Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 22 April 2012





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

The importance of Eco-criticism

[Part 2]

In my column appeared in April 7 edition, I started discussing the nature poetry of the celebrated classical Chinese poet Wang Wei as a way of indicating his uniqueness as a poet and his relevance to the interests of modern eco-criticism. I would like to continue with that discussion. Let us first consider a few short and highly compact poems by him. The first is titled ?Magnolia Park?.

Autumn hills taking the last of the light
Birds flying, mate following mate
Brilliant green here and there distinct
Evening mist has no resting place.
The next poem is called ?Deer Park?.
Hills empty no one to be seen
We only hear voices echoed
With light coming back into the deep wood
The top of the green moss is lit again

The title of the third poem is ?Willow Waves?, and it displays the same characteristics that marked the earlier two poems.

The two rows of perfect trees
Fall reflected in the clear ripples
And do not copy those by the palace moat
Where the spring wind sharpens the good-bye
The titles of the next poem is the ?Rapids by the Luans?
How howl autumn wind rain
Fast stream over the smooth rocks
Waves leap and crash together
White egrets startled then down again.

Let us consider one more short poem by Wang Wel that is titled Birds Calling in the Valley.

Men at rest, cassia flowers falling
Night still, spring hills empty
The moon rises, rouses birds in the hills
And sometimes they cry in the spring valley.


What is important to note about these short nature poems by Wang Wei is that we are left with the comforting feeling that the poet and the surrounding world are in a harmonious union.

There is no separation, a yawning gap, between man and nature. The feel of nature has deeply penetrated the being of the poet. The trust in nature is something that eco-critics prize very highly.

Let us now consider a slightly longer poem by Wang Wei. This is called the ?Green Stream?.

To get to the yellow flowers river
I always follow the great water stream
Among the hills there must be a thousand twists
The distance there cannot be fifty miles
There is the murmur of water among the rocks
And the quietness of colors deep in pines
Lightly drifting water-chestnuts
Clearly mirrored reeds and rushes
I have always been a lover of tranquility
And when I see this clear stream so calm
I want to stay on some green rock
And fish for ever on and on.

Once again we see the perfect union between the poet and the natural world he inhabits. The emphatic statement at the conclusion of the poem serves to underscore this fact. It is this kind of poem, which represents one aspect of the complex and multi-faceted relationship between human beings and nature that modern eco-critics like to foreground.

Let us now consider the nature poetry of another classical Chinese poet, Tu Fu, who is very different from Wang Wei in poetic temperament. He is generally regarded as the foremost Chinese poet. He was deeply influenced by Confucian values and this fact is reflected in his poetry. His impact on subsequent generations of poets was both profound and far-reaching. He left behind nearly one thousand five hundred poems and they bear indubitable testimony to his distinct poetic skills and rare imagination.

Poetic sensibility

He possesses a strong poetic sensibility, easy facility with language, and a mastery of poetic technique that knowledgeable Chinese critics assert are unparalleled. He is in many ways a more personal and confessional poet than Wang Wei. Let us consider the following passage. In it he captures his feelings after arriving at Sichuan where he was able to construct a home, the comfort of which he had not experienced for years. The poem is titled Siting a House.

By the flower-washing waters, by water?s edge
As master, I have chosen this secluded wood and pond,
Well I know; leaving a city decreases dusty business
What?s more; pellucid river dispels a wanderer?s woe,
Innumerable dragonflies together rise and drop;
A couple of wood ducks facing me bob and dive
Myriad leagues away east, riding on high spirits,
I ought to head for Alpshade abroad a little skiff.

Tu Fu sought to represent the intersections between human beings and the natural world in their diverse interactions with remarkable understanding and depth of feeling. In his poetry, the objects of nature often assume the power of signifiers of his varying mental states and emblems of mind-sets. It needs to be pointed out that some of his most poignant poems aim to reconfigure the beauties of the night, the joys and anxieties it provokes, with great sensitivity. The following poem called night is illustrative of this proclivity of his.

Dewdrops fall, the sky soars, autumn?s air clarified;
Empty hills, a lonely night, my errant soul startled.
A faint lamp illumines itself, the lone sail rests;
The new moon suspended still, paired pestles pound.
Southern chrysanthemums met again, as I lie in sickness;
Northern letters don?t arrive, geese are heartless.
Along the verandah, I lean on my cane, watch ox and dipper
Silver river, far-off, should connect to phoenix town.

Clearly, the nature poetry of Tu Fu is different from that of Wang Wei that I discussed earlier. Tu Fu is keen to situate man in the natural world and there is frequently a visible tension between the two. In his later poetry, this aspect of his poetic discourse appears to be quickening. It is evident that Tu Fu is constantly seeking to make sense of the phenomenal world, promoting human agency as a vital factor in this effort.

