Ancient History & Civilisation


“Free verse”—“Imagism”—“Every poem a picture and every picture a poem”—Sentimentality—Perfection of form

It is impossible to judge Chinese poetry from Li alone; to feel it (which is better than judging) one must surrender himself unhurriedly to many Chinese poets, and to the unique methods of their poetry. Certain subtle qualities of it are hidden from us in translation: we do not see the picturesque written characters, each a monosyllable, and yet expressing a complex idea; we do not see the lines, running from top to bottom and from right to left; we do not catch the meter and the rhyme, which adhere with proud rigidity to ancient precedents and laws; we do not hear the tones—the flats and sharps—that give a beat to Chinese verse; at least half the art of the Far Eastern poet is lost when he is read by what we should call a “foreigner.” In the original a Chinese poem at its best is a form as polished and precious as a hawthorn vase; to us it is only a bit of deceptively “free” or “imagist” verse, half caught and weakly rendered by some earnest but alien mind.

What we do see is, above all, brevity. We are apt to think these poems too slight, and feel an unreal disappointment at missing the majesty and boredom of Milton and Homer. But the Chinese believe that all poetry must be brief; that a long poem is a contradiction in terms—since poetry, to them, is a moment’s ecstasy, and dies when dragged out in epic reams. Its mission is to see and paint a picture with a stroke, and write a philosophy in a dozen lines; its ideal is infinite meaning in a little rhythm. Since pictures are of the essence of poetry, and the essence of Chinese writing is pictography, the written language of China is spontaneously poetic; it lends itself to writing in pictures, and shuns abstractions that cannot be phrased as things seen. Since abstractions multiply with civilization, the Chinese language, in its written form, has become a secret code of subtle suggestions; and in like manner, and perhaps for a like reason, Chinese poetry combines suggestion with concentration, and aims to reveal, through the picture it draws, some deeper thing invisible. It does not discuss, it intimates; it leaves out more than it says; and only an Oriental can fill it in. “The men of old,” say the Chinese, “reckoned it the highest excellence in poetry that the meaning should be beyond the words, and that the reader should have to think it out for himself.”56 Like Chinese manners and art, Chinese poetry is a matter of infinite grace concealed in a placid simplicity. It foregoes metaphor, comparison and allusion, but relies on showing the thing itself, with a hint of its implications. It avoids exaggeration and passion, but appeals to the mature mind by understatement and restraint; it is seldom romantically excited in form, but knows how to express intense feeling in its own quietly classic way.

Men pass their lives apart like stars that move but never meet.

This eye, how blest it is that the same lamp gives light to both of us!

Brief is youth’s day.

Our temples already tell of waning life.

Even now half of those we know are spirits.

I am moved in the depths of my soul.

We may tire, at times, of a certain sentimentality in these poems, a vainly wistful mood of regret that time will not stop in its flight and let men and states be young forever. We perceive that the civilization of China was already old and weary in the days of Ming Huang, and that its poets, like the artists of the Orient in general, were fond of repeating old themes, and of spending their artistry on flawless form. But there is nothing quite like this poetry elsewhere, nothing to match it in delicacy of expression, in tenderness and yet moderation of feeling, in simplicity and brevity of phrase clothing the most considered thought. We are told that the poetry written under the T’ang emperors plays a large part in the training of every Chinese youth, and that one cannot meet an intelligent Chinese who does not know much of that poetry by heart. If this is so, then Li Po and Tu Fu are part of the answer that we must give to the question why almost every educated Chinese is an artist and a philosopher.

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