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Studies of Two High Tang Poems on Issues of Naturalness and Spontaneity
Yiqiu Lou, University of Toronto

Masterpieces of various different styles were composed during the High-Tang period. Among them, “Villa on Zhong-nan Mountain” by Wang Wei and “A Song on Visiting Heaven’s Crone Mountain in a Dream: On Parting” by Li Bo stand out as examples of poems with high degrees of naturalness and spontaneity. Despite the fact they are all natural and spontaneous, the differences between their structures are striking, giving rise to stylistically different languages and images as well. “Villa on Zhong-nan Mountain” is natural and spontaneous due to its structural use of antitheses and rhyming, its relaxing languages as well as its relaxing images. Conversely, The structure of the poem “A Song on Visiting Heaven’s Crone Mountain in a Dream: On Parting” is unregulated, which does not make the poem natural and spontaneous by itself. However, as Li Bo can deviate from poetic rules of regulated verses, he can more freely express what is in his mind using a wide range of word combinations and images without worrying about conforming to poetic rules. This makes the poem spontaneous. Moreover, “A Song on Visiting Heaven’s Crone Mountain in a Dream: On Parting” is also spontaneous due to its imaginative languages and fast changing images.

The structures of the two poems are dissimilar to each other, but both structures confer naturalness and spontaneity. The structure of the poem “Villa on Zhong-nan Mountain” is in eight-line regulated verse form. In the fifth and sixth line

I walk to the point where a stream ends, and sitting, watch when the clouds rise.

First two characters of both lines “行到(walk to)” and “坐看(sitting, watch[sit and watch])” are verbs. The third characters “水(a stream)” and “云(the clouds)” are nouns. The fourth characters “穷(ends)” and “起(rise)” are verbs, and the last characters “处(where)” and “时(when)” are both nouns. Furthermore, except the second characters of both lines “到” and “看”, all the other characters are in opposite tones of the characters in the same position of the other line. This makes the fifth and sixth lines good antitheses, and the same is true for the third and fourth lines

When the mood comes upon me, I go off alone, and have glorious moments all to myself.

Consequently, the poem has a sense of balance, which makes it sounds natural. More importantly, the rhymes at the end of even lines make the poem sound melodic. According to “Classics of Poetry·the Great Preface”, “The poem is that to which what is intently on the mind goes. In the mind, it is ‘being intent’; coming out in language, it is a ‘poem’. The affections are stirred within and take on form in words. If words alone are inadequate, we speak it out in sighs. If sighing is inadequate, we sing it…” The melodic nature of “Villa on Zhong-nan Mountain” lets readers to be directly affected by the speaker’s genuine carefree affections, which cannot be fully captured by words alone. Hence the rhymes add spontaneity to this poem.

In contrast to the regulated verse form of “Villa on Zhong-nan Mountain”, “A Song on Visiting Heaven’s Crone Mountain in a Dream: On Parting” is an old poem. It is not restrained by the strict poetic rules which are essential for regulated verses. It contains four-character lines (e.g. 列缺霹雳[Thunder-rumbling in Lightning Cracks]), five-character lines (e.g. 湖月照我影[The lake moon caught my reflection]), seven-character lines (e.g. 谢公宿处今尚在[The place where Lord Xie spent the night is still to be found there now]) and nine-character lines (e.g. 安能摧眉折腰事权贵[How can I pucker my brows and break my waist serving power and prestige?]). Moreover, it even includes lines of Lyrics of Chu forms (e.g. 云之君兮纷纷而来下[The lords of the clouds came down in their hosts.]). This unregulated structure gives the poet Li Bo a high degree of flexibility when composing “A Song on Visiting Heaven’s Crone Mountain in a Dream: On Parting”, because he has a wider range of expressions from which to choose. For example, the last line following a nine-character line “安能摧眉折腰事权贵(How can I pucker my brows and break my waist serving power and prestige?)” is “使我不得开心颜!(It makes me incapable of relaxing heart or face)”, which is a seven-character line rather than another nine-character line. Li Bo expresses his intent and emotions quite effectively through this seven-character line. Such natural expression of intent and emotions can hardly be well articulated if he has to deliberately choose words in order to conform to poetic rules and use another nine-character line. Thus we can see now that the unrestrained structure contributes to the poem’s naturalness.

Distinct structures give rise to distinct styles of languages, yet as before, different language styles of “Villa on Zhong-nan Mountain” and “A Song on Visiting Heaven’s Crone Mountain in a Dream: On Parting” both confer naturalness and spontaneity. The antitheses and rhyming in “Villa on Zhong-nan Mountain” make it balanced and melodic, thus it is inappropriate for Wang Wei to use dramatic language. Wang Wei actually uses very relaxing and plain language. However, it is marvelous that he is able to create, without deliberation, a strong sense of spontaneity out of such plain language. From just scantly few unadorned words such as “the mood comes upon me”, “sitting, watch (sit and watch)” and “by chance”, we can feel the free and easy mood of the persona created in the poem: he is acting on impulse whenever “the mood comes upon him”. He does not care about what other people think of him as he just sits on the ground to watch the clouds. Along with that, his action is aimless as he meets an old man “by chance” and then just chats with him and laughs.

