Sunday, June 30, 2024

The Spirit of Chinese Poetry: Part Two

[This is second (and last) part of an essay published in The Theosophical Path in August 1917. Part one can be found here.] 

The Chinese have had no epic poets. Like the French, they “have not the epic head.” Their poetry is all lyrical. Some poems run to a few hundred lines; but as a rule the idea was, the shorter the better. As their artists sought to give, as they said, in a square foot of silk, a thousand miles of space; so the poets aimed at a glimpse of the infinite beauty in twenty or so syllables of rhyme. One of their favorite verse-forms was the ‘short-stop’; in which, said they, “the words stop, but the sense goes on.” The nearest thing to it I know of in Western verse is the Welsh englyn; which, with ten more syllables than the shortstop, is also, in the hands of the greater poets, made the vehicle of a thought, picture, or emotion that does not end with the words. An example of the spirit of the thing may be found in the dying poem of a great statesman and patriot of the troublous age of the Sung Dynasty in the twelfth century, who had seen the empire brought near ruin through neglect of his advice; it is this: “My personal self may ascend to heaven, but my Spirit will remain on earth in the form of rivers and mountains as a defense for the Throne.” — Than which, perhaps, it would be difficult to find in a few words a finer revelation of the grandeur of the human soul.

There are many short-stops scattered through the mass of English poetry: magical bits that Keats and Wordsworth, in particular, embodied in longer poems. The Chinaman was wont to give the jewel and leave out the setting. His was an art of severe reticence and wizardly suggestion. He could paint you a little picture, pregnant with the soul of a mood; would touch the visible world with an enchanter’s wand, so that you should see through for a moment into the infinite mystery. Sometimes that mystery oppressed and terrified him; often it filled him with delight; but always there is the reticence, the suggestion. One can sense it, I think, in this little poem, by Kao Shih, one of the earlier Tang poets, which I have shaped into three modified englyns; that the foreignness of the meter may contribute to that exotic feeling which a translation from the Chinese should have. It is called, prosaically enough, Impressions of a Traveler,

Frost, and Autumn on the waters;  night-time

    Death-cold, star-clear.

He that’s in the boat can hear

Trembling beside him, cold Fear.


Far across the jade and foam of waste waves,

    O’er lone crag and pined height,

Fear and Autumn fly through night

With the wild geese in slow flight


Fear and Autumn fill my heart; my dreaming,

    Like dead leaves, goes drifting;

Or like wild geese on the wing,

Or like ghosts, wind-blown, moaning.

Here is a little poem by Yuen I-shan, whose lyricism, I think, remains audible through the bald prose of the translation: a poem packed with that natural magic, that blending of the human with Nature consciousness, which is so wonderful a characteristic of so much of Chinese poetry. It is called The Lament of the Ladies of the Siang River; who, it should be explained, were the wives of the Patriarch-Emperor Shun, a half-legendary figure from the dawn of history, twenty-two centuries B.C., who stands for all that is good and wise in sovereignty. Shun’s grave is among the Kiue Mountains in Hunan. This is the poem: —

Sweet-scented are the hills where the roses and the orchids bloom; clouds fly towards the shores of the north; though a thousand autumns pass, our Lord will not return.

Drift the clouds across the heavens; slowly over the waters blow the winds of autumn; ghostly mists creep up the river; moonlight is sifted down over stream and woodland.

On the Kiue Mountains the gibbons wail through the long nights; tears fall from the bamboo branches.  Though a thousand autumns pass, our Lord will not return.

  As who should say:  “It is unfitting for us, mere human beings, to mourn the death of one so august.  All Nature is a funeral pageant for him; heaven and earth are grouped about his mountain tomb.”

