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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry



The Cloud-Messenger
(मेघदूत trans. Arthur W. Ryder)

by
Kalidasa


general information | our review | links | about the author



Title: The Cloud-Messenger
Author: Kalidasa
Genre: Poetry
Written: ca. 400 (Eng. 1912)
Length: 34 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: The Cloud-Messenger is out of print
  • Sanskrit title: मेघदूत
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Arthur W. Ryder
  • Available in the out of print collection Shakuntala and other Writings (first published 1912). The 1959 edition also includes a Preface by G.L.Anderson
  • See also our reviews of other translations of the Meghaduta:

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Our Assessment:

B : decent, rhyming translation of a great poem

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Kalidasa's Meghaduta (literally the cloud messenger) is probably the best known of his poetry that has come down to us. Its manageable length also makes it a popular target for translators, and numerous English versions exist. (Beside this one, by Arthur Ryder, see also our reviews of the translations by Franklin and Eleanor Edgerton (hereafter referred to as FEE) and Leonard Nathan (hereafter referred to as LN).)
       Ryder only provides a short, two page introduction to the poem -- adequate, but very basic. He does, however, also include annotations in the text itself -- brief explanatory notes based on Mallinatha's commentary -- and while they also only provide very small amounts of information they are fairly useful. They are also, as Ryder suggests, less obtrusive than foot- or endnotes. An example of their usefulness can be found in stanzas II.xxii through II.xxx (cf. FEE 81-89, LN 82-90), where Ryder notes that: "The passion of love passes through ten stages, eight of which are suggested in (...) the stanzas which follow", and each of which is then briefly noted. It is not vital information, but it is helpful -- certainly more so than, for example, LN, who notes in his Detailed Analysis about some of these stanzas that they "show the effects of separation (...) somewhat in the way Keats establishes pathos in 'To Autumn,' that is, by stylized portraits of a woman in one or another solitary and melancholy pose."
       Ryder divides the poem up into two halves -- "Former Cloud" (63 stanzas) and "Latter Cloud" (52 stanzas, for a total of 115 stanzas). (Cf. FEE and LN, who do not break up the text -- and whose versions have 110 and 111 stanzas respectively.) The division is a natural though not a necessary one.
       The Meghaduta was originally written in four-line stanzas, each line having seventeen syllables, in a metre called mandakranta (which Ryder describes as "a majestic metre called the 'slow stepper' "). Ryder chose to translate the stanzas in a five-lined rendition, with an ABABB rhyme-scheme (the Sanskrit does not rhyme). He believes this "gives perhaps as fair a representation of the original movement as may be, where direct imitation is out of the question." Cf. FEE and LN who both dispense with rhyme and have stanzas with four and six lines respectively.
       His rhyme scheme imposes considerable constraints on Ryder: there is a poetic feel to his version, but it comes at great cost to literal fidelity. Given how different a language Sanskrit is (and especially given the impossibility of finding equivalents for what LN calls the "coalescing of words" that is so common in Sanskrit), he may have been right to abandon literalness and focus on lyricism. Or not.
       Ryder's version reads quite well, but takes considerably greater liberties than the other versions. It is also the most Western version of the Meghaduta, and likely also the most distant from Kalidasa's -- except for that poetic "bounce" (or "movement", as Ryder prefers), which probably does give a somewhat better sense of the feel of the poem when read in Sanskrit.

       The Cloud-Messenger tells the story of a Yaksha (a "divine attendant on Kubera, god of wealth") who is exiled for a year from his home and his young bride. After several months have already passed, and with the coming of the rainy season, the Yaksha asks a passing cloud to convey a message to his distant beloved. The poem covers the route the cloud would take, what it might see and encounter, and then focusses on the message and the bride itself. It is a beautiful and clever idea -- hard to ruin completely, regardless of the translation.
       The vivid journey -- focussed on the cloud's point of view -- has many remarkable points. It is a tour of much of India, as it were (and it is unfortunate that Ryder, FEE, and LN all fail to provide an illustrative map suggesting the route). Occasionally Ryder's simple expression is felicitous:

When thou art weary, on the mountains stay,
And when exhausted, drink the rivers' driven spray
       (I.xiii.4-5)
       Compare this to the leaden renditions the others propose:
On this path thou shalt go, resting thy foot on mountains whenever weary;
Whenever spent, drinking the pure waters of fresh streams.
       (FEE, 13.3-4)


(...) after you've paused
on mountains whenever weary or when,
worn out, you've drunk the fine waters of streams.
       (LN, 13.4-6)
       Some of the more risqué scenes are handled with almost demure restraint by Ryder. In the last stanzas this doesn't always work as well, but in some it is fine:
(...) thou hast no time to stay,
Yet who that once has known a dear caress
Could bear to leave a woman's unveiled loveliness ?
       (I.xli.2-4)
       The other translations are more literal, but fail to capture or evoke any of the poetry of Kalidasa's original:
Bending over her, my friend, it will be hard for thee to depart;
Who that has known love's savor can leave one whose haunches are bared ?
       (FEE, 41.3-4)


(...) and, friend,
it won't be so easy to leave, as you cling
to her still. What lover, done with loving,
can leave a girl with her lap laid bare ?
       (LN, 41.3-6)
       Kalidasa's poems is full of striking images, from the teary lover trying to play a song on the lute that she herself composed but now can't recall to the urban and natural vistas the cloud would encounter. Love and longing, love and passion, dominate throughout, seen (or at least felt) in every scene, always in the air. Much of it Ryder conveys quite adequately, faltering only with the actual message that the cloud-messenger is to pass on. Where FEE, for example, there bluntly allows: "With his body thy body he enters" (98) and LN similarly suggests "by mere wish joins his body / with your body" (99), Ryder has no such joining or entering, only daring to "weave the fancies that thy soul entwine" (II.xxxix.4).

       A decent -- and, to Western ears, the most poetic -- rendition, Ryder's The Cloud-Messenger serves as an acceptable Westernized (and sanitized) version of the Meghaduta. It is barely Kalidasa's poem, but given the near-impossibility of adequately conveying Kalidasa's Sanskrit in English it offers a tolerable compromise. Additional explanatory note might also have been useful, but the presentation is also adequate.

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Links:

Other translations of the Meghaduta under review: Other works by Kalidasa under review: Kalidasa: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Kalidasa probably lived during the reign of Candragupta II (ca. 380-413). Only three dramas and a few poems of his survive, but he continues to be revered as one of the greatest Sanskrit playwrights and poets.

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