On the other hand, “A Song on Visiting Heaven’s Crone Mountain in a Dream: On Parting” is filled with imaginative and exaggerated words throughout the poem, especially because it is in a dream. A typical example is:

And I, wishing to reach that place, once dreamed of Wu and Yue,
I spent a whole night flying across the moon in Mirror Lake.

That persona desired to visit Heaven’s Crone Mountain, so Li Bo exaggerates during composition and imagines a human flying across the moon in Mirror Lake, hence leads the readers to feel the desires and affections of that persona without restraints. The strong and genuine desires as well as affections of the persona created in this poem are extraordinarily well expressed with such exaggeration, causing resonance in readers’ mind.

It is also worth mentioning that Li Bo is famous for composing poems after getting drunk. Du Fu, a very famous Chinese poet of later time once constructed an image of drunken Li Bo in his poem “Song On the Eight Fairies in Drinking”. He stated that “The drunkard Li Bo rejects the summoning of the emperor, calling himself a fairy of wine.” So like Li Bo’s other poems, “A Song on Visiting Heaven’s Crone Mountain in a Dream: On Parting” is composed on impulse rather than on careful refinement; hence the language is very spontaneous.

The language style of the poem by Wang Wei is quite different from that of Li Bo — one is plain and the other one is imaginative. But both are spontaneous as Wang Wei renders a carefree artistic conception through controlled use of words whereas Li Bo shows his genuine and acute emotions most fully through uncontrolled use of words.

Dissimilar styles of languages would lead to the construction of dissimilar images. Yet both confer spontaneity and naturalness to the two poems despite their differences. Wang Wei is a devout Chan Buddhist. Chan Buddhists seek to attain ultimate liberation without words from sutras. The choices of the words “where a stream ends” and “when the clouds rise” by Wang Wei help to construct images of the persona of the poem living with flowing water and floating clouds. His decision to sit down and watch the floating clouds after he has reached the end of the river suggests a very free and aimless style of living, which makes that persona blend with the surrounding natural environment of floating clouds and flowing water — he has attained a status of anatta which is a state of selflessness, unrestrainedness and freedom in Buddhism. Along with that, through the construction of images of white clouds and the transparent river, a Chan Buddhist state also finds its fullest expression in this poem because transparency and tranquil colours such as white are characteristic of Chan Buddhism. Further, Chan Buddhism encourages believers to travel in nature, just like what the persona is doing. All those allusions to Chan Buddhism add naturalness and spontaneity to this poem. On the other hand, Li Bo was influenced by Taoist philosophy as he constantly mentioned his faith in Taoism in his writings . Therefore he took great pleasure in freedom, naturalness and fantasies. So in “A Song on Visiting Heaven’s Crone Mountain in a Dream: On Parting”, he constructs images that are constantly changing. There are images of the heaven at one moment, for example:

Halfway up cliffside I saw sun in sea and heard in the air the Heaven-Cock crow.

and the earth at another moment, for example:

A thousand peaks and ten thousand turns, my path was uncertain;
I was lost among flowers and rested on rock, when suddenly all grew black.

He also constructs images of the present at one moment, for example:

The lake moon caught my reflection, and went with me on to Shan Creek.

and the past at another moment, for example:
The place where Lord Xie spent the night is still to be found there now.
all according to his profuse free-flowing imaginations.
In essence, this poem is very spontaneous in the construction of images as it is free of any spatial and temporal constraints.

According to a well-known classical Chinese literature critic Wang Guowei, “Great masterpieces gladden readers’ mind and refresh readers’ heart; the scenery constructed broadens and refreshes readers’ eyes and ears. The words flow out naturally, without being pretentious. All these could be achieved because a great writer, being sensitive, genuinely sees and knows the objects he or she writes about. Judging poems according to the above standards could hardly be wrong.”

To conclude, the languages of the two poems are natural and mentally refreshing as none of them are deliberately filled with fancy words, hence genuinely reveal the true mind states of the poets. The images of the poems are spontaneous because images of nature constructed by Wang Wei illustrate the state of Buddhist liberation and those fantastic ones by Li Bo illustrate the state of naturalness and freedom in Taoism. Those states are very hard to obtain, let alone to be depicted vividly through words. Therefore these images broaden and refresh people’s eyes and ears since people rarely experience those states either in reality or through poems. Additionally, their unique structures with one being regulated hence balanced and melodic while the other one being unrestrained also make them spontaneous. Consequently, both of them are great masterpieces by Wang Guowei’s standards, exemplifying the beauty of spontaneity and naturalness using different techniques in classical Chinese poetry.

Works Cited

Luo, Zongqiang罗宗强. Libaiyanjiu 李白研究. Hubei: Hubei Education Publishing House, 2002

Wang, Guowei 王国维. Renjiancihua 人间词话. Haerbin: Haerbin Publishing House, 2006.

Yang, Yi 杨义. Lidushixue 李杜诗学. Beijing: Beijing Publishing House, 2000