11.22.2009

Our Casuarina Tree

Our Casuarina Tree1

LIKE a huge Python2, winding round and round
The rugged trunk, indented deep with scars,
Up to its very summit near the stars,
A creeper climbs, in whose embraces bound
No other tree could live. But gallantly
The giant wears the scarf, and flowers are hung
In crimson clusters all the boughs among,
Whereon all day are gathered bird and bee;
And oft at nights the garden overflows
With one sweet song that seems to have no close,
Sung darkling3 from our tree, while men repose.

When first my casement is wide open thrown
At dawn, my eyes delighted on it rest;
Sometimes, and most in winter,—on its crest
A gray baboon sits statue-like alone
Watching the sunrise; while on lower boughs
His puny offspring leap about and play;
And far and near kokilas4 hail the day;
And to their pastures wend5 our sleepy cows;
And in the shadow, on the broad tank cast
By that hoar6 tree, so beautiful and vast,
The water-lilies spring, like snow enmassed.

But not because of its magnificence
Dear is the Casuarina to my soul:
Beneath it we have played; though years may roll,
O sweet companions, loved with love intense,
For your sakes, shall the tree be ever dear.
Blent with your images, it shall arise
In memory, till the hot tears blind mine eyes!
What is that dirge-like7 murmur that I hear
Like the sea breaking on a shingle-beach?
It is the tree’s lament, an eerie speech,
That haply to the unknown land may reach.

Unknown, yet well-known to the eye of faith!
Ah, I have heard that wail far, far away
In distant lands, by many a sheltered bay,
When slumbered in his cave the water-wraith
And the waves gently kissed the classic shore
Of France or Italy, beneath the moon,
When earth lay tranc├Ęd in a dreamless swoon:
And every time the music rose,—before
Mine inner vision rose a form sublime,
Thy form, O Tree, as in my happy prime
I saw thee, in my own loved native clime.

Therefore I fain would consecrate a lay
Unto thy honor, Tree, beloved of those8
Who now in blessed sleep for aye repose,—
Dearer than life to me, alas, were they!
Mayst thou be numbered when my days are done
With deathless trees—like those in Borrowdale9,
Under whose awful branches lingered pale
“Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton,
And Time the shadow10;” and though weak the verse
That would thy beauty fain, oh, fain rehearse,
May Love defend thee from Oblivion’s curse.


1 For brief notes on this poem see this post.
2 In The Life and Letters of Toru Dutt, Harihar Das notes that Dutt was familiar with Milton's Paradise Lost. Reflecting on her youth, Dutt states, "We used to read Milton with [Babu Shib Chunder Bannerjea] latterly; we read Paradise Lost over and over so many times that we had the first book and part of the second book by heart." (255).
3 The word Darkling very likely comes from Thomas Harding's "The Darkling Thrush" or John Keat's "Ode to a Nightingale."
4 The kokila is a bird of India, similar to the nightingale.
5 "To go forward, proceed; to journey, travel; to take one's way" (OED)
6 "Of trees, woods, or the like: Grey from the absence of foliage; showing the bare grey stems; Grey with age, venerable, ancient." (OED)
7 "A song sung at the burial of, or in commemoration of, the dead; a song of mourning or lament." (OED)
8 Dutt's brother, Abju, died in 1865, and her sister, Aru, died in 1874.
9 "The Borrowdale valley and lake, near Keswick, Cumbria, in the lake district. Location of Wordsworth's poem "Yew-trees."
10 An allusion to Wordsworth's "Yew-trees."

Dutt, Toru. Ancient ballads and legends of Hindustan. 2nd Edition. London: Kegan
     Paul, Trench & Company, 1885. 131-132. Print.

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