ONE day in August, 1876, the English poet and critic, Mr. Edmund W. Gosse, was lingering the office of the London " Examiner" mourning over the dullness of the book-trade at that season, and complaining that the publishers sent him no books worth reviewing. While he was still talking upon this subject to his friend, Mr. Minto, the editor of the paper, the postman arrived, bringing a meager little packet, marked with an unfamiliar Indian
postmark. Upon being opened it proved to contain a small pamphlet, entitled, " A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields, by Toru Putt," which Mr. Minto thrust hastily into the reluctant hands of Mr. Gosse, exclaiming as he did so: " There, see whether you can't make some-thing out of that."
The critic did not expect to make anything of it. It was a thin, shabby, ugly little book, of about two hundred pages, bound in orange color, unattractive in type. and without preface or introduction, its oddly printed title-page merely conveying the information that it was published at Bhowanipore, at the Saptahiksauibad Press. He took it, however, and the first thing he found in it was a translation of A Morning Serenade, by Victor Hugo.
"What was my surprise and almost rapture," he says in relating the incident, " to open at such verse as this:
"Still barred thy doors! The far east glows,
The morning wind blows fresh and free. Should not the hour that wakes the rose
Awaken also thee ?
"All look for thee, Love, Light, and Song; Light in the sky deep red above,
Song, in the lark of pinions strong, And in my heart, true Love.
"Apart, we miss our nature's goal,
Why strive to cheat our destinies ? Was not my love made for thy soul?
Thy beauty for mine eyes ?
No longer sleep,
Oh, listen now!
I wait and weep,
But where art thou ?"
"When poetry is as good as this," continues Mr. Gosse, it does not much matter whether Rouveyre prints it upon Whatman paper, or whether it steals to light in blurred type from some press in
The volume which thus pleasantly surprised an accomplished reviewer was the work of a young Hindu girl, then only twenty years of age. Toru Dutt was the youngest child of Govin Chunder Dutt, a retired Indian officer of high caste. She was born in Calcutta on the fourth of March, 1856, and, with the exception of a year's visit to Bombay, her childhood, and that of her elder sister Aru, was passed at her father's garden-house in the city of her birth. Her parents, whom she dearly loved, were devout Christians, and brought her up to share their faith. She was well acquainted, however, with all the ancient songs and legends of her own people, and always retained for them a tenderness of which she sometimes speaks half apologetically, while at other times she grows warm in their praise. Often her mother, herself, and Aru,—for both sisters possessed very clear, and well-trained contralto voices—would sing these strange old ballads in the evening, when the sudden descent of the tropic night brought welcome dusk and coolness after the glare and heat of an Indian day.
The two sisters were devoted companions. Torn, the younger by eighteen months, always unconsciously took the lead both in studies and amusements, although, as their father records, there was no assumption of superiority on her part. " It seemed perfectly natural to Ann" he says, to fall into the background in the presence of her sister. The love between them was always perfect."
They remained until 1869 in the happy retirement of their home, studying and learning how to perform house-hold tasks, none of which they considered too mean for them. Much of their time was spent in the garden, of which no description could be given so clear or so beautiful as Tortes own, written a few years later :
"A sea of foliage girds our garden round,
But not a sea of dull, unvaried green,
Sharp contrasts of all colors here are seen; The light-green, graceful tamarinds abound Amid the mangoe clumps of green profound.
And palms arise, like pillars gray, between;
And o'er the quiet pools the seemuls lean, Red,—red, and startling like the trumpet's sound. But nothing can be lovelier than the ranges
Of bamboos to the eastward, when the moon
Looks through their gaps, and the white lotus changes
Into a cup of silver. One might swoon
Drunken with beauty then, or gaze and gaze
On a primeval Eden, in amaze."
