LBB9 – Three Tang Dynasty Poets

I enjoyed these collected short pastoral poems from three of China’s most famous Tang dynasty poets. 

Not knowing much about Tang dynasty poetry, I discovered from some quick initial research that the Tang dynasty (618 to 906 AD) was a golden age of Chinese arts and culture. Notably Emperor Xuanzong (who ruled 712 to 756) created a poetry academy, which is responsible for the preservation of almost 50,000 poems by the most famous poets of the age. 

The three poets in the LBB collection are Wang Wei (699 to 761), Li Po (701 to 762) and Tu Fu (712 to 770).  

Wang Wei worked in the Chinese court and, after surviving the Anshi Rebellion (755–759) and suffering the deaths of his wife and daughter, retreated to the seclusion of his country villa on the Wang river, where he studied buddhism and wrote poetry.

I found his poetry was filled with the landscape it described. One poem, describing the mountain cloister of a holy man ends “When he sits down tonight the empty hills will be still/ And the pine wind will suggest autumn.” We are drawn towards nature, the stillness and permanence of the empty hills counterpointing the gentle shifting of the seasons; change is part of the fabric of the present landscape. 

Human influence and presence only peep in sparingly and at particularly affecting emotional moments. There is also an air, not quite of “baffled absence” (as Larkin describes his ‘Old Fools’) but of a very present absence, a slightly doleful negative capability. For instance in ‘Watching a farewell’ the poet-viewer sees the following:

Green green the willowed road
The road where they are separating 
A loved son off for far provinces
Old parents left at home.

For a moment the landscape is described in relation to the people in it (“The road where they are separating”) and the poet-viewer goes on to weep into his handkerchief at the memories this recalls to him. 

Li Po (also known as Li Bai) grew up in Sichuan Province. He left home in 725 to wander along the Yangtze River Valley and write poetry. His work apparently influenced a number of 20th-century poets, including Ezra Pound and James Wright, and there is certainly an imagist quality to some of his verse, such as ‘In the Mountains: a reply to the vulgar’:

Peach petals float their streams
Away in secret
To other skies and earths
Than those of mortals. 

Compare with Pound’s famous ‘In a Station of the Metro’:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;  
Petals on a wet, black bough.

and you can clearly see the snapshot quality repeated, infinite space bounded in a nutshell. 

Finally, Tu Fu (also known as Du Fu) rounds out this trio of China’s most famous Tang dynasty poets. He was known for travelling greatly, and wrote many poems to or about Li Po. Again the landscape often predominates: “The winds cut, clouds are high, birds fly in circles”.  

One poem I particularly thought interesting was ‘The Journey North: the homecoming’, an affecting evocation of a soldier coming back to his family and enjoying the hustle and bustle of normal life – “It’s sweet to have all this nonsense noise” he thinks – after the horrors of war. In this poem life and death, home and away, bustle and quietness rise and fall with a questioning see-saw quality. The reader, like the soldier, is both overwhelmed by the homely reception and grateful for the retreat it affords from the memories of battle.


As often with these LBB editions, I felt that I was missing out considerably by not reading the text in the original language, but this is nonetheless an extremely interesting and delicate collection of poems, and (as far as I can see) gives a good sense of the genre. 

PS This is the ninth in my series of reviews and reflections on the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Each week or so I read a new one and post my thoughts on this blog. For the full list of posts, please click here.

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