Yuanhe poetry sequences: a new look.

Author:McCraw, David

At a very few times in literary history, great poets have turned their energies to compiling poetic sequences. The Elizabethans, Heian and slightly later Japanese waka poets, a great many modern poets from Dickinson on, and a few Tang poets after Du Fu all wrote high-quality poetic sequences. It's worth examining sequences by Han Yu and Meng Jiao to help answer the following questions: Why and under what conditions do poets turn to sequences? What kinds of pressure and plight drive a poet to write linked verse after verse about the same theme (rather than just writing a longer poem)?

You can arrange sequences in many different ways. Waka poetic editors invented marvelous and unique ways of combining short verses (tanka) based on progressions (seasonal, narrative) and subtle emotional or imagistic associations. (1) Pre-modern British poets usually followed well-trodden narrative, dramatic, and discursive ways to organize short verses, but recently critical attention has preferred the subtler lyrical organization governing works like Eliot's Four Quartets or Yeats' Songs in Time of Civil War. (2) And the Tang poets? In an earlier study, we demonstrated that each of Du Fu's great poetic sequences followed a unique set of organizing principles, usually involving subtler associations rather than obvious narrative progressions, but not necessarily eschewing formal structural patterns. (3) During the Yuanhe reign period (806-21), the great mid-Tang "neoclassical" poets Han Yu and Meng Jiao each wrote "Autumn Meditations" (Qiu huai) inspired in part by Du Fu's "Autumn Arousal" (Qiu xing). (4) These and similar sequences by Han and Meng deserve our close attention because they raise classic questions about poetic sequences: how do poets marry the intensity of short lyrical utterances with the weight and transformational possibilities of extended verse structures? How can they keep the sequence tightly linked and unified? And, in a tradition that privileged short, lyrical utterances, what drove poets to essay so arduous and unfamiliar a form?

Poetic sequences offer many challenges, and not only to poets themselves. Readers face difficulties of their own. Instead of recalling merely a short verse while reading exegeses, they have to keep in mind a grand structure, with many movements or "stanzas"; while envisioning organizing mainstays, they also have to keep a live eye for repeated images, words, and motifs that help knit poems together. Rosenthal and Gall speak of "overloading," which certainly might addle devotees of, say, Pound's book-length Cantos. Fortunately, the two sequences we will examine comprise only eleven and nine verses, respectively; you could chant them both within five minutes. Still, they have presented considerable challenges to readers. We can only read in linear fashion, from word to word and line to line. But the paradigmatic relations among words chosen--oversimplifying, which do and do not work repetitions--demand a more "vertical" approach. As far as we know, neither traditional Chinese nor modern readers have managed to discover the sequential structural organization informing Han Yu's "Autumn Meditations." In claiming to have discovered such organization, we must of course remember the caveat so well expressed by Adam Gopnik in a review of Shakespeare's Sonnets, considered as a "sequence":

One should always be wary of ... a scholar insisting that there is a pattern where before none has been seen, since scholars have an overwhelmingly strong confirmation bias in favor of patterns--finding patterns is what scholars do. (5) While at least the West's most astute reader of Tang verse did recognize "Wintry Creek" (Han xi) as a sequence, he rather underestimated its tragic tenor and the demons that drove Meng Jiao to create it. (6) Reading by reading, poetic criticism aspires to creep toward better understanding; in that spirit, we translate and interpret these two classic sequences anew.

We present our explications in two parts. With Han Yu's Autumn Meditations, we must first and foremost overcome skeptics who, like Gopnik, question whether this perceived sequential pattern really exists. With Meng Jiao's Wintry Creek, our primary task becomes more tonal than structural--we must demonstrate why we read the sequence more pessimistically than most. With such different issues at stake in each sequence, it makes sense to attack them a bit differently in explication. With Han Yu (part 1), we shall begin by elucidating the structure that informs his sequence, considering five overarching motifs that help knit the eleven verses together. Then we shall proceed sequentially, pointing out the "carry-over stitches" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "anadiplosis" that knit each verse to its neighbor. (7) After refreshing our memories with a look at the table arranging the principal repeated motifs, we return to examine some dialectically unfolding motifs that Han employed to provide additional "pattern," additional "fine-stitching" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

With Meng Jiao, we need not reinvent any wheels by elaborately "proving" sequential arrangement. Instead, we will begin by reviewing the table for "Wintry Creek," then briefly consider how it reveals Meng's inverted arch, or bridgelike structure. We then examine some "carry-over" images, analyze some main motifs that develop through the nine stanzas to highlight Meng's dramatic conflict. We quickly pass through the nine verses, examining the dark side of Meng's vision, before considering "Wintry Creek" as dramatic psychotherapy.


