Reading between the lines on Tagore
“On the shores. Reddening clouds herald. The end of dark night. The Bird of the East. Sings the praise. Of the great East.”
Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, Asia’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, wrote the poem in Bengali to celebrate Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War. Tagore was frustrated by the long British colonial rule in India and felt favorably toward Japan, another Asian country that emerged as an international power. Starting in1916, he visited Japan five times and was impressed by Japanese culture, such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangements and Haiku poems. He said Japan inspired his poetic spirit. In a lecture during his stay, he said Japan brought hope to Asia. He associated with Mitsuru Toyama, a rightist nationalist who advocated Pan-Asianism.
Many Koreans who remember Tagore for “The Lamp of the East” would feel dubious. The poem begins, “In the golden age of Asia, Korea was one of its lamp-bearers. And that lamp is waiting to be lighted once again for the illumination of the East.” The poem’s last verse goes, “Into the heave of freedom, my Father, let Korea wake.” He had written the poem for Korea under Japanese occupation, so Koreans interpreted it as an encouragement to break out of colonial rule. Then why did Tagore like Japan?
Hong Eun-taek, a Daejin University English professor, shed light on the question in his article “Inconvenient Truth about Tagore” in the winter issue of Poetry Review. Hong determined that the first four lines of “The Lamp of the East” were not a part of the poem, but a memo brought to Korea in 1929. The remaining 11 lines were originally from Gitanjali 35. Moreover, “Korea” was added to the last line.
During the Japanese colonial era, someone had manipulated the work of the Nobel Prize winner to make Korea more prominent, and the one-sided respect and admiration for the poet have continued through the colonial period to today.
In fact, Tagore’s feeling toward Japan was not just admiration. In a lecture to a Japanese audience, he said Japan was materialistically advanced, but spiritually backward. He also was concerned about its militaristic tendencies. So his stance toward Japan should not be judged as absolute.
But the misleading connection with Tagore has lasted for more than 80 years, and it is a result of Korea’s complex and blind respect for foreign authority. It may have been inevitable during the colonial era to inspire Koreans. But who can be sure that such a farce would not happen again in Korea today?
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun