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Sunday, 15 May 2011





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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 different culture

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 poems.

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 significant ways.

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 consciousness.

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.

Farewell poems

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 Returning East

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 the poem.

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 earlier.

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,

Freudian notion

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-


At twilight

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.

Before long

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 1843.

I thought to live

Two centuries or three -

Yet here comes death

To me, a child

Just eighty five years old.

Haiku poetry

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 poem.

On a journey, ill;

My dream goes wandering

Over withered fields.

In a sense this haiku captures movingly the essence of Basho's poetic legacy.

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 poem.

Of late the nights

Are drawing

Plum-blossom white.

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 life.

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

Bells tolling.

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,

The moon.

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 exciting..

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)



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