Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and some like-minded poets


Hundred-foot trees produced by Heaven
get sawed into giant planks
unfortunate building timber
gets left in a hidden valley
its heart stays strong despite the years
its bark falls off day after day
if some astute person took it away
it still could prop up a stable

-- Han-Shan (9th century?) --
from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
trans and edited by Red Pine

"Kwang-tsze was walking on a mountain, when he saw a great tree with huge branches and luxuriant foliage. A wood-cutter was resting by its side, but he would not touch it, and, when asked the reason, said, that it was of no use for anything, Kwang-tsze then said to his disciples, 'This tree, because its wood is good for nothing, will succeed in living out its natural term of years.'"
-- ChangTzu --

Han Shan refers to the "unfortunate" building timber left behind. It should have been chopped down and turned into something useful for humans.  Why?  Is a tree's only value that of being useful to humans?  Doesn't the tree have value in being a tree?

ChangTzu is a legendary Taoist sage, second probably only to LaoTzu in his importance in the Taoist ethical system.  He seems to think differently about the tree.  Since it was fortunately not useful to humanity,  it is able to live "out its natural term of years."

Is that what's important about the plants and animals that precariously share this planet with us?  If they are not useful, then they have no value in themselves. It seems to me that in this immense universe, there may be other life forms, but chances are that life forms found on this planet are unique and unlikely to be found anywhere else, just as life forms found on other planets will also be unique and one-of-a-kind.  Moreover, it seems unlikely that we will find any life forms in our own solar system; again, if some are found, they will not be similar to those of earth.  Again, that points out the significance of life in all its variety found here on earth: it is important in itself and this is far more meaningful than merely being useful to us.  If humans are of value in themselves, then I would argue so are those life forms we share this planet with.

This, however, is a side issue from the original theme of this post, which is a lament, in a sense, for those beauties that blossom unseen or dwelt in untrodden ways, or at least so I thought it was.  Now.  .  .I don't know.

The Wild Honey Suckle

Fair flower, that dost so comely grow,
Hid in this silent, dull retreat,
Untouched thy honeyed blossoms blow,
Unseen thy little branches greet:
    No roving foot shall crush thee here,
    No busy hand provoke a tear.

By Nature's self in white arrayed,
She thee shun the vulgar eye,
And planted here the guardian shade,
And sent soft waters murmuring by:
    Thus quietly thy summer goes,
    Thy days declining to repose.

Smit with these charms, that must decay,
I grieve to see your future doom;
They died--nor were those flowers more gay,
The flowers that did in Eden bloom;
    Unpitying frosts, and Autumn's power
    Shall leave no vestige of this flower.

From morning suns and evening dews
At first thy little being came:
If nothing once, you nothing lose,
For when you die you are the same;
     The space between, is but an hour,
     The frail duration of a flower.

-- Philip Freneau  (1752-1832) --
from The Norton Anthology of American Literature

I think that Freneau in the first three stanzas stays with the flower, but read that last stanza again--

From morning suns and evening dews
At first thy little being came:
If nothing once, you nothing lose,
For when you die you are the same;
     The space between, is but an hour,
     The frail duration of a flower.

--especially the last four lines.  From the Rubaiyat, 1st edition, Quatrain XLVII--

    "Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be--Nothing--Thou shalt not be less."

The following is a stanza from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."  It also talks about beauties that blush unseen and "waste its sweetness on the desert air." These unfortunate flowers "waste" their sweetness because there's no human around to appreciate it.  From what I understand, flowers did not develop their odors to benefit humans but to attract pollinator which would help to insure the next generation of these flowers.  It's attractiveness to humans is secondary and, frankly, unimportant to the flower.  It has its own agenda, which doesn't include humans.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

-- Thomas Gray (1716-1771) --
from Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

We move now to a human who lives in an isolated area.  She too is ignored by all except for the poet.  And she, too, must die, unknown by all, and missed only by the poet, an unfortunate circumstance.  I wonder if the poet ever thought to ask Lucy how she viewed her situation. 

She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
     Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise
     And very few to love;

A violet by a mossy stone,
    Half hidden from the eye,
-- Fair as a star, when only one
    Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
    When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
    The difference to me!

-- William Wordsworth  (1770-1858) --   

I began this simply by reading a poem by Han Shan, a ninth century Chinese poet,  and then remembering poems with similar themes by two English poets and a US poet from the 18th and 19th centuries, over a thousand years later.  But then, something else struck me, and I think I've wandered off from my original thought