There is much in this minor key; often and often the poets were preoccupied with the different phases of human sorrow; but they brought to it a fathomless compassion. There is little or no distinctively religious poetry; perhaps because the Chinese have not made religion a thing apart, as we have; but it remains true that Buddhistic compassion, and the magical vision of Taoism, are the chief keynotes of their poetry. Nature is lit up from within: the seat of a vast and wizard consciousness whose motions may be guessed at, hinted at, felt; but never put into the language of science. Of all the English poets, Wordsworth, in his diviner moods, was the most Chinese, the most Taoist; he, too, sought in self-emptiness, in supreme simplicity, the pearl of spiritual insight; and often found it. Chang Kiuling expresses the Taoist idea in a little poem called Reflections:

It is Eternal Beauty itself that puts forth in Spring in the petals of the lotus, in autumn in the cassia flowers.

Then hearts are stirred to joy, and deep thoughts arise in the mind: the outward beauty of God woos the beauty of God within.

Who would not be as the blooms and green things of the forest and the mountain? They hear the music of the spheres, and breathe the joy of the Eternal.

The soul of the lilies is above desire and ambition. Though the fairest woman in the world plucks them, it adds nothing to their joy.

  Consider the lilies of the field, said another Master Poet, true Taoist as he was in his teachings: they toil not, neither do they spin.

Taoism taught its poets to hunger after the great beauty and mystery of the world. Chang Chih-ho had held office under the Emperor Tang Sutsong, and for some reason was dismissed; presently, finding that matters went none too well without him, he was invited to return to court and reassume his ministerial functions. But the former minister had become the “Old Fisherman of the Mists and Waters,” and knew, as they say, a trick worth two of that. He sent his Emperor the following reply:

Nay, I’ll go seek Cloud-cuckoodom

    And Seagull Town, and  Mystery!

    Since in the boundless privacy

Of this my dragon-wandered home

Whose rooftree is the empyreal dome,

    The bright Moon, friendlike, dwells with me,

Here will I seek Cloud-cuckoodom

    And Seagull Town, and Mystery.


What!  Quit my mountain brothers? — roam

    Far from my bosom friend, the Sea?

    In that dull world wherein ye be,

Quench my ethereal self in gloom?

— Nay, but I’ll seek Cloud-cuckoodom,

And Seagull Town, and Mystery!


— And the Emperor was too much the man and the poet to cut his head off.

Of this thirst for the great and lovely mystery of things, Tu Fu, called the God of Poetry, gives us a noble example in a poem called The Waters of Mei Pei: it is a haunted and mysterious lake, only half in China, half in other worlds. He sets forth, with two adventurous friends, on its waters, and passes, with the passing of the day, out of all realms where ordinary happenings may be expected: —

Southward, the mountains are mirrored clear; eastward, the Great Peace Temple, hanging in the clouds, is glassed on the darkening waters.

The moon, rising, floods the Lan-tien Pass with silvery beauty; idly from the boat we watch the peaks trembling on the quivering surface of the lake.

They tremble; they break; a sudden ring of silver ripples out; the Lilong Dragon, rising, strews a shower of pearls.

Ping-i, the God of Waters, drumming, summons the dragons of the deep, and they come. The Daughters of Yao descend from heaven, the Spinning Maiden of the Stars leading them.

They dance and sing to branching instruments of gold adorned with jade and sapphires; moon-rainbow radiances play about them.

*                            *                      *                      *                      *

A-sudden the lights fade; awe comes swiftly on. Far off the thunder peals, and lurid clouds form, lined with lightnings.

The waters heave; dreadful unrest has taken them. The air is filled with shadows of the dead; the Spirits of the Universe draw near, and we cannot guess their intent.

This Tu Fu was indeed a great and versatile genius. He could pass from such tremendous Taoism to a Dostoievsky-like realism and compassion; as when he describes the visit of the recruiting sergeant to a desolate village, already war-bereft of its men; or the conscript gang, amidst the wailing of women and the deep curses of the old, hurried away to the wars, to die in the frozen north — and, as a grand advocate of peace, makes us feel the whole pity and sorrow of war, and the vileness of imperial ambitions; — or when he describes the feelings of an old peasant whose thatched roof has been blown away by a gale:

The wind drove it whirling and scurrying across the river; here tufts blown up and caught in the treetops; there patches falling in the ponds and the furrows.

