Tagore felt ”homesick for the wide world.” Further, he was constantly struggling to overcome the barriers of  language. He thought that the Nobel Prize awarded by the Swedish Academy ”brought the distant near, and has made the stranger a brother.”Rabindranath Tagore, in a letter to E.J. Thompson (1886 -1946), wrote in 1916, ” I feel homesick for the wide world.”

A few years before his death, he criticized his own poetry for not being universal in expression, arguing that his paintings had rather overcome the barriers of  language. It was likely that Tagore, a seeker of  universal concord, would not have been satisfied in restricting himself  to an audience  in the colonial, undivided Bengal where he was born and raised in the second half  of  the nineteenth century.

Rabindranath, who translated  Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the age of  thirteen, turned out to be prolific bilingual writer of  his time often taking pleasure in translating his own works into English It was in June 1912 that Rabindranath desired to share the English translations of  his poems with his British painter friend William Rothenstein (1872-1945) in London, (Rothenstein later went on to become the Principal of  the Royal College of  Art).

A leather case, containing the translated manuscript entrusted to Tagore’s son Rathindranath (1888 -1961),  was discovered to be missing. Rushing to the Left –Luggage Office of  the British underground, Rathindranath managed to retrieve the baggage that he had left in the train by mistake while getting down at the Charing Cross tube station, Rathindranath wrote in his autobiography, ”I have often wondered what shape the course of events might have taken if  the manuscript of  Gitanjali had been lost due to my negligence.”

The recovered translations came to be published in the form of  a book Gitanjali (Song Offerings), on 1 November, 1912 by the India Society of  London with an introduction by the English poet W.B. Yeats (1865 – 1939).In 1910, Tagore published a book of  poems in Bengali titled Gitanjali. By that time he had established himself  as a poet, an essayist, novelist, short story writer, a composer of  numerous songs, and a unique educator with an experimental school for children at Santiniketan. He underwent a number of  personal tragedies by the time Gitanjali was published. Tagore lost his mother Sarada Devi (1875), adored sister – in – law Kadambari (1884), wife Mrnalini(1902), second daughter Renuka (1903), father Debendranath (1905), and youngest son Samindranath (1907) within a short span of  thirty –two years. This experience with death  regained his sensibilities and gave him the impetus to consider life in its contrasting realities with joy and wonder In the beginning of  1912, Tagore become seriously ill. Cancelling a planned visit to England, he went to his ancestral home in Silaidah (now in Bangladesh) on  the  banks  of  the  river  Padma  for  a  change, where he translated some of  his poems from their original version in Bengali.

After his recovery he sailed for England in May 1912, without any specific mission, with the mind of  a wayfaring poet, primarily obeying his doctor’s advice. During his long sea  voyage to England, he continued his experiments with translation presumably with a desire and wider horizon. Before 1912, Tagore had translated only a couple of  his poems.William Rothenstein, who knew Rabindranath since his visit to India during 1910 – 1911, introduced Tagore and his poetry to his illustrious circle of  friends including W.B. Yeats,  Thomas Sturge Moore(1870-1944), Ernest Rhys (1859-1946), Ezra Pound (1885-1972), May Sinclair (or, Mary Amelia St. Clair, 1863- 1946), Stopford Brooke (1832-1916) among many others.

They were instantly carried away with the mystic vision  and rhetoric splendor of   Tagore’s poetry. Yeats suggested minor changes in the prose translations of  the Gitanjali songs. Speaking on the charm of  Gitanjali, Yeats wrote in his introduction:”…These prose translations have stirred my blood as nothing has for years… I have carried the manuscript of  these translations with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of  omnibuses and in restaurants, and  I have often had to close it lest stranger would see how much it moved me.”While the Bengali Gitanjali had one hundred and eighty-three poems, the English version contained one hundred and three poems from ten previously published anthologies including fifty three poems from its Bengali namesake.

It was due to Rothenstein’s efforts that the India Society of  London brought out these translations as a book. A limited edition of  seven hundred and  fifty copies was printed, among which two hundred and fifty copies were for sale. The book was received with much enthusiasm in England and the Macmillan Press of  London did not miss the opportunity of  buying its rights, publishing ten subsequent editions of  the title within nine months  between March and November, 1913. While the Bengali Gitanjali was brought out without any dedication, Tagore dedicated his first English anthology of  poems to Rothenstein as a token of  their friendship that lasted till the death of  the poet in 1941.

Tagore left England in October, 1912 for America before his English  Gitanjali could be published and returned to India in September,1913. Ezra Pound and Harriet Monroe (1860 – 1936) took the initiative of  publishing six poems of  Tagore in the prestigious American magazine Poetry with a note by Pound in December, 1912. Gitanjali received wonderful reviews in some  of the leading newspapers and literary magazines includingThe Times Literary Supplement, Manchester Guardian, and The Nation among others, shortly after the publication of  the book.The British litterateur Thomas Sturge Moor, in his individual capacity as the Fellow of  the Royal Society of  Literature of  the United Kingdom recommended Rabindranath Tagore’s name for the Nobel Prize for literature to the Swedish Academy while ninety seven other members of  the Society collectively recommended the name of  novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)for the award. Initially Tagore’s nomination was strongly opposed by the Chairman of  the Academy Harald Hijarne.

Vocal members of  the Academy like Per Hallstorm (1866-1960), Esais Henrik Vilhelm Tenger (who knew Bengali) and Carl Gustaf  Verner von Heidenstam (1859-1940), familiar with Tagore’s literary genius, wholeheartedly supported his nomination. Tagore’s name was finalised for the award from a total of  twenty eight nominations ”because of  his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic  thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of  the literature of  the West.”A cablegram from the Nobel Committee arrived in Kolkata  on November 1913 and the news was communicated to Tagore at Santiniketan through a series of  telegrams. Memoirs reveal that the whole of  Santiniketan rejoiced at this achievement of  the poet.

While some students debated that Tagore had secured the ‘Nobel Prize’ for his profound nobility, others held that the ‘Novel ‘ prize came to Santiniketan only for the deserving novels that Tagore had written. Amidst this unprecedented storm of  excitement, a grand felicitation was organized on the 23rd of  November in 1913 at Santiniketan in honour of the Poet, presided over by his scientist friend Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937). A special train reached Bolpur from Kolkata with five hundred enthusiasts.

Tagore was led to the venue where he noticed some of  his critics who had criticized him personally on various occasions in the past. These individuals were now gathered to felicitate him as the poet had received recognition overseas. Tagore’s speech, which echoed his immediate ill-feelings at the sight of  his detractors, disappointed many of his genuine admirers when he expressed, ”I can only raise this cup of  your honour to my lips, I cannot drink it with all my heart.” Overnight, Tagore was inundated with attention and praise made him write to Rothenstein in 1913, ”It is almost as bad as tying a tin can to a dog’s tail making it impossible for him to move, without creating noise and crowds all along.”Tagore could not be present in Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize as the first Asian  recipient of  the award and a telegram from him was read out at the traditional Nobel benquet which stated ” I beg to convey  to the Swedish academy my grateful appreciation of  the breadth of  understanding which has brought the distant near and has made the stranger a brother.”

The Nobel medallion and the diploma were sent to Lord Carmichael (1859-1926), Governor of  Bengal, who handed them over to the poet at a ceremony on 29 January, 1914 at the Governor’s House in Kolkata.Gitangali and the Nobel Prize set Tagore on the world stage raising him to the glorified status of  Visva-Kabi, the world poet, who could celebrate life beyond any boundaries:

I have had my invitation to this world’s festival, and thus my life has been blessed.
My eyes have seen and my ears have heard. (Gitanjali, 16)