Abstract: Stephen Gill, a novelist and poet, blends his sweeps of imagination with longings to attain spiritual bliss through his purity of passion pricking his earthly stay with heavy dosage of realism in his latest collection of poems entitled The Singer of Life. Acclaimed widely as a poet of peace and love, he amalgamates divinity and peace where love works as a linking device. Love is a ladder to peace which leads to spirituality enabling humans to communicate with the divine available in various forms of Nature. Lost in mundane world, humans fail to notice this divinity that exists around them. The poet in this regard has an edge over ordinary mortals. The blind craze for material gains chains humans to the physical world engrossing them initially and later distancing them from the sacrosanct halo that remains camouflaged.
The present paper attempts to explore the threads of an authentic existence in Gill’s collection, which consists of love sonnets. The poet delves deep in the ocean of love and discovers myriad meanings in its multiple forms. The paper will also unveil how humans lose sight of Godliness even in the physical world that induces them into merciless mechanism ready to devour everything and turn them into automatons. The subtle use of symbolism and experimentation of sonnet form in Gill’s poem record a sojourn from physicality to spirituality amid deep pathos, prompting the hungry generations to realize the invisible visible around them. The peregrination of love cannot reach its pinnacle unless it traverses through truth, beauty and delight, commingling in God, i.e. the singer of life. Gill’s love sonnets remind us of the great William Wordsworth who in one of odes cries in the same vein:
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Key words: Spiritual bliss, Realism, Godliness, Pathos, Peregrination
Stephen Gill is a tireless traveler who has made his presence conspicuous among the literati not because of his lyrical compositions flowing continuously but also because of his sojourn throughout the world to decipher ways ‘to run away from the murderous religious rage, to grow as a creative writer in a fearless atmosphere’. Having taught for three years in Ethiopia in the beginning of his career, he migrated to England and finally settled in Canada in the early sixties. A trilingual poet, he writes in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi, though of late he has dedicated himself to the world of literature mostly written in English. With multiple awards to his name, Gill has authored more than twenty books, including novels, literary criticism and collection of poems which have appeared in numerous publications. His works of poetry include Reflections and Wounds (1978), The Dove of Peace (1989), Songs for Harmony (1993), Divergent Shades (1995), Songs Before Shrine (2007), Flashes (2007), The Flame (2008), Amputee (2008), and The Singer of Life (2016). A self- exiled poet, Gill’s The Singer of Life is a collection of his sonnets mostly soaked in love which attains a spiritual tinge and appear as his offerings to the Almighty.
The Singer of Life comprises 34 sonnets. Gill’s love sonnets, which seek peace, lead to an ultimate power that is God. The presence of this omnipotent force has been realized by the poet himself in the following line: “Reflecting on my works I have done so far; I can say that two basic influences are notable. One is the message of Christ and another is Hindu mythology, particularly the Vedas.” ( Preface to The Singer of Life ,14)
Gill’s literary oeuvre in various forms offers a search--- a search for peace, a longing for something lost, an onward journey yet a retreat towards a belonging ultimately spiritual echoing through materialistic meanderings that bolt human eyes to see the divine. I came across such a progression of the poet in a poem entitled “Is there a Soul”, in the collection Songs before Shrine, in which the poet cries:
Is there a soul
Or for rent
To share my pains?
Whose talks would emanate
From amorous rainbows
who would chatter
of places and folks
while I descend dozing
into a domain serene. (Gill 71)
Words like soul, rent, pains, dozing and domain serene offer various ramifications which prepare the poet to discover spiritual bliss in The Singer of Life, where the muse not only discovers the subtleties of his soul but also inspires mankind to awake from the darkness and drabness of their futile existence on earth. The collection aims at synthesizing the Christian and Hindu mythologies and seems to discard the distances of all religions and climes by discovering ‘a domain serene’.
The invisible force is a vine that binds and integrates love and beauty. The forms of beauty and love are realized by different people in different objects. It is this difference which distinguishes the poet’s perfection from the rough and tumble of everyday life and traverses his path towards the divine on the ladders of love that provide him relief from perplexity. The poet offers his love in the form of the prayers to the Almighty whose ‘painless smile’ prompts him to steer clear of the negativities that prevail around. The divine force can be felt during the moments of silence. The Almighty doesn’t discriminate between the rich and the poor, the beautiful and the ugly, the human and the non-human. The poet provides a very subtle example of how a ‘spineless stem’(19) is nourished by an invisible power that helps it burgeon forth fragrant flowers.
It is the brightest cute bloom that
is raised by the roots under the care of the
earth that mothers the spineless stem of
the flowers with reasons to live and thrive.
