Wilfred Owen(1893-1918) a poet and an officer with the Manchester Regiment had Tagore for company as he faced bullets , shells and eventual death in the trenches of World War I.
In a letter written to Tagore by Susan Owen, Wilfred’s mother, describes that her son bid her goodbye in his last letter she received from her son from the battle field in France with the parting words from Tagore’s poem “’when I leave, let these be my parting words: what my eyes have seen, what my life received, are unsurpassable” (Geetanjali , Poem No. 96).
‘jabar diney ei kawthati boley jeno jai –
ja dekhechi, ja peyechi tulona tar nai’ –
Probably Owens had foreseen he would never come back from the battlefield. He died fighting the Germans in France on November 4, 1918 one week before the war ended. He was only twenty five then. And when his belongings from the frontlines were returned to the family, in his pocket book his mother found written the same parting lines transcribed in Owen’s own handwriting with Rabindranath Tagore written underneath. It is remarkable that a poem composed in the tranquility of rural Bengal professing sublime surrender to the Eternal, was relevant in a war trench amongst the shells, gunfire , death and utter hopelessness- the context in which Owen experienced Tagore’s words.
Extract of the letter written by Susan Owen, Wilfred Owen’s mother to Tagore in 1920
Dear Sir Rabindranath:
I have been trying to find courage to write to you ever since I heard that you were in London – but the desire to tell you something is finding its way into this letter today. The letter may never reach you, for I do not know how to address it, tho’ I feel sure your name upon the envelope will be sufficient. It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said Goodbye to me – we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea – looking towards France with breaking hearts – when he, my poet son, said these wonderful words of yours –
‘when I leave, let these be my parting words:
what my eyes have seen, what my life received, are unsurpassable.’
And when his pocket book came back to me – I found these words written in his dear writing – with your name beneath. Would I be asking too much of you, to tell me what book I should find the whole poem in?