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The Last Bargain

“Come and hire me,” I cried, while in the morning I was walking
on the stone-paved road.
Sword in hand, the King came in his chariot.
He held my hand and said, “I will hire you with my power.”
But his power counted for naught, and he went away in his chariot.

In the heat of the midday the houses stood with shut doors.
I wandered along the crooked lane.
An old man came out with his bag of gold.
He pondered and said, “I will hire you with my money.”
He weighed his coins one by one, but I turned away.

It was evening. The garden hedge was all aflower.
The fair maid came out and said, “I will hire you with a smile.”
Her smile paled and melted into tears, and she went back alone
into the dark.

The sun glistened on the sand, and the sea waves broke waywardly.
A child sat playing with shells.
He raised his head and seemed to know me, and said, “I hire you
with nothing.”
From thenceforward that bargain struck in child’s play made me
a free man.


Rabindranath Tagore, 1861 – 1941, was a Bengali master of many genres of composition, who introduced into India’s literature new forms of verse and prose, as well as the use of the vernacular (everyday language, spoken by ordinary people of a region or country). He made important contributions also to philosophy, music, art, and educational reform; in these ways he was instrumental, with other members of his family, in advancing the Bengal Renaissance. In 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his own translation into English of his sublime poem cycle, Gitanjali. This was the first time a non-European had won the award.

Tagore translated many of his own works into English. It seems generally agreed that the English versions (of the verse, in particular) are, from a lyrical standpoint, inferior to the originals, unable to convey the originals’ pellucid quality; in any case, the passion and sensibility behind the words are palpable. The book I have in hand is Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore (First Edition, 1936; Papermac edition, 1989); the translations herein are all his own. What a treasury of creative enterprise! I’ve only begun to scratch the surface in my exploration of Tagore’s oeuvre.
“The Last Bargain” appears in the verse cycle called The Crescent Moon.


Almost simultaneously with my first reading of “The Last Bargain”, I encountered these words of Benjamin Franklin (quoted in a 2014 The Old Farmer’s Almanac calendar):

Think of three things:
whence you came,
where you are going,
and to whom you must account.

I happily found the resonance between the two texts to be quite irresistible.