The village boys, delighted, make mock of me; they steal my goods, and run away grinning.

I drive them off, and hobble back, but to find no shelter. Wintry is the night that draws on; worn and hard is my bed, and nothing but a wadded quilt to cover me; I cannot sleep for misery    

The rain drips through the rafters, through which I watch the drifting sky; the whole place is damp and wretched.

 I wish there were a mansion of delight, with a hundred thousand fair rooms in it, to shelter the poor of the world, and give them the happiness of security.

One sight of it would make me content to lose my cottage; and my life too. . . and my life too!

— Or, turning from these moods, he can paint a little picture infused with beauty and quietness like this of the Lake of Kouen Ming, on whose waters in the second century B. C., the great Han Wuti, a kind of imperial Chinese Arthur or Charlemain of romance, was wont to hold festival: —

Oh, gay these waters shone of old,

    When, streaming o’er their moon-bright blue,

The lanterns flashed vermeil and gold,

    Azure and green, the fair nights through,

When loud the pageant galleons drew

To clash in mimic combatting,

    What time Han Wuti’s banners flew

Over the Lake of Kouen Ming.


Now there is no one to behold

    Where the lone wave runs rippling through,

And wakes the stone sea-monsters cold

    To tremble in the moon-gemmed dew;

    None to behold, and none to rue

The desolation;  none to sing

    How once Han Wuti’s banners flew

Over the Lake of Kouen Ming.


The Spinning Maiden, as of old,

    Dreameth in stone; the waters blue

Lap at her feet; her beauty cold

    The moaning winds of autumn woo.

    Drifts the light kumi seed; the dew

Gleams on the lotus withering

    Where once Han Wuti’s banners flew.




Nought sees the eagle from the blue

    But some old angler loitering

Where once Han Wuti’s banners flew

    Over the Lake of Kouen Ming.


— Or again, as court poet, he could sing of a Night of Song in the magical Garden of Teng-hsiang Ting, where Tang Hsuentsong, that most luxurious, exquisite, and poetic of all emperors, held court:


Shadowy waters mutter and steal,

Dreaming down through the lilied places;

Stars in their dragon pageant reel

    White through the soundless spaces.


Hushed the breeze where the dim trees loom;

The moon hath taken her magical wings;

We and the white magnolia bloom

    Wake, and the lute’s soft strings,




Hush!   Night’s filled with spirit-singing:

Subtle tunes our fancy chimes to,

Flamey words like fireflies winging,

Jewel thoughts to set our rhymes to.

Now ’tis two-edged swords are clashing;

Pride and pomp and valor swelling;

Now the cups like red stars flashing,

Now young love his passion telling.




Breathes a strange, sad air from of old,

From the turquoise mists on time’s horizon. . . .  

Suddenly passion hath grown a-cold;

Song is reft of the wings it flies on;


*                            *                      *                      *                      *

           Muteness lies on

The lutes of jade and the lutes of gold.


Tu Fu was a painter as well as a poet; and the connexion between the two arts was very strong in Tang China. Continually we come on little vignettes that shine with soft and lovely color — even through the clumsiness of a translation. Here is Wang Changling, another of Tang Hsuentsong’s poets, on Maidens gathering Water-lilies:


One pale shimmer of green on the nenuphar

    leaves in the lake and the maiden’s dresses;

One rose glow on the lolling nenuphar

    blooms and the laughing maiden faces;

Under the willows the luminous hues

    and the lines are blurred and run together:

You cannot tell the silk from the leaves,

    the girls from the nenuphar blooms they gather,

Save when their voices suddenly swell

    to a coo and tune-soft chatter.

And here is Li Po, counted the greatest of them all — Li Po, the “Banished Angel,” that swaggering, swashbuckling, merry, melancholy Irishman of old China — on the Lady Tai Chen, Tang Hsuentsong’s love:


She leans out in the moonlight pale;

    The moonlit mountains with wan grace

    Grow eerie;  over the lattice-place

The red rose and the white rose frail

        Echo her face;

Her white silk robes, the clouds that trail

        Ghostly through space.


