Sunday, February 5, 2023

In Passing

"Life passes swiftly, hedged by sorrow;/how long before you've lost it -- a scene like this?"  (Su Tung-p'o (1037-1101), "On a Boat, Awake at Night.")  One of the pleasures of reading classical Chinese lyric (shih) poetry is coming across lovely and evocative lines such as these.  This happens frequently.  Lines of this sort are not intended to be didactic, edifying, or admonitory.  Instead, they arrive quite naturally, as part and parcel of a contemplative poem that may be about, for instance, the beautiful particulars of the World in any season, parting from a friend, or simply passing through an ordinary day.

Interestingly, one sees the same thing occur in classical Japanese poetry and in the poems of The Greek Anthology.  One also notices that the classical Chinese, Japanese, and Greek lyric forms share a common feature: brevity.  The two predominant Chinese lyric forms are the chüeh-chü (four lines) and the lü-shih (eight lines).  The two basic Japanese lyric forms are the waka (five lines and 31 syllables) and the haiku (three lines and 17 syllables). The poems in The Greek Anthology generally range between two, four, six, or eight lines.  In addition, all of these short forms are governed by strict prosodic requirements.  Does this concision and craft encourage pensive reflection?

My thoughts are prompted by revisiting three poems by Shao Yung (1011-1077).  In his day, he was perhaps best known as a Confucian scholar and philosopher.  Yet he was also a fine poet.

               Arriving in Lo-yang Again

Those years, I was a green-youthed wanderer;
today I come again, a white-haired old man.
From those years to today makes one whole lifetime,
and in between, how many things have had their day and gone!

Shao Yung (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 335.

This poem, and the two poems by Shao Yung which appear below, are all in the chüeh-chü quatrain form.  This form requires rhyming of the second and fourth lines, as well as compliance with the complex rules of tonal parallelism that are an essential element of traditional Chinese lyric poetry.  Ibid, pages 8-11, 373.

Richard Wyndham (1896-1948), "Summer Landscape" (c. 1932)

But, putting aside matters of form and prosody, it is the affecting and redolent character of these poetic reflections that is so beguiling. Although classical Chinese poetry is, of course, the product of a unique ancient culture and of three interacting philosophies (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism), lines such as "Life passes swiftly, hedged by sorrow;/how long before you've lost it -- a scene like this?" and "From those years to today makes one whole lifetime,/and in between, how many things have had their day and gone!" do not move us because of their cultural origins or because they may arise out of a certain philosophical system.  Rather, they move us because they are True and Beautiful articulations of what it means to be a human being, and to live in, and to be fated to depart from, a wondrous and mysterious World -- at any time and in any place.

                 Thoughts on T'ien-chin Bridge

The countless great lords and statesmen of past regimes --
later ages know them merely as a list of names.
Only the water under T'ien-chin Bridge
goes on year after year, making the same sound.

Shao Yung (translated by Burton Watson), Ibid, page 336.

Richard Wyndham, "Tickerage Mill" (c. 1939)

This past week Spring began to emerge, in a place where I have become accustomed to see it first arrive: in a group of small bushes beside a pathway that passes through a grove of tall pines.  The bushes are sheltered within the dark, quiet, and windless grove, although sunlight and rain do filter through the deep canopy of pine boughs.  One day this week, in the late afternoon yellow light that angled down through the boughs, I noticed bright green leaf buds shining at the tips of the branches of the bushes.

   Song of the Water Willow in Front of Comfortable Den

In front of Comfortable Den, by a little crooked stream,
New rushes, a delicate willow, turn green year by year.
Before my eyes a procession of good sights pass --
Who says that life is so full of wants?

Shao Yung (translated by Burton Watson), in Kōjirō Yoshikawa, An Introduction to Sung Poetry (translated and edited by Burton Watson) (Harvard University Press 1967), page 83.  Shao Yung, who "lived all his life in semi-seclusion," gave his house the name "An-lo-wo," which may be translated as "Comfortable Den."  Ibid.

Richard Wyndham, "The Medway near Tonbridge" (1936)