In 755, the Sogdian-Turkish general An Lushan rebelled against Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty after a dispute with a cousin of the emperor’s favorite concubine. Within a year, the general had captured the eastern capital of Luoyang and declared himself emperor; the next year, his forces seized and sacked the capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), then the most populous city in the world. Although An—blind, crazed, and so obese that he was said to crush horses to death under his own weight—was assassinated in 757 by a eunuch conspiring with his son, the rebellion continued for several years until finally being put down by the imperial army in 763. As many as 36 million people were killed or displaced during the insurrection—three-quarters of the population. The Tang dynasty never fully recovered, and after suffering another uprising in the ninth century, China descended into civil war, ending what many consider its Golden Age.
This era of war and famine coincided with an immense flowering of calligraphy, painting, and poetry. In the eighth century, Chang’an had become a bustling, cosmopolitan city with countless canals, parks, teahouses, and monasteries and a diverse population that included Uighurs, Turks, Japanese, and Koreans. With the imperial examination system, which recruited bureaucrats on the basis of their knowledge of classical literature and philosophy, poetry was elevated to a stature that it has rarely, if ever, reclaimed: a class of scholar-officials governed the empire, and no one could rise in the ranks without the ability to compose an elegant quatrain or a witty couplet.
The Tang Dynasty, which lasted more than 270 years, produced China’s greatest poets: the Daoist drifter Li Bai, the Confucian poet-historian Du Fu, the painter-poet Wang Wei, the Buddhist hermit Han Shan, and many others. Their lives were marked by unceasing political turmoil. Refugees and fugitives, they spent their years wandering from place to place, falling in and out of imperial favor and all the while drinking, singing, and writing. Their poetry—for the most part regulated verse comprising linked couplets of between five and seven characters—is what we think of when we think of Classical Chinese poetry.
The astounding influence that Chinese poetry in translation has had on the English language throughout the 20th century—from the Modernist, Imagist revolution of Ezra Pound’s Cathay (1915) through its mid-century, counter-cultural incarnation by Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, and others—can be traced to this ragtag assortment of drunkards, hermits, and exiles. Very few collections, however, situate the Tang poets fully within their political and historical context, drawing out both the urgency and stakes of their verse. Many anthologies… simply follow the model of Three Hundred Tang Poems (1763) compiled by the Qing scholar Sun Zhu, which for many decades remained the standard text. In the Same Light (The Song Cave, 2022), translated by the Chinese-Singaporean-Irish poet Wong May, does something different. Collecting 200 poems by 38 poets, Wong May promises to find parallels between their time and the present and, in so doing, update them “for our century.” To do this, she excavates her own story and its resonance with those of the Tang poets.
Charles C.J. Hoffbauer, Lee and His Generals, 1920.
This excerpt from Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1928 epic poem John Brown’s Body makes it clear why Americans, North and South, could set aside differences of politics and section, and look back together on Lee and other great Confederates as heroes.
Army of Northern Virginia, army of legend,
Who were your captains that you could trust them so surely?
Who were your battle-flags?
Call the shapes from the mist,
Call the dead men out of the mist and watch them ride.
Tall the first rider, tall with a laughing mouth,
His long black beard is combed like a beauty’s hair,
His slouch hat plumed with a curled black ostrich-feather,
He wears gold spurs and sits his horse with the seat
Of a horseman born.
It is Stuart of Laurel Hill,
“Beauty” Stuart, the genius of cavalry,
Reckless, merry, religious, theatrical,
Lover of gesture, lover of panache,
With all the actor’s grace and the quick, light charm
That makes the women adore him-a wild cavalier
Who worships as sober a God as Stonewall Jackson,
A Rupert who seldom drinks, very often prays,
Loves his children, singing, fighting spurs, and his wife.
Sweeney his banjo-player follows him.
And after them troop the young Virginia counties,
Horses and men, Botetort, Halifax,
Dinwiddie, Prince Edward, Cumberland, Nottoway,
Mecklenburg, Berkeley, Augusta, the Marylanders,
The horsemen never matched till Sheridan came.
Now the phantom guns creak by. They are Pelham’s guns.
That quiet boy with the veteran mouth is Pelham.
He is twenty-two. He is to fight sixty battles
And never lose a gun.
The cannon roll past,
The endless lines of the infantry begin.
A. P. Hill leads the van. He is small and spare,
His short, clipped beard is red as his battleshirt,
Jackson and Lee are to call him in their death-hours.
