“When my play was with thee” is the 97th verse (XCVII) from Gitanjali or Song Offerings written by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. This short poem is addressed to the supreme being. In this piece, Tagore nostalgically talks about his childhood when he was closer to God. His soul was pure from within. Then he had direct contact with his eternal comrade. As he became, somehow he lost touch with him. This sense of loss is portrayed through the apparently playful lines of verse 97.
- Read the full text of “When my play was with thee” along with the analysis section.
Tagore’s “When my play was with thee” describes how his innocent soul played unknowingly with the divine being. When he was a little child, he never knew the importance of a friend who remained at his side all the time. His soul was never shy nor fearful in his presence. Rather God whispered in his ears at dawn. They ran in the lush fields and glades. On those joyous days, he did not care about the meaning of those songs his comrade sang. Now, as a grown-up man, he realizes the play is over and the world around him has come to a standstill.
The title of the poem “When my play was with thee” is a roundabout reference to the childhood of the poet. In the title, the “play” is nothing but a reference to the never-ending hours of joy. He compares a soul’s proximity to the divine being like a play or game. When a person grows older he gradually loses touch with the inherent purity of the soul due to worldliness. The same applies to the speaker. As an adult, he nostalgically ruminates on how the days went on. But, now everything around him seems mundane and immobile.
Structure & Form
Tagore’s translation of the verse, like other poems from Gitanjali, is in the prose-poem form. It means the poet does not divide the ideas into separate lines as per conventions. He fuses them together making each line bulky with the weightage of several ideas. But, they are connected. While reading the text, it never sounds monotonous due to the free-flowing structure of lines. Besides, Tagore wrote this poem from the first-person point of view. Thus, it is a free-verse lyric poem. He mostly uses iambic feet (unstressed-stressed) throughout this piece.
Tagore makes use of the following literary devices in “When my play was with thee”.
- Metaphor: In this poem, the “play” is a metaphor for the bliss of innocence or childhood. Tagore uses this metaphor in order to portray his proximity to the lord.
- Simile: It occurs in “thou wouldst call me from my sleep like my own comrade”. Here, the speaker compares God to his closest “comrade”.
- Repetition: In the first line, there is a repetition of “nor” in “I knew nor shyness nor fear” that is used for the sake of emphasis. Another repetition can be found in the expression “glade to glade”. It refers to a sense of continuity.
- Personification: It is used in “my heart danced in their cadence”.
- Rhetorical Question: The line “Now, when the playtime is over, what is this sudden sight that is come upon me?” is an example of self-interrogation.
- Metonymy: In the last line, “world” is a metonym for humans.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “was with”, “glade to glade”, “sudden sight”, “silent stars”, etc.
The main theme of “When my play was with thee” centers on the bliss of innocence and purity of childhood. This poem also explores the themes of devotion, divine love, worldliness, and spiritual yearning. As mentioned earlier, from lines 1-3, Tagore describes how he used to enjoy the companionship of the lord. In his childhood, his life was filled with spontaneity and playfulness. It was a time when his soul was in a pure state, close to the divine being. This blissful experience is described in the poem like William Wordsworth did in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”.
Line-by-Line Critical Analysis
When my play was with thee I never questioned who thou wert. I knew nor shyness nor fear, my life was boisterous.
In the early morning thou wouldstcall me from my sleep like my own comrade and lead me running from glade to glade.
The first line of the poem “When my play was with thee” deals with Tagore’s ignorance in the past. Throughout this poem, he talks about his childhood when his soul was in the purest state. Infancy is a transient period when a soul has frequent glimpses of God. Tagore alludes to this stage of man’s life.
According to him, his soul was ignorant of the things happening around him. It was unaware of the fact that he was with none other than God himself. When he used to play with him, in its metaphorical sense, he had no idea of his own chastity nor of his playmate’s worth. But, he was not shy or fearful of God. As a child, way before it starts to develop these emotions, it cannot differentiate situations by understanding their nature.