    Fall, you delicate dews of night!

This Plum-branch, with white bloom tender,

    Blooms and branches lovelier white

Over-gemmed with your diamond splendor;

        Glittering  bright

Till the Spirit of Snow cries: I surrender

        To the Lady of Light!


Summer with all his murmurous story

    Of iris and peony, rubiate rose;

Autumn,  haughty  with  pale,  sad  glory

    Where the queen chrysanthemum golden blows,

        Nor winter hoary

With his wan blue mists and his wondrous snows,

    Such loveliness knows!

I am fain to quote one more picture from the Banished Angel; exiled from court now, he seeks refuge with the old wise Priest of Tien Mountain; and tells of his waiting on the mountainside below the temple, for the noon-day bell to give him the signal that he may enter:


Gurgle of hidden waters near;

    Faint sounds of barking far away;

The morning sun makes diamond clear

    The raindrops on the peach-bloom gay;

    Deer, from their forest haunts astray,

Are grazing round the temple; soon.

    Within the courtyard lichen-gray

The temple bell will tinkle noon.


I wait.  — The cascades, falling sheer

    Adown the peaks, flash white with spray

On the emerald green; I hardly hear

    Their drone drift down the quiet day.

    Here ’neath the pines soft shadows play,

And drowsy winds their ballads croon.

    I have ten years of things to say

When that faint bell has tinkled noon.


I wait.   — In this soft light so clear,

    Down in the vale some breeze astray

Sets the bamboos to change and veer,

    To change and veer, and drift and sway

    Like soft clouds on a summer’s day

O’er skies of faintest turquoise strewn.

    Oh, I could almost kneel and pray

To hear the Priest’s bell tinkle noon!




The shrine has fallen in decay,

    A hollow ruin ’neath the moon;

The wise Priest’s soul is fled away. . . . 


Chang Chien of the polished philosophical Taoist vision; Ssu Kung Tu, the subtle mystic; Su Shih, great philosopher and teacher of a later age, that of the Sung Dynasty: Wang An-shih, its impetuous reformer: I wish I could give specimen pictures from these and many more; but I must end with a serene Taoist bit from the divine Po-chui, whose words are as rubies and sapphires flashing. His great poem, The Never-Ending Wrong, is exquisitely translated by Mr. Cranmer-Byng, and to be found in the latter’s little volume called A Lute of Jade; — I shall not quote from it, however: but give this prose rendering of his Peaceful Old Age, Here now see Po-Chui, an old, old man, waiting for death quietly in his garden, meditating still upon the Tao, the Supreme Spirit:


Swiftly sinks the sun; the blue sky deepens into night. Tao is that which lies behind all these beautiful changes.

Tao gives me this toil in manhood, this repose in old age. I follow It, and all the seasons are friendly to me; only should I turn from It might I meet with grief.

No sorrow can find habitation in me; the Spirit of the Universe thrills me through; as a cloud I am, borne on the wind of It; as a random swallow, free of the airs.

As I dream beneath my mulberry tree the waterclock drips on; day has dawned; a new day on my wrinkles and gray hair.

If I should go today, it would be without regrets; I am in love with life, but without fear or anxiety. Lives and deaths follow each other in their cycles; how then should I cling to the days that remain to this body?

Here, waiting for death, I am, as I shall be, One with the heart-beats of Eternity.