For example, in his poem Facing the Snow, which is a relatively early poem, we see a relentless effort to impose a pattern of meaning and order on the flux of the natural world.

In sorrow, reciting poems, an old man alone,
A tumult of clouds sinks downward in sunset
Hard-pressed, the snow dances in whirlwind
Ladle cast down, no green less in the cup
The brazier lingers on, fire seems crimson
From several provinces now news has ceased ?
I sit here in the sorrow tracing words in the air.


Commenting on this poem, the distinguished scholar of classical Chinese poetry, Stephen Owen makes the following pertinent observation..? The title Facing Snow, involves a primary opposition between the poet and the winter world outside. Indeed, Tu Fu?s treatment of the topic has strong echoes of the formal amplifications of the seventeenth-century poetic rhetoric.

The first couplet repeats the primary opposition in nominal terms; out there, on the battlefields beyond the horizon, many new ghosts of the young dead slain unnaturally before their time; within the solitary survivor, the old men for whom death would be appropriate.? He then goes in to make the following observation.. ?The city disappears in the poem; there is only the poet who faces and the snow world that is faced, the world of death and winter.

What this poem illustrates is Tu Fu?s characteristic attempts to make sense of the hostility, desolateness, antipathy, of the natural world. Interestingly, for Tu Fu nature n all its bewildering complexity and contradictory manifestation stood for order and stability as opposed to the ephemerality of human affairs.

This observation of Stephen Owens has great relevance to eco-critical approaches to literary analysis. The fact that nature stood for odder and stability amidst all the perplexities of human affairs opens a most interesting pathway to the understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature.

Confucian values

I said earlier that Confucian values had a deep impact of the poetic imagination and social vision of Tu Fu. In a poem like the following which is highly personal illustrates the complex interplay between social consciousness, personal sensibility and nature.

Darkling hues march up an alpine path;
My steep study camps by the water gate.
Tenuous clouds bivouac bordering cliffs;
A lonely moon tumbles among the waves,
Troops of cranes in silence fly pursuit;
A pack of wolves clamors to find a kill.
I?m sleepless, worrying among battles,
All powerless to right heaven and earth.

So far I have been discussing the poetry of two venerated Chinese poets. Let us now consider briefly a Japanese poet, perhaps the most famous outside Japan. He is Basho. He lived in the seventeenth century (1644-1694). He is justly recognised the world over as an outstanding and imaginative exponent of the art of the short Japanese poetic form, haiku.

Like Wang Wei and Tu Fu, Basho was also the author of some exquisite nature poetry that bears the imprint of his poetic genius as well as the weight of the Japanese tradition. Let us consider some representative examples.

Spring morning marvel
Lovely nameless little hut
On a sea of mist
Under my tree-roof
Slanting lines of April rain
Separate to drops.
Low-tide morning
The willow?s skirts are trailed
In striking mud
Overhanging pine,
Adding its mite of needles
To the waterfall.
A windblown grass
Hovering mid-air in vain
An autumn dragonfly
Nature poetry

Plainly, the nature poetry of Basho is different from that of Wang Wei and Tu Fu. What is interesting about Basho?s compositions is the absence of the personal emotion of the poet, the subjective engagement with the landscape that marks much nature poetry.

It can be said that in the case of Basho?s poetry on the natural world, he is completely submerged in nature. Instead of the idea of personality that one associates with say, Tu Fu, what we find here is a kind of impersonality. Makoto Ueda, a discerning critic who has written perceptively on the work of Basho says that, ?A dissolution of personal emotion into an impersonal atmosphere constitutes the core of Basho?s attitude towards life.?

Even in those instances where a deeply felt personal emotion is crucial to the poetic experience that is being communicated, Basho labours to present his inner feelings as objectively and detachedly as possible. In the following poem, Basho seeks to focus on the sense of loneliness that is often experienced by human beings. However, the way he chooses to present his experience tends to underscore a bias towards impersonality.

Under the blossoms
Two aged watchmen
With their white heads together

Commenting on this poem, Makoto Ueda makes the following astute observation.? This is not purely a nature poem; there are two men placed in the heart of the landscape.


Yet the haiku says nothing about the men?s inner feelings. They are part of the natural scene; thereby creating an atmosphere of loneliness. Lovely as the blossoms are, they must eventually fall with the passing of time, as suggested by the white hair of the watchman.

Important is the fact that these old men are not grieving over the impending fall of the blossoms or over the anticipated end of their lives. They are there simply to fulfill their place in nature, together with the blossoms; they are part of impersonal nature.? This same point can be usefully illustrated in the following poem of Basho; he composed it at the death of his faithful disciple.

In the autumn gust
It is sorrowfully broken

A mulberry stick.

I believe we can fairly make the following observations on the nature poetry of Basho. First, the personality of the poet is not evident in the verbal fabric; it is designedly submerged.