Dutch Longstreet follows, slow, pugnacious and stubborn,
Hard to beat and just as hard to convince,
Fine corps commander, good bulldog for holding on,
But dangerous when he tries to think for himself,
He thinks for himself too much at Gettysburg,
But before and after he grips with tenacious jaws.
There is D. H. Hill–there is Early and Fitzhugh Lee–
Yellow-haired Hood with his wounds and his empty sleeve,
Leading his Texans, a Viking shape of a man,
With the thrust and lack of craft of a berserk sword,
All lion, none of the fox. Read the rest of this entry »
Unhappy about some far off things
That are not my affair, wandering
Along the coast and up the lean ridges,
I saw in the evening
The stars go over the lonely ocean,
And a black-maned wild boar
Plowing with his snout on Mal Paso Mountain.
The old monster snuffled, “Here are sweet roots,
Fat grubs, slick beetles and sprouted acorns.
The best nation in Europe has fallen,
And that is Finland,
But the stars go over the lonely ocean,”
The old black-bristled boar,
Tearing the sod on Mal Paso Mountain.
“The world’s in a bad way, my man,
And bound to be worse before it mends;
Better lie up in the mountain here
Four or five centuries,
While the stars go over the lonely ocean,”
Said the old father of wild pigs,
Plowing the fallow on Mal Paso Mountain.
“Keep clear of the dupes that talk democracy
And the dogs that talk revolution,
Drunk with talk, liars and believers.
I believe in my tusks.
Long live freedom and damn the ideologies,”
Said the gamey black-maned boar
Tusking the turf on Mal Paso Mountain.
W.â€‰H. Auden had rented variously inadequate apartments since arriving back in New York at the end of the summer of 1945, and had most recently been living with Chester Kallman in a warehouse building on Seventh Avenue, an especially unsatisfactory place that lacked both hot water and a functional front door. So when he and Kallman moved to 77 Saint Markâ€™s Place on the Lower East Side, in February 1954, it promised to be a significant improvement; and he was certainly very pleased with the place from the startâ€”â€œmy N.Y. nest,â€ he called it. Auden would stay there until his ill-fated departure for Oxford in 1972, making it his longest single habitation. From 1949 he summered in Europeâ€”in Ischia until 1957, when he bought a small farmhouse in Kirchstetten in Austria, which delighted him: he devoted a sequence, â€œThanksgiving for a Habitat,â€ in his collection About the House (1965), to a celebration of his domestic existence there. It was in these summerhouses that he tended to write poems: New York was largely for his distinct life as a â€œman of letters,â€ a label he applied to himself. â€œIt is a sad fact about our culture,â€ he once wrote, â€œthat a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing itâ€; but at the same time he prided himself on his professionalism as a reviewer, essayist, anthologist, and commentator, work that in turn often suggested subjects for poems; and that work principally happened on Saint Markâ€™s.
Freshly installed, he excitedly invited round his young friend Charles Miller (â€œCome! Iâ€™ll take you on a tourâ€):
The large first (entry) room with high ceiling had a green marbled fireplace flanked by built-in bookshelves, which also incorporated Wystanâ€™s battered turntable with speaker equipment and his much-used collection of records and albums. A big shabby sofa and a swamped antique coffee table centered the cluttered room. I followed Wystan through an arch into a similar room at the front with another green marbled fireplace. This room was hardly furnished, except for built-in bookcases and Wystanâ€™s small work table just touched by sunlight from the generous nineteenth-century windows. To the right of this room, as we faced Saint Markâ€™s Place, was a small room with its door to the stair hall nailed shut; the room had only a cot bed, on which Wystan slept, he said.
Just touched by sunlight, one imagines: as an undergraduate at Oxford, Auden had preferred to keep his curtains drawn at all times, and he seems to have adopted the same policy in America. When Stephen Spender had visited him in the forties he unwisely attempted to open the curtains and brought them crashing to the ground: â€œYou idiot!â€ Auden scolded him, â€œwhy did you draw them? No one ever draws them. In any case thereâ€™s no daylight in New York.â€ Wystanâ€™s succession of rooms gave his friend Margaret Gardiner â€œthe sensation of brownish caverns, a brown that seemed to pervade everything, even the air itself.â€
Audenâ€™s territory was the front of the apartment; Kallmanâ€™s, the kitchen and the music room at the back of the flat, where there were also separate bedrooms for Kallman and for a tenant. Auden was especially pleased with the fireplaces, and he liked the porcelain tiles in the kitchen. The area had lots of Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian stores selling good food. And the building even had a history: Trotsky had once published works from its basement, a fact that seemed to please Auden; and, some more recent color, an illegal abortionist had been its previous inhabitant. (The flat was buzzed from time to time by would-be clients.) Auden placed his fatherâ€™s barometer on the mantelpiece, and hung over it a watercolor by Blake, The Act of Creation, a present from his rich patron Caroline Newton. But his evident pride in the place did not translate into any instincts to be house-proud, as Millerâ€™s retrospective account, despite its touches of fine writing, communicates well enough:
The coffee table bore its household harvest of books, periodicals, half-emptied coffee cups scummed over with cream, a dash of cigarette ashes for good measure, and a heel of French bread (too tough for Wystanâ€™s new dentures?). An oval platter served as ashtray, heaped with a homey Vesuvius of cigarette butts, ashes, bits of cellophane from discarded packs, a few martini-soaked olive pits, and a final cigarette stub issuing a frail plume of smoke from the top of the heap, signature of a dying volcano. This Auden-scape reeked of stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit, Wystanified tenement tang.
