The Lotus, published in 1882 in the book “Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan”, is a poem by Toru Dutt that revolves around the themes of natural beauty, as well as patriotism and religion. The poet uses the Lotus flower to represent the Hindu religion, as well as the natural beauty of Asia and its flora. The resolution of this poem comes as a link is made between the Eastern and Western cultures, and brings out a new perspective that is better than the two separate cultures.
This 14-line poem is structured in the style of a Petrarchan sonnet, with a clearly defined octave and sestet. The octave, which has 8 lines, has the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA, which follows the structure of the Petrarchan sonnet. The deviation comes in the 6-line sestet whose rhyme scheme is CDCDDC. This is not generally seen in this type of sonnet, and so this poem is styled with the Petrarchan sonnet as inspiration. The volta, or turn, of the poem takes place at the beginning of the sestet.
Another memorable poem by Toru Dutt is titled Our Casuarina Tree, the summary and analysis of which may be read here.
The Lotus | Summary And Analysis
The Lotus | Analysis, Lines 1-9
Love came to Flora asking for a flower
That would of flowers be undisputed queen,
The lily and the rose, long, long had been
Rivals for that high honor. Bards of power
Had sung their claims.
‘The rose can never tower
Like the pale lily with her Juno mien’ –
‘But is the lily lovelier?’ Thus between
Flower-factions rang the strife in Psyche’s bower.
The first 8 lines describe a situation that arises in Psyche’s bower. A bower is a sheltered, cool part of a garden and is a pleasant area to sit in. Here, Love approaches Flora and asks her for a flower that can be called the queen of all flowers. There are already two flowers vying for this title, that is, the lily and the rose. Many poets (bards) who were highly influential claimed that the rose could never reach the stature of the lily, and the lily could never have the beauty of the rose. Because of these uncertainties, was argument and debate between the two camps, and neither the lily nor the rose came out victorious.
This poet uses several characters from Roman mythology in the story she tells through this poem. Love can be seen as Cupid, the Roman god of love. Flora is the Roman goddess of flowering plants and the season of spring. The Roman goddess Juno is the Queen of the gods, and the Roman goddess Psyche is the wife of Cupid.
The lily is a flower that is native to areas of the Northern Hemisphere, like Europe, or the United States. In the poem, the lily represents the standards of beauty of the West and is symbolic of the belief that their beauty and standards are the best. The lily flower also is compared to the goddess Juno. Juno, as the queen of the gods, is well known for her elegance and majestic looks. The lily’s “Juno mien” is the flower’s own stateliness and sophisticated air. “Mien” means the appearance or demeanour of someone, and in this case, the lily’s mien was one of royalty.
The rose is a flower that is native to Central Asia, and is representative of the opposite of the Euro-centric standards of beauty, and symbolises the natural beauty of those that do not necessarily live up to the standards set by European countries and the like. In poetry, the rose is symbolic of love and beauty, and this beauty is unattainable even to the lily.
The flower garden is at an impasse, as neither candidate for queendom wins over the other. There is strife between these two, in deciding who comes out victorious. In the context of beauty, the strife is between the acceptance of Eurocentric ideals of beauty and the acceptance of Eastern ideals of beauty. Neither win over the other, and must learn to co-exist.
In this stanza, enjambment is used quite frequently, for example, “Bards of power/ Had sung their claims.” The enjambment throughout the stanza also symbolises the ongoing debate in the garden, that has gone on for a very long time. The poem’s phrases spill over to the next line, supporting the narrative style, and representing the continuous fight and rivalry between the lily and the rose.
Here, alliteration is used in “high honor”, “lily lovelier”, and “flower-factions”
The Lotus | Analysis, Lines 10-15
‘Give me a flower delicious as the rose
And stately as the lily in her pride’ –
But of what color?’ – ‘Rose-red,’ Love first chose,
Then prayed – ‘No, lily-white – or, both provide;’
And Flora gave the lotus, ‘rose-red’ dyed,
And ‘lily-white’ – the queenliest flower that blows.
The volta of the Petrarchan sonnet is seen here, as the problem that was brought up earlier gets resolved. Unable to choose between the stately lily and the beautiful rose, Love asks Flora to instead give him a flower that combines the best of both. This indecision between the lily and the rose is brought forth again when Love was not able to choose a colour. He could not decide between the beautiful rose-red, or the elegant lily-white. He finally hit upon the best compromise, a mix of both.
To fulfil his wish, the goddess provided the lotus flower, a mix of both the rose and the lily, the true queen of the garden. This lotus represents India and the Hindu religion. The poet is portraying the Hindu religion as the one that is superior to all others, as the lotus is superior to all other flowers in Psyche’s garden.
The lotus flower is the national flower of India, and it is also revered by Hindus. Many deities like Saraswati, or Brahma, sit at a throne that is modelled after the lotus flower. It is a symbol of enlightenment and purity and is the expression of the divinity of the gods. Using this lotus, Dutt expresses that the Hindu religion triumphs over all others.
However, this poem is not seen only through the eyes of religion. This intermingling of cultures to bring about a better result is also representative of how the standards of beauty reach a compromise accepted by all. The ideals of both factions are combined as the lily and rose are combined, to create a beauty that emerges from the mix of both.
In this stanza, the occurrence of enjambment has reduced, as the ongoing fight gets resolved. Neither the rose nor the lily have anything to fight over, as the true queen of the garden is revealed by Flora.
Here, alliteration is used in “rose-red”.
The Lotus | About the Poet
Toru Dutt was born on 4 March 1856, in Kolkata.
She is known as a poet and translator and wrote mainly in English and French. Her work has several western influences as she spent most of her life abroad, between Paris, London, and Cambridge.
She is hailed as one of the greatest Indian poets of the 19th century and played a major role in setting the foundation for Indo-Anglian literature. She was very well-versed in French and translated several poems, and was one of the first Indian authors to write in French. Also, she is often compared to the English poet John Keats and is referred to as the Keats of Indo-English literature.
In her lifetime, only her collection of translated poems titled “A Sheaf Gleaned In French Fields” was published, and all her own work was published only after her death. Her poetry usually deals with themes of nostalgia, loneliness, and patriotism. Some notable works of hers are “Lakshman” and “My Vocation”
She died at the age of 21, on 30 August 1877, in Kolkata.