Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Chinese poetry

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The origin of Chinese poetry is shown by the component parts of the character which they use to express it. They signify “words of the temple,” and point out the primarily religious nature of Chinese verse. The people have a great respect for this species of art, and most of them are themselves poets. The moral maxims of their philosopher Confucius are written in the terse epigrammatical style which seems to be synonymous with poetry among them. The accuracy and conciseness of their poetical ideas cannot fail to remind us of the ancient poetry of the Hebrews. There is a Chinese ode descriptive of England—or perhaps more particularly of London—some portions of which we may be pardoned for quoting. The description is somewhat striking, but might tend to mislead one who is wholly unacquainted with the metropolis, and produce rather extraordinary notions of the habits and customs of its inhabitants.

“The climate,” observes our poet, “is cold, and the people live close to fires. The houses are so lofty that you may pluck the stars. The virtuous read their sacred book. They hate the French. The little girls have red cheeks, but the ladies are fair as the white gem. The husbands and wives love each other. The playhouses are shut in the day, but open at night; the players are handsome, and their performance delightful.”

Such is the style of Chinese poetry. We will not weary our readers with a longer consideration of it, merely pausing to remark on the two hemistichs which relate to the quality of redness in the cheeks of little girls and the general connubial felicity in England, that our poet was probably led to the former observation by his poetical genius, while the latter would appear to him to be rather the utterance of a strange historical fact.

The Sheerking contains upwards of three hundred odes. One of them, on marriage, has been well translated by Sir William Jones. The lines consist of no definite number of syllables, and the rhyme is equally irregular, and seems to be altogether arbitrary. The odes are not distinguished, as our readers may have anticipated from the specimen we have quoted, either by sublimity of mind or depth of feeling; still they are very interesting, and charmingly provocative of astonishment. An individual named Kieuling, who holds somewhat the same place in the appreciation of the Chinese as Shakspeare among ourselves, has written a graphic “Ode on Tea.” The subject, though well within the abilities of the artist, seems to have been strangely devoid of inspiration; nor, however meritorious his attempts, has Kieuling quite succeeded in

Clothing the palpable and familiar
With golden exhalations from the dawn.

The “Ode on Tea” is appropriately followed by some lines on “Tea-Cups;” but either this subject was more barren than the former, or the English translator has scarcely done justice to the original. We will conclude, for the present, this short account with a specimen of modern poetry. It has no title, but may perhaps be called the “Contented Philosopher.” The poetical nature of the introduction is only to be equalled by the disinterested spirit which animates the conclusion.

My palace is a little chamber twice my own length; finery
Never entered it, and neatness never left it.
My bed is a mat, and the coverlet a piece of felt; on these
I sit by day and sleep by night.
A lamp is on one side, on the other a pot of perfume; the singing of birds and the noise of a brook are the only sounds I hear.
My window will shut and my door open—but to wise men only; the wicked shun it.
I shave not like a priest of Fo, I fast not like Tao-tzè.
I waste not my life in dreaming of nothings, and in writing characters, still less in whetting the edge of satire. I have no views, no projects.
The enjoyment of ease and solitude is my chief concern.
Leisure surrounds me, and bustle shuns me. I contemplate the heavens, and am fortified.
I look on the earth and am comforted. I remain in the world without being in it.
One day leads on another, and one year follows another. The last will conduct me safe to port, and I shall have lived for myself.