In November, 1869, the two girls went to Europe, and visited France, Italy, and England. In France they were sent to school for the only time in their lives, spending a few months at a French pension. It must have been chiefly during this period that 'Toru gained her marvelous intimacy with the French language. English she spoke and wrote well wonderfully well considering her age and nationality—yet an occasional lapse betrays the foreigner. Her French, on the contrary, fluent,
graceful, and idiomatic, seems not the wilfully acquired accomplishment of an educated Hindu, but the natural speech of a Parisian lady. A brief sample, taken almost at random, will prove this. It is a description of the hero in her romance called Le Journal de Mademoiselle
"Il est beau en effet. Sa taille est haute, mais quelquesuns la trouveraient mince ; sa chevelure noire est bouclee et tombe jusqu'a la nuque ; ses yeux noirs sont profonds et bien fendus ; le front est noble ; la levre superieure, couverte par une moustache naissante et noire, est parfaitement modelee ; son menton a quelque chose de severe ; son teint est d'un blanc presque feminin, ce qui denote sa haute
She always loved France. Her first book, as we see, was a volume of translations from the French ; her one long prose work was composed in French ; the first article she ever published was a critical
essay upon a French author ; and two of her most stirring English poems treat of French subjects—one, an ode written in 1870 during the dark days of the Franco-Prussian War, the second, lines inscribed on the fly-leaf of Erckmann-Chatrian's novel Madame Therese. The latter concludes thus:
I read the story, and my heart heats fast!
Well might all Europe quail before thee, France,
Battling against oppression ! Years have passed,
Yet of that time men speak with moistened glance.
Va-nu-pieds! When rose high your Marseillaise
Man knew his rights to earth's remotest bound
And tyrants trembled. Yours alone the praise!
Ali, had a Washington but then been found!
On leaving France the sisters went to England, where they attended the lectures for women at Cambridge, and in 1873 they returned to their beloved home in Calcutta,
where the four remaining years of Tort's life were passed. A photograph taken before their departure shows both girls to have been pleasing and refined in appearance, while Toru's rather round face with its bronze skin, brilliant eyes, and shading mass of loose hair, might be termed pretty, (lid we not prefer to call it expressive, since its alertness and intelligence possess a stronger charm than its beauty.
Toru's career as an author dated from her return to India. Equipped already with a stock of knowledge which, as Mr. Gosse well says, " would have sufficed to make an English or French girl seem learned, but which in her case was simply miraculous," she could not rest content with these acquirements, but devoted herself zealously to the study of Sanskrit, under her father's tuition; a pursuit which she continued until, in consideration of her failing health, he required her to give it up. Her first publication, which appeared in the Bengal Magazine when she was but eighteen years of age, was an essay upon the French poet Leconte de Lisle, with whose somewhat austere compositions she had much sympathy. This was soon followed by another upon Josephin Soulary, both being illustrated by translations into English verse.
In July, 1874, her sister Aru died at the age of twenty, and in her Toru lost a faithful helper and friend. It had been their cherished project to publish an anonymous novel which Torn was to write and Aru, who possessed a striking talent for design, was to illustrate. Toru began the novel—Le Journal de Mademoiselle d'Arvers—before leaving Europe, but Aru died without having seen a page of it, and Toru herself was in her grave when the completed manuscript was found among her papers by her father and given to the public.
The " Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields" appeared,
as we have stated, in 1876. This wonderful book of trans. lotions, made by a young girl iii India, from one foreign language into another, found but two reviewers in all Europe. One of these was the French poet and novelist, Andre Thenriet, who was himself represented in its pages by one of her most successful translations, and who gave it just and discriminating praise the revue de Deux Mondes. The other was the gentleman who had so unwillingly received it in the office of the London Examiner. Mr. Gosse, in the memoir with which he afterwards prefaced one of Tort's works, claims with sympathetic pride that he was a little earlier still in sounding the only note of welcome which reached the dying poetess from England."
The dying poetess ! Torn, never strong, and exhausted by the continuous strain of her literary labors, was soon to follow the sister whom she so deeply mourned. Her letters to her friend, Mlle. Clarisse Bader, show us very clearly the beginning of the end. Mlle. Bader was the author of a French work entitled, " Woman in Ancient India," which Toru desired to translate into English. Before doing so, however, she wrote to ask permission of the author. She received a most kind and gracious reply.
" Dear Mademoiselle," wrote Mlle. Bader, " What ! It is a descendant of my dear Indian heroines who desires to translate the work I have devoted to the ancient Aryan women of the Peninsula of the Ganges! Such a wish, emanating from such a source, touches me too deeply for me not to listen to it. Translate, then, Woman in Ancient India, Mademoiselle ; I authorize you with all my heart to do so; and with all my most sympathetic desires I invoke the success of your enterprise. . . . When you have published in India your translation of Woman in Ancient India, I should be very grateful if you would kindly send two copies of your version. I should also be
very happy to receive your photograph if you still possess one."
Toru's reply, dated Calcutta, March 18, 1877, is as follows:
"Dear Mademoiselle, I thank you very sincerely for your kind authorization to translate ' Woman in Ancient India' and also for your kind and sympathetic letter, which has given me the keenest pleasure.