NOTE: The verses in this paper, as also the prose versions of Chinese poems, are my own. But they are by no means taken from the Chinese originals; they are as it were ‘translated’ into verse (or prose) from the translations either of Mr. Cranmer-Byng in his Lute of Jade, or of Mr. Charles Budd in a book published some years ago I think by Trench Trübner in London. From the former I quote directly the little Confucian Ode; and nearly directly the poem by Wang Changling. If I have ventured to reduce some of Mr. Byng’s work to prose, and then recast it in verse, my excuse is that he clings rather closely to the forms and traditions of English verse, which do not and cannot render the spirit of the Chinese poets or their intention: the atmosphere is too different. Since the paper was written I have come on a little volume by Mr. Clifford Bax of London, Twenty Chinese Poems: it contains many specimens that seem to me perfectly to render the Chinese atmosphere; and at least one reason of this success is, that Mr. Bax has used original or unhackneyed metres, and has permitted himself any unconventionality in the rhyme-scheme, etc., which, while remaining musical, shall contribute to the surprise Chinese poetry ought to cause in us. I count this element of greater importance than the matter of the poem. K. M.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Spirit of Chinese Poetry: Part One

[The Theosophical Path in August 1917. Morris’s views, and Chinese spellings, have been left to stand as originally written.] 

To every race come alternate periods of creation and rest; they have come to the Chinese, whom we have thought permanently stagnant and unprogressive. In their great ages, this people produced a wonderful literature, for the most part still to be revealed to the West; and certainly, the more it becomes known, the more it will be admired. Especially their poetry; of which, indeed, the revelation is strangely in process. That part of Young America which is interested in writing verse is more and more looking to Ancient China for inspiration. More and more of our younger poets — and their name is Legion — are feeling that the old sources, mainly Greek, are running dry; and that in Chinese poetry new fountains are being opened, not less wonderful, and as well-defined and distinctive in spirit and atmosphere. The only trouble is that they do not, perhaps, as a rule understand those basic ideas of religion and philosophy which made the world so wonderful to the great poets of China in the days of her glory.

One can but hope, in a short paper such as this, to give the merest sketch of the growth of Chinese poetry, and to indicate, by a few examples, some two or three of its peculiar characteristics. In these examples, let me say, the object has not been literal translation; it has been rather an inner than an outer fidelity: to give something of the spirit and color of the originals, not an exact rendering of their words. In reality, this is the only fair thing to do.

We must begin with Confucius; in whose days, as now, Chinese culture was at a low ebb. It had been declining for several hundred years. China lay all within the Hoangho Valley in the north; just as at the present time, she was a weak nation surrounded by a number of strong nations, all very jealous of each other and anxious to exploit poor China. The Chinese, then as now, were an unwarlike, home-loving, agricultural people much fought over by their neighbors; with traditions of a great past, of which they had become somewhat unworthy. But instead of having, as now, a vast and magnificent literature and a long and well attested history, they had only vague memories of their ancient glory and a large body of popular poetry, mainly perhaps unwritten down.

Among many other things Confucius was a collector of this folk-poetry. He gathered together all the ballads he could lay hands on; edited them, excluding all he deemed unworthy of a permanent place in literature, and published the rest in a volume known as the Shi King or Canon of Poetry, which consists of three hundred and five ‘odes,’ as they are called; a better term would be ballads. This book is held by native critics to be the root of the tree of Chinese poetic literature.

The ballads are nothing if not simple. There is no deep vein of poetry in them; probably the fact that they were the first Chinese poems to become at all known in the West, produced the idea that the Chinese are without poetic imagination. They deal with the surface of life: the doings of virtuous and wicked princes, from which the moral is duly extracted; the relation of the tillers to the soil they tilled; the short and simple annals of the poor. Now and again they rise to a certain degree of lyrical beauty in telling of personal joys or sorrows, chiefly sorrows. They express the lives of a home-loving, peace-loving peasantry with a penchant for virtue, untroubled with deep thoughts or imaginings. They differ from more familiar ballad literatures mainly in two respects: where other peoples have exalted war, they present it as a thing altogether loathsome. The home is their temple and source of light; family life appears to them the most sacred thing in the world. Secondly, they abhor impropriety. Love may be dealt with, but not debased. And here it may be remarked that, according to every authority, this is true of all Chinese literature. Judged from this standpoint — the attitude of their poetry to this matter — the Chinese are the civilized and we the barbarians. Nothing would be called poetry, or counted literature at all, that contained one line, one word or suggestion to offend. The most drunken rapscallion of a poet understood that his art was for other purposes.

