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Nature and Self: A Study of the Poetry of Su Dongpo with Comparisons to the Poetry of William Wordsworth.

When Su Shi (1037-1101) looked over the gunwale of his boat, "100 Dongpos" smiled back at him (Yang, p. 157). William Wordsworth (1770-1850), also gazing down from a boat, saw "weeds, fishes, flowers," among which flickered a single, perplexed Wordsworth (p. 164). This pair of matching images, with their different implications, sums up the seduction and frustration of comparing writers across centuries and continents. Such comparison is a worthy enterprise, and a brave one because its pitfalls can be as wide as the cultural gulf between Asia and the West, between ourselves and ancient times, and between two poets, one of whom wrote about his own work in terms rather similar to those used by English professors now, while the other wrote much less about the act of writing, so that often we can only infer what he thought.

A carefully constructed methodology can bridge, mend, or sidestep such pitfalls. But even the best methodology does not reduce the need to be familiar with both traditions in all their daunting complexity. Vincent Yang's study of Su Shi and William Wordsworth is based on neither a secure methodology nor a thorough grounding in literary history. It wavers between comparing Wordsworth with Su and China with the West. It does not distinguish carefully between poets as human beings and poets as voices. It does not define nature clearly, especially in Su's case, so that we have no secure premise from which to start comparing Wordsworth's view of it with Su's view. Was nature ziran for Su, or was it tian? How are we supposed to define "self"? Would it not be better first to compare the two poets' treatment of things that both men's poems actually name, and whose Chinese and English names correspond - things such as "mountain," "field," "leisure," or "home," for example? Wordsworth, the secondary object of study, is quoted in such fragmentary ways that we barely learn what Yang thinks of him. Su Shi is described more fully, with generous doses of complete poems translated into coherent, straightforward English with competent, though sometimes rather brief, analysis. But the view of Chinese literary history, and the conclusions drawn about Su from it, are shallow, imprecise, and sometimes rather hard to believe. Are we to think that Su Shi loved nature and disliked society (p. 20)? This is probably not true even of Wordsworth; if true, it is rather vaguely stated. Did Su Shi really cherish a "lifelong dream of seceding from the human community to lead the pastoral life of his choice" (ibid.)? Even his "poetic voice" is ambivalent on that score, let alone Su himselm. Was Zhuang Zi "Su's favorite thinker" (p. 40)? Was Su's later thinking really marred by a tinge of "somber Buddhist doctrines" (p. 62)? When he fused the landscape with Buddha's body, was this a decline in genius (p. 144)? What does it mean, in specific terms, to say that he renounced his "former creative spirit" by embracing Buddhism (p. 167)?

Old generalities about Chinese literature weaken the presentation. We are told that Chinese classical poets tend toward "implying rather than affirming" (p. 21). (Do not Western poets imply as well? And, regardless of whether a poem implies or affirms, can we still not seek its implications accurately via words, allusions, diction, pacing, and imagery?) Written Chinese is "imagistic" (p. 51); its ambiguity extends even to parts of speech (pp. 51, 53). (This sounds like the notion that Chinese has no grammar.) The "subject matter of lyrics [ci], from their first appearance in the Tang dynasty to the time of Su Dongpo, was ordinarily confined to the expression of personal feelings" (p. 63). (What reader, having seen this statement, could predict the formulaic nature of so many lyrics, or realize that we can find far more genuine feelings felt by the poets themselves in the shi than in the ci, even after Su Dongpo?) Song-dynasty poetry began with a domineering Xi Kun style, then moved directly to Su who overthrew it - following a bit of experimentation by "Ouyang Xiu and a few other contemporary writers" (p. 105, . . . presumably Liu Yong, Mei Yaochen, Wang Yucheng, Lin Bu, Su Shunqin, Wang Anshi, Sima Guang).

The book apparently never had the opportunity to be professionally edited; this may explain some of its problems. It is organized into chapters by theme, but the progression of main points is murky. Questions, discussions, and conclusions are not well demarcated. Footnote citation style is haphazard. One wonders why entire pinyin transcriptions of Su's poems are provided next to the character transcriptions; would it not have been more useful to eliminate the pinyin and put the English version in its place, instead of up above the Chinese?

The drawbacks are a pity, because the book raises fascinating ideas that deserve attention. What does it mean when Su Shi shrinks from bestowing high-sounding names on places or buildings? How does this compare with Wordsworth celebrating a "Path of Perseverance," or happily naming a spot Emma's Dell" after the companion with whom he visited it (pp. 42-43)? How did the two poets handle ideas such as transmigration and transcendence? What does Wordsworth's personal crisis over the French Revolution have to do with Su Shi's adjustment to the humiliation of exile (pp. 115-19)? If Christianity provided Wordsworth a philosophical matrix, what was the corresponding matrix for Su? Would Western notions of the Supreme Being really have been "incomprehensible to the ancient Chinese" (p. 177)? Does Western poetry really follow vertical patterns while Chinese imagery is more horizontal? Might there not be more cyclicality in Western writing, and less in Chinese, than we think?

It is increasingly apparent that anyone who wants to study Su Shi will be well advised to muster the clearest concepts, most flexible faculties, mammoth amounts of learning, broad experience, and above all to spend inordinate, pre-twentieth-century amounts of time. Neither Vincent Yang nor Michael Fuller (whose Road to East Slope is reviewed elsewhere in this issue) has been able to assemble enough of those elements to present an entirely satisfying study. Both works can mislead or frustrate readers. But if every scholar waited for the ideal moment to begin writing, we would have no books at all about Su Shi or dozens of other major figures. As it is, we now have two new books that - regardless of all else - can prod readers into thinking hard, as scholarly books are supposed to do.
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Author:Pease, Jonathan
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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