Sita by Toru Dutt
“Sita” appears in Toru Dutt’s posthumous poetry collection, Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan. This poem presents a nostalgic story of Dutt’s childhood and how she became emotional while hearing the heart-touching Sanskrit mythological tales from her mother. Though the title of the poem alludes to the heroine of the Hindu epic Ramayana, this poem is based on the reaction of three children after listening to the second exile story of Sita. Dutt uses vivid descriptions of the character’s surroundings in order to portray the lush, enriching landscape of India.
- Read the full text of “Sita” below:
Sita by Toru Dutt Three happy children in a darkened room! What do they gaze on with wide-open eyes? A dense, dense forest, where no sunbeam pries, And in its centre a cleared spot.—There bloom Gigantic flowers on creepers that embrace Tall trees: there, in a quiet lucid lake The while swans glide; there, "whirring from the brake," The peacock springs; there, herds of wild deer race; There, patches gleam with yellow waving grain; There, blue smoke from strange altars rises light. There, dwells in peace, the poet-anchorite. But who is this fair lady? Not in vain She weeps,—for lo! at every tear she sheds Tears from three pairs of young eyes fall amain, And bowed in sorrow are the three young heads. It is an old, old story, and the lay Which has evoked sad Sîta from the past Is by a mother sung.... 'Tis hushed at last And melts the picture from their sight away, Yet shall they dream of it until the day! When shall those children by their mother's side Gather, ah me! as erst at eventide? - from Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882)
Dutt’s poem “Sita” presents the characters of “Three happy children” at the beginning of the poem. They are listening to the story of Sita’s second exile to the hermitage of Valmiki from their mother. While listening to the tale, they become so engrossed in it that they can even visualize the surroundings of the character.
According to the speaker (Dutt), the “poet-anchorite” is amidst a dense forest where the sunlight sparsely enters. In the center, there is a clear spot where she is sitting. Around her, there are tall trees and a lucid lake where white swans glide. In the following lines, the poet goes on to depict the landscape and at the end of her description, she tells readers about the unhappy fate of Sita.
Listening to her painful story, the children also start crying. Dutt says the impact of the story is going to stay with them until the next morning. In the end, she asks about when those children sat around their mother to listen to the story. In reply, she clarifies that those children are none other than Dutt herself and her siblings Aru and Abju.
Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter
Dutt’s “Sita” is composed of 22 lines that are grouped into a single stanza. This poem contains a regular rhyme scheme and meter. Besides, it is written loosely in the ballad style but its structure does not resemble the form. The subject matter is in consonance with this poetic form. Dutt uses the third-person narrative scheme throughout the piece. While, in the last two lines, she asks a rhetorical question in first-person for making this piece an autobiographical poem.
This poem is written using an alternative rhyme scheme. There is not any fixed rhyming pattern in the text. It changes according to the mood of the text.
In the first twelve lines, Dutt uses the ABBA rhyme scheme. It means these lines can be grouped into three quatrains. In each quatrain, the first and last line and the second and third lines rhyme together.
If lines 12-15 are grouped into a quatrain, the rhyme scheme becomes ABAB. In lines 16-20, the rhyme scheme is ABBAA. The last two lines end with a rhyming couplet similar to the penultimate couplets.
This poem is written in iambic pentameter, the most common meter used in conventional poetry. It means, in each line, there are five iambs (unstressed-stressed). The rising rhythm of iambs reflects the mood of the text. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first few lines.
Three hap/-py child/-ren in/ a dark/-ened room!
What do/ they gaze/ on with/ wide-o/-pen eyes?
A dense,/ dense fo-/rest, where/ no sun/-beam pries,
And in/ its cen/-tre a/ cleared spot./—There bloom
Gi-gan/-tic flow(e)rs/ on creep/-ers that/ em-brace
Tall trees:/ there, in/ a quiet/ lu-cid/ lake
As we can see, the overall excerpt is in iambic pentameter with a few spondee variations. A spondee is a foot consisting of two stressed syllables.
Poetic Devices & Figurative Language
Toru Dutt’s poem “Sita” contains the following literary devices that make the speaker’s feelings more engaging.
- Allusion: The title of this piece is an allusion to the mythical goddess and heroine of Ramayana, one of the Hindu epics. Dutt specifically alludes to the story of Sita’s second exile told in Uttara Kanda. There is also an allusion to Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest.
- Rhetorical Exclamation: This piece begins with this device. It is also present in the expression “for lo!”.
- Rhetorical Question: Dutt uses this device in the second, twelfth, and last lines.
- Palilogy: It occurs in “A dense, dense forest” and “an old, old story”. The repetition of the same word is used for the sake of emphasis.