The Shi King ballads are for the most part set to music and intended to be sung on ceremonial occasions; and I imagine there is a certain wistful music in the words, in the original, that redeems them from the utter baldness and flatness that appears in the translations one generally sees. Mr. Cranmer-Byng has dealt with them, in translating, more kindly and tactfully than most; they come from his hands, with at least the grace of quaintness and the air of being, what they are, natural growths. From his version we may take, as a specimen of their quality, this little song of an exile from Honanfu, the capital of the Chow Dynasty, in the time of Confucius waning to its fall:


Cold from the spring the waters pass

Down by the waving pampas grass.

All night long in dream I lie;

Ah  me, ah me, to awake and sigh,

Sigh for the City of Chow.


Cold from the spring the stream meanders

Darkly down by the oleanders.

All night long in dream I lie;

Ah me, ah me, to awake and sigh,

Sigh for the City of Chow!

Confucius, in selecting and canonizing these ballads, bequeathed them to posterity. Of all that existed in his time — over three thousand, — not one that he rejected has come down; those that he saved reflect his mind: there was something in their spirit that appealed to him intensely. For him, the basis of all religion, of all public morality and good government, lay in the home and family life. The State was a greater family; the emperor, the head and high priest of the national household. War was abhorrent, if for no other reason, because it assailed the quietude and continuity of the family life; immorality was a blasphemy against the altar of the home. And these ideals, certainly, came to be reflected in the poetry of after ages; which we may say was, on one side at least, a natural growth from the ballads of the Shi King. So that Confucius is to be called an ancestor of Chinese poetry; to say ‘the father’ would be going much too far. There is nothing in his system to account for the delicate imagination, the brilliant harmonies of color, developed in later centuries.

Nothing, for example, to account for a note struck even as early as in the poems of Chu Yuan, the first of the major poets. The warlike states that surrounded China in those days, had acquired a measure of Chinese culture; their royal houses were of Chinese descent; their erudite spoke and wrote Chinese. Chu Yuan was prime minister to the king of Tsu, a country lying south of what was then China Proper; he was banished by his master to regions southward still, the wild Yang-tse Valley, then beyond the pale of civilization altogether. He spent his exile roaming among the lakes, forests, and mountains, gathering the larkspurs in the valleys, and writing a longish poem called the Li Sao, which means ‘Falling into Trouble.’ Here are a few lines from one of its songs:

A spirit, robed in ivy and wisteria, roams among these mountains; a genius of august bearing, smiling mysteriously. His car is drawn by leopards and tigers; azalea-crowned, and decked in orchids, he goes; his banners are of cassia-bloom. Trailing behind him the sweetness of all flowers, he leaves a blossom of dreams in the heart of the one he visits, to haunt the memory forever.

There is here a feeling for the beauty and mystery of wild nature, of which we find no seed in Confucianism; but which we may trace without scruple to the teachings of Laotse, who, far more than Confucius, was the Father of all that is beautiful and wonderful in Chinese Poetry. These teachings collectively are known as Taoism; which one finds nearly always described as a wild and degraded superstition; but which in reality is a high and lovely mysticism packed with poetic inspiration. Its central idea is that which is conveyed in the word Tao, which can be translated in a thousand different ways. It is Universal Deity; and the Way to That: the Way, the Truth, and the Life. One is tempted to borrow a word from popular slang for it, and say it is IT — the finality, the grand Ne Plus Ultra. It is to be known, or attained, said Laotse, by self-emptiness: by the simplicity that has divested self of all desires, passions, affectations, opinionatedness, lies. It dwells within, and yet without, the Human Soul. It lies behind all visible forms; the vision unobscured by egotism may behold it as an inward Beauty inflaming and sustaining and singing through the skies, the trees, the soul, the waters and the mountains; it is the Good and the True, and also the Beautiful. “The knowledge of it is a divine silence, and the rest of all the senses”; the emptied of self shall behold it; the pure in heart shall see God. Laotse’s teaching, working upon the Chinese genius, taught the poet and artist a certain penetrating impersonality, of vision; they learned from it to

See, beneath the common things of day,

Eternal Beauty wander on her way.

