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The Ancient T'ang Ballads

by L. Cranmer-Byng

A little under three hundred years, from A.D. 618 to 906, the period of the T`ang dynasty, and the great age of Chinese poetry had come and gone. Far back in the twilight of history, at least 1,700 years before Christ, the Chinese people sang their songs of kings and feudal princes good or bad, of husbandry, or now and then songs with the more personal note of simple joys and sorrows. All things in these Odes collected by Confucius belong to the surface of life; they are the work of those who easily plough light furrows, knowing nothing of hidden gold. Only at rare moments of exaltation or despair do we hear the lyrical cry rising above the monotone of dreamlike content. Even the magnificent outburst at the beginning of this book, in which the unhappy woman compares her heart to a dying moon, is prefaced by vague complaint:

   My brothers, although they support me not,
   Are angry if I speak of my sadness.

   My sadness is so great,
   Nearly all are jealous of me;
   Many calumnies attack me,
   And scorning spares me not.
   Yet what harm have I done?
   I can show a clear conscience.

Yes, the conscience is clear and the song is clear, and so these little streams flow on, shining in the clear dawn of a golden past to which all poets and philosophers to come will turn with wistful eyes. These early ballads of the Chinese differ in feeling from almost all the ballad literature of the world. They are ballads of peace, while those of other nations are so often war-songs and the remembrances of brave deeds. Many of them are sung to a refrain. More especially is this the case with those whose lines breathe sadness, where the refrain comes like a sigh at the end of a regret:

   Cold from the spring the waters pass
   Over the waving pampas grass,
      All night long in dream I lie,
      Ah me! ah me! to awake and sigh —
      Sigh for the City of Chow.

   Cold from its source the stream meanders
   Darkly down through the oleanders,
      All night long in dream I lie,
      Ah me! ah me! to awake and sigh —
      Sigh for the City of Chow.

In another place the refrain urges and importunes; it is time for flight:

   Cold and keen the north wind blows,
   Silent falls the shroud of snows.
   You who gave me your heart,
   Let us join hands and depart!
      Is this a time for delay?
      Now, while we may,
      Let us away.

   Only the lonely fox is red,
   Black but the crow-flight overhead.
   You who gave me your heart —
   The chariot creaks to depart.
      Is this a time for delay?
      Now, while we may,
      Let us away.

Perhaps these Odes may best be compared with the little craftless figures in an early age of pottery, when the fragrance of the soil yet lingered about the rough clay. The maker of the song was a poet, and knew it not. The maker of the bowl was an artist, and knew it not. You will get no finish from either — the lines are often blurred, the design but half fulfilled; and yet the effect is not inartistic. It has been well said that greatness is but another name for interpretation; and in so far as these nameless workmen of old interpreted themselves and the times in which they lived, they have attained enduring greatness.

Book: Shattered Sighs