- Personification: It occurs in “where no sunbeam pries”. Here, the sun is personified with the idea of prying into someone’s affairs. It is also present in “Gigantic flowers on creepers that embrace”.
- Anaphora: It occurs in lines 7-11. In the first three, Dutt uses “The” at the beginning. The following lines begin with “There”.
- Metaphor: In this poem, readers can find a metaphor in the term “poet-anchorite”. Here, Sita is compared to an anchorite or secluded priestess. The term “poet” is used to connect the poet with the mythical character. Dutt also lived outside her country for a long time. That’s why she compares herself to an anchorite. Besides, the line “And melts the picture from their sight away” contains another metaphor. Here, the “picture” of weeping Sita is compared to something that melts away.
Dutt’s poems revolve around the themes of seclusion, longing, patriotism, and childhood nostalgia. Likewise, readers can find all these themes in the poem “Sita”. It also taps on the themes of myth and childhood. In the first two lines, this theme is in action. Dutt describes children’s awe-struck faces while they listen to the mythical story of Sita. The following lines delve deeper into the themes of myth, the beauty of the Indian landscape, and loneliness. The character of Sita is portrayed as a motif of seclusion, longing, and grief. In this poem, Dutt depicts how this character’s sadness impacted her when she was a child. While she wrote this poem, she also felt the same as Sita felt being detached from her husband Rama.
Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation
Three happy children in a darkened room!
What do they gaze on with wide-open eyes?
The first two lines of the poem directly introduce the plot to readers. There are three children who are happy inside their darkened room. The idea somehow sounds paradoxical. How can children be happy in darkness? Primarily, children fear the darkness. But their faces show something else. To create more suspense, Dutt refers to an awe-inspiring image that grabs the children’s attention. She uses the hyperbolic expression “wide-open eyes” in order to portray their amazement. After reading the first two lines, it is not clear what they are doing and gazing at.
A dense, dense forest, where no sunbeam pries,
And in its centre a cleared spot.—There bloom
Gigantic flowers on creepers that embrace
Tall trees: there, in a quiet lucid lake
The white swans glide; there, “whirring from the brake,”
The peacock springs; there, herds of wild deer race;
There, patches gleam with yellow waving grain;
There, blue smoke from strange altars rises light.
There, dwells in peace, the poet-anchorite.
In the following lines of “Sita”, Dutt portrays a dense forest where sunlight sparsely enters. She uses the repetition of the term “dense” to describe how thick the forest is. It is so packed up with trees, that the sunbeam cannot even enter through the dense leaves covering it like a dome.
In the center of her image, there is a cleared spot where probably the central character sits. Surrounding her seat, huge flowers bloom on creepers. Those plants embrace tall trees. In “Tall trees”, Dutt uses alliteration of the “t” sound.
Besides, the “creeper” and the “Tall tree” are symbols of Sita and Rama respectively. Dutt uses this symbol also in her poem “Our Casuarina Tree”. This metaphorical image also portrays the poet’s attachment to her childhood days.
There is a quiet and lucid lake as if the water body has a soul. In its silent water, white swans glide. This image creates a peaceful mood in the poem. By quoting the phrase “whirring from the brake”, Dutt alludes to Pope’s best-known work Windsor Forest. In Pope’s work, pheasants spring from the thicket. Here, the beautiful peacocks spring by whirring their beautiful tails. By using this image, the poet adds the essence of Indianness into this piece.
She goes on to depict the rich patches of grains gleaming in the sunlight. Their heads are waving for the wind. There are some strange altars from which the bluish smoke reflects light. In this beautiful place, the “poet-anchorite” resides peacefully. The term “poet-anchorite” is a reference to the mythical character as well as the poet herself.
But who is this fair lady? Not in vain
She weeps,—for lo! at every tear she sheds
Tears from three pairs of young eyes fall amain,
And bowed in sorrow are the three young heads.
In the first line of this section, the poetic persona rhetorically asks who this “fair lady” is. She does not provide a direct answer here. So, the term “poet-anchorite” can be interpreted as a reference to both Sita and Toru Dutt. They were in a similar condition. The former is a sad woman turned down by her husband. While the latter had moved out of her country for higher education. So, Dutt was in a kind of self-imposed exile.
The poet again goes back to her story and says that the lady does not weep in vain. Her sad story has also made the children sad. The more they listen to the pain of Sita the more tears fall down from their innocent eyes. Their heads bow in the sorrow of the goddess’ suffering.
It is an old, old story, and the lay
Which has evoked sad Sîta from the past
Is by a mother sung.… ‘Tis hushed at last
And melts the picture from their sight away,
Yet shall they dream of it until the day!
