Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement

The Perfect Gift: The Philanthropic Imagination in Poetry and Prose
Story Excerpts & Discussion Questions

The GiftReflection Questions

by Rabindranath Tagore


India’s most eminent modern writer, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a man of prodigious literacy and artistic accomplishments, as well as a social and political activist. In addition to winning the Nobel Prize for literature (1913)—the first such award given to a man of his nationality—he was honored as an actor, producer, director, musician, and founder of various institutions, including a university. In a speech Tagore made on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, he said, “I have, it is true, engaged myself in a series of activities. But the innermost me is not to be found in any of these. At the end of the journey I am able to see, a little more clearly, the orb of my life. Looking back, the only thing of which I feel certain is that I am a poet (ami kavi).”

In this lyric poem, Tagore distinguishes between two sorts of gifts: those that are deliberately chosen and pointedly presented, such as flowers or gems, and those that are delightful, wondrous surprises, such as discoveries or insights that occur, as he puts it, in a “displaced moment.” The former, he suggests, are “trifling”; the latter, though clearly more dependent on the readiness and openness of the recipient than the giver, he calls “truest treasure.” In the light of the distinction he draws in his poem, as well as his own reported self-understanding, what sort of gift might Tagore regard his own “Gift” to be? In which of his categories would you place it? Is Tagore right to call those nameless, fleeting moments, however wondrous, “truest treasure?” Can a fit be both deliberate and, in Tagore’s sense, surprising at the same time?

Introduction by Amy Kass

O my love, what gift of mine
Shall I give you this dawn?
A morning song?
But morning does not last long—
The heat of the sun
Wilts it like a flower
And songs that tire

Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore

Are done.

O friend, when you come to my gate
At dusk
What is it you ask?
What shall I bring you?
A light?
A lamp from a secret corner of my silent house?
But will you want to take it with you
Down the crowded street?
The wind will blow it out.

Whatever gifts are in my power to give you,
Be they flowers,
Be they germs for you neck,
How can they please you,
If in time they must surely wither,
Lost lustre?
All that my hands can place in yours
Will slip through your fingers
And fall forgotten to the dust
To turn into dust.

When you have leisure,
Wander idly through my garden in spring
And let an unknown, hidden flower’s scent startle you
Into sudden wondering—
Let that displaced moment
Be my gift.
Or if, as you peer your way down a shady avenue,
Suddenly, spilled
From the think gathered tresses of evening’
A shingle shivering fleck of sunset-light stops you,
Turns your daydreams to gold,
Let that light be an innocent

Truest treasure is fleeting;
It sparkles for a moment, then goes.
It does not tell its name; its tune
Stops us inour tracks, its dance disappears

At the toss of an anklet.
I know no way to it—
No hand, nor word can reach it.
Friend, whatever you take of it,
On your own,
Without asking, without knowing, let that
Be yours.
Anything I can give you is trifling—
Be it a flower, or a song.


Reflection Questions

Do you agree with what this poem is saying about giving tangible gifts (i.e. money, food, shelter, clothing, etc) to those in need, all of which are ‘fleeting’ in that they ‘wilt, wither, crack and lose their luster’? Why or why not? What do you think this poem is advocating as a better way to provide someone in need with what is needed?

What role does the author of this poem feel deliberate/planned giving should play when providing gifts or services to those in need? What is your attitude concerning spontaneous giving? Deliberate/planned giving? Are there situations where the merits of one exceed the merits of the other? How and why might this be true or not true?

While the author seems to be more than willing and able to give tangible gifts, he appears to be more concerned about making available those things/experiences that will ‘turn daydreams into gold’. How might this be or not be a practical response to someone whose only request is for a crust of bread or a glass of fresh water?

Might the author of this poem be more concerned with what the recipient is able to gain in terms of self-awareness and self-improvement from gifts given than about providing the recipient with relief from his/her immediate need? Is it, in general,important for charity to be predicated on the recipient’s ability and willingness to improve his or her lot in life as a result of having received the charity? Can one know this ahead of time?

The attitude taken by the author of this poem towards ‘gifts’ appears to be one that is more typical of someone of means rather than of someone who is experiencing need. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?