"Our Casuarina Tree" - Critical Appreciation

“Our Casuarina Tree,” a poem written in English by the Indian writer Toru Dutt, celebrates the majesty of the Casuarina Tree as the poet/speaker remembers her happy childhood days spent under it and revives her memories with her beloved siblings.

The fact that the tree is associated, in the speaker’s mind, with other persons is already foreshadowed in the poem’s title through the use of the word Our. The speaker’s perspective is immediately more than merely her own: the title already implies that she thinks of the tree as not simply hers but as belonging to others, too.

The opening image, which compares a large creeper crawling around the tree to a “huge Python” (1), might at first seem dark and foreboding, but the image ultimately emphasizes the great strength of the tree itself. For some readers, the tree symbolizes the ancient and venerable culture of India, while the huge encircling creeper symbolizes the potentially deadly influence of colonialism. Most immediately, though, the creeper itself seems to add a kind of beauty to the tree; it, after all, is called a “scarf” (6), a word with fairly positive connotations.

Although the creeper has left deep marks on the trunk of the tree, the tree is so strong that it bears the tight hold of the creeper. The tree is described as being gallant, and possibly brave, as very few trees could survive in the strangle-hold of this creeper. The tree is metaphorical said as a giant due to its huge size, strength and boldness. The Casuarina Tree is covered with the creeper which bears red crimson flowers that appear as though the tree is wearing a colorful scarf. The poet then goes on to describe the life that thrives amidst every facet of the tree.

Interestingly, it is only in the first line of the second stanza of her poem that Dutt brings in the “I” which instantly connects it with the “Our” of the title of her poem. As the tone as well as the approach is more subjective in this stanza, the Casuarina tree too seems much more than a mere tree in the poet’s garden. Every morning, when the “casement is wide open thrown”, two “delighted eyes” rest on it. And at times, “most in winter”, they gaze at a solitary “gray baboon”, on the “crest”, watching the glorious sunrise while on the lower branches, in direct contrast to this silent, “statue-like” creature is its playful “puny offspring” oblivious of Nature’s magic and the serenity of the quiet morning. Gradually, as the sun rises, the “kokilas” begin to greet the day with their song and a mesmerized speaker watches “sleepy” cows that have not yet shaken off their lethargy, on their way to the pastures. But while they plod on in search of food, our poet feasts her eyes on the beauty of their “hoar tree” and the water-tank filled with white lilies, in full bloom, a soft, white carpet of snow.

But the beauty of the tree is no more than an added gift. Its actual importance lies in the fact that it is a part of the poet’s existence, a reminder of family ties, of the warmth shared by three siblings. The extent of her anguish, as, quite helplessly, she had to watch her brother and sister die, may actually be felt. Yet, it is this silent acceptance of God’s Will that has kept her verse free from the gloom generally associated with sorrow and death. Her brother died when he was just a boy of fourteen, Aru was the next to go in 1874 and there was a time when Toru too was coughing up blood and knew that the end was near. Hence, she could have legitimately wallowed in self pity and wailed that the world was an unhappy place where people just sit and hear each other groan. Instead, even when memory is heart-wrenching and “hot tears” well up to blind her, Toru does not express any desire to fade “far away” and “dissolve”. Their Casuarina tree does not make her long for “easeful” death. Instead, even though its “timelessness” mocks the transience of the human world, the tree is to her a support, a reminder of the joy she once experienced with Abju and Aru. So, with the passion of a loving sister she remembers her “sweet companions” and cries, “For your sakes shall the tree be ever dear!” Her brother and sister, though dead, are never too far away from her and she does not wish to erase them from her memory. One feels that Toru may have been influenced by Thomas Hood’s sobriety. He too had lost a brother to consumption but in I Remember, I Remember he has contrasted, but with restraint, man’s mortality and the seeming deathlessness of the Laburnum tree planted by James on his birthday. Toru Dutt may have been much impressed by Hood’s simple, meaningful line, “The tree is living yet!” In the closing line of the third stanza, she speaks of the “unknown” and unexplored territory that Abju and Aru had entered, never to return.

The poet will not abandon the Casuarina tree even though it is a constant reminder of her irreparable personal loss. Her eyes fill as she recalls the happy past and remembers the three care-free children playing in the garden, under its branches. And the tree loyally responds to her plaintive mood. With the poet, we strain our ears to hear the rustling of the leaves, the “dirge-like murmur”, somewhat like the “murmuring” that Wordsworth once heard “from Glaramara’s inmost caves”. Her tree, their tree, mourns her loss and the “eerie speech”, she hopes, may reach the un-traversed terrain of the dead. Unfortunately, the comparison that Toru draws between this moaning and the breaking of the waves on a shingle beach may underline too boldly her reliance on poets of the West, on Matthew Arnold and his Dover Beach in particular and may call into question, for a moment though, the authenticity of her verse.