In the following line, Dutt uses another palilogy in “an old, old story” to emphasize how old the tale was. It was impregnated into the folk culture a long time ago. This story of Sita is still told in Indian households as a bedtime story. Dutt discloses the main idea of the poem in the following line. She says that the mother of those three kids was telling this story. Her art of storytelling is so rich that it “evoked sad Sita” from the pages of history. Here, the poet is alluding to her own mother.
At the end of the line “Is by a mother sung” the poet uses an ellipsis in order to tell readers that this story is sung by mothers from several households. As long as the culture survives, this story will be told by Indian mothers to their children. This device is also used to mark a transition in the text.
In the following section, the speaker says that the story has ended. It quickly melts the picture of sad Sita away from their minds. However, the kids will be dreaming about her until they wake up the next morning.
When shall those children by their mother’s side
Gather, ah me! as erst at eventide?
In the last two lines, Dutt asks a rhetorical question again. Like her previous interrogation has a purpose to serve. In this case, the lines hint at the subjective side of this story. Here, the poet asks when those children gathered by their mother’s side to listen to the tale of Sita. She answers, “ah me!”. It means she is actually talking about herself. Long before, in her childhood days, she used to gather around her mother along with her siblings Aru and Abju to listen to stories.
Dutt’s poem “Sita” was published in Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan. It was published posthumously in 1882 with an introductory memoir of Dutt by Edmund Gosse, an English poet, and critic. The ballads are Indian in genre and outlook. Through these poems, Dutt attempts to reveal her longing for her land. She does not ever anglicize her ideas but keeps close to the ethics and integrity of the original tales. In this poem, Dutt shares a personal childhood story. She was the youngest child of three, after sister Aru and brother Abju. They spent most of their childhood in Calcutta and learned stories of ancient India from their mother. Even after her return from Europe, she resorted to her mother’s stories and songs about India.
Questions and Answers
The poem is about three little children who become sad after listening to the story of Sita’s second exile from their mother. Through this piece, Toru Dutt alludes to her own childhood when her mother used to tell such mythical stories.
The poet can remember the awe-struck faces of three kids. Their eyes revealed their interest in the sad tale of Sita. After listening to the story, they became so sad that they could not stop crying. Apart from that, she can also remember the plot of the story and the landscape where Sita was exiled.
The term “blue smoke” is used to create a supernatural effect in the story of Sita. Dutt says, “There, blue smoke from strange altars rise light”. As sunlight could not enter the spot, the altars enlightened the place with their bluish smoke.
The “poet-anchorite” is a reference to the mythical character of Sita as well as the poet herself. They were both far away from their home. That’s why the poet uses this metaphor to compare herself to Sita. The term “anchorite” means a person who withdraws from secular life to lead an intensely ascetic life.
The “fair lady” is none other than the goddess Sita. It can also be a reference to the poet.
The mother in the poem tells the story to her children. This story centers on the episode of Sita’s second exile. It is told in the later interpolation of Ramayana, Uttara Kanda. In this poem, Dutt describes the place where the character was exiled and how she weeps in longing for her husband.
The mother in the poem sings the song of Sita. Here, Dutt alludes to her mother Kshetramoni Dutt who told her mythical stories in her childhood days.
The retelling of the story evoked sad Sita from the past. Their mother was so adept in the art of storytelling that it infused life into the character of Sita.
Three children are listening to the story.
The children are weeping for the sad destiny of Sita. Her loneliness and longing for her husband make them sad.
In this poem, Dutt refers to the white swans, a peacock, the herds of wild deer.
The poem begins with a reference to the three children listening to the story of Sita. They wait to listen to the story with eager eyes. In the following lines, Dutt describes the place where Sita was exiled.
The poem ends on a nostalgic note. In the last two lines, the poet sadly says that it was she and her siblings who gathered by their mother’s side to listen to the story.
It is a lyric poem that is written from the third-person point of view. In this nostalgic poem, Dutt shares one of her childhood memories.
The rhyme scheme of this poem, for the most part, is ABBA. In the last few lines, the poet uses the AABB (rhyming couplet) rhyme scheme.
The hermitage (ashram) of Valmiki is located in Amritsar. It is popularly believed that Sita lived with her twin sons Lava and Kusha in this ashram.
The dense forest trees of the hermitage blocked the sunlight from entering.
- Full Text of Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan — Explore more Toru Dutt’s poems published in this collection.
- About the Second Exile of Sita — Read about the story of Sita’s second exile to the hermitage of Valmiki.
- Lecture on Toru Dutt — Learn about the poet’s contribution to Indian English poetry.
- About Toru Dutt — Read about the poet’s life and works.