It is the opal of religions, the pearl: all whiteness and simplicity without, but with strange fires of marvelous color burning in its heart. — I  speak, of course, of its and China’s days of glory; not of present degradations.

I think that this magical Taoism had touched the eyes of Chu Yuan a little; as, after the lapse of centuries, it was to touch the eyes of so many others, but it did not come to its own in poetry until the seventh century A. D., when the Dragon-boat Festival, held yearly to commemorate Chu Yuan’s death by drowning, had twinkled on the rivers of China upwards of nine hundred times. Meantime the Chinese Empire had been formed: conquered and united by one of those semi-barbarian kings: had flourished and decayed during four centuries under the great House of Han; had gone to pieces early in the third century of our era before invasions of Huns and Tartars; had seen civilization reborn, in the fifth century, in the Yangtse Valley; had been reunited at the end of the sixth and had passed, in the early seventh, into the Golden Age of the great Dynasty of the Tangs.

From the period between Chu Yuan and the Southern Renaissance little poetry comes down to us. A few of the poems of Su Wu and Li Ying, of later Han times; about nineteen poems by lesser or unnamed writers: they seem mainly Confucian in their tendencies, and are generally (to judge by the specimens I have seen) marked by a profound sadness. Simple as the ‘seamless robe of heaven,’ to which a critic compares them, they are yet filled with deep human feeling. Perhaps they give no greater revelation of beauty than do the ballads of the Shi King; but Confucius’ teaching had deepened the natural tendencies, the domestic devotions, of the Chinese; and the poems reach a level in purity and pity that gives them the right to be called art. Almost always you can hear the human heart beat in them; their burden is generally the pity and sorrow of war. An old man, driven off in his boyhood to fight the Huns, returns to the site of his fathers’ home; his memories have grown uncertain; he asks a peasant standing by, where the house stands or stood; and is led to it:

It was overgrown with grass, and desolate; a startled hare ran from her form in the kennel; pheasants flew from the carved ceiling-beams at his approach.

Where once the well-tilled fields had been, he gathered grain that had long run wild; he gathered mallows by the well in the courtyard, as he had so often done in his childhood.

He made a little fire, and cooked the food he had gathered; then, because there was none to share it with him, rose, left it untasted, and wandered away towards the east, weeping.

Just such a case as this old soldier’s was that of the poet Su Wu; he too was driven off by the recruiting sergeant, to be captured by the Huns, enslaved, and only to return in his old age. Here — a very famous poem — is his Farewell to his Wife, composed on the night of his departure:

Wife, we have been one-hearted all these years; our chief thought has been to give and receive love. Now our springtime has passed; our hearts must be pierced by grief. I cannot sleep, for counting the passing moments.

Dearest, awake; the stars have set, and we must bravely meet the sorrow of parting. Ah me, the long marches weigh upon my mind! I shall fight; I shall show nothing but bravery to the foe; and yet we two may never meet again.

As you take my hand, unless I let these tears fall my heart would break, to hear you speak so tenderly of our love.

But courage! Let us think of the first days of our union. It will bear me up on the way; it will help you to endure your solitude.

And there may be for us the joy of meeting again; or it may be that Fate has decreed that only in the spirit I shall be with you forever.

It is very human; not one whit lifted above the common levels of human feeling; it says, in the simplest possible way, what millions are thinking and feeling in sorrowful Europe today. But it is of a humanity very much unspoiled. There is a dignity, a restraint, a balance; you are to respect that Chinaman and his wife. I do not quote it for its poetic values; but because it indicates so perfectly the average Chinese ideal of marriage and home life. We have perhaps been wont to contrast our own ‘magnificent enlightenment’ in these respects, with their supposed ‘oriental barbarism.’

