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object: - The World's Greatest Poets
book class:Letters On Poetry And Art
author class:Sri Aurobindo
subject class:Integral Yoga
media class:chapter

Goethe certainly goes much deeper than Shakespeare; he had an incomparably greater intellect than the English poet and sounded problems of life and thought Shakespeare had no means of approaching even. But he was certainly not a greater poet; I do not find myself very ready to admit either that he was Shakespeares equal. He wrote out of a high poetic intelligence, but his style and movement nowhere come near the poetic power, the magic, the sovereign expression and profound or subtle rhythms of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a supreme poet and, one might almost say, nothing else; Goethe was by far the greater man and the greater brain, but he was a poet by choice, his minds choice among its many high and effulgent possibilities, rather than by the very necessity of his being. He wrote his poetry, as he did everything else, with a great skill and effective genius and an inspired subtlety of language, but it was only part of his genius and not the whole. There is too a touch mostly wanting in spite of his strength and excellence,the touch of an absolute, an intensely inspired or revealing inevitability; few quite supreme poets have that in abundance, in others it comes only by occasional jets or flashes.

When I said there were no greater poets than Homer and Shakespeare, I was thinking of their essential poetic force and beautynot of the scope of their work as a whole, for there are poets greater in their range. The Mahabharata is from that point of view a far greater creation than the Iliad, the Ramayana than the Odyssey, and either spreads its strength and its achievement over a larger field than the whole dramatic world of Shakespeare; both are built on an almost cosmic vastness of plan and take all human life (the Mahabharata all human thought as well) in their scope and touch too on things which the Greek and Elizabethan poets could not even glimpse. But as poetsas masters of rhythm and language and the expression of poetic beautyVyasa and Valmiki are not inferior, but also not greater than the English or the Greek poet. We can leave aside for the moment the question whether the Mahabharata was not the creation of the mind of a people rather than of a single poet, for that doubt has been raised also with regard to Homer.
31 Mar 1932

You once spoke of Goethe as not being one of the worlds absolutely supreme singers. Who are these, then? Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Valmiki, Kalidasa? And what about Aeschylus, Virgil and Milton?

I suppose all the names you mention except Goethe can be included; or if you like you can put them all including Goethe in three rowse.g.:

1st row Homer, Shakespeare, Valmiki
2nd row Dante, Kalidasa, Aeschylus, Virgil, Milton
3rd row Goethe

and there you are! To speak less flippantly, the first three have at once supreme imaginative originality, supreme poetic gift, widest scope and supreme creative genius. Each is a sort of poetic Demiurge who has created a world of his own. Dantes triple world beyond is more constructed by the poetic seeing mind than by this kind of elemental demiurgic powerotherwise he would rank by their side; the same with Kalidasa. Aeschylus is a seer and creator but on a much smaller scale. Virgil and Milton have a less spontaneous breath of creative genius; one or two typal figures excepted, they live rather by what they have said than by what they have made.

31 March 1932
2 Apr 1932

Is the omission of Vyasa deliberate?

It was you who omitted Vyasa, Sophocles and othersnot I.

Yes, I plead guilty. But that, I hope, will be no reason why Vyasa and Sophocles should remain unclassified by you. And the othersthey intrigue me even more. Who are these others? Saintsbury as good as declares that poetry is Shelley and Shelley poetrySpenser alone, to his mind, can contest the right to that equation. (Shakespeare, of course, is admittedly hors concours.) Aldous Huxley abominates Spenser: the fellow has got nothing to say and says it with a consummately cloying melodiousness! Swinburne, as is well known, could never think of Victor Hugo without bursting into half a dozen alliterative superlatives, while Matthew Arnold it was, I believe, who pitied Hugo for imagining that poetry consisted in using divinit, infinit ternit, as lavishly as possible. And then there is Keats, whose Hyperion compelled even the sneering Byron to forget his usual condescending attitude to wards Johnny and confess that nothing grander had been seen since Aeschylus. Racine, too, cannot be left outcan he? Voltaire adored him, Voltaire who called Shakespeare a drunken barbarian. Finally, what of Wordsworth, whose Immortality Ode was hailed by Mark Pattison as the ne plus ultra of English poetry since the days of Lycidas? Kindly shed the light of infallible viveka on this chaos of jostling opinions.

I am not prepared to classify all the poets in the universeit was the front bench or benches you asked for. By others I meant poets like Lucretius, Euripides, Calderon, Corneille, Hugo. Euripides (Medea, Bacchae and other plays) is a greater poet than Racine whom you want to put in the first ranks. If you want only the very greatest, none of these can enteronly Vyasa and Sophocles. Vyasa could very well claim a place beside Valmiki, Sophocles beside Aeschylus. The rest, if you like, you can send into the third row with Goethe, but it is something of a promotion about which one can feel some qualms. Spenser too, if you like; it is difficult to draw a line.

Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth have not been brought into consideration although their best work is as fine poetry as any written, but they have written nothing on a larger scale which would place them among the greatest creators. If Keats had finished Hyperion (without spoiling it), if Shelley had lived, or if Wordsworth had not petered out like a motor car with insufficient petrol, it might be different, but we have to take things as they are. As it is, all began magnificently, but none of them finished, and what work they did, except a few lyrics, sonnets, short pieces and narratives, is often flawed and unequal. If they had to be admitted, what about at least fifty others in Europe and Asia?

The critical opinions you quote are, many of them, flagrantly prejudiced and personal. The only thing that results from Aldous Huxleys opinion, shared by many but with less courage, is that Spensers melodiousness cloyed upon Aldous Huxley and that perhaps points to a serious defect somewhere in Spensers art or in his genius but this does not cancel the poetic value of Spenser. Swinburne and Arnold are equally unbalanced on either side of their see-saw about Hugo. He might be described as a great but imperfect genius who just missed the very first rank because his word sometimes exceeded his weight, because his height was at the best considerable, even magnificent, but his depth insufficient and especially because he was often too oratorical to be quite sincere. The remarks of Voltaire and Mark Pattison go into the same basket.

2 April 1932

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