Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tu Fu

"There is a firm consensus," says A. C. Graham, "that Tu Fu is the greatest Chinese poet."  If he "sounds in English like anyone's idea of a  Chinese poet," Graham suggests, it is precisely because he is so great--he defines Chinese poetry, I surmise, the same way (say) Sophocles defines tragedy.   In Poems of the Late T'ang, Graham offers selections from seven poets but Tu Fu gets pride of place.  But he restricts his selection; his offerings are "chosen from the last four years of [Tu Fu's] life;" no wonder, then, that they "illustrate the beginnings of some of the tendencies which transformed the poetic language in the ninth century."

Graham elaborates:
The climax both of T'ang poetry and of the power of he dynasty was the reign of Ming-huang (713-55); from 755 the rebellion of An Lu-shan permanently weakened the dynasty and scattered the poets to the ends of China. Tu Fu left the capital Ch'ang-an in the north west in 758, and arrived in 766 at K'uei-chou on the middle Yangtse.
In one perhaps slightly untypical selection from the late poems, Tu Fu remembers perhaps the most remarkable feature of his capital:
Well said Ch'ang-an looks like a chess-board:
A hundred years of the saddest news.
The mansions of princes and nobles all have new lords:
Another breed is capped and robed for office.
Due north on the mountain passes the gongs and drums shake,
To the chariots and horses campaigning in the west the winged dispatches hasten.
While the fish and the dragons fall asleep and the autumn rivers turn cold
My native country, untroubled times, are always in my thoughts.
Ch'ang-an, modern Xi'an, is famous among tourists today as the home of the terra cotta army.The old central city retains its chess-board form.

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