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Yeats and Tukaram: ‘An Asylum for my Affections’1

Geert Lernout

© Geert Lernout, CC BY 4.0

Yeats’s epigraph for The Wanderings of Oisin has had a shaky afterlife. Although the poet attributed it to ‘Tulka’, Yeats is sometimes credited with having written the phrase himself, and now, in any case, takes the credit for it, as Edna O’Brien demonstrates in a recent interview.2 The romantic opposition between the world and the poet’s inner nature seems to resonate not only with Irish novelists: the travel writer Leila Hadley used the first words as the title of a book, and uses Yeats’s archaic wording in an epigraph, “Give me the world if thou wilt, but grant me an asylum for my affections” although she claims it as ‘From the Icelandic Tulka’.3 And Yeats himself made use of the second part later when he complained to Pound that the American poet’s work gave him ‘no asylum for the affections’.4

Despite the resonance of the phrase, nobody seems to have known where it came from. In 1954, Richard Ellmann in The Identity of Yeats simply repeated that Yeats ‘was quoting a sentence of Tulka’ (320), without explaining who or what that was.5 In The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Richard J. Finneran claimed the author as the Czech painter Josef Tulka, but he added: ‘No source for the words ascribed to Tulka has yet been found, and it is possible that they were invented by Yeats’.6 As recently as two years ago, the Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats mentioned the Czech painter and offered another vague possibility, ‘the Swedenborgian writer Charles Augustus Tulk’.7

The real author of the momentous lines was the Mahārāshtra poet Sant [Saint] Tukaram (c.1598/1608–1649/50) who belonged to the Bhakti movement within Hinduism. Tukaram is the presumed author of a fluid collection of devotional poems that belong to the genre of the Abhanga: most of these poems end with one or two lines of ethical advice, ascribed to the poet who in that part of the poem calls himself Tuka.

We can’t be sure where Yeats found the relevant lines, but a distinct possibility is the first volume of the 1871 book Experiences of a Planter in the Jungles of Mysore by Robert H. Elliot. The full flavour of the book is apparent in the opening sentence of the first chapter, under the title ‘Myself’:

In the year 1855 I sailed for India, with a trifling capital, and with that firm belief in my own capabilities which is common to youth, and which one looks back upon in after life with mingled feelings of wonder and amusement.8

Further indications of the book’s general character are evident in the chapter titles that follow: ‘My Native Neighbours’ (II); ‘Native Character—Private Relations of Life’ (III); ‘Native Character—Current and Written Opinions’ (IV); ‘Bribery’ (V); ‘Caste’ (VI).

The chapter that concerns us is the seventh, under the title ‘Religion’, which may have well been the only one that was relevant to Yeats. After a number of general remarks about the history of the Vedic faith and Brahmanism, and before discussing the influence of Christian missionaries, Elliot deplores the fact that in India ‘Nothing, literally nothing’ has managed to replace the ancient religion. Then he writes:

I am now, with an object which will be distinctly declared further on, going to give at considerable length an account of the life, and a number of quotations from the writings, of an old Maharatta poet, who lived about the end of the sixteenth and the commencement of the seventeenth century. The life and translations I take entirely from a most interesting article by Sir Alexander Grant, which appeared in the Fortnightly Review some years ago.9

Elliot points out that to the average English reader the sentiments in Tukaram’s work seem so ‘exalted and pure that it may be surprising to have emanated from any who had not read the Bible’.10 In his brief biography he stresses the humble living conditions of the shopkeeper Tukaram, who after his death (and ascension in a heavenly chariot) was considered a saint by all who knew him.

Elliot then proceeds to ‘give the whole of such portions of Tukaram as seem best to illustrate the tone of thought and feeling expressed by the Maharatta poet’.11 All of the quoted poems express a mystic and quietist faith (which Elliot compares to ‘Calvinism’), summed up in the final lines of each poem by a quotation from ‘Tukâ’, the moral of the story, expressed by the poet/saint. This is the full text of the tenth (of 22 poems or ‘stanzas’, as he calls them):

Salvation is not difficult for us to obtain,

It is clearly to be found in the bundle on our back.

If we desire the pleasures of faith,

Our longing for them shall be satisfied.

You give, O God, each man his due and what is fit:

Acknowledging it to be good, I accept it readily.

