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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by A. V. Williams Jackson (1862–1937)

By Kālidāsa (c. 4th Century)

Kālidāsa is the poet in Sanskrit literature whose name may best be compared with Shakespeare. No less an authority than Sir William Jones styled him “the Indian Shakespeare” when he made Kālidāsa’s name known to the Western World by translating his romantic play ‘Çakuntalā’ into English. ‘Çakuntalā’ has ever been a magic word for enchantment since Goethe, with somewhat of a poet’s ecstasy, wrote those oft-quoted lines which may be rendered:—

  • “Would’st thou tell of the blossoms of Spring, and paint the ripe fruits of the Autumn,
  • All that may charm and delight with fullness and joy manifold;
  • Would’st thou combine in one word the enchantments of Earth and of Heaven,—
  • I’ll name, O Çakuntalā, thee; in thy name alone all is told.”
  • Or as the original stanza runs:—
  • “Willst du die Blüthe des frühen, die Früchte des späteren Jahres,
  • Willst du was reizt und entzückt, willst du was sättigt und nährt,
  • Willst du den Himmel, die Erde mit Einem Namen begreifen,
  • Nenn ich, Sakuntala, dich, und so ist Alles gesagt.”
  • The same enthusiasm for Kālidāsa and ‘Çakuntalā’ is echoed in the writings of Schiller, and by many writers who have since found much to admire in this poet of mediæval India.

    Respecting the life of this gifted playwright and lyrical writer, however, we have little if any authentic information. The era in which he lived has been the subject of much discussion. The native tradition favors the first century B.C. as the time when he flourished; but the consensus of scholarly opinion points to the middle of the sixth century A.D. as probably the time when Kālidāsa lived and wrote at the court of King Vikramāditya. Vikrama’s reign was a renaissance period in Sanskrit letters, and Kālidāsa’s name is spoken of as one of “the nine jewels” of Vikrama’s throne; and his work is closely associated with the literary revival, as is shown under ‘Indian Literature’ in the LIBRARY. The poet’s graphic and beautiful descriptions of the city Ujjain, and his familiarity with court life, show that he probably enjoyed for a long time the patronage of his royal protector; although the epilogue of his drama ‘Vikramorvaçī’ seems to indicate straitened circumstances. The poet’s fondness for the Himālayas and mountain pictures, combined with other facts, seems to point toward a Kashmir home. There is reason to believe that he had traveled somewhat. Certain characteristics of his own nature, moreover, are undoubtedly reflected in the tenderness, grace, beauty, delicacy, and passionate feeling that is found in his poetry. There is a story that like Marlowe, his death was violent,—that he perished by the hand of a woman, who to win a monarch’s favor, claimed one of Kālidāsa’s improvised verses as her own, and murdered the poet lest the truth should be discovered. But enough of such gossip! This graceful, sensitive, yet thoroughly manly poet is firm and secure in his title to noble and lasting fame.

    Kālidāsa’s renown does not rest alone on his dramatic work, but it rests also upon his lyrical, descriptive, and narrative poetry. Of his three dramas, ‘Çakuntalā,’ ‘Vikramorvaçī,’ and ‘Mālavikāgnimitra,’ the last named is probably the earlier in point of composition. There is no reason to doubt Kālidāsa’s authorship. It is a play written on the conventional lines of several Hindu dramas which followed it,—a play of court life and romantic incident. The love of King Agnimitra for the dancing-girl Mālavikā, a handmaid to the queen, forms its subject. In spite of the opposition of the queen and the jealousy of a younger consort, the king finds an opportunity to express his admiration; and after many amusing or distressing incidents the girl is found to be a princess in disguise, and all ends happily in union and general reconciliation. The scene in which the fair Mālavikā exhibits her skill in dancing before the king and queen, with the revered Buddhist nun as referee in judging which of the two rival professors has proved himself the better teacher, is quite cleverly arranged, and a selection from it is given below. As the plot is confined to court life and to social intercourse in the palace, the play forms a contrast to the ‘Çakuntalā,’ in which the plot is partly engaged with the supernatural; or a contrast again to the ‘Vikramorvaçī’ (Nymph Won by Heroism), in which the mythical, marvelous, and supermundane abound. The plots of the two latter plays are described under ‘Indian Literature’; and the comments that are made here are added simply by way of supplementing the main points there presented regarding Kālidāsa as a dramatic poet.

    In the field of the romantic epopee, Kālidāsa ranks first in his ‘Raghuvança,’ or ‘Line of Raghu,’—a poem in eighteen cantos tracing the descendants of the solar kings, or the line from which the great Rāma is sprung. Parts of the poem are Vergilian in tone, but according to our taste they lack the classic restraint of the Roman writer. Similar in character is Kālidāsa’s narrative from ‘Kumārasambhava,’ or Birth of the War Prince, which may be read as far as the seventh canto in Griffith’s rhymed translation. In respect to Kālidāsa’s lyrical poetry, it is not necessary to add anything here regarding the ‘Ritusanhara,’ a sort of Sanskrit Thomson’s ‘Seasons,’ which has been sufficiently discussed under ‘Indian Literature.’ A few additional words, however, may be devoted to Kālidāsa’s lyrical masterpiece, ‘Meghadūta’ (the Cloud-Messenger). This love message which the banished Yaksha (demigod) intrusts to the cloud to convey to his beloved, has almost the feeling of a Shelley. The poem is short,—not much over a hundred stanzas; but the beauty of its description of natural phenomena, and the fineness of its lyrical passion, render it worthy of the reputation which it enjoys in India and of the attention which some lovers of poetry in the Occident have given it.

    As a poet, Kālidāsa combines art with nature. His language and his style have all the finish and skillful elaboration, without the labored workmanship and meretricious faults, that mark the later development and decay of Sanskrit art-poetry. In his writings the literary student will find certain elements that recall the renaissance spirit of Marlowe or of Keats rather than the soul of Shakespeare. One might be reminded in his lyrical poetry and descriptive narrative, for example, of the lavishness and exuberance of Marlowe, or of the beauty, color, and passionate effusiveness of Keats. He excels in poetic outbursts of pure fancy, but he can reflect in philosophic tone, and can be stirred by the pomp of war and the trumpet’s blare; yet these passages are not common. His description of natural scenery and his love of animals seem almost Wordsworthian; for nature is nearer to the heart of Kālidāsa than to almost any other poet’s heart. In dramatic work, if such comparison be possible, his hand is rather the hand of the earlier Shakespeare, or the touch of the later romantic Shakespeare, than the Shakespeare of the great tragic period; for the Hindu dramatic canon practically excluded Kālidāsa from tragic subjects. Taken for all in all, he is a poet worthy to be studied by a poet and by any true lover of poetry, and his work well merits a place in the best literature of the world.

    The most recent and important translation from Kālidāsa’s works, in addition to those cited next, is by Arthur W. Ryder (London and New York, 1912).