And this was his new flat. â€œThe speed with which he could wreck a room was barely credible, certainly dangerous,â€ observed his friend James Stern. He spoke from experience. On one occasion he had left Auden in his flat for the day, dropping back shortly afterward to pick something up: â€œIf it hadnâ€™t been for the pictures on the walls I wouldnâ€™t have known where I was,â€ Stern remembered: â€œFrustrated burglars could not have created greater chaos â€¦ God, Wystan, was a mess! â€˜My dear, I do love this apartment, but I canâ€™t understand why it doesnâ€™t have more ashtrays!â€™â€‰â€ The Saint Markâ€™s apartment rapidly came to resemble what Robert Craft, Stravinskyâ€™s right-hand man, had witnessed with some incredulity in Audenâ€™s previous place, a litter of â€œempty bottles, used martini glasses, books, papers, phonograph records.â€ Dinner with them would be boozy and delicious (Kallman was an excellent cook); but the cutlery would be greasy and the plates often only imperfectly washed. â€œHe is the dirtiest man I have ever liked,â€ said Stravinsky of Auden, a touching if qualified mark of regard.
First published January 29, 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror.
— Edgar Allan Poe (1809 — 1849)
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten loreâ€”
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber doorâ€”
“â€˜Tis some visitor,” I muttered, â€œtapping at my chamber doorâ€”
Only this and nothing more.â€
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;â€”vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrowâ€”sorrow for the lost Lenoreâ€”
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenoreâ€”
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled meâ€”filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
“â€˜Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber doorâ€”
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;â€”
This it is and nothing more.â€
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
â€œSir,” said I, â€œor Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard youâ€â€”here I opened wide the door;â€”
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, â€œLenore?â€
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, â€œLenore!â€â€”
Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
â€œSurely,” said I, â€œsurely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery exploreâ€”
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;â€”
â€˜Tis the wind and nothing more!â€
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber doorâ€”
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber doorâ€”
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
â€œThough thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, â€œart sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shoreâ€”
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Nightâ€™s Plutonian shore!â€
Quoth the Raven â€œNevermore.â€
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaningâ€”little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber doorâ€”
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as â€œNevermore.â€
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he utteredâ€”not a feather then he flutteredâ€”
Till I scarcely more than muttered â€œOther friends have flown beforeâ€”
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.â€
Then the bird said â€œNevermore.â€
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
â€œDoubtless,” said I, â€œwhat it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden boreâ€”
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
But the Raven still beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yoreâ€”
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking â€œNevermore.â€
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosomâ€™s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushionâ€™s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated oâ€™er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating oâ€™er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
â€œWretch,” I cried, â€œthy God hath lent theeâ€”by these angels he hath sent thee
Respiteâ€”respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!â€
Quoth the Raven â€œNevermore.â€
â€œProphet!â€ said I, â€œthing of evil!â€”prophet still, if bird or devil!â€”
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchantedâ€”
On this home by Horror hauntedâ€”tell me truly, I imploreâ€”
Is thereâ€”is there balm in Gilead?â€”tell meâ€”tell me, I implore!â€
Quoth the Raven â€œNevermore.â€
â€œProphet!â€ said I, â€œthing of evilâ€”prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above usâ€”by that God we both adoreâ€”
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenoreâ€”
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.â€
Quoth the Raven â€œNevermore.â€
â€œBe that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend!â€ I shrieked, upstartingâ€”
â€œGet thee back into the tempest and the Nightâ€™s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!â€”quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!â€
Quoth the Raven â€œNevermore.â€
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demonâ€™s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light oâ€™er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be liftedâ€”nevermore!