Saturday, April 22, 2017

The voice of the north wind sad

Zhang Fengyi as Cao Cao in John Woo's Red Cliff (2008-9)

In a post earlier this month I referred to the musical duel in Red Cliff, John Woo's epic film about  events at the end of the Han dynasty, based on 'the Iliad of China', The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  The composer/writer I discussed there, Cai Yong, only briefly features in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and doesn't appear in Red Cliff, but here I want to focus on Cao Cao, the great warlord at the heart of the story, whose army is defeated spectacularly in the movie.  Cao Cao was himself a renowned poet and wrote a famous poem just before the Battle of Red Cliff.  You can see him recite it in the clip from YouTube below - a scene from the 95-episode Chinese TV dramatisation Three Kingdoms.  This moment has often been depicted in art - there is a painting in the Long Corridor of the Beijing Summer Palace, for example, and I have reproduced below a Japanese ukiyo-e print showing Cao Cao composing the poem in a boat, with the moon rising and crows wheeling in the sky.





Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon rising over Mount Nanping, contemplated by Cao Cao, 1885

The real reason for mentioning Cao Cao on this blog is not his eve-of-battle composition, but a beautiful short poem 'Viewing the Ocean', which is an early example in world literature of pure landscape poetry.  Here are the first six lines in Burton Watson's translation; the Jieshi (Chieh-shi) mountains overlook the Bohai Gulf.
East looking down from Chieh-shih,
I scan the endless ocean:
waters restlessly seething,
mountained islands jutting up,
trees growing in clusters,
a hundred grasses, rich and lush.
Other translations of the full poem can easily be found online (there are two on a Chinese Poems site for example).

Another poem of Cao Cao's that has stayed with me over the years (since reading it in Burton Watson's The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry) is the 'Song on Enduring the Cold'.  This was probably written in 206 when Cao Cao was leading his troops across the Tai-hang mountains to attack a rival.  Taken out of context though, it could simply be a description of an arduous mountain journey - 'stark and stiff the forest trees, the voice of the north wind sad.'  The poem ends with a literary allusion, to 'that song of the Eastern Hills', a 'troubled tale that fills me with grief.'  It is a reference to a song in the Classic of Poetry (No. 156), attributed to the Duke of Zhou.  He had also been on a military campaign in the East, over a thousand years earlier, c. 1040 BCE (as distant from the time of Cao Cao as we are from Charlemagne).  I'll end here with the refrain from this ancient poem, repeated at the start of each verse (trans. Stephen Owen):
We marched to those eastern mountains,
streaming on and never turning.
And now we come back from the east,
in the pall of driving rain.   

Friday, April 21, 2017

In the mist of the secret and solitary hill

"I have given you the trouble of walking to this spot, Captain Waverley, both because I thought the scenery would interest you, and because a Highland song would suffer still more from my imperfect translation were I to introduce it without its own wild and appropriate accompaniments. To speak in the poetical language of my country, the seat of the Celtic Muse is in the mist of the secret and solitary hill, and her voice in the murmur of the mountain stream. He who woos her must love the barren rock more than the fertile valley, and the solitude of the desert better than the festivity of the hall."
An illustration to Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, from an edition of 1893

In my last post I wrote about the Chinese poetic ideal of hearing a guqin played in the landscape.  Here in Waverley (1814), the enchanting Flora McIvor is speaking to the eponymous hero, newly arrived in the Highlands, having led him to this perfect location to hear her 'imperfect translations' of Gaelic poetry, to the accompaniment of a harp.  This place of barren rocks and murmuring water might just as easily be the setting for a Chinese 'mountains and rivers' poem.  Making his way there, Waverley had found
'the rocks assumed a thousand peculiar and varied forms. In one place a crag of huge size presented its gigantic bulk, as if to forbid the passenger’s farther progress; and it was not until he approached its very base that Waverley discerned the sudden and acute turn by which the pathway wheeled its course around this formidable obstacle. In another spot the projecting rocks from the opposite sides of the chasm had approached so near to each other that two pine-trees laid across, and covered with turf, formed a rustic bridge at the height of at least one hundred and fifty feet. It had no ledges, and was barely three feet in breadth.'
From this vantage point Waverley had watched Flora cross the bridge, feeling all the emotions we associate with the Sublime.  The editor of the OUP edition of Waverley (Clare Lamont) notes that a similar bridge appeared in Scott's The Lady of the Lake (1810), that an actual bridge of this kind existed, spanning Keltie Water, and that there had been other examples of heroines of sensibility crossing Alpine bridges in slightly earlier novels written by Ann Radcliffe and Jane Porter.  Passing under the bridge, Waverley found himself in 'a sylvan amphitheatre, waving with birch, young oaks, and hazels, with here and there a scattered yew-tree. The rocks now receded, but still showed their grey and shaggy crests rising among the copse-wood. Still higher rose eminences and peaks, some bare, some clothed with wood, some round and purple with heath, and others splintered into rocks and crags.'  Then, turning the path, he came to the secluded spot where Flora would sing him her Highland song.