Its look radiates the grace that crowns my
flights by the old citadels of my insights. (Gill 19)
Gill, the poet, considers himself a medium between the human world and the divine. God as an invisible entity makes His presence felt through natural objects. Everything that brings joy to the mankind in the form of sight, sound, fragrance and solitude are but the Almighty’s blessings. The poet is of the opinion that his yearning for camaraderie with the divine is so strong that he doesn’t want to rest even though the aspirations get hurt. He would rather love to tend the seedling of Daises. This would provide him a safe haven. As an imaginative being, he is unmoved despite the unkind blows of the wind fatally wounding the soft petals much like poet’s fancies. The poet feels blessed to receive the Almighty’s grace. He looks forward to receiving a destiny which the Almighty has carved for him. It is not without significance to get a chance to chant the enriching lyric of their bond. One can find an echo of beautiful consonance when the poet records – “On the dock of your dignity a/ destiny I discern”. (20)
The poet discovers a safe haven in the visualization of the Almighty whose presence in other objects goes unnoticed by common beholders. The earthly stay on this planet is not without death and decay. The transitoriness of life on this earth may depress all others and demotivate them further. But the poet who happens to be a dreamer, looking for happiness and harmony all around, finds in the Almighty an inexhaustible ocean of hope. God’s kingdom is full of celestial treasure which the poet alone can discover. The poet feels himself privileged to be the voice of mountainous streams ‘raising human hopes noiselessly.’ God’s benediction can be realized only by those who receive his love. Love is not only a binding but also a blinding force. Human beings are deeply engrossed in the mechanical and materialistic love which blind them to an extent that they cannot see anything except the beloved’s mien as the only perfection. While the longing for earthly love may end in a useless chase, the penchant for the divine or Almighty is celestial which can elevate human towards bliss and satisfaction.
My thoughts spring from you who is the need of the
honey-bees and the freedom of the birds.
You are the originative force that subdues
the endless shades of my dejection. Your
face is the model of the highest perfection. (21)
Gill’s sonnets make every longing heart realize that God’s presence can be felt around us in various forms which often go unnoticed. He abides by us though hidden from human eyes. He provides us with indications and a heart that yearns for His company may find his presence. God can be felt in our good deeds which arise out of love. An unreasoning and aimless act which is devoid of love, loses its significance in the eyes of the Almighty. As humans, majority of us are debarred from his blissful company because we fail to recognize the sacred bush which sparkles with His Glowing smiles. Gill categorically rues ‘today’s mindless speed’ (23) which results in ‘brutal breed’ (23) depriving mankind of ‘solacing ease’ (24). The epiphanies which appear, at times, within all of us require a realization in order to get His divine blessings. He rightly says in Sonnet No. 7:
You’re the sacred bush in the valley of my eyes
where your slow glowing smiles are the
rarest sparkling sapphires for my sight. (24)
Gill’s poetic world hinges on peace which encompasses love, harmony and happiness. The continuity of human existence on earth derives its strength from love which coheres the warring factions and urges them to mitigate all injuries with the soothing balms of love. In this regard, the poet as a prophet of peace persuades mankind to discourage the petty politics that divides the Almighty’s creations and causes bad blood between them. The poet as an intermediary endeavours not only to justify the ways of God to men but also advocates to explore His sheltering magnanimity ‘trusting the arms of the mother, who is the epitome of the love that is not born in time’ (22) Real love doesn’t require any demonstration rather it requires a whole-hearted devotion. We are reminded of Shakespeare’s sonnet no. 116 in which the poet says:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. (Shakespeare)
Much in contrast, love towards God is ‘the star to every wandering bark’. Shakespeare, too might have in his imagination the divinity of God’s love whose height can only be felt. Likewise, Gill too, in his Sonnet No. 05 vouches for such unalterable love
Your love that is happily veiled in the
ineffable shade of humanity is gracious
and the canary of freedom. It is the dove of
unchanging fidelity, the ladder of wisdom. (22)
Wisdom emanates from love and in this regard it becomes a peregrination of the ethereal from the terrestrial.
Gill believes that love doesn’t require any aggression but a submission. Such a love rests only with the Almighty. This is the reason behind his craving for God’s company as it would provide him with peace and pull him out of darkness. The poet’s rejection of Prometheus also reveals his dissatisfaction with the carnal desire of mankind which hinders the sweet notes emanating from the goddess of learning. The rejection of Prometheus and the longing for Saraswati, the Indian goddess of learning, reflects the diasporic poet’s aching wish to return to his native roots.
