Tu Fu, whom his countrymen called the God of Verse, was born in the province of Hu-Kuang, and this was his portrait from contemporaries:
He was tall and slightly built, yet robust with finely chiselled features; his manners were exquisite, and his appearance distinguished. He came of a literary family, and, as he says of himself, from his seventh to his fortieth year study and letter occupied all his available time. At the age of twenty-seven he came to the capital with his fame in front of him, and there Li Po the poet and Ts`en-Ts`an became his friends, and Ming Huang his patron. He obtained a post at Court somewhat similar to that of Master of Ceremonies in our own Court. Yet the poet had few sympathies outside the artistic life. He was so unworldly and so little of a courtier that when the new Emperor Su Tsung returned in triumph to the capital and appointed him Imperial Censor, he fulfilled his new duties by telling his majesty the whole unpalatable truth in a manner strangely free from ornamental apology, and was promptly rewarded with the exile of a provincial governorship. But Tu Fu was no man of affairs, and knew it. On the day of his public installation he took off his insignia of office before the astonished notables, and, laying them one by one on the table, made them a profound reverence, and quietly withdrew.
Like his friend Li Po, he became a homeless wanderer, but, unlike him, he concealed his brilliant name, obtaining food and patronage for his delightful nameless self alone, and not for his reputation's sake. Finally, he was discovered by the military governor of the province of Ssuch`uan, who applied on his behalf for the post of Restorer of Ancient Monuments in the district, the one congenial appointment of his life. For six years he kept his post; then trouble in the shape of rebel hordes burst once more upon the province, and again he became an exile. The last act of this eventful life took place in his native district: some local mandarin gave a great banquet in honour of the distinguished poet, whom he had rescued, half drowned and famishing, from the ruined shrine by the shore where the waters had cast him up. The wine-cup brimmed again and again, food was piled up in front of the honoured guest, and the attendant who waited was Death. The end was swift, sudden, and pitiful. The guest died from the banquet of his rescuer.
Of all poets Tu Fu is the first in craftsmanship. It is interesting to add that he was a painter as well, and the friend of painters, notably the soldier-artist, Kiang-Tu, to whom he dedicates a poem. Possibly it is to this faculty that he owes his superb technique. He seeks after simplicity and its effects as a diver seeks for sunken gold. In his poem called "The Little Rain", which I have (perhaps somewhat rashly) attempted, there is all the graciousness of fine rain falling upon sullen furrows, which charms the world into spring. "The Recruiting Sergeant" has the touch of grim desolation, which belongs inevitably to a country plundered of its men and swept with the ruinous winds of rebellion.
Li Po gives us Watteau-like pictures of life in Ch`ang-an before the flight of the Emperor. The younger poet paints, with the brush of Verestchagin, the realism and horrors of civil war. In most of Tu Fu's work there is an underlying sadness which appears continually, sometimes in the vein that runs throughout the poem, sometimes at the conclusion, and often at the summing up of all things. Other poets have it, some more, some less, with the exception of those who belong to the purely Taoist school. The reason is that the Chinese poet is haunted. He is haunted by the vast shadow of a past without historians -- a past that is legendary, unmapped and unbounded, and yields, therefore, Golcondas and golden lands innumerable to its bold adventurers. He is haunted from out the crumbled palaces of vanished kings, where "in the form of blue flames one sees spirits moving through each dark recess." He is haunted by the traditional voices of the old masters of his craft, and lastly, more than all, by the dead women and men of his race, the ancestors that count in the making of his composite soul and have their silent say in every action, thought, and impulse of his life.
The Little Rain
Oh! she is good, the little rain! and well she knows our need Who cometh in the time of spring to aid the sun-drawn seed; She wanders with a friendly wind through silent nights unseen, The furrows feel her happy tears, and lo! the land is green.
Last night cloud-shadows gloomed the path that winds to my abode, And the torches of the river-boats like angry meteors glowed. To-day fresh colours break the soil, and butterflies take wing Down broidered lawns all bright with pearls in the garden of the King.
A Night of Song
The wind scarce flutters through the leaves, The young moon hath already gone, And kind and cool the dews descend: The lute-strings wake for night alone.
In shadow lapse the twinkling streams, The lilied marge their waves caress; And the sheer constellations sway O'er soundless gulfs of nothingness.
What cadence charms the poet's ear! What fire-fly fancies round him swarm! He dreads the lantern lights may fail Long ere his thoughts have taken form.
Now gallants tap their two-edged swords, And pride and passion swell amain; Like red stars flashing through the night The circling wine-cups brim again.
There steals the old sad air of Ou -- Each calls his latest song to mind; Then white sails taper down the stream, While lingering thoughts still look behind.
The Recruiting Sergeant
At sunset in the village of Che-Kao* I sought for shelter; on my heels there trod A grim recruiting sergeant, of the kind That seize their prey by night. A poor old man Saw -- scaled the wall, and vanished. Through the gate An old bent woman hobbled, and she marched A pace before him. Loudly in his wrath The grim recruiter stormed; and bitterly She answered: "Listen to the voice of her Who drags before you. Once I had three sons -- Three in the Emperor's camp. A letter came From one, and -- there was one; the others fell In the same battle -- he alone was left, Scarce able from the iron grasp of Death To tear his miserable life. Alas
My two dead boys! for ever and for aye Death holds them. In our wretched hut remains The last of all the men -- a little child, Still at his mother's breast. She cannot flee, Since her few tatters scarce suffice to clothe Her shrunken limbs. My years are nearly done, My strength is well-nigh spent; yet I will go Readily to the camping-ground. Perchance I may be useful for some humble task, To cook the rice or stir the morning meal."
. . . . .
Night slipped away. The clamour and the cries Died down; but there was weeping and the sound Of stifled moans around me. At the break Of dawn I hurried on my road, and left None but an old and broken man behind.
* All words ending in `ao' are pronounced `ow', as in English
`vow', `allow', etc. --
Chants of Autumn
Shorn by the frost with crystal blade, The dry leaves, scattered, fall at last; Among the valleys of Wu Chan Cold winds of death go wailing past. Tumultuous waves of the great river rise And seem to storm the skies, While snow-bright peak and prairie mist combine, And greyness softens the harsh mountain line.
Chrysanthemums unfurl to-day, To-morrow the last flowers are blown. I am the barque that chains delay: My homeward thoughts must sail alone. From house to house warm winter robes are spread, And through the pine-woods red Floats up the sound of the washerman's bat who plies His hurried task ere the brief noon wanes and dies.Next