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.

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