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Imagine if a poem were a woman (just go with us for a second here, Shmoopers). Now, let's say that she's wearing a pretty dress, with loads of fancy jewelry like bangles and earrings and necklaces and—why not?—even an anklet. Then she begins taking off all of this fancy stuff. The earrings come off, the bangles, the necklaces. Bye-bye, anklet. Finally, she changes into a comfy pair of jeans and a t-shirt.
Maybe this sounds a bit weird, but the speaker of Rabindranath Tagore's "Song VII" in fact envisions this very thing: his poem as a woman, taking off all her "adornments." The speaker isn't speaking literally, of course. He uses the metaphor of the dressed-up woman to talk about his poem. His real point is about how simple poetic language is better than complicated poetic language. To return to his metaphor: sometimes a girl looks better in a t-shirt and jeans with no makeup than she does in a fancy dress and jewelry.
Now, we know what you're thinking: "Gee, how nice of this poem to give girls permission to wear jeans. Welcome to the twenty-first century, pal." And you'd be right. A man using a woman's appearance to talk about poetry is pretty objectifying—no two ways about it. At the same time, however, it's important to realize that this poem comes to us from a very different time and place.
Tagore first published in his original language of Bengali, in 1910. Two years later, his work was translated into English, in a collection called Gitanjali (or, Song Offerings). His poems were so well-received that he ended up winning the granddaddy of all literary prizes: the Nobel Prize for Literature, just one year later in 1913. He was the first non-European to win.
He was also a polymath. What's a polymath, you ask? That's a guy (or girl) who's basically a genius at a bunch of things. Tagore was not only a poet, he was a musician and an artist. Yup: he revolutionized Bengali literature (literature written in the Bengali language, one of the major languages of India), and also managed to compose over 2,000 songs in his lifetime. And that's before we get to the fact that he took up art at age 60 and became an important practitioner of modern art. Tagore's work, coupled with this political and spiritual activism, make him one of the most famous Indian writers of all time. Dude had it all going on.
All this is just to say that, with "Song VII," it's important to look past this dated metaphor to see the poem's bigger point about language. Tagore's speaker argues that the purpose of his poetry is to connect to the divine. And the best way to connect to the divine, he suggests, is through poetry that uses simple language. Fancy poetry, like a fancy woman (or, if we're being honest, a fancy man), is too hung up on appearances. And that kind of superficial nonsense just won't lead us to God.
When's the last time you looked in the mirror (or, you know, used your cell phone's selfie screen to check yourself out)? If you're being honest, Shmoopers, you can probably measure that in hours, or minutes. We mean, who honestly goes for days without paying attention to their appearance?
Now, you're probably familiar with all the clichés by now: "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," "beauty's only skin-deep," "it's what's on the inside that counts"—yadda, yadda, yadda. And sure, we'd all like to believe that we're above superficial worries like the latest fashion trends or hottest clothing labels. But the truth is that, to a certain extent, we're all caught up in the image race in some way. In a time when our picture can be instantaneously posted to the internet for all eyes to see, that obsession has gotten worse, not better.
But think about it: wouldn't it be better to not have to worry about being fancy, or hip, or trendy? How much time, energy, and cold, hard cash do we waste on that sort of stuff? Don't you ever wish you can just—you know—simplify and be yourself? We all do, as does our man Rabindranath Tagore. Not only is his "Song VII" a window into the mind of a genius, it shows us that simpler is better. Its message is not to get caught up in the appearance rat race. Take off that hipster get-up and get back to being you, because what's going on inside you is way, way more important than anything you can wear on the outside.
Rabindranath Tagore's Nobel Prize Page
Want to learn more about the awesome accomplishments of Tagore? Look no further than the Nobel Prize page on his life.
Tagore on the Literature Network
The Literature Network provides us with an in-depth biography of the polymath's life and works.
The Poetry Foundation has a bit about Tagore's life, but is more useful for links to other examples of his poetry.
What's Up, (Rabindranath Tagore) Doc?
Here's a 1961 documentary about the famous poet, with the voice-over of a dude with a cool British accent.
"Finding Tagore" Documentary
Here's yet another documentary. This one's about the 2011 Tagore Festival held in Dartington, England.
Here's an audiobook of Gitanjali, or Song Offerings, the collection of poems in which "Song VII" appears. The song is recited at 18:33.
"Song 35" Audiobook
Dig this trippy recitation of another of Tagore's poems, "Song 35."
Behold, the Man
The beard is just killing it, in our opinion.
Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein in Berlin
The mega-brain of physics and the mega-brain of poetry meet in Berlin in 1930.
Rabindranath Tagore Handwriting
Here's an image of Tagore's very cool Bengali script.
This Guardian article is about the legacy of Tagore. The poor guy has been neglected of late (though not by Shmoop!).
"Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Painter"
This article from the V&A Museum in London is about Tagore's accomplishments as a visual artist.
First published in English in 1912, Tagore's Gitanjali, or Song Offerings, established the poet as a major literary force. "Song VII" can be found in this collection.
Universality and Tradition
This collection of essays provides a great introduction to the poet and his work.
Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet of Eternity
This 2014 documentary chronicles the huge influence that Tagore had on people as varied as Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein.
This documentary about Tagore's life and influence was broadcast in 1961.