He found Flora gazing at 'a romantic waterfall.  It was not so remarkable either for great height or quantity of water as for the beautiful accompaniments which made the spot interesting.'  The description that follows is based on the falls of Ledard, as Scott explained in his own footnote.  Interestingly, the novel makes clear that this setting was not entirely wild.  'Mossy banks of turf were broken and interrupted by huge fragments of rock, and decorated with trees and shrubs, some of which had been planted under the direction of Flora, but so cautiously that they added to the grace without diminishing the romantic wildness of the scene.'  Here, with the sun stooping in the west, Waverley gazes at Flora, thinking 'he had never, even in his wildest dreams, imagined a figure of such exquisite and interesting loveliness. The wild beauty of the retreat, bursting upon him as if by magic, augmented the mingled feeling of delight and awe with which he approached her, like a fair enchantress of Boiardo or Ariosto, by whose nod the scenery around seemed to have been created an Eden in the wilderness.'

Reading this, you have the impression that the native Sublimity of the Highlands has somehow been infused with the light of Italy.  In the 1814 edition Scott described Flora by the waterfall as 'like one of those lovely forms which decorate the landscapes of Claude'.  I have mentioned here before the awkwardness of Claude's figures; soon after publication a correspondent pointed out to Scott that 'Claude's figures are reckoned notoriously bad, & indeed he only used them as vehicles for a little blue, red or yellow drapery to set of his gradation of tints & throw his landscape into distance.'  Scott took his advice and substituted Poussin for Claude in subsequent editions.

Flora begins to sing, sitting on a mossy fragment of rock, 'at such a distance from the cascade that its sound should rather accompany than interrupt that of her voice and instrument [...] A few irregular strains introduced a prelude of a wild and peculiar tone, which harmonised well with the distant waterfall, and the soft sigh of the evening breeze in the rustling leaves of an aspen, which overhung the seat of the fair harpress.'  But her song is not dedicated to Nature, though it begins with the mist on the mountains.  The year is 1745, Flora is an ardent supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders are about to rise and fight for the Jacobite rebellion.  Waverley, without firm political convictions, a lover of literature, is as yet unaware that the Young Pretender has landed at Glenaladale and raised his standard at Glenfinnan.  About to be caught up in the conflict (like one of those Chinese poets interrupted from their retreat in the mountains by political strife and war), for now he listens innocently, with a 'wild feeling of romantic delight', as Flora sings: 
"  ... the dark hours of night and of slumber are past,
The morn on our mountains is dawning at last;
Glenaladale’s peaks are illumined with the rays,
And the streams of Glenfinnan leap bright in the blaze..."

Thursday, April 06, 2017

When the two essences of nature are bright and clear

A scholar playing the guqin, Ming Dynasty
Reproduced in R. H. van Gulik's The Lore of the Chinese Lute

I have written here about guqin music twice before: once in relation to two compositions of the Song Dynasty by Kuo Mien (Guo Mian) and more recently in a post about the Japanese guqin player, Uragami Gyokudō.  Here I am adding some more information on landscape and the art of the guqin via some quotations from the seminal Western book on the subject, R. H. van Gulik's The Lore of the Chinese Lute, first published in 1940.  This essay explains the evolution of the instrument into one of the scholar's most important possessions.  Artists and writers often depicted the poet wandering through mountains, accompanied by his lute, usually carried by a servant boy, so that he could play when moved by the beauty of the scenery.  Even when indoors, the lute player's 'mind should dwell with forests and streams'.  But ideally he would be outside, 'near an old pine tree, admiring its gnarled, antique appearance. In the shade of the pines some cranes should be stalking, and the lute player should admire their graceful movements, modelling on them his finger technique.' 

Here is a lovely sixteenth century description of the place of the lute in scholarly life.  Its subject is Ni Tsan (Ni Zan, 1301-74), the great Chinese landscape painter who I have referred to several times on this blog. 
'Where Ni Tsan dwelt there was the Ching-pi pavilion, breathing an atmosphere of profundity and remoteness from earthly things.  There he had assembled several thousand books, all of which he had corrected with his own hand.  On all sides there were arranged antique sacrificial vessels and famous lutes, and the abode was surrounded by pine trees, cinnamon trees, orchids, bamboos, etc.  It was fenced off by a high paling of poles and bamboo, suggesting aloofness and refined delicacy.  Every time the rain had stopped and the wind had abated, Ni Tsan used to take his staff and wander about, just going where his steps led him. When his eye met with something which particularly struck him, he played his lute, thus finding aesthetic satisfaction. Those who saw him then knew that he was a man who dwelt outside this world.'
An enviable life - I particularly like the way he 'corrected' the books in his library!  Playing the lute was seen as an almost priestly ritual: it could only be undertaken under the right circumstances.  The Lore of the Chinese Lute quotes a list from the Ming period in which over half of the fourteen rules relate to making music outdoors.  The lute may be played:
  1. When meeting someone who understands music.
  2. On meeting a suitable person.
  3. For a Taoist recluse
  4. In a high hall.
  5. Having ascended a storied pavilion.
  6. In a Taoist cloister.
  7. Sitting on a stone.
  8. Having climbed a mountain.
  9. Resting in a valley.
  10. Roaming along the waterside.
  11. In a boat.
  12. Resting in the shadow of a forest.
  13. When the two essences of nature are bright and clear.
  14. In a cool breeze and when there is a bright moon.


Finally here, I will highlight van Gulik's subdivision of the lute repertoire into five thematic groups: (1) The Mystic Journey; (2) Tunes of a Semi-Historical Character; (3) Musical Versions of Literary Products (e.g. poems from the ancient Book of Odes); (4) Tunes Descriptive of Nature; (5) Tunes Descriptive of Literary Life.  Elements of landscape may be evoked in any of these categories, but it is the fourth group that is of most interest here.  One such composition is the Song Dynasty tune I described here previously, 'Clouds over the Hsiao and Hsiang Rivers'.  Another is 'High Mountains and Flowing Waters' (for the story of Po Ya, to whom it was ascribed, see my earlier post).  This exists as two separate pieces, one of which, 'Flowing Waters', is now the best known qin composition  - a version was sent into space on the Voyager golden record (see clip above and, for more information, John Thompson's incredibly informative qin site). 

The third example of nature description van Gulik gives is by Ts'ai Yung (Cai Yong 133-92), a polymath of the Eastern Han period whose daughter also became a renowned poet and musician.  It is a tune which evokes in nine sections the end of winter and the coming of spring. A Ming Dynasty lute handbook says of this that 'it takes its inspiration from the snow, describes snow's purity and freedom from all earthly stains, and expresses contempt for the world and elevation to empty clearness'.
  1. Heaven and earth breathe purity.
  2. A clear, snowy morning.
  3. Snow and sleet fall together.
  4. Mountains and water merge in each other.
  5. The brilliant sun in the sky.
  6. The wind blows through the luxuriant forest.
  7. River and mountain are like a picture.
  8. The snow melts on cliffs and in vales.
  9. Spring returns to the world.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

This loud brook’s incessant fall

As this loud brook’s incessant fall
In streaming rings restagnates all,
Which reach by course the bank, and then
Are no more seen, just so pass men.

- from Henry Vaughan's 'The Waterfall', 1655
My previous post, on  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's anthology Poems of Places, brings to mind Geoffrey Grigson, whose (considerably shorter) anthology Poems & Places I discussed here in 2009.  In another of his books, Recollections (1984), Grigson writes of the pleasures to be had in 'visiting or soaking myself for a while in scenery spiritualized, I suppose that is the word, by writers in their poems.'  He lists the Quantocks (Coleridge), the Lakes (the Wordsworths), the Cotswolds (Gurney), the Vale of Clwyd (Hopkins), Long Island (Whitman - 'wiping it clean again in fancy to the nakedness of sands and sea birds he knew') and outside Brecon in Wales, 'the Black Mountains, rivers, streams and waterfalls and the Langhorse Lake, recognizable in Vaughan's verbal spiritualization of the scenery he had known since childhood.'  He goes on to say
'There are discoveries to be made in this way.  Searching the map, I found that there exists a neglected waterfall just outside Brecon which Vaughan might have had in mind when he wrote his waterfall poem.  Had he translated the Welsh name of the stream, which is Ffrwdgrech, into the 'loud brook' of his poem?  That could be the meaning of the Welsh in these Ffrwdgrech Falls.  So I looked for the waterfall, to which there is no path, which can be missed on a lane which doesn't give a hint of the Falls' existence; and I felt as if I were the first person to recognize the falls and admire their extraordinary charm since Vaughan had been their repeatedly in the seventeenth century.'

Ffrwdgrech Waterfall, near Brecon, 1880s
In his introduction to Poems & Places Grigson says that few poets before the Romantics 'felt landscape more powerfully and with a completer consciousness than Henry Vaughan.'   He quotes Vaughan's 'twin brother Thomas, alchemist and clergyman in the same parish', on the idea that we should try 'to refer all naturals to their spirituals by the way of secret analogy.'  Hence a poem like 'The Waterfall' in which landscape is a metaphor for the spirit.  Thomas Vaughan is represented in Grigson's anthology be one poem, 'So Have I Spent on the Banks of Ysca Many a Serious Hour', his brother by seven, including 'The Waterfall'.    I'll end here with more of Henry Vaughan's poem, this time from the beginning, where short lines evoke the rapid descent of the water.
With what deep murmurs through time’s silent stealth
Doth thy transparent, cool, and wat’ry wealth
           Here flowing fall,
           And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stay’d
Ling’ring, and were of this steep place afraid;
           The common pass
           Where, clear as glass,
           All must descend
           Not to an end,
But quicken’d by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave.

Friday, March 31, 2017

’T is a most beauteous Strait

Towards the end of his life Henry Wadsworth Longfellow oversaw a 31-volume anthology, arranged geographically, called Poems of Places.  It can be read in its entirety on Bartleby.  The poems begin in England - in Aldborough to be precise, which comes first alphabetically in a list of English places.  Three poems by Crabbe are followed by something by one of the many lesser poets that bulk out the volumes and give the anthology its wide reach: Capel Lofft - lawyer, poet and patron, dismissed by Byron as 'the Maecenas of shoemakers and preface-writer general to distressed versemen' - whose poem begins 'THOU awful sea! upon this shingly beach / Of Aldborough I pace...'  Longfellow's America is not reached until Volumes XXV–XXIX, traversing the country from Maine to White Pine Nevada. 


Inevitably, perusing the contents pages, one is drawn not to the familiar poetic locations but to more far flung locations: back in 1874, what English verse was he able to find on Africa?  This continent is covered in Volume XXIV and the vast majority of its poems concern 'The Barbary States' and Egypt.  There are fewer poems about Central and Southern Africa than there are, earlier in the book, about specific London Streets and Taverns.  However, here are some lines from one of them, written by Thomas Pringle, a Scottish poet and abolitionist, who lived in Cape Town in the early 1820s.  They refer to a South African species, the yellowwood tree (podocarpus elongatus).  The original printing of the poem describes it as a 'Caffer Song' from the 'rocky cleugh of Eland':
DEEP in the forest lies hid a green dell,
Where fresh from the Rock of Elks blue waters swell;
And fast by that fountain a yellow-wood tree,
Which shelters the spot that is dearest to me.
This blog has moved freely between real and imagined landscapes and so it is with Longfellow's anthology.  The volume devoted to 'Oceanica' mostly comprises coral islands, tropical nights and Arctic seas that existed in the imaginations of Victorian writers.  However there are three poems on New Zealand by its fourth Premier (1862-3) Alfred Domett, who had been a friend of Browning before emigrating, and several on Australia by Henry Kendall.  The lines below, describing the coast of Tasmania, were written by John Dunmore Lang, another native Scotsman, who arrived in Sydney in 1823.  The Eden it describes seems as imaginary as the ideal islands dreamt by poets who never left Europe. 
’T is a most beauteous Strait. The Great South Sea’s
  Proud waves keep holiday along its shore,
And as the vessel glides before the breeze,
  Broad bays and isles appear, and steep cliffs hoar
With groves on either hand of ancient trees
  Planted by Nature in the days of yore:
Van Dieman’s on the left and Bruné’s isle
Forming the starboard shore for many a mile.

But all is still as death! Nor voice of man
  Is heard, nor forest warbler’s tuneful song.
It seems as if this beauteous world began
  To be but yesterday...

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A black mountaintop looms out of the slate-grey darkness


Awoiska van der Molen is one of the contenders for this year's Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.  At the Photographers' Gallery her exhibition of large monochrome silver gelatin prints is on the top floor, after a room devoted to Sophie Calle's moving works on the death of her parents.  These too seem very private works, even though there are no titles or narrative - it is not even clear where the photographs were taken.  These landscapes convey a sense of the artist alone, quietly focusing on the way light was falling on foliage or illuminating the surface of rocks and water.  Sometimes this light is intense: what looks like a ribbon of white road seemingly scratched onto a mountainside or the bright tips of grasses caught by the slanting sun.  Sometimes it is softer, blurring forms, and you can imagine it disappearing altogether at the passing of a cloud.  A view out to sea has almost no light beyond a faint sheen at the horizon.   There are shadows too, but walking up close to the photographs you realise their resolution is too grainy to allow you to into into these dark places.   


The video interview with Awoiska van der Molen that I have embedded above begins (rather disappointingly from the perspective of this blog) with her admission "I am not interested in landscape".  She says that the landscapes she visits are places to escape to and find solace, a sense of safety.  Thus the pictures try to convey her feelings in the landscape rather than the landscape itself.  Sean O'Hagan has described her in The Guardian as 'a photographer that is infinitely patient, and interested in the stubborn core of things.'  He explains how she took the arresting image of a dark mountain (the photograph can be seen 45 seconds into the video above).  'In one of my favourite shots, a black mountaintop looms out of the slate-grey darkness, two wavy white lines flowing from the peak like moonlit streams. Astonishingly, these are light trails made by two groups of nocturnal hikers, which she managed to capture from a distance thanks to long exposure. You do not need to know this to appreciate its haunting beauty, but it alerts us to the delicacy of her transformative art.'

What I have briefly tried to convey here about Awoiska van der Molen's work is summarised in an essay by Arjen Mulder, published in the new monograph Blanco
'These are not photos of or after Nature, the photos are part of that same Nature, of an event enabled by Nature via her camera at that particular point in time and that particular exposure. As dusk falls, the thought takes shape in the landscape and the camera is part of this, replicates the scene to turn it into a relationship, a sign in which object and subject conflate, for that which is visualized coincides with what it refers to and who sees it. No symbol, no metaphor, no allegory — Awoiska van der Molen’s photography is so objective that to call it divine would not be an exaggeration. The photographer is utterly absent from her images, which, strangely enough, makes these photos highly personal and intimate, almost painfully so.'

Friday, March 24, 2017

Brick-dust in sunlight

‘Brick-dust in sunlight. That is what I see now in the city, a dry epic flavour, whose air is human breath. A place of walls made straight with plumb line and trowel, to desiccate and crumble in the sun and smoke. Blistered paint on cisterns and girders, cracking to show the priming. Old men spit on the paving slabs, little boys urinate; and the sun dries it as it dries out patches of damp on plaster facings to leave misshapen stains. I look for things here that make old men and dead men seem young. Things which have escaped, the landscapes of many childhoods.’ – Roy Fisher, City, 1961 

Roy Fisher passed away this week.  I thought I would remember him here with three quotations about landscape and place, taken from Interviews Through Time and Selected Prose, a book published by Shearsman in 2000, when Fisher was seventy.  In the first he is talking about City, the short sequence of poems and prose assembled for Gaell Turnbull's Migrant Press.  This drew on his experiences of Birmingham,   
‘… a particular large nondescript undersigned city, which was a deposit of all sorts of inadvertent by-products of ideas.  In many cases the cultural ideas, the economic ideas, had disappeared into the graveyards of people who had the ideas.  But the by-products in things like street layouts, domestic architecture, where the schools were, how anything happened – all these things were left all over the place as a sort of script, an indecipherable script with no key.   And the interesting thing for me was that the culture, particularly the metropolitan culture, the literary culture, had no alphabet to offer for simply talking about what I saw all the time.’
This second quotation gives me an excuse to include a Paul Klee painting and is part of a discussion on how his work is positioned in relation to the poems of place written by Ed Dorn and Charles Olson (I have written about the latter here before). 
‘I’ve been told that I’ve been influenced by Americans. An enormous number of people come to mind, some American, some not. You might just as well, for me, talk about Rilke’s Paris or Kafka’s Prague or the imaginary towns that Paul Klee made up or Kokoschka’s paintings of towns he worked in. […] Fascination with a location – I don’t want to duck out too hard from the American tag here, but it could as well be those little bits you get at the back of Italian primitive paintings, the cities on hilltops, as any sort of possibly theoretical concern with place, such as you get in Olson or Ed Dorn.’
Paul Klee, Castle and Sun, 1928
Public Domain

In this third one, Fisher contrasts his approach to that of a landscape painter.
‘I’m capable of being invaded by visual landscape, though I love visible landscape. […] The poem I write is the portrait of a mind, and the sense of the self, a sense of the world, which is responding to a landscape in such a way that the landscape doesn’t quite have a chance to congeal.  I dramatise.   I deprive the landscape of a painter’s vocabulary, where I’ll say ‘Several miles off, there is a little row of red roofs, and in the middle distance is this and that…’  In a fairly gentle way I’m dramatising the landscape to put dynamic lines in, so that there are certain imperatives – in fact, to energise, to potentiate events it.’
A lot more could be said about Roy Fisher and landscape.  As William Wootton wrote in the Guardian back in 2005,
'Much of Fisher's best work has been a poetry of place, and that place has tended to be the city of his birth. As he puts it in "Six Texts for a Film": "Birmingham's what I think with." In City (1961), whose verse and prose moves from dirty realism and detailed urban description to passages of hypnotic reverie, Birmingham has become an unreal, nameless city. In later works, the places of Birmingham are named almost religiously, as are rather different sites, notably the rural Derbyshire in which Fisher now lives. As one description follows another, a pattern of scenes builds up in the reader's mind, until we get what A Furnace (1985) terms a poetry of "landscape superimposed upon landscape". Individual places, too, can now look like palimpsests. Traces of forgotten fields and rivers are found lurking beneath the city. Vanished towns and industries are discovered in the countryside.'
In News for the Ear: A Homage to Roy Fisher (2000), John Kerrigan asked the poet about his changing attitude to the poetry of place (the interview has been republished in Jacket Magazine).  Fisher had said of City that it was to do with the ‘EFFECTS of topography, the creation of scenic movements, psychological environments, and it’s not meant to be an historical/spatial city entailed to empirical reality.’  Kerrigan put it to him that ‘on the evidence of ‘The Burning Graves at Netherton’ (1981), however, and parts of Birmingham River (1994), you have become more at ease with a ‘poetry of place’ which admits descriptive elements and even paysage moralisé’.  Fisher replied that ‘the landscape has come, with the passage of time and changes in my understanding, to moralise itself under my eye, without any nudging from me. I read it as a record of conduct as well as something subjectively transfigured.’

I will end here with a clip of Roy Fisher, filmed at his Derbyshire home.  He reads 'Birmingham River' (9 minutes in) and then 'For Realism' (1965), with its snapshots of the city: flats on the ridge getting the last light and 'afterimages of brickwork' as windows turning silver in the shadows...