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The Poets of the T'ang Dynasty

by L. Cranmer-Byng

At last the golden age of Chinese poetry is at hand. Call the roll of these three hundred eventful years, and all the great masters of song will answer you. This is an age of professional poets, whom emperors and statesmen delight to honour. With the Chinese, verse-making has always been a second nature. It is one of the accomplishments which no man of education would be found lacking. Colonel Cheng-Ki-Tong, in his delightful book `The Chinese Painted by Themselves', says: "Poetry has been in China, as in Greece, the language of the gods. It was poetry that inculcated laws and maxims; it was by the harmony of its lines that traditions were handed down at a time when memory had to supply the place of writing; and it was the first language of wisdom and of inspiration." It has been above all the recreation of statesmen and great officials, a means of escape from the weariness of public life and the burden of ruling. A study of the interminable biographies of Chinese poets and men of letters would reveal but a few professional poets, men whose lives were wholly devoted to their art; and of these few the T`ang dynasty can claim nearly all. Yet strange as it may seem, this matters but little when the quality of Chinese poetry is considered. The great men of the age were at once servants of duty and the lords of life. To them official routine and the responsibilities of the state were burdens to be borne along the highway, with periods of rest and intimate re-union with nature to cheer the travellers. When the heavy load was laid aside, song rose naturally from the lips. Subtly connecting the arts, they were at once painters and poets, musicians and singers. And because they were philosophers and seekers after the beauty that underlies the form of things, they made the picture express its own significance, and every song find echo in the souls of those that heard. You will find no tedium of repetition in all their poetry, no thin vein of thought beaten out over endless pages. The following extract from an ancient treatise on the art of poetry called `Ming-Chung' sets forth most clearly certain ideals to be pursued:

"To make a good poem, the subject must be interesting, and treated in an attractive manner; genius must shine throughout the whole, and be supported by a graceful, brilliant, and sublime style. The poet ought to traverse, with a rapid flight, the lofty regions of philosophy, without deviating from the narrow way of truth. . . . Good taste will only pardon such digressions as bring him towards his end, and show it from a more striking point of view.

"Disappointment must attend him, if he speaks without speaking to the purpose, or without describing things with that fire, with that force, and with that energy which present them to the mind as a painting does to the eyes. Bold thought, untiring imagination, softness and harmony, make a true poem.

"One must begin with grandeur, paint everything expressed, soften the shades of those which are of least importance, collect all into one point of view, and carry the reader thither with a rapid flight."

Yet when due respect has been paid to this critic of old time, the fact still remains that concentration and suggestion are the two essentials of Chinese poetry. There is neither Iliad nor Odyssey to be found in the libraries of the Chinese; indeed, a favourite feature of their verse is the "stop short", a poem containing only four lines, concerning which another critic has explained that only the words stop, while the sense goes on. But what a world of meaning is to be found between four short lines! Often a door is opened, a curtain drawn aside, in the halls of romance, where the reader may roam at will. With this nation of artists in emotion, the taste of the tea is a thing of lesser importance; it is the aroma which remains and delights. The poems of the T`angs are full of this subtle aroma, this suggestive compelling fragrance which lingers when the songs have passed away. It is as though the Aeolian harps had caught some strayed wind from an unknown world, and brought strange messages from peopled stars.

A deep simplicity touching many hidden springs, a profound regard for the noble uses of leisure, things which modern critics of life have taught us to despise — these are the technique and the composition and colour of all their work.

Complete surrender to a particular mood until the mood itself surrenders to the artist, and afterwards silent ceaseless toil until a form worthy of its expression has been achieved — this is the method of Li Po and his fellows. And as for leisure, it means life with all its possibilities of beauty and romance. The artist is ever saying, "Stay a little while! See, I have captured one moment from eternity." Yet it is only in the East that poetry is truly appreciated, by those to whom leisure to look around them is vital as the air they breathe. This explains the welcome given by Chinese Emperors and Caliphs of Bagdad to all roving minstrels in whose immortality, like flies in amber, they are caught.