The opening line of the next stanza claims that the unknown is “yet well-known” as it can be reconstructed/imagined or even viewed through “the eye of faith”. K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar is of the opinion that the fourth stanza of Toru Dutt’s poem “humanizes the tree, for its lament is a human recordation of pain and regret…”  and the “tree’s lament”, which may reach the land of the dead, transcends territorial boundaries and is heard by her in “distant lands” and even on the “classic shores” of France and Italy. Toru’s description of both the silent Earth, “tranced in a dreamless swoon”, bathed in the silver light of the moon and the “sheltered bay” with its gently undulating waves is enthralling. For the sheer beauty of her verse, readers may wish to overlook the fact that she has borrowed the “water-wraith” from William Wordsworth's Yarrow Visited. September, 1814" which actually looked back to John Logan’s The Braes of Yarrow. But the “water-wraith” of these British poets which give a “doleful” warning and groan, has been substituted in Our Casuarina Tree by one that slumbers in its cave. But, even while in a land so beautiful, whenever “the music rose”, her mind’s eye would see “a form sublime”. Even on foreign soil, her Casuarina Tree would appear before her “inner vision” just as she had seen it in her “own loved native clime”, and also connect her even more strongly both with her native land and with the memory of her dead siblings.

In the final stanza, the poet wishes to “consecrate a lay” in the Casuarina Tree’s honour. Yet, interestingly, notwithstanding the depth of her feelings, Toru Dutt makes little or no attempt to deify their Tree or bestow on it holy powers as Wordsworth does in The Oak of Guernica. Instead, the Casuarina tree, standing in their garden, is a part of her existence and this poem is her simple but sincere homage to a Tree loved also by Abju and Aru who now “repose” in what she euphemistically calls a “blessed sleep”. She knows that soon she too will have to bid farewell to this world and her only wish is that the tree should live forever and be “numbered” amongst the “deathless”. Toru Dutt places the Casuarina tree beside Wordsworth’s Yew tree, “pride of Lorton Vale”, standing in Borrowdale in the Lake District, under whose branches “lingered pale”:

Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton,
And Time the shadow (Yew Trees)

Literary allusions are abundant in this poem. In "Our Casuarina Tree," the first line uses zoomorphism, describing the vine in animal terms (as a python). This is used to illustrate movement, making the tree seem more actively alive and also, by implying movement, there is a subtle indication of the process of time. This again is a simile compareing the creeper to a huge, dangerous, python. Another simile compares the unmoving baboon to a statue. In the last line of the second stanza, the speaker uses another simile to describe the water-lillies "like snow enmassed."  

The line "the giant wears the scarf" is a personification of the tree. For the speaker, the tree is a link to her past. The is again a metaphor of strength comparing the tree to a giant. In a way, she treats the tree like a person that can "tell" (conjure) these memories as if it (the tree) could speak and tell these stories. In the third stanza, the tree is personified again singing its "lament" which might be the wind rustling through the leaves, a "dirge-like murmur" mourning the loss of the past. Personification is used again in the next stanza. Examples are the "eye of faith," "the waves gently kissed," and "the earth lay tranced in a dreamless swoon." The speaker envisions nature (the tree, waves, the earth) as a living and maybe even a conscious entity recalling (dreaming) links to the past.

“Like those in Borrowdale” is an allusion. The poet alludes to the Yew trees that William Wordsworth wrote about, and therefore immortalized. Even if the aforementioned yew trees were to die, they would live on, as anyone who read his poems would be able to see them.

The eleven-lined stanza in which the poem is written is a new and very successful experiement. The poem is divided into five stanzas each made of 11 lines. The rhyme scheme is : abba cdcd eee. This is a new scheme. It seems she has experimented, even thought it is so, it is worthy. The sound system creates a very line rhythm through consonance and assonance. Look this following phrase how sweet they are: “winding round and round” , “bird and bee”, “with one sweet song”, “wide open thrown open”, “my eyes delighted”, “tree be ever dear”, “unknown yet well known”.

Inner rhyming word, ending rhyme, eye-rhyme, pair word etc. really make the poem musical.

Most of the critics agree that “in the organization of poem as a whole and in the finish of individual stanza, in its mastery of phrase and rhythm, in its music of sound and ideas: “our Casuarina Tree” is a superb piece of writing.

Last modified: Tuesday, 9 June 2020, 3:29 PM