"I deeply lament not to have been able to begin the translation yet, but my constitution is not very strong ; more than two years ago I contracted an obstinate cough which never leaves me. Nevertheless, I hope soon to set to work.
I cannot express, Mademoiselle, how much your affection for my country and my countrywomen touches me, for both your letter and your book sufficiently testify that you do love them ; and I ant proud to be able to say that the heroines of our great epics are worthy of all honor and all love. Is there any heroine more touching, more loveable, than Sita.? I do not believe there is. When, in the evening, I hear my mother sing the old songs of our country I almost always shed tears. Sita's lament when, banished for the second time, she wanders alone in the vast forest with terror and despair in her soul, is so pathetic that I think there is no one who could hear it without crying. 1 enclose for you two little translations from that beautiful old language, the Sanskrit. Unfortunately, I was obliged to cease my translations from the Sanskrit six months ago. My health does not permit me to continue them. I send you also my portrait and that of my sister. In the photograph she is represented as seated. She was so sweet and so good! The photograph dates from four years ago, when I was seventeen and she scarcely nineteen. I too, Mademoiselle, shall be grateful, if you will kindly send me your
photograph. I will keep it as one of my greatest treasures.
"I must pause here; I will not
further intrude upon your time. Like M. LeFevre-Deumier, I must
"Farewell then, dear friend whom I
have not known,"
"For, Mademoiselle, I count you
among my friends and among my best friends, although I have not seen
"Believe, Mademoiselle, the renewed
assurance of my friendship,
From a postscript we learn that she had
expected to visit Europe for her health, and she expresses her hope of
soon meeting her unknown friend. In April, however, she writes
again, saying that she had been very ill for a fortnight, and that this
plan had been abandoned. She asked Mlle. Bader to write to her at
her old address-- "your letter and your portrait will do me
good." It is pleasant to think how she must have enjoyed the
cheering and appreciative letter which she received in reply. It
enclosed the portrait, too, although Mlle. Bader declares that her
photographs were always each uglier than the last, and that it was a
great piece of self-sacrifice for her t send one to anybody who had
never seen her.
Toru answers briefly but warmly, thanking
her friend for her kindness and excusing herself from writing more at
length on the ground that she has been suffering four months from fever,
and is still too weak to go from her own room to the next without
feeling extreme fatigue. One more letter from Mlle. Bader, even
more cordial and affectionate than the last, closes the
correspondence. It is full sympathy and encouragement. She
exclaims with surprise that Toru, in her photograph apparently the
picture of health, should have been so ill.
"But now," she adds, "you
have wholly recovered, have you not? And, at the time of the
Exposition, you will come to our sweet land of France, whose mile
breezes will do you good--you, who have suffered from your burning climate. Friendly hearts await you with joyous hope. My parents and myself love you much—without having ever seen you, but your letters and your works have revealed to us the goodness of your heart, the candor of your soul. Come, then, my amiable friend, to seal with your presence an affection which is already yours."
The two friends never met; the letter was never answered, never received. It was dated September 11, 1877. Toru Dull died August 30th of the same year, aged twenty-one years, six months, and twenty-six days. She had breathed her last before the letter was even written. Her last words were, " It is only the physical pain that makes me cry."
She died almost unknown to fame. A few men in France and England who had made the Orient a special study, had noted her works and praised them as the achievement of a Hindu genius ; a still smaller number had read them and loved them for their poetry alone. But, from the day of her death her reputation grew, and a second edition of the " Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields" was soon prepared, with a brief preface by her father. This book was, it must be remembered, the only one of hers published in her lifetime; upon this alone it was at first thought that her fame must rest. Even had this been the case, her place in literature should have been secure. The translations vary; some are almost flawless gems of English, such as the "Serenade" already given, or this version of a poem by Evariste de Parny, on the "Death of a Young Girl" .
"Though childhood's clays were past and gone
more innocent no child could be;
Though grace in every feature shone,
Her maiden heart was fancy free.
"A few more months, or haply clays
And Love would blossom—so we thought As lifts in April's genial rays
The rose its clusters richly wrought." But God had destined otherwise,
And so she gently fell asleep, A creature of the starry skies
Too lovely for the earth to keep.
"She died in earliest womanhood;
Thus dies, and leaves behind no trace, A bird's song in a leafy wood
Thus melts a sweet smile from a face."