Tukâ says,—’If you like, give me this world,

But give me an asylum for my affections’.12

Before quoting the next poem, Elliot provides an explanation of the rather puzzling final lines:

‘The great object of horror’, says Sir Alexander Grant, ‘to the mind of a religious Hindoo, is the prospect of being born over and over again into this miserable world. Tukaram’s resignation to the will of God is so great, that he professes himself ready to bear this curse of prolonged individuality, provided only that, as long as he is in this world, he may have God as the object of his affections’.13

After the last poem, Elliot moves on to the real reason for his discussion of the work by the saint. He believes that this particular indigenous tradition shows that the British attempts to convert India to Christianity are misguided and have been shown to fail. Since the missionaries will not succeed in converting the ‘Hindoo lads’ to the Christian faith, they might as well make sure to teach them ‘the best possible form of the old Vedic faith’, which would be monotheist and deistic, but not specifically Christian’.14

At the end of the chapter on religion, which also closes the first volume of the book, Elliot comes to a conclusion: missionaries should lead by example, not by trying to convert the natives while living the life of Europeans, but by living among the natives and the like, and by showing what a Christian life is really like.

Missionary work carried on after this fashion would, I feel well assured, be of incalculable benefit to the Indians, and would yield in good time an ample return. But, carried on as it is at present, I feel well assured, as I have repeatedly urged, that little good will ever be done to the cause of Christianity, and that the evils that have ensued from our misguided efforts have done, and are at this moment doing, an amount of harm to the cause of Christianity in Asia which is impossible to exaggerate.15

It is impossible to be certain that Yeats found the quotation of Tukaram in Elliot’s book or in the Fortnightly Review. Both seem equally likely, but what they have in common is a certain distance from Christianity and a sympathy for the native religious traditions, which resulted in finding in Sant Tukaram’s work a mystic deism that was thought not to be incompatible with the Christian tradition. Not all contemporary converts to Christianity seem to have agreed.16

The relevance of the motto to what Yeats was trying to do in The Wanderings of Oisin and in his esoteric philosophy in general, should be obvious. R. F. Foster in the first volume of his biography describes Yeats’s involvement in the Dublin Hermetic Society in the mid-eighties as ‘a local reflection of the fashion for Indian things which infused intellectual avant-garde circles in the 1880’s. Later on in the same volume he points out that some of the poems in The Wanderings of Oisin look back to that period, ‘using the language of Indian mysticism’.17

In the light of a retrospective view such as Foster’s, it is worth stressing that the epigraph is not to be found in The Wanderings of Oisin: and Other Poems (1889), the collection which contains the first printing of Yeats’s version of the Irish epic as well as a heterogeneous group of other poems, including a number on Indian themes. That book had functioned, like so many of Yeats’s early editions, as a kind of Collected Poems to its date of issue, and when Yeats next published these poems, rewritten in many cases, in Poems (1895) he radically altered their overall ordonnance as well as their texts. Poems (1895) was heavily sectionalized and began with The Wanderings of Usheen [sic] as a section, adding the epigraph on the verso of the title and dedication, and making clear that the epigraph related only to the poem which followed. The other poems were regrouped as The Rose and as Crossways, the former privileged over the latter because ‘the writer’ ‘in them has found, he believes, the only pathway whereon he can hope to see with his own eyes the Eternal Rose of Beauty and of Peace’ while Crossways (which included the Indian poems) was consigned to the very back of the volume, by ‘the writer’, ‘because in them he tried many pathways’ (Poems [1895], v-vi: the third person expression is Yeats’s).

An Indian epigraph to an Irish epic requires further explanation, but it gestures perhaps to a very personal and syncretic quest.

1 This paper was delivered as the second lecture in the series, on 3 June 2004. Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If you would like to find out if any further information has been discovered that may help your own research, why not write to the author at Quite apart from anything else, feedback is always welcomed.

3 Leila Hadley, Give me the World (London: Victor Gollancz, 1958), [p. vi].

4 The Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907–1941 (London: Faber & Faber, 1951), 121 (letter 84, To Kate Buss, May 1916).

5 Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1954), 320.

6 CW1, 693.

7 David A. Ross, A Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to his Life and Work (New York: Facts on File, 2009), 281.

8 Robert Henry Elliot, The Experiences of a Planter in the Jungle of Mysore (London: Chapman and Hall, 1871), I, 1. Hereinafter ‘Elliot’.

9 Elliot, 296–97. Sir Alexander Grant’s ‘Tukaram, a Study of Hinduism’ appeared in The Fortnightly Review 7 (January 1867), 27–40.

10 Elliot, 297.

11 Ibid., 300.

12 Ibid., 302.

13 Ibid., 302–03.

14 Ibid., 311.

15 Ibid., 318.

16 For a contemporary reaction, see A Letter to the Brahmos from a Converted Brahman of Benares (Allahabad: Allahabad Mission Press, 1868).

17 Life 1, 46 and 552 n. 80; 85.