His life was filled with a boisterous or wild kind of energy. It was never patient. In the morning, God whispered in his ears to wake him up from his sleep of ignorance. His body awakened, but not his spiritual knowledge. Afterward, he led him from glades to glades and played throughout the day.
On those days I never cared to know the meaning of songs thou sangest to me. Only my voice took up the tunes, and my heart danced in their cadence.
Tagore’s voice becomes nostalgic as he reminisces about those pure days. His tone reflects his sense of grief but his happiness hides it. At that time, his soul was so innocent that it could not decode the meaning of God’s songs. God does not converse directly with mortal beings. He talks by signs, stories, or songs. It is up to a listener how he apprehends the meaning behind the ambiguous lines.
He only learned the way he sang the songs. After listening to him, he used to imitate the melody in his mind but never understood its meaning. His heart leaped in the cadence of God’s songs. The term “cadence” is used to refer to the mental impression of the songs. When a tune rang in his mind, his inner atmosphere quickly filled with pleasure and happiness.
Tagore uses synecdoche in the line “my heart danced in their cadence”. It means the poet’s whole body danced in the tune, not only his “heart”.
Now, when the playtime is over, what is this sudden sight that is come upon me? The world with eyes bent upon thy feet stands in awe with all its silent stars.
The last line of “When my play was with thee” refers to the present moment. Tagore contrasts the present scenario with that of his infancy in order to portray the loss of inherent purity. He says that now the “playtime” is over. It means the poet has grown up. The time when he used to play with the divine being has now ended.
He rhetorically asks about the “sudden” change of events. Why does it happen to the speaker? As the poet grew up the distance between him and God started to increase. Henry Vaughan also talks about this idea in his poem “The Retreat”. The more he started to learn worldly things the more the distance increased. In this way, there came a day when he completely lost touch with his playmate.
As a child, he was neither shy nor fearful of God’s existence. Now, as an adult, he cannot even look up at his face. He bends his eyes upon his feet for a pang of hidden guilt. He knows his soul is no longer in the same pure state like it used to be.
Besides, Tagore takes an objective stance in this line and portrays how the world (other men) looks up to Good. They stand in “awe” in front of him. The term “awe” means reverential respect mixed with the emotion of fear. So, now Tagore is afraid of facing him. The things around him such as the “stars” have become silent. They never speak to him when he looks up at the sky as they did in his childhood.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote verse 97 “When my play was with thee” on 31 May 1910. He started writing the volume of poetry Gitanjali in 1904. The Bengali version was published on August 14, 1910. When Tagore was about to visit England in 1912, he rendered the poems into English. He titled them Song Offerings. The collection was published in London in 1913. In the same year, he got the Nobel Prize of Literature for the collection. The main idea of this collection concerns singing spiritual devotion. According to W.B. Yeats, Tagore’s Song Offerings had “stirred my blood as nothing has for years …”
In this poem, the “sudden sight” is that of the world (all humans including Tagore) looking at God’s feet in awe and the sky with its silent stars.
The term “play” is a metaphorical reference to the proximity of the speaker with God in his childhood. It is used in its literal sense.
When the speaker’s soul was pure in childhood, he was never shy nor fearful of God. As he grew up, his heart filled with reverential respect mixed with fear when he visualized his old playmate.
This poem taps on the theme of the bliss of innocence. Tagore also showcases the themes of purity of childhood, devotion, divine love, and spiritual yearning.
The tone of “When my play was with thee” is nostalgic, playful, and joyous in the first three lines. It becomes sad, introspective, and pessimistic in the last line.
- Text of Gitanjali: Song Offerings — Refer to the text of all the 103 poems published in the collection Song Offerings.
- “When my play was with thee” in Bengali — Read the full Bengali song for understanding its meaning.
- Presentation Speech by the Nobel Committee — Read the presentation speech for the 1913 Nobel Prize-winning collection of poems, Gitanjali: Song Offerings by Tagore.
- Biography of Rabindranath Tagore — Read about the poet’s biography and his works.
- Rabindranath Tagore & His Poems — Learn more about the poet and read his best-known poems in English.