At other times she is not so fortunate. Sometimes a poem intended to be picturesque or impressive is given a really comical turn by the introduction of some unexpected little colloquial phrase, used by Toru with perfect good faith as to its suitability. Take, for example, her translation of Victor Hugo's magnificent piece upon the "Forts of Paris" in which the mood of the English reader is undesirably affected by the statement that
"At a respectful distance keep the forts,
A multitude, a populace, of monstrous guns,
That in the far horizon wolf-like prowl."
The word "cannon-wagon," too, does not lend itself gracefully to blank verse.
"The sinister cannon-wagons darkly grouped"
were doubtless awe-inspiring objects, but the effect upon the reader is not wholly the one intended. Yet in the same piece occur these finely resonant lines descriptive of cannon:
"Far stretching out
Their necks of bronze around the wall immense,
They rest awake while peacefully we sleep,
And in their hoarse lungs latent thunders growl
The notes appended to the book are almost as interesting, in their curious display of unlooked-for knowledge and equally unlooked-for ignorance, as the work itself. It is plain that she is acquainted with our American authors.
In a note upon Charles Nodier she remarks that his prose stories are charming and remind her of Washington Irving. In another upon Baudelaire, she detects in one of his poems a plagiarism from Longfellow—a literal translation of a verse from the "Psalm of Life."
Fortunately for the reading public, however, we have other standards by which to judge of Toru's talent. After her death her father found among her papers the complete French romance of "Mademoiselle d'Arvers," winch was soon published under the editorial care of Mlle. Bader, and a sufficient number of English poems to form the little volume lately issued under the title of "Ancient Songs and Ballads of Hindustan," and prefaced by Mr. Gosse with a memoir of the author.
"le Journal de Mademoiselle d'Arvers" is a novel of modern French society, treating of the love of two brothers for the same beautiful and noble girl. It is tragic, the unhappy passion leading finally to fratricide and madness. Yet, in dealing with these difficult matters, Toru never becomes melodramatic or ridiculous, and often displays true power, though she is not seldom unreal and fantastic. Of more interest to American readers is the collection of her English poems— her chief claim to distinction. These, too, vary greatly. She had not yet completely conquered the language in which she wrote; we are still surprised by occasional prosaic expressions in the midst of poetry, and the strange legends which she relates are often rendered stranger to our ears by the phrases in which she relates them. But they are interesting,
striking, and often beautiful. Under the heading "Miscellaneous Poems" there occur at the end of the volume a few pages which having once read we should find it very hard to spare. Through them all breathes the bright and kindly spirit that made their young author so dear to all around her.
Geniuses are not always comfortable people to live with; but Toru, although
during the four years in which she accomplished the work of her lifetime she was a frail invalid wasting to her death, seems never to have been to those who shared her daily life anything but a blessing, from which they found it the greatest of sorrows to part.
To some readers, the most touching thing in all her sad, short history is the brief paragraph in which her father, now childless, describes his companionship with her in labor She had a wonderful memory, and when a dispute arose between them as to the significance of any word or phrase, she was very apt to be in the right. Some-times, however, her father was so sure of his position that he would propose laying a wager—usually a rupee— before referring to the lexicon to settle the question. Toru almost always won, but now and then she was mistaken.
"It was curious and very pleasant for me," says her father, " to watch her when she lost. First a bright smile; then thin fingers patting my grizzled cheek ; then perhaps some quotation from Mrs. Barrett Browning, her favorite poetess, like this :
'Ah, my gossip, you are older and more learned, and a man!'
or some similar pleasantry."
The story of her life can not be better closed than by quoting here the beautiful last poem of her last book, in which her loving and observant spirit finds, perhaps, its highest expression. In it she sins once more of that dear garden home where she and Aru spent their child-hood together, and to which both returned to die. It is called " Our Casuarina Tree."
Like a huge Python, 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 night the garden overflows
With one sweet song that seems to have no close
Sung darkling 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 grey baboon sits statue-like alone
Watching the sunrise; while on lower boughs
His puny offspring leap about and play;
And far and near ko-kilas hail the day;
And to their pastures wend our sleepy cows;
And in the shadow, on the broad tank cast
By that hoar 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
0 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-like 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 tranced in a dreamless swoon:
And every time the music rose—before
Mine inner vision rose a form sublime,
Thy form, 0 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 those
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 Borrowdale,
Under whose awful branches lingered pale
"Fear, trembling Hope, and Death the skeleton,
And Time the shadow;" and though weak the verso
That would thy beauty fain, oh fain rehearse,
May Love defend thee from Oblivion's curse.