The Many Shades of Vikram Seth’s Poetry

Pic by Louis Tran


By Anjana Basu


What sets Vikram Seth’s poetry apart is its craft. He uses forms of poetry that have fallen by the wayside, exploring the 14 line sonnets and clinging to rhyme and metre persistently at a time when most poets prefer free verse for its lack of responsibility and its gravitas. Seth’s poetry has in it a cheerful kind of confidence blending old form with a new voice, bringing in every day things like cups of coffee and cookies that no one would really have considered to be the stuff of poetry. Even when he is serious, he manages to be light about it.

Former lovers haunt the pages as do memories.  This poetry collective brought together by Speaking Tiger includes Mappings (1981), The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1983), All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990), Beastly Tales From Here and There (1991), Three Chinese Poets (1992) and the libretto Arion and the Dolphin (1994). These seven slim volumes  showcase the breadth of Seth’s genius and the recurring designs in his work, a kind of lyrical leitmotif. The cover designs by the Alphales are embellished with the globe motif that is so much a part of Chinese culture, whether lantern or sun disk, accentuated by calligraphy and flights of natural fantasy from the poems, each in a different shade with a slight positional shifts. The whole reflects the favourite preoccupations of Seth’s work and making this a collector’s series indeed.

The publication of this as the world waits for A Suitable Girl is a chance to reflect on what we know of Seth’s well loved poetry.

Vikram Seth’s first book of poems, Mappings, was written in his twenties, during his student life in England and California. As young poets do, he wrote about love, life and the scenes that passed before his eyes with intimacy, immediacy and inventiveness, though yes, these are the works of a poet in the making with nascent qualities of what we can read in the later Seth. Four translations of poems by Du Fu (Chinese), Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Urdu), Heinrich Heine (German) and Suryakant Tripathi Nirala (Hindi) are included in this collection of otherwise original work.

The Humble Administrator’s Garden, his second collection of poems, refers to a garden in Suzhou, China, one of the most famous of its kind, a tranquil space created by a retired official for reflection.  Using the garden as his inspiration, Vikram Seth mulls over the three societies he knows best: India, California and China. His verses muse over Chinese noblemen and hermits; lost or deserted loves; the night with its moonlight, loved by Chinese poets and California lovers alike, touched by the crash of waves and gentle hush of water not to mention musical echoes. Nature rules with the emotions of the night and a touch of melody as Vikram Seth translates three T’ang dynasty poets—Wang Wei (699–761 AD), Li Bai (701–762 AD) and Du Fu (712–770 AD)—who have the power to move the world with their meditative lyricism. Seth chose them because of their very different responses to the times that they shared, weaving together what lies within with what surrounded them and erasing the difference of twelve hundred years with emotion and understanding. Quiet, humble and graceful, the collection has been given a cover to match.

It was obvious that a writer like Seth, who loves music, would write words that would eventually be sung. Arion and the Dolphin, was produced by English National Opera in  1994 (and subsequently in Rotterdam, Singapore and Nottingham). 

The retelling of a Greek legend about a dolphin which rescues and befriends Arion, a young court musician, after he’s tossed overboard by jealous shipmates who are determined that he will not compete in a Sicillian talent show, was set to music by Alec Roth. The opera was produced by the English National Opera, coming on the wings of A Suitable Boy and has nine scenes.

Though Rivered Earth came much later, it fits into Seth’s operatic mode. The four libretti set to music by Alec Roth echo much of Seth’s other poetry and brings together the influences that characterise his work – Chinese, Californian, spanning centuries, bridging time and space. The first three poems, entitled ‘Songs in Time of War’, ‘Shared Ground’ and ‘The Traveller’, are about places that Seth has encountered in the course of his poetic journey—China during the T’ang dynasty and the Administrator’s Garden, the English house of Metaphysical  poet George Herbert, and India, Seth’s birthplace and a place to which he occasionally returns. The fourth libretto, ‘Seven Elements’, brings together the elements of this rivered earth  in a combination that melds ageing and mortality.

Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales from Here and There is a collection of fables from around the world transmuted into verse. You’ll find the story Hare who lost to the slow and steady Tortoise here, but with a twist. Following in the footsteps of Aesop, Vikram Seth crafts ten modern-day animal fables – eight are reworkings of traditional tales from India, China, Greece and the Ukraine – and two are the author’s own original creations.  Dahl’s Beasty Creatures and Revolting Rhymes comes immediately to mind but, while the intention and the tone of the fables is in many cases similar, Vikram Seth’s book of Beastly Tales From Here and There  ends up being very different. They are little known stories, but they will feel familiar  to the Indian adult who has grown up with the Panchatantra and similar stories.  Seth has retold the fables with appealing rhymes modern metaphors, and a kind of subtle skepticism borrowed from Dahl that makes the tales slip easily into the every day.    

All You Who Sleep Tonight is a collection that brings together lost loves, musings from Chinese poets and Quatrains and is the one most poetry lovers cite as their favourite. The title poem is the most beautiful but the sense of loss and longing lingers through the pages. Vikram Seth sifts through the many shades of love—lost, remembered, and deferred. He dons other voices like that of the poet Mirza Ghalib after the mutiny; a German commander at Auschwitz; a Japanese doctor in Hiroshima after the bombing, thoughts too painful perhaps to be shared in his own. He takes us through other places, landscapes that he loves, sunlight filtering through the early morning in landscape in Garhwal; the Lion Grove in Suzhou with its fabled gardens and across his old poetic love the Golden Gate Bridge as he hails its fiftieth anniversary.  

All in all, this collection refreshes Vikram Seth’s work in a series that is bound to adorn shelves across the country.

Details of the books:

Mappings, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, All You Who Sleep Tonight,
Beastly Tales From Here and There, Three Chinese Poets, Arion and the Dolphin and Rivered Earth
7 separate slim volumes of poetry by Vikram Seth, INR 399 each
Published by: Speaking Tiger, India

About the Reviewer:

Anjana Basu is a renowned novelist, poet, reviewer and travel writer.