Love is a peaceful prayer which can purify the erring mortals and empower them to come out of their ‘selfhood’. Humans are deeply obsessed with their selves and oblivious to an extent that they cannot hear the Almighty’s errand, which aims at awakening us from time to time. Man’s submission to the Almighty can allow him some hours of the latter’s divine company enabling him to discover bliss in ‘the dazzle of the sun’ (32) and in ‘moonlight on the fountain’ (33).
The poet further believes that love and prayer are inseparable as they are the two forms of the same coin. Love acts as a sheet anchor to wandering souls who get directions towards humble deeds. The real love not only liberates mortals from the shackles of physical desires which degenerate as rape but also gets elevated in the form of prayer. It becomes a song that generates from the depth of our heart and intoxicates us to receive cheers of liberty. Love unifies and does not blind us to physical pleasures. The poet wants the erring mankind to submit themselves in the peaceful company of the Almighty and benefit them with the manna of His wisdom and natural riches. What he says in Sonnet No.18 is not without subtle significance:
Loving is a prayer
and this prayer is to live beyond and the
essence of the beyond is to drink from the
chalice of your luminous presence. (35)
God, as admitted by the poet himself, is a singer of life and He dwells in the company of love and peace. Nature is the best place where the presence of the Almighty can be felt. As the Almighty is not visible to common flesh and blood, the former is mysterious and humans are not capable of unravelling His impenetrable mystery. Actually, humans’ involvement in mechanical and materialistic gains impedes their path to Godliness. God’s grace flows naturally and those who receive it are the ones who prove their complete faith in the His creation. The poet seems to have developed a sort of disagreement with man’s continuous claims of having overpowered Nature. God resides amid natural resources which flow continuously without any aberration and provides mankind with all sorts of bounties. God’s kingdom is a habitat of lyrical exaltation that demand abnegation of self. His altar knows no discrimination of any sort but ‘a purifying mantra of fatal optimism’ (29). There is no denying the fact that humans are not capable of unravelling the mystery of God, as the poet says in Sonnet No. 19:
You abide in the
animation of this abode of actions where
trees exude the fragrance of fulfilment
and are openly in love with the earth. (36)
Gill discovers God’s presence all around. All natural objects namely rivers, streams, valleys and meadows offer the divine forms in their physical forms enticing the poet to revel and rejoice in the ‘wavy hair gently ruffled by the evening breeze’ (36). The poet finds himself at an advantage to hear the Almighty whispering ‘when the tender leaves and blossoms dance’ (37). We are reminded of Rabindranath Tagore, who in his Gitanjali mentions God as an in-between coming ‘between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers’ (Tagore 05). Singing the glory of the Almighty, the Indian poet calls him ‘master poet’ (05).
Gill’s sonnets break away from the ordinary nature of sonnets as poems of fourteen lines. Moreover, his sonnets do not have the traditional rhyme scheme. The poet at times makes use of colloquial words yet they neither block the standards nor disrobe his sonnets of musicality. The structure of his sonnets may appear unusual and experimental as they comprise twelve lines and are in the form of prose. What makes his sonnets lyrical is the internal rhyming full of alliterations, also leading to meaningful thoughts. It is quite noteworthy to find the excessive use of Indian words and references which lend Stephenean sonnets verve and vitality. What distinguishes Stephen Gill as a poet is his use of non-traditional symbols in his poetry. Unlike other poets, he does not take recourse to over-used expressions and symbols but he invents new symbols which could prompt readers to think and extract meanings that offer more delight than ever. Admitting symbolic expressions as ‘marriage between abstraction and concrete’ (Gill 146), he believes that symbols derive new meanings owing to the poet’s personalities ‘shaped by the hands of the environment as pots shaped by the hands of potters’ (156). Gill does not exaggerate when he says about the use of symbols in his poetry as: “My poetry emerges gracefully when I trim off fat from the body of my muse, and knock off the wretched redundancies, freeing her from the pollutants of overused expressions. I feel better off after my faithful experimentations with imageries in the laboratories of linguistic surgery”. (156)
Gill’s sonnets in The Singer of Life, too abounds in new imageries, ranging from expressions most often exchanged between beloved and lover, master and beggar, friend and philosopher, and also to animate and inanimate etc. His offerings to the Almighty appear in the form of a discourse that seems to ensure the intimacy not between man and God but between two close friends. While comparisons abound in good numbers in majority of the sonnets, the voices of various birds render melody and meaning. Legendary sagas annex the poet to a world of beauty, peace, faith and satisfaction. The poet expresses his gratitude to the Almighty who is his foster father, guiding him during hours of idleness and crisis. God guides the poet in numerous ways even though the distance between the two is far and invisible. The poet shows his gratefulness and says –
You are my hope, my treasure not that
close, yet you are mine. I need you beside
me to be sure you care and I still fine. (46)
The poet feels obliged to the Almighty for not making him proud or arrogant. He always finds God in the centre of his ‘literary navigations in the fast changing tides’. (41) Since God is the poet’s mentor, the poet expresses his faith that he will not be left unanchored during critical junctures. The poet’s allegiance to God has made him discover fresh and fragrant thoughts to fill his poetry with peace as a divine dialogue. God’s company has enlightened the poet to overcome ‘physical confines’ (44) to repair the ‘stitches of life’ (49). Any journey without God’s guidance may frustrate the poet as he rightly says in Sonnet No. 31:
I share my
psalms with the stars who heed them from
their silvery veils. I receive sorrows from
tomorrow when I do not sail in the sea of
the self where you are my mate always
eager to hear me dwelling in detail. (48)
Gill reminds us of the Shelleyan sweeps of imagination and hails the Almighty as an ‘agent of change’, who carries his astounding gaze and makes the poet confident. The poet wants to become ‘the orb that greets the lake with its half veiled greatness as it does your face that is the epitome of sweetness’ (43). Much like Shelley, who wanted the West Wind to make the poet its lyre, Gill wants God to remain the ‘drive of my Ghazal’ (43) and ‘play a thoughtful euphony for you’ (44) to soothe ‘the stiches of life’ (49). It is apt to quote the British Romantic poet Shelley who in “Ode to the West Wind” in a mood of utter desolation entreats:
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one! (Shelley, Ode To the West Wind)
While the west wind symbolizes God’s benediction to humans and becomes an inspiration, Gill, on the contrary submits himself completely to God’s might before all visible elements and discovers the invisible in them.
Needless to mention that all visible things which appear in various forms on this earth should pay their allegiance to the Almighty who has the capability to create in them the music and the force from the cage of suppression. Gill’s sonnets do not make their readers shed tears upon the ruins, but they prompt the readers to celebrate the vibrancy of life. The realization of the invisible in and around ourselves is a testimony to the fact that Gill as a sonneteer offers hope and harmony. It is not without significance to find the last sonnet ending on a note of fatal optimism. The poet in Sonnet No. 34 rightly observes:
The stars cannot find their sky within me, still
twinkle. This is the night to whisper. I pine
for you to appear in my poetry as petals
that never parish. You are the rapture that
with excessive fondness I ever cherish. ( Gill 51)
Thus, a reading of Gill’s poems reflects the poet’s realization of life and disenchantment with the mundane and materialistic things of human lives. At times, the poet’s longings appear full of sweeping imagination soaked in coaxes and offerings of a lover and beloved, yet they prepare humans towards detachment for lofty and luxurious life to receive the benignities and beatitude of the Almighty. There is no denying the truth that the majority of sonnets discussed in this paper offer a quintessence of the sojourn of humans not only towards a greater common good but also towards the mitigation of all pains and shrieks in the abode of the supreme power, an antidote to all miseries. The pining of the poet through his sonnets, finally, leads us to conclude that the invisible always becomes the visible in The Singer of Life, which radiates through the rapture making humans rejoice at the pinnacle of love.
Gill, Stephen. The Singer of Life. Ontario: Vesta Publication. 2016 (All textual quotations have been taken from the same edition of the book and their page numbers are mentioned.)
Gill, Stephen. Songs Before Shrine. New Delhi: Authors Press. 2007.
Gill, Stephen. “Symbolism with a Special Reference to My Poetry”, in Essays on the Poetry of Stephen Gill. New Delhi: Adhyayan Publishers & Distributors. 2010
Shelley, P.B. “Ode to the West Wind”.
Shakespeare, William. “The Marriage of True Minds”, Sonnet No. 116
Tagore, R.N. Gitanjali: Songs Offerings. Madras: MacMillan India Limited. 1913, rpt. 1992
Wordsworth, William. “Ode on Intimations of Immortality”.
A brief biographical statement of the author:
(Binod Mishra teaches English at Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, Uttarakhand, India. A Ph.D on Mulk Raj Anand, Dr. Mishra specializes in Indian Writing in English. He has authored 05 books and edited 15 anthologies on various topics of English literature. One of his books entitled Communication Skills for Engineers and Scientists published by PHI India is prescribed as a text as well as well as reference book in many technical institutes. He has also published two poetry collections, namely Silent Steps and Other Poems and Multiple Waves. Besides books, he has published a good number of articles in reputed journals)