Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Cloud Messenger

Meghadutam, or, The Cloud Messenger, by Kalidasa

I must say, the Classics Club has been good for me. When I first compiled the list, I added a bunch of titles that I didn't actually know what they were.  Surprise is good, right?  Several of the surprise titles were ancient or medieval texts from Asian sources.  So, I have Kojiki (Japanese) and Muqaddimah (Arabic) on my list, and I'm tracking those down.  And I had The Cloud Messenger, by Kalidasa, who lived about 1500 years ago and wrote in Sanskrit.  Kalidasa wrote plays and poetry, and the web page where I read the poem says that he "created a new genre in Sanskrit literature" with The Cloud Messenger.  Instead of an epic or a hymn, this is a poem about love and longing.  It's too long to be called a lyric, but the website describes it as elegiac, which is pretty good.

In the poem, a young Yaksha--an attendant on Kubera, the god of wealth--has committed some fault and has been exiled from the Himalayas for a year.  He lives far away, on a different mountain, and he is pining for his lovely young bride.  When he sees a cloud traveling by (the rainy season is about to start), he addresses it, wishing that the cloud would take a message to his beloved.  About half the poem is dedicated to enticing the cloud by describing the wonderful journey across India it will take on its way to the city of the Yakshas:
At thine approach, Dasharna land is blest
With hedgerows where gay buds are all aglow,
  With village trees alive with many a nest
Abuilding by the old familiar crow,
With lingering swans, with ripe rose-apples' darker show.


  There shalt thou see the royal city, known
Afar, and win the lover's fee complete,
  If thou subdue thy thunders to a tone
Of murmurous gentleness, and taste the sweet,
Love-rippling features of the river at thy feet.
It's like a magic carpet ride over a fairy-tale landscape, right across India.  The Yaksha then describes his bride's longing for him, his for her, and finally dictates the actual message to the cloud.

It never does say whether the cloud does the young man's bidding.  I rather think not, because near the beginning it points out that a cloud is not really an appropriate entity to be a messenger, and blames the Yaksha's lack of common sense on his love-addled state--an amusing moment of realism in what amounts to a fairy tale poem:
Nor did it pass the lovelorn Yaksha's mind
How all unfitly might his message mate
  With a cloud, mere fire and water, smoke and wind--
Ne’er yet was lover could discriminate
’Twixt life and lifeless things, in his love-blinded state. 
The Cloud Messenger is only about 100 stanzas long and a pleasant read.  I'm sure the modern English translation can't even hope to measure up to the original Sanskrit, but the online version is comprehensible and comes with very handy notes between the stanzas, so you don't get too lost.

There are plenty of adaptations to music and the stage, too.  I hope sometime I can see one.

Kalidasa also wrote a play and some other poetry, so I'll put those on my mental list for the future.  I guess I'm going to need the Classics Club, 2nd edition.

3 comments:

R.T. said...

My knowledge of Asian literature is shamefully empty, so I appreciate your posting as it suggests a title and author that may be a good beginning for me to rectify that shortcoming. Thanks!

Jean said...

Yes, I think it's a nice introduction to Indian literature! Hope you enjoy it.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Kālidāsa's plays are of high interest. I have not read The Cloud Messenger; I obviously should.