April, Like a Child, Writes Hieroglyphs on Dust with Flowers

Rabindranath Tagore? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: My daughter remembers a poem, or part of a poem, and she asked me about it.  I don’t recognize it and have not been able to find it.  Perhaps you can work your magic.

April writes hieroglyphs in the sand
Wipes them away and forgets

Quote Investigator: Your daughter was probably recalling a verse from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore who won the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature. The work “Fireflies” was published around 1927 and it contained the following lines [RTTP] [RTMR]:

April, like a child,
writes hieroglyphs on dust with flowers,
wipes them away and forgets.

This verse and several others were published in 1928 in the Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans, Louisiana and in other periodicals. Tagore wrote in Bengali and his poems were translated into English.

The short biography at the Nobel Prize website states the following [RTNF]: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was the youngest son of Debendranath Tagore, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, which was a new religious sect in nineteenth-century Bengal and which attempted a revival of the ultimate monistic basis of Hinduism as laid down in the Upanishads. He was educated at home; and although at seventeen he was sent to England for formal schooling, he did not finish his studies there.

The Times-Picayune critic in 1928 pointed out that evaluating the quality of Tagore’s writings was a controversial topic even in the early decades of the 1900s [RTTP]:

The wave of enthusiasm for the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, which swept the United States ten or twelve years ago, when he was taken up by the women’s clubs, gave place to a campaign disparagement conducted by the younger intellectuals. Where he had been acclaimed as a world poet, he was dismissed as a retailer of platitudes.

Here are the first four verses from “Fireflies” [RTMR]:

My fancies are fireflies, —
Specks of living light
twinkling in the dark.

The voice of wayside pansies,
that do not attract the careless glance,
murmurs in these desultory lines.

In the drowsy dark caves of the mind
dreams build their nest with fragments
dropped from day’s caravan.

Spring scatters the petals of flowers
that are not for the fruits of the future,
but for the moment’s whim.

The critic in the Times-Picayune noted that some of the verses in “Fireflies” were reminiscent of proverbs which pleased him [RTMR]:

My flower, seek not thy paradise
in a fool’s buttonhole.

The glow-worm while exploring the dust
never knows that stars are in the sky.

Here is the verse mentioning hieroglyphs together with the next two verses [RTMR]:

April, like a child,
writes hieroglyphs on dust with flowers,
wipes them away and forgets.

Memory, the priestess,
kills the present
and offers its heart to the shrine of the dead past.

From the solemn gloom of the temple
children run out to sit in the dust,
God watches them play
and forgets the priest.

In conclusion, “Fireflies” by Rabindranath Tagore is probably the poem that the questioner’s daughter was trying to retrieve from her memory. That memory may have been written “on dust with flowers”, but the pattern was still decipherable.

(Many thanks to Rita Moore for providing the fragment of text that inspired this exploration.)

[RTTP] 1928 March 18, Times-Picayune, Section: Sunday Magazine, Literature and Less: A Page on Books of the Day, Conducted by John M’Clure, Page 4, Column 1, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

[RTMR] 2007, The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore: Volume 2 Poems, Introduction By Mohit K. Ray, Fireflies, Start Page 435, Quote Page 439, Published by Atlantic, New Delhi, India. (Google Books preview) link

[RTNF] Biography of Rabindranath Tagore, Official web site of the Nobel Prize, The Nobel Foundation, Sweden. (Accessed at Nobelprize.org on February 26, 2012) link