Get Your Premium Membership

Ssu-K'ung T'u, Chinese Poet

by L. Cranmer-Byng

Little is known of his life, except that he was Secretary to the Board of Rites and retired from this position to lead the contemplative life. His introduction to the European world is entirely due to Professor Giles. No mention is made of him in the French collection of the T`ang poets by the Marquis de Saint-Denys. Yet the importance of his work cannot well be over-estimated. He is perhaps the most Chinese of the poets dealt with, and certainly one of the most philosophical. By his subtly simple method of treatment, lofty themes are clothed in the bright raiment of poetry. If through the red pine woods, or amid the torrent of peach-blossom rushing down the valley, some mortal beauty strays, she is but a symbol, a lure that leads us by way of the particular into the universal. Whatever senses we possess may be used as means of escape from the prison of personality into the boundless freedom of the spiritual world. And once the soul is set free, there is no need for painful aimless wanderings, no need for Mahomet to go to the Mountain, for resting in the centre of all things the universe will be our home and our share in the secrets of the World-Builder will be made known.

    Freighted with eternal principles
    Athwart the night's void,
    Where cloud masses darken,
    And the wind blows ceaseless around,
    Beyond the range of conceptions
    Let us gain the Centre,
    And there hold fast without violence,
    Fed from an inexhaustible supply.*

— * `Chinese Literature', p. 179. —

With such a philosophy there are infinite possibilities.
The poet is an occultist in the truest sense of the word.
For him, Time and Space no longer exist, and by "concentration"
he is able to communicate with the beloved, and

    Sweet words falter to and fro —
    Though the great River rolls between.

Ssu-K`ung T`u, more than any poet, teaches how unreal are the apparent limitations of man. "He is the peer of heaven and earth"; "A co-worker in Divine transformation". With his keen vision the poet sees things in a glance and paints them in a single line, and in the poem as a whole you get the sense of beauty beyond beauty, as though the seer had looked into a world that underlay the world of form. And yet there is nothing strained, no peering through telescopes to find new worlds or magnify the old; the eyes need only be lifted for a moment, and the great power is not the power of sight, but sympathy.

And Nature, ever prodigal to her lovers, repays their favours in full measure. To this old artist-lover she grants no petty details, no chance revelations of this or that sweetness and quality but her whole pure self. Yet such a gift is illimitable; he may only win from secret to secret and die unsatisfied.

You grasp ten thousand, and secure one.

This might well be written over his tomb, if any verse were needed to encompass him. By entering into harmony with his environment, Ssu-K`ung T`u allowed his splendid vitality to find expression, and after the lapse of a thousand years these glowing pages torn from the book of life have drifted towards us like rose-leaves down a sombre stream.

Return of Spring

A lovely maiden, roaming
 The wild dark valley through,
Culls from the shining waters
 Lilies and lotus blue.
With leaves the peach-trees are laden,
 The wind sighs through the haze,
And the willows wave their shadows
 Down the oriole-haunted ways.
As, passion-tranced, I follow,
 I hear the old refrain
Of Spring's eternal story,
 That was old and is young again.

The Colour of Life

Would that we might for ever stay
The rainbow glories of the world,
The blue of the unfathomed sea,
The rare azalea late unfurled,
The parrot of a greener spring,
The willows and the terrace line,
The stranger from the night-steeped hills,
The roselit brimming cup of wine.
Oh for a life that stretched afar,
Where no dead dust of books were rife,
Where spring sang clear from star to star;
Alas! what hope for such a life?

Set Free

I revel in flowers without let,
An atom at random in space;
My soul dwells in regions ethereal,
And the world is my dreaming-place.

As the tops of the ocean I tower,
As the winds of the air spreading wide,
I am 'stablished in might and dominion and power,
With the universe ranged at my side.

Before me the sun, moon, and stars,
Behind me the phoenix doth clang;
In the morning I lash my leviathans,
And I bathe my feet in Fusang.


Fair is the pine grove and the mountain stream
That gathers to the valley far below,
The black-winged junks on the dim sea reach, adream,
The pale blue firmament o'er banks of snow.
And her, more fair, more supple smooth than jade,
Gleaming among the dark red woods I follow:
Now lingering, now as a bird afraid
Of pirate wings she seeks the haven hollow.
Vague, and beyond the daylight of recall,
Into the cloudland past my spirit flies,
As though before the gold of autumn's fall,
Before the glow of the moon-flooded skies.

Tranquil Repose

It dwells in the quiet silence,
 Unseen upon hill and plain,
'Tis lapped by the tideless harmonies,
 It soars with the lonely crane.

As the springtime breeze whose flutter
 The silken skirts hath blown,
As the wind-drawn note of the bamboo flute
 Whose charm we would make our own, —

Chance-met, it seems to surrender;
 Sought, and it lures us on;
Ever shifting in form and fantasy,
 It eludes us, and is gone.

The Poet's Vision

Wine that recalls the glow of spring,
Upon the thatch a sudden shower,
A gentle scholar in the bower,
Where tall bamboos their shadows fling,
White clouds in heavens newly clear,
And wandering wings through depths of trees,
Then pillowed in green shade, he sees
A torrent foaming to the mere;
Around his dreams the dead leaves fall;
Calm as the starred chrysanthemum,
He notes the season glories come,
And reads the books that never pall.


A gale goes ruffling down the stream,
The giants of the forest crack;
My thoughts are bitter — black as death —
For she, my summer, comes not back.

A hundred years like water glide,
Riches and rank are ashen cold,
Daily the dream of peace recedes:
By whom shall Sorrow be consoled?

The soldier, dauntless, draws his sword,
And there are tears and endless pain;
The winds arise, leaves flutter down,
And through the old thatch drips the rain.


If rank and wealth within the mind abide,
Then gilded dust is all your yellow gold.
Kings in their fretted palaces grow old;
Youth dwells for ever at Contentment's side.
A mist cloud hanging at the river's brim,
Pink almond flowers along the purple bough,
A hut rose-girdled under moon-swept skies,
A painted bridge half-seen in shadows dim, —
These are the splendours of the poor, and thou,
O wine of spring, the vintage of the wise.


A hut green-shadowed among firs, —
A sun that slopes in amber air, —
Lone wandering, my head I bare,
While some far thrush the silence stirs.

No flocks of wild geese thither fly,
And she — ah! she is far away;
Yet all my thoughts behold her stay,
As in the golden hours gone by.

The clouds scarce dim the water's sheen,
The moon-bathed islands wanly show,
And sweet words falter to and fro —
Though the great River rolls between.


  Like a water-wheel awhirl,
  Like the rolling of a pearl;
    Yet these but illustrate,
    To fools, the final state.
The earth's great axis spinning on,
The never-resting pole of sky —
Let us resolve their Whence and Why,
And blend with all things into One;
Beyond the bounds of thought and dream,
Circling the vasty void as spheres
Whose orbits round a thousand years:
Behold the Key that fits my theme.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things