Second one does not observe a dichotomy between man and nature, as man is completely subsumed by nature. Third, one does not discern any meditation on nature on the part of the poet, much less a meditation leading to self-interrogation.

Fourth, the imagination of the poet seems to be liberated from the clutches of rationality and intellect that mark much nature poetry.. Fifth, there is no visible moral consciousness, ethical evaluation or a pedagogical intent that appears to power the poetry; on the contrary, he would regard it as a distraction.

Sixth, the language is devoid of imagery although the total poetic statement can carry symbolic valences. All these features serve to give Basho?s poetry its distinctive appeal. And modern eco-critics would find it extremely interesting to see how cultural sensibility interacts with nature poetry as is exemplified in Basho?s poetry.

Asian poetry

My discussion of Asian nature poetry, so far, has been confined to East Asia. I would like to expand it to include South Asia. Lt?s consider classical Indian poetry. Kalidasa, by common consent, is regarded as the greatest Sanskrit poet and playwright. He is generally referred to as the supreme poet (kavi kula guru).

He had a deep and far-reaching influence on later writers and critics. One can state confidently that he was a poet who strained to capture the beauty and sublimity of nature in a language that was pulsing with tropological power. He had his own unique way of capturing the power of nature. In his Cycle of Nature which is decidedly a minor poem in comparison to his magisterial Raghuvamsa, he depicts the six seasons and what is distinctive about each with uncommon verbal richness. He perceives human beings and nature interacting in an eroticised discursive space. He anthropomorphised nature to secure his aim. For example, this is how he begins his description of summer.

The sun blazing fiercely,
The moon longed for eagerly
Deep waters inviting
To plunge in continually
Days drawing to a close in quiet beauty,
The tide of desire running low;
Scorching summer is now here, my love.

Rainy season

And this is how he begins his description of the rainy season. Again we note the lusciousness of the imagery.

With screaming clouds trumpeting like haughty tuskers
With lightning-banners and drumbeat of thunderclaps,
In towering majesty, the season of rains
Welcome to love, now comes like a king, my love.

Similarly he presents us with an exuberant depiction of autumn, capturing the changes in nature with bright colors.

Robed in pale silk plumes of Kusa blooms,
Full-blown lotuses her beautiful face,
The calls of rapturous wild geese
The music of their ankle bells,
Ripening grain, lightly bending, her lissome form
Autumn has now arrived, enchanting as a bride.

The nature of the poetic self that emerges from Kalidasa?s poetry is one of trans-personality that serves to celebrate the power of Shiva. The poet?s intention is not to depict nature in a partial, provisional or dimply understood way as in the case of Tu Fu?s poetry, but from the perspective of a poet who is in full command of the subject with a totalising awareness.

Kalidasa?s nature poetry bears the distinct stamp of his adoration of Shiva. He sees the omnipresence of Shiva in the phenomenal world. For him, nature is not an object to be perceived and assessed or against which human beings lead their daily lives.


For him, nature is imbued with a different order of significance, manifesting as it does the cosmic unity that is one of the defining features of Shiva. This opens a way of understanding nature which is very different from the approaches adopted by the Chinese and Japanese poets that I discussed earlier. Eco-critics would have much to stimulate their thinking in the orientation inscribed in Kalidasa?s poetry.

Kalidasa?s approach to nature is by no means reductive or simple minded. The very title of his poem, Ritusanahara, devoted to a representation of the six seasons bears this out. The word ?Samhara? can mean both gathering and destruction.

Critics with a deconstructive bent of mind would find this duality most interesting and one that invites deconstructive unpacking. Kalidasa seems to be suggesting that this dialectical interplay of gathering and destruction points to the complex attitude we need to adopt towards nature.

My discussion up to this point on the different approaches to nature taken by different points, I believe, holds great significance for modern eco-critics who are interested in clearing new pathways of inquiry and understanding into the natural environment and its literary representations. Eco-criticism as a new mode of inquiry has gathered momentum as it seeks to address and incorporate modern experiences and challenges.

Illegal logging

Therefore let me quote one of my own poems in Sinhala that deal with the problem of illegal logging. I have translated this poem into English from the original Sinhala version. The title of the poem is ?A Tree Sees its Death?.

A tall tree, among tall trees
Deep in the jungle, sees
Its imminent death.
In the distance, rises
The ominous sounds
Of illegal logging.
A green stillness grows
Over the fallen leaves.
The deep silence has invented
New words to tell us of its agony.
The sound of logging grows
Loud and terrifying, and
Frightened shadows rush
To hide behind large trees.
The tree mourns
And a flock of birds
Picks up the sad refrain.

The rise of eco-criticism has encouraged and enabled us to re-imagine the relationships pursued by different poets in representing the intersection of the human and natural world. The new ecological critique that it provokes can be developed in fruitful directions. What I have sought to do in these columns is to think through some of these ideas with the Sri Lankan literary scene in mind.



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