Indefatigable *mei? mei?, King Wen. Shijing 235.2 (8)

Indefatigable, Prince Shen. Shijing 259.2

Moving resolute, times pass me by. Chuci (9)

Each section gets a motto; this one highlights a polysemous binome-word. Its better-known meaning comes from the "Court Odes" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] so celebrated in Confucian poetics. Let's remain on the look-out for how Han Yu wields it, to see if his more introspective use does not belie simple "Confucian" characterizations of Han Yu.

Stephen Owen's reading has nicely explicated Han's concerns and the relation of "Autumn Meditations" to Han and Wei verse. He and Charles Hartman have also deftly accounted for most of Han Yu's allusive play, allowing us to annotate only certain salient references. (10) Naturally, previous readings have left plenty of room for fresh insight; after all, complex verse sequences don't reveal all their secrets to any one explication by one critic at one time. We may begin with "Autumn Meditations' " background. On plausible literary historical grounds, Owen suggested Han Yu wrote this in 812, after the heyday of Yuanhe exoticism. But most traditional scholars, focusing on Han's political entanglements, date "Autumn Meditations" to 806. Han had just returned from southern "exile," full of hopes for his role in a new emperor's court. After some months as a mere ritual specialist, an "Erudite" of the National Academy in Chang'an, however, factional strife and the realization that he had extremely limited political influence forced Han to take stock and wonder about his place in the world. "Autumn Meditations" has significant resonances with the "Southern Alps" poem dated to 806, and the government's new campaign against disloyal military governors fits the "lamia" and other pests mentioned in Stanza IV. Let us, then, tentatively follow scholars like Qian Zhonglian, Hanabusa Hideki and Charles Hartman (11) and date this sequence to Fall, 806, most likely to late November.

Received opinion holds that "Autumn Meditations," unlike denser Tang sequences, forms merely a "series." This deserves rethinking; when you recall the fundamental distinction that in a series the poem-order matters little but in a sequence it makes all the difference, a different answer suggests itself. Asserting likely "sequential" structure demands a demonstration; we will begin by quickly sketching overarching structural patterns, proceed to translation, then examine structural links, both distal and proximal. Then we shall discuss a few key integrating motifs and finish with some conceptual considerations.

You can glean a first clue to sequencing by observing this sequence's most "superficial" formal features, rhyme class (for the moment, ignoring tones) and number of lines per "stanza":

Verse # I II III IV V VI VII VIII IX X XI Rhyme -i -i an ing ing ing an an an ing ao Line ## 16 10 14 12 12 10 18 20 14 14 10 Already rhyme-groups suggest that "Autumn Meditations" I--II and XI (open-vowel rhymes) form a frame within which inner stanzas (two interlocking sets of nasal codas) work some sort of interlaced dialectic, a rhyming chiasmus framed as a-b-b-b, a-a-a-b. Lengths suggest that II and XI will serve as codas for Han's introduction and conclusion, that III--VI develop toward an agogic climax in VII-VIII, reminiscent of the dramatic contour from sonata form in classical music. Indeed, readers' judgment has hailed VIII as the most famous and most anthologized section of "Autumn Meditations."

Further analysis will, however, require readers' sustained and informed attention. To that end, we offer a new translation of all eleven poems below (underlines for binomes; italics for words with special weight or emphasis, sometimes due to repetition). Thanks to the painstaking work of Stephen Owen and Charles Hartman, we need not thoroughly annotate Han Yu's allusions; we have, however, highlighted in abbreviated form allusions and covert references to Zhuangzi (Zz) (12) and related Daoist texts, for reasons that will presently become clear.


I [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Before my window, a pair of fine trees: Massed leaves aglow in gay glory. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] With Autumn wind's one riffling whisk, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Swish and skirl, they sing without...

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