The poetry of Wang Wei and Du Fu celebrate the ancient and bucolic life of these Chinese poets. The ideas and images found in these poems are reminiscent of home and their interconnectedness of their lives with nature. The two poets pull ideas from the natural scenes around them and meld these with the feelings related to everyday living and communion. The poetry lights upon several aspects of these poets’ lives, such as friendship, religion, events in nature, love, death and war.
Yet, both poets appear almost careful to ground these experiences within those of the objects with which humans share the earth.
Despite their similarities, it is possible to find the reverence of each poet alighting on slightly different aspects of their subjects. One finds that they diverge in the extent to which they invoke scenes of death and war and in the types of references they make to the supernatural. Therefore, this consideration of the poetry of Wang Wei and Du Fu demonstrates the intersection of subjects and reverences in images concerned with the natural lives of men, but also a difference in the emphasis placed on images of death and humanity as a result of the distinct historical experiences of the poets.
The China Wang Wei knew and described is filled with scenes of tranquility and tinged with the slightest motion that heralds the changes that transform day into night. Wang Wei, for instance, in such poems as “Villa on Zhong-nan Mountain” and “Returning to Songshan Mountain” describes the scene of subtle motion and tranquility.
He writes, “The limpid river runs [… ] horse and cart move idly [… ] the birds return to perch” (Owen, 390; Chinese Poems, lines 1-4). Waters flow and horses stroll, depicting nature continuing steadily on its course and relegating man to the role of spectator.
Later in the verse, he speaks of tumbling ridges of the Songshan Mountain, according the idea of motion even to static scenes in nature. In a later poem, “Answering Magistrate Zhang” (Owen 390) this idea is more strongly represented. The speaker communicates his determination to meditate upon the natural aspects of his surroundings, saying “The world’s affairs no longer stir my heart/ Turning to myself, I have no greater plan/All I can do is return to the forest of old” (lines 2-4).
The forests and its contents he goes on to describe, placing the emphasis upon these as he considers them to be more worthy of his attention. Within the poetry of Du Fu, one may also find this trend toward the description of landscape and the motions that disturb it from one minute to the next. In his poem, “Autumn Stirrings” (Owen 434), one detects this idea of slight motion in the natural aspects of the world. The metaphor of the title introduces the idea, as a “stirring” (itself a subtle motion) is attributed to Autumn—a season which can be detected through attention to nature.
Within the poem, this attention to motion in nature is also achieved. The wind moans and the flowers bloom visible beneath the eye of the poet. White hair is let down and leaves cover the stems on which they grow. He continues in the second part of “Autumn Stirrings”: “Ceaseless wind and lengthy rain swirl together [… ] the standing grain begins to sprout” (lines 25, 29), These subtle motions are the ones captured and highlighted within Du Fu’s poetry, establishing a similarity between himself and Wang Wei.
In areas of voice the two poets also coincide as both tend to downplay the voice of the “I” as the persona. While most of the poems are in fact written from a first-person view, the subject matter on which the poets choose to focus relegates the “I” to an unimportant and merely mediatory function. While the presence of the persona is inescapable as he/she is the poem’s narrator, one detects that a level of unimportance is accorded to this voice. In Du Fu’s ““Autumn Stirrings” (Owen 434) this is evident in that throughout the whole poem only one reference is made to the “I”.
Furthermore, this reference is merely a conduit through which the poet can express thoughts about another. The line reads, “I fear that soon you’ll find it hard to stand” (line 6) and it is evident that the “I” is merely transitional, a means of getting again to a subject outside of the persona. Evidence of this can also be seen in such poems by Wang Wei as “Birds Calling in the Ravine” (Chinese Poetry) and Du Fu’s “Having fallen of my horse drunk” (Owen, 285).
In the first poem, the “I” surfaces again only as a transitional vessel that accords the reader a view of something outside the persona. He writes, “I’m idle, as osmanthus flowers fall/This quiet night in the spring, the hill is empty/The moon comes out and startles the birds on the hill” (lines 1-3). The poem emphasizes the emptiness of the scene, therefore effacing the persona invoked at the beginning of the poem. In Wang Wei’s “Farewell Wang Wei” though the “I” occurs twice, the focus of the poem is the friend (perhaps Wang Wei himself) to whom the persona addresses his gestures and words.
The penultimate line reads, “Now go, and ask me nothing more,” and in requesting that the reader ask nothing more of the speaker, the poet again downplays the importance of the “I” (me) within the poem. Therefore, feelings and passions rarely come out within the work of these poets. One finds observations, rather than sentimental reactions to these things seen and experienced. While a few exceptions can be found, mainly in the poetry of Du Fu, one detects this impersonality and near-effacement of the “I” to be the rule in the poetry of both Wang Wei and Du Fu.
The idea of downplaying the importance of the speaker is related to one of reducing the importance of humans as a whole in nature. This way of seeing humans is particularly pronounced in the work of Wang Wei, though Du Fu does display this tendency too at times. This is evident in such poems as “Lone Wild Goose” (Owen 379), “The Officer at Tong Pass” (425) “River Village” (427) and several other poems that focus out rather than on the speaker within.
This relatively low ranking of man in nature’s world is also demonstrated in the image within the aforementioned poem “Returning to Songshan Mountain” in which one finds the speaker being located well below the mountains, a speck in this vast territory of nature. Wang Wei writes, “And far below high Songshan’s tumbling ridges, returning home, I close the door for now” (Chinese Poems, lines 7-8). The placement of the persona at the base of the high ridges creates a perspective of humans within the overwhelming vastness of nature as being negligible.
Wang Wei is careful to emphasize his persona’s return to a lowly state, below the high mountain. This indicates that humans may entertain a feeling of dominance in the world, but from an elevated (and perhaps more accurate) perspective, one finds it easier to put humans in the low position that most befits their status on earth. The idea of humans as unimportant in nature is less pronounced in the poetry of Du Fu, but close reading of his poetry also points to traces of this idea. In the third poem that he entitles “Autumn Stirrings” (434), he writes “Who notices the cloth-gown scholar?
/Locked behind his gates and guarding his walls/ The old man doesn’t go out; the weeds grow tall” (Chinese Poems lines 1, 3). The lack of note given to this scholar highlights the unimportance of the human observer in the world. The scholar himself, by his very profession, effaces his own worth. Scholars study the world, and this places emphasis outside of themselves and on the things surrounding them. The idea of the weeds growing tall is reminiscent of the high mountains that dwarf the persona in Wang Wei’s poem.
Even these seemingly unimportant weeds exalt themselves above the stature of the scholar. The walls too surrounding him and blocking him from the view of others also testify to the near-invisibility accorded to the human in some areas of Du Fu’s poetry. Both poets Wang Wei and Du Fu also demonstrate an interest in religious and supernatural concerns. Within their poems, such as “Answering Magistrate Zhang” (Owen 390) and “Another Poem on Mr. Zheng’s Eastern Pavillion” (414), one finds references to temples, holy men, and ghosts that comment on the world’s injustice.
In Wang Wei’s “Stopping at Incense Storing Temple,” the speaker tells of the transformation that occurs when he comes to know of this holy place. He confesses: “The green pines chilled the sunlight’s colored rays. […] Through meditation I controlled passion’s dragon” (Chinese Poems lines 6, 8). Via the adoption of meditative practices learned at the Incense Storing Temple and demonstrated by the natural things surrounding, the speaker is able to quell the dragon of passion inside and comes to know peace and tranquility.
Du Fu’s example of this tendency toward the spiritual and supernatural can be found in such poems as “Facing Snow” and “The Army Wagons: A Ballad” (Owen 468) in which ghosts arise and cry out at the injustice perpetrated against the young who are forced to die in battles. In the poems “In Abbot Dan’s Room at Dayun Temple” and “Parting from Abbot Zan” one also sees the influence of the spiritual emerge in his poetry (Chinese Poems). Transformations in the presence of the holy, as is evident in the previous Wang Wei poem, also come out in Du Fu’s work.
In “Dayun Temple” the speaker confesses: “Tangxiu lifts me from a sickly state […] I smell the splendid incense. / Deep in the night, the hall rears up high” (lines 15, 30, 31). Both poets write of incense, and the scent of the substance in this poem causes the speaker to experience his surroundings in a transformed manner. The effect is as a drug or a supernatural presence within the room, as the hall “rears up,” enlarging in a way that moves him. While similarities exist between these two poets in their attention to the details and motions of nature, as well as their exaltation of nature above humans, they also differ in significant ways.
Du Fu is apt to depict more scenes of death in his poetry, and one is overwhelmed by the references to loss found in many of his poems. While this phenomenon might be attributed to his experience of war, the evidence is clear within such poems as “The Army Wagons: A Ballad,” (Owen 468) “Facing Snow,” (Chinese Poems) and even ““Autumn Stirrings” (Owen 434). ” In the first poem, the reader becomes privy to the sentiments surrounding conscription of boys to fight in a war. The youth are led to their death, and the result is carcasses and tears.
The images of earth and death are evident in the lines “Our sons are merely buried in the grass/The ancient bleached bones no man gathered in” (lines 31,33). The death that is a part of life is conjured up in these lines, and the remains of humans at the end of all this is highlighted in the phrase “bleached bones. ” In “Facing Snow” the death images are reminiscent of the “The Army Wagons: A Ballad” (Owen 468), as it too invokes the idea of war and the death that is its result.
It begins, “After the battle many new ghosts cry” (line 1) and continues, “The ladle’s cast aside, the cup not green” hinting that eating and drinking are now no longer necessary as death has taken the place of the life that such activities seek to prolong. It also hints at the grief of the old men who worry about their sons who will die at war (line 2). Such persons are no longer desirous of eating, and this too may lead to death. Historical considerations may shed some light on the similarities and differences experienced between these two poets.
The poets Wang Wei and Du Fu lived in slightly different generations, as Du Fu’s birth occurred approximately a decade following Wei’s death. The attention to landscape and flora/fauna in motion has been shown to be a motif that runs through the works of both these poets, and it is as a result of this temporal closeness that one is able to find similarities in the Chinese landscape they both describe in detail. One can detect, however, a few differences arising out of the different historical periods to which they were exposed.
Du Fu apparently experienced a major war—the An Lushan Rebellion—during his lifetime, and references to death, battles and loss are found to a much greater extent within his works as a result of this (Owen). The work of the poets Wang Wei and Du Fu are vastly similar in their tendency to focus on the natural aspects of their surroundings. In fact, both poets demonstrate a strong commitment to this effort, as they immortalize even the most seemingly insignificant aspects of natural occurrences, such as the sigh of the wind, the gallop of a horse or the elusive tumble of a mountain range.
The poets are also concerned with spiritual aspects of life—and for Du Fu, the spiritual parts of the afterlife. References are frequently made to incense, temples, holy men (Abbots) and ghosts of the dead that pay attention and respond to the actions of the living. The similarities of the poets also run to a tendency to downplay the importance of humans in nature, foregrounding the natural aspects of the world in a way that dwarfs any humans that might be present in the scene. This emphasis also extends to the effacement of the “I” of the persona, especially in the works of Wang Wei.
However, while their poetic voices concur in these areas, one finds more attention to death and decay in the works of Du Fu. While reference is made to aging in Wang Wei’s poetry, the emphasis on death is less apparent than in the work of Du Fu.
Chinese Poems. “Du Fu. ” Du Fu Index. www. chinese-poems. com/wang. html. —. “Wang Wei. ” Wang Wei Index. www. chinese-poems. com/wang. html. Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.