highly successful and admired civil servant, KM Chandrasekhar as her husband, who took her around the world before settling down near the placid waters of the Akkulam Lake in Thiruvananthapuram.

(Any views expressed here are the author's own)

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