The Southern Renaissance of the beginning of the fifth century gives us one noteworthy name: that of Tao Chien, or Tao Yuen-ming, who died in 427. He was something of an Epicurean by philosophy, but there was a very noble side to him; also a side of great importance in the evolution of Chinese poetry. Called from his farm to take office in the capital, he hymned by the way the delights of country life; and showed the genuineness of his hymning by soon relinquishing office and returning to his dear elms and orchards, his hills and his poultry, and “the dog barking in the lane.” Not a great poet himself, perhaps, he yet did prepare the way for great poets to come; like Wordsworth in England, he called on his race to go to nature, and seek inspiration in the simple country things.

For a couple of centuries civilization was gaining strength. Pilgrims, returning from India, brought back to Nankin, the southern capital, wonderful inspirations; the Yangtse was opened to the commerce of all southern Asia, and quickening influences, mainly Buddhistic, poured in. Buddhism reinforced and systematized the Taoist tendencies in the Chinese mind; though the two religions were often in keen rivalry, it is easy to see how by their mutual reactions they affected the racial genius. The grand flowering came in the seventh century. In 627 Tang Taitsong, the greatest of all Chinese sovereigns since Han Wuti, came to the throne; and presently the glories of his reign were being reflected in a splendor of poetry worthy of them. The Chinese eye became, as never before or since, alive to the flaming beauty of the world; perhaps there has never been a greater age of poetry anywhere in historic times.

It found its culmination in the reign of Tang Hsuentsong, in the first half of the eighth century; at whose court both Li Po and Tu Fu, the greatest of the Chinese poets, — the two brightest stars among many scarcely less brilliant — figured; but it did not cease until towards the fall of the Dynasty in the beginning of the tenth century. It would be useless to reel off names; but those two, Li Po and Tu Fu, must be remembered. There were few professional poets, in the western sense; poetry was an accomplishment essential to every gentleman. Such and such a major poet, we read, was “an official at the court of Hsuentsong,” “prefect of this or that district,” or “a minister under Tang Sutsong” — who in his spare time composed poetry. They were the Roosevelts, the Gladstones, or the Kitcheners of their time. Chinese ideals were all for the balanced life, a splendid poise of the faculties.

Yet these Tang poets devoted themselves with ardor to the art of poetry, evolving new rules of composition directed towards the attainment of a wonderful perfection of music and form. One must not suppose, because Mr. Ezra Pound and others are fond of translating them into ‘free verse,’ that they would have permitted themselves such formlessness. On the contrary, their forms are highly and exquisitely artificial; our English verse forms are generally ill-adapted for translating them, because too free and formless. The old French forms: the rondel, the ballade and the triolet: are more appropriate, because of their intricate rhyme schemes and haunted melody. As to the productiveness of this age: Wang Jao-chi, a couple of centuries ago, served literature well by compiling a Tang Anthology; in which he found it necessary to include, in nine hundred books, about fifty thousand poems. And this Wang Jaochi, was no incompetent critic: as the following from his preface shall testify:

“Beauty,” he says, “was born with the Heavens and the Earth. The sun, the moon, the mists of morning and evening, illumine each other; there is no pigment with which they are dyed. All the phenomena of the world, when set in motion, bring forth sound; and every sound implies some motion that caused it. The greatest of sounds are wind and thunder. Listen to the mountain storm racing over the rocks: as soon as it begins to move, the sound of it makes itself heard; not, indeed, actually in accordance with the laws of music, yet having a certain rhythm and system of its own. This is the natural or spontaneous voice of heaven and earth, the voice caused by the movement of the great forces. So too in the purest mood of the human heart, when the fire of the intellect is at its brightest, the Soul, if it be moved, will bring forth sound. Is it not a wondrous transformation, that out of this should be created literature? Poetry is the music of the Soul in motion.”

Of all the definitions of poetry one has ever heard, one remembers nothing better than this: Poetry is the music of the Soul in motion.

[end or part one]