Prof Hu compares Classical Chinese poetry with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins a poet of Nature. Chinese reader for whom Confucianism and Taoism also colour the Chinese vision of Hopkins in China. see landscape as a way of expressing feelings.
I feel very honoured to attend the 14th Conference of the Gerard Manley Hopkins International Summer School and to have a chance to learn from experts from various countries. Nevertheless, just as a Chinese proverb goes: "Don't sell ABC textbooks at the gate of Confucious' house!" - meaning "Don't show off your knowledge before the experts", I have a sudden fear to deliver my superficial lecture here. For years, I have been playing the role of a bridge in the cultural exchange between China and foreign countries; as a literature professor. On the one hand, I have absorbed spiritual nourishment from the cultural treasure-house of mankind to enrich myself, as well as my students and readers. On the other hand, l can also introduce the age-old Chinese cultural heritage abroad, letting both the Oriental and Occidental culture become the common wealth of the whole of mankind. I have associated with many foreign scholars and we've formed profound friendships. All of us have shared the same experience: both sides saw more difference at the beginning, but we found more and more common tongue as time went by. For, in the end, we are all human beings living on the same planet, as William Shakespeare puts in Hamlet: "the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!" (II-2)
This is what I was feeling while I repeatedly and carefully read and studied Hopkins' poems. I found them strange at first, but before long I felt them so dear and near as if what I was reading was but works by Chinese. The following is my speech and though scanty compared with others' lectures, it is a sincere effort to present the visual angle of a Chinese person.
Hopkins, first and foremost, a poet of Nature It seems to me that Gerard Hopkins is, first of all, a poet singing of Nature. In his poem Spring (1877), he writes:
Nothing is so beautiful as spring -
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden? Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
Long and lovely and lush weeds, glassy peartree leaves and blooms, racing lambs, singing thrush under the descending blue heaven - what a beautiful sight and nice sound of nature in spring!
Poetry about Nature has ever been an important subject of literature in China, a country with vast land and so many places famous for their scenery. China is also a country with many centuries' history of poetry. It is known to everybody that China has a recorded history as long as over 4,000 years and the poems in The Book of Songs, the first collection of Chinese poetry compiled by Confucious (c.551- 479, BC) as one of the textbooks for his students, were composed and widely sung more than 3,000 years ago. During the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), poetry became very popular and its form was well developed. It was a compulsory item in the imperial examination which all scholars sat. Because of this, it became a common practice among scholars to discuss and exchange their poems. In The Complete Collection of Poems in the Tang Dynasty, 900 volumes in all, there are 48,900 poems by 2,200 poets, among whom "the Celestial Poet" Li Bai (Li Po, 701- 762) and "the Saint Poet" Du Fu (712 - 770) are included.
Landscape, described inverse, was often used t put ovr one's own feeling. This has ever been a theme in Chinese poetry, as in Looking at the Spring in Lingling Country by Liu Zongyuan (773 - 819) Tang Dynasty:Compared with Hopkins's Spring, the similarity of the two poems in the first half is obvious, that is, both are describing the beauty of spring. But, in the second half of Liu's poem, the poet expresses his disappointment as a banished official - According to an ancient Chinese philosophy for poetic writing, "Poetry is about expressing one's aspiration",. While Hopkins's poem has a strong religious flavour, besides what we quoted above, the praise of "God's grandeur", he also appealed to God to spread justice in the world. After all, he was a human being and a lonely priest. He had a place in his heart for his fellow-men.
Spring grass turns green on the plain wild,
Morning orioles are heard singing from the distant woods.
Over the islet between Xiao and Xiang the sun shines,
The Heng Hills in the north are obstructed by clouds white. So is the royal court beyond the sight,
Public office is not for me to hold.
With all my feeling I admire the Capital in vain,
The emperors' tomb lie thousands of miles away.
Here is a quotation from his poem Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord (1889), written when he was going through a period of deep depression:
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? And why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leaved how thick! Laced they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build ?but not I build; no, but strain,
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
Hopkins's career proves that he was a devoted Jesuit performing faithfully the duties assigned to him by his church. But, he was also a sensitive poet, fascinated by language and rhythm and a passionately keen observer of the colour and form and detail of the world of nature. It is true that the claims of religion and the duties of his religious profession were paramount, but his aesthetic interests, not only in poetry but also in painting and music, asserted themselves with sometimes painful force. In his inner heart, he lived a life of contradictions. When he combined moods of intense pleasure in the natural world with a profound sense of natural beauty as a reflection of divine reality, he wrote wonderful poems. As everybody knows, it is this combination of the most passionate and particularized apprehension of the sounds, shapes and colours of the countryside with the religious awareness of God, as revealed through these sounds, shapes and colours that composed the theme of much of his poetry. Different people may have different religious beliefs, yet Hopkins's piety is so touching that no one cares what church or what sect he belongs to. Of all the poems by Hopkins I have read, as far as piety is concerned, I think, the most appealing one is The Lantern Out of Door (1877):
Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?
Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much? thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.
Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.
Christ minds; Christ's interest, what to avow or amend
There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend
How could anyone fail to be moved by these lines?
Talking about religion, in China, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism were joined into one belief system. There was no formal organization nor strict rites, but rather a kind of belief. In ancient Chinese philosophic ideas, there was a doctrine of "heaven and man joining in one". A simple illustration of this is the traditional Chinese painting of landscape. Set against a background of mountains and waters, there is a small figure of man - always a subordinate part to the Nature. Confucianism and Taoism have different approach to nature or to the world. Confusianism is more positive in reforming nature and remoulding the world in order to realize one's ambition. Taoism advocates acting in submission to the natural law. As we can see so often in history, Chinese scholars liked to struggle for an official post where they could realize their ideal of administrating the country. But once they met up against obstacles, or failed, the scholars would live in seclusion, changing from a Confucianist into a Taoist.
Among the poets in the Tang Dynasty, there was Wang Wei. (701 - 761) who believed Buddhism so much that he gave himself a style name "Mojie", together with his original first name, forming " Weimojie", which is the transliteration of the Brahma "Vimalakirti" in Chinese, meaning a lay Mahayana Buddhist. It is considered that "his poems provide pictures of landscape and his paintings possess poetic beauty." Here is his poem Dusk Falls in the Mountainous Hut in Autumn:
The vacant hills have just had rain,
It is in autumn evening late.
The bright moon shines down through the pine trees,
Clear spring flows over the rocks.
Returning washwomen noise in the bamboo woods,
Fishing boats move under the flower lotus.
Let the spring go by at its will,
It's still good to live through in autumn.
When you make a comparison with Hopkins's Spring and Fall - to a Young Girl, perhaps You don't think they convey the similar meaning. Anyway, the secluded life in a remote but built by oneself to practise Buddhism is expressed half obviously and half reserved. And reservation or implication is always an important feature of Chinese culture shown everywhere: in architecture, garden design, literature, and even in the way one gets along with people.
Influenced by medieval philosopher Duns Scotus's concept of "individuation" or "this-ness", Hopkins took it for a clue to the nature of reality, so what he called "inscape" is seen exclusivelessly in all his poems not only in imagery, but what's more, in the use of words - the essential inward pattern of the expression was his primary concern.As Hegel rightly points out, we must care more not what one does but how he does it. The first and foremost contribution of Hopkins' to English poetry is his creativeness in forms - rhythms, rhymes, and the choice of words - so as to help to make profound artistic conceptions. Ireland is a country with long-standing music heritage and rich literature achievements. Born and grown up in such a circumstance and atmosphere, Hopkins possessed poetic genius. In his writing of poetry, he was never satisfied with the generally acknowledged rules, but did his best to make something new. He adopted "sprung rhythm", tried hard to imitate "the natural rhythm of ordinary language", preferred alliteration, internal rhyme, abbreviation and pun, and even coined new words. All this perhaps bring about more difficulties to the translation as I experienced (some translators affirm that poetry is impossible to be translated!), but the artistic conception in Hopkins' poetry can be sensed.
Compactness or condensation is the nature of Chinese language, for very often a syllable (or a character in written form) is a word. For two syllable/character words, there are alliteration or vowel rhyme in them, for instance, fan-fu (repeated, repetition) and fa-da (developed, development). Even a set-phrase containing an allusion and literary quotation from historical happenings is formed only by four syllables/characters/words. It is also true of the classical Chinese poetry. In The Book of Songs, there are only four syllables/characters/words in each line, and every four lines in a section. Up til the Tang Dynasty, formal classical poems had into five or seven syllables/characters/words in each line and eight lines in the whole poem.(Jueju contains only four lines). Therefore, there are such sayings as "for a surprising choice of word, one would rather die" and "one-word teacher". Like "rinse and wring the ear" in Spring by Hopkins, in the line of a classical Chinese poem, the poet used the adjective "green" as a verb: "Spring breeze again greens the southern bank of the Yangtsi River", thus painting southern China in Spring in bright colours.
Comparable to the puns Hopkins used "Mayday" and "Mary's Day" in his poem Spring, Li Shangyin (c.813 - c.858), a Tang Dynasty poet, wrote such lines as "Silkworms do not spin silk until their death / Wax candles have no tears only when burning out" to express the missing (the same sound as "silk") of the lover and tears for love-sickness. There is a well-known story about the choice of word in poetry writing, saying that Jia Dao (779 - 843, once a Buddhist monk), a painstaking poet, was once wandering on his way, thinking about a couplet in a poem:
Birds perch in the tree by the pool, A monk pushes (or knocks at) a door under the moon.
but could not decide which to choose, "push" or "knock at", when a famous poet Han Yu (768 - 824) happened to pass by and told him: it was better to use "knock at", for the sound of knocking could set off the quietness of the night by contrast. From then on, there has been the set-phrase "tuiqiao" (push or knock at), meaning "weigh" "deliberate".
It is most commendable that Gerard Hopkins expressed in his poems the foresight of an ecodoomster. Nowadays more and more people appreciate the importance of protecting the ecological environments of the earth on which mankind relies for existence. Indeed, the lessons of how over-exploitation, from Mesopotamia to the Amazon Valley, caused desert and a worsening of the world's climate are too serious to forget. The disastrous effects of Man's destroying vegetation and the reckless hunting of animals has made life difficult. But more than a hundred years ago, Hopkins, like a prophet, raised a cry of warning in his poem Binsey Poplars Felled 1879:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew ?
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
Gerard Hopkins was moved by the fate of for the felled trees. The poet expressed this sentiment in a heart-rending appeal! And what of the extraordinary foresight of this warning? Today, with a call for "green literature" gaining momentum, Hopkins's nature poetry takes on a whole new significance and will inspire us to strive for a better circumstance to live in.
As I am to finish my speech, I have to regretfully say that Hopkins, as a pioneer of the later poets like T.S. Eliot, was quite neglected at his life time, a fact not rarely appeared in history of arts and literature. Does this fact, too, warrant our deep and serious consideration?
Read more Lectures from Gerard Manley Hopkins Festival 2001
French interest - Julien Green and Gerard Manley Hopkins
French Priest / Novelist Jean Sulivan and Gerard Manley Hopkins
Teilhard de Chardin and Gerard Manley Hopkins
Search the Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive