The elegy and its many faces - [ Part 7 ]
Last week, I discussed the way the elegy has worked its way through
Arabic and Persian cultures. Today I wish to focus on a different area
of the world - East Asia. I would like to draw attention to some
defining features of elegies written in China and Japan by focusing on
some select examples. Clearly, it is not possible to survey the poetic
literatures in China and Japan in their entirety to explore that
animating presence of the elegiac impulse. That is indeed a task that
demands a much wider canvas; instead, what I propose to do is to select
two dominant sub-genres from the Chinese and Japanese poetic traditions
to exemplify the cultural inflections that the elegy has received in
Li Po and Tu Fu are arguably the two greatest classical Chinese
poets. (Some years ago, I translated their poetry into Sinhala based on
English translations and in consultation with a Chinese speaking
scholar. They are gathered in my book 'Parani Cheena Kavi').) They lived
during the same period and knew each other intimately. In today's column
my aim is to discuss some characteristic elegies of Li Po that deal with
the idea of separation. These can be referred to as farewell poems in
that the central trope that orchestrates the varied emotions and flows
of thought is that of a farewell. Indeed, many of the elegies have this
term in their title. The farewell poems, as I wish to call them, are
characteristic of the Chinese elegy. Many of the most distinguished
classical Chinese poets have at one time or another written farewell
As I stated earlier Li Po and Tu Fu were contemporaries, but in terms
of temperament, poetic agendas and outlook on life there were very
different from each other, Li Po was a Taoist, which meant that the
wonder of nature, the idea of mystery, the significance of intuition
were supremely important to him. This fact is amply borne out in his
poetry. Tu Fu was on the other hand a dedicated Confucian and ideas of
morality, social conscience, rationality were deemed very highly by him.
Despite their divergent outlooks, both of them produced poetry of the
highest order and enriched the classical Chinese poetic tradition in
Li Po (701- 762 A.D ) is generally regarded as a supremely lyrical
poet. At the age of twenty years or so, he left his home and wandered
from place to place. It was the custom for Chinese poets to seek the
approval of the government and thereby ensure legitimacy and fame. He
did secure official employment off and on; however it was his wanderlust
that emerged with overwhelming power although in his later life he was
involved in a social uprising against the government; he was pardoned.
Li Po used to drink heavily and was often regarded as a poet who was in
many ways irresponsible and not given to self-discipline.
In most of Li Po's poetry, as indeed in much of classical Chinese
poetry, there is a dominant and elegiac impulse running through. The
following, poem titled Going to Visit Ta-tien Mountain's Master of the
Way Without Finding Him, (very often classical Chinese poems had long
titles), bears the imprint of the elegiac temper I am talking about.
A dog barks among the sound of water.
Dew strains peach blossoms. In forests
I sight a few deer, then at my creek,
Hear nothing of midday temple bells.
Wild bamboo parts blue haze. A stream
Hangs in flight beneath emerald peaks.
No one knows where you've gone. Still
For rest, I've found two or three pines.
What we find in this poem are a number of characteristic features of
Li Po's poetry - the austere background, the nature bearing witness to
human emotions, trees, mountains, streams reflecting a human
Li Po like many other Chinese poets wrote a large number of farewell
poems that display an important facet of Chinese elegies- pain of
separation. Let us consider a few of them. In the following poem titled,
At Ching-Men Ferry, a Farewell the features that I referred to earlier
are conspicuously present.
Crossing into distances beyond Chiang-men,
I set out through ancient southlands. Here,
Mountains fall away into wide-open plains
And the river flows into boundless space.
The moon setting, heaven's mirror in flight
Clouds build, spreading to seascapes towers.
Poor waters home. I know how it feels
Ten thousand miles of farewell on the boat.
These farewell poems capture effectively and economically the
melancholy that pervades human life. This melancholy breathes in the
depths of nature. Li Po's poetry, it seems to me, repeatedly underlines
this fact. The following is another farewell poem by Li Po that
reconfigures these features. It is titled Farewell to a Visitor
Autumn rains ending in the river town,
And wine gone, your lone sails soars away,
Setting out across billows and waves, your
Family settles back for the journey home
Past islands lavish with blossoms ablaze,
Willow filigree crowding in over the banks.
And after you're gone, nothing left to do,
I go back and sweep off the fishing pier.
In another farewell elegy titled, Farewell to Yin Shu, Li Po is able
to capture the mood of melancholia with great compactness.
We drink deeply beneath the dragon bamboo
Our lamp faint, the moon cold again.
On the sandbar, startled by the drunken song
A snowy egret lifts away past midnight
In the following poem by Li Po what is highlighted is not the act of
leaving as in a farewell poem but the after-effects of a farewell and
separation. The poem is titled, Traveling South to Yeh-lang, Sent to My
Wife in Yu-chang.'
The separation hurts, and Yeh-lang is beyond sky.
Moonlight fills the house, but news never comes.
I watched geese disappear north in spring, and now
They're coming south, but not letter from Yu-chang
This brevity of expression is secured through carefully constructed
images as evidenced in the following poem which has the comprehensively
informative title, On Yellow-Crane Tower, Farewell to Meng Hao-jan Who's
Leaving for Yang-chou. The title provides us with the entire context of
From yellow-crane tower, my ld friend leaves the west.
Downstream to Yang-chou, late spring a haze of blossoms,
Distant glints of lone sail vanishes into emerald green air;
Nothing left but a river flowing on the borders of heaven
As I pointed out earlier in many of Li Po's mountains figure
prominently. They are not only vital components of the landscape but
also sacred objects that inspire awe. Here I am reminded of Kalidasa's
elegy The Meghaduta that I discussed some weeks ago. In that poem too
mountains assume an aura of sacredness.
Apart from the austerity, brevity of expression, the interpenetration
of the natural and human worlds and the vivid imagery that mark Li Po's
elegies, he is also keen to invest his compositions with a sense of
spontaneity. His poems seem to carry an air of improvisation; this is
indeed misleading. Li Po is a conscientious literary craftsman.
The effect he is seeking to achieve is one of spontaneity, but it is
won by patient and hard work.
Li Po's elegies then bear the distinct imprint of Chinese culture.
Friendship is one of the central and pervasive themes of classical
Chinese poetry. Poets such as Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei have written moving
poems on this theme. Similarly the idea of travelling is another theme
that is pervasive in Chinese literature, This is, to be sure a favorite
theme among Japanese poets; Basho who is probably the most well-known of
Japanese poets - the master of Haiku - wrote a large number of poems on
the theme of travel. The themes of friendship and travel come together
in interesting ways in the farewell poems of Li Po that I have indexed
Let us now consider the faces of the elegy in the Japanese poetic
tradition. Elegies have been written in Japan from very early times, and
the idea of elegy is central to Japanese aesthetics. To take one
prominent example, aestheticians of Japanese culture very often invoke
the term 'mono no aware' which can be translated as pathos of things or
melancholy. As theorists of Japanese literature have pointed out this
concept is applicable to both prose and verse.
The concept of 'mono no aware' has changed over time, as it connected
with different cultural contexts and reconfigurations; however the basic
idea of the pathos of things remains. The famed cherry blossoms of Japan
is emblematic of this, Blossoms of the cherry tree are no more
attractive than the blossoms of pear or apple trees. The difference is
that cherry blossoms disappear in a far shorter time span than blossoms
of pear trees or apple trees. This idea of evanescence, then, is pivotal
to the concept of 'mono no aware', and that is where the idea of elegiac
temper enters into Japanese aesthetics,
This concept was given sharper definition and put into wider
discursive circulation by the literary theorist Motoori Norinaga. Since
then it has been subject to various glosses including its equation with
the Freudian notion of the melancholy. One can observe how the idea of
'mono no aware' informs classical texts. If we take prose literature,
Murasaki Shubuku's The Tale of Gengi (Gengi Monogatari) is generally
regarded as the first novel in the world; literary critics have pointed
out hoe the pathos of things that 'mono no aware' points to is deeply
inscribed in that fictional text. To take a somewhat later novel, The
Tale of the Heike Clan I ( Heike Monogatari) begins thus; 'The sound of
the Gion Shoja bells convey the impermanence of all things...' Here one
sees clearly the power of 'mono no aware'. Hence it can be said that the
elegiac temper is a vital driving force in Japanese poetics.
The same is true of the domain of poetry. The classical anthology of
Japanese poetry, Manyoshu, produced in the 8th century, bears traces of
the elegiac imagination associated with 'mono no aware'. There we find
how bird songs and activities of animals serve to highlight the pathos
of things and its allied beauty in the human world. It is not only in
literature that one observes the pervasive influence of this concept. In
cinema, too, it has made its presence. For example, in the case of
Cinema, Yasujiro Ozu, who in my judgment is the most Japanese of
filmmakers and about whom I have written in some of my books, was deeply
influenced by 'mono no aware'.
There are many areas where one can detect and decode the influence of
the elegiac temper in classical Japanese literature, What I wish to do
now is to focus on such genre - death poems. One commentator remarked,
'In Japan, as elsewhere in the world, it has become customary to write a
will in preparation for one's death. But Japanese culture is probably
the only one in the world in which in addition to leaving a will, a
tradition of writing a 'farewell poem to life (jisei) took root and
became widespread. It is this body of death poems or farewell poems to
life, whose essence is the elegiac temper that I have been discussing
throughout, that I wish to examine.
In Japanese culture, as indeed in may others, rituals and ceremonies
associated with death are extremely important. The deceased whose
funerals have not been conducted in prescribed ways, Japanese believe,
will have a harder time in crossing over to the other world. It is in
this context of thinking and imagining that death poems of the Japanese
should be examined. It is interesting to observe that many of these
rituals are informed by Buddhist thinking.
These death poems have been written by warriors, lovers, poets and
others representing many other walks of life. The following is one such
poem composed by Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481)
One day you are born
You die the next-
Autumn breezes blow.
The recognition and acceptance of the inevitability of death is
combined through elegiac voice with the beauty of nature, reminding us
of 'mono no aware' that I alluded to earlier/in the following poem by
Ouchi Yoshitaka (1507-1551)who was a war general illustrates this same
pattern of thinking. He wrote this poem before he committed suicide.
Both the victor
And the vanquished are
But drops of dew
But bolts of lightning -
Thus should we view the world.
The following poem is by a warrior named Fuse Yajiro. He fell ill in
spring and by autumn was on the throes of death. He wrote the following
poem looking back on his life and forward to death.
I shall be a ghost
But just now
How they bite my flesh
The winds of autumn
At times one detects a sense of humor in some of these Japanese poems
as evidenced by the following composition by Hanabusa Ikkei written in
I thought to live
Two centuries or three -
Yet here comes death
To me, a child
Just eighty five years old.
We are all familiar with haiku poetry which constitutes a very rich
segment of Japanese literature. Many of the haiku poems contain a
pronounced elegiac impulse and they display a close relationship to the
idea of 'mono no aware'. Basho is unquestionably the most well-known of
the Haiku poets. His death poem reflects the characteristic features
that we have come to associate with his writings. He was able to take
the middle distance of attachment and detachment. This was his last
poem. He had fallen ill on one of his many travels and his health
quickly took a turn for the worst. Understandably, his pupil suggested
that he should write a death poem. Basho replied that any of his poems
could be regarded as a death poem. This is indeed an interesting
comment; what Basho is pointing to is the essential and inescapable
elegiac element in his poetry.
However, four days before his death he wrote the following death
On a journey, ill;
My dream goes wandering
Over withered fields.
In a sense this haiku captures movingly the essence of Basho's poetic
Another very important haiku poet was Buson who was instrumental in
shaping the vectors of growth of haiku poetry as much as Basho.. He died
in 1783 at the age of sixty eight. Buson was both a poet and painter and
his poetry bears the influence of his painterly imagination. It is
believed that about a month prior to his death Buson went
mushroom-picking and on his return home fell ill. This is his death
Of late the nights
The phrase plum-blossom white indexed his strong visual imagination;
the plum-blossom is associated with early spring. Buson evokes this
image and puts in play a nice contrast and conjunction of death and
There are many haiku poems that capture the elegiac spirit I am
referring to with economy of expression and vigor of precision. For
example in the following farewell poem to death composed by Chori in
1778 at the young age of thirty-nine the inescapability of death is
announced through the reverberations in the phenomenal world.
Leaves never fall
In vain - from all around
The patterned rationality of death is suggested by the poet.
In some of the death poems one observes an interesting
intertextuality. Gimei who died at the age of fifty-one in 1748 in his
death poem referred to a line in Basho's death poem calling attention to
a withered field.
Illness lingers on and on
Till over Basho's withered field,
In some of the haiku poems there is an invigorating ambiguity,
punning on words, that invests the event of death with another layer of
meaning. For example in the following poem by Hokushi written in 1718
this is evident.
I write, erase, rewrite
Erase again, and then
A poppy blooms.
In Japanese the word 'keshi' means to erase as well as poppy. It can
mean both a flower blooming and a flower erasing - there is almost a
Derridean word-play! Critics with a deconstructive bent of mind will
surely find the proposed intersection of writing, textuality and life
These Japanese poems that I have discussed illustrate in interesting
ways the freight of shaping cultural meaning that they bear. The Chinese
and the Japanese, as I demonstrated earlier, wrote farewell poems with
an elegiac temper; but they were distinctly different.
In today's column my focus was on elegy-making in East Asia. In my
next column, I will discuss the ways in which the elegy has been given
figurality in Sinhala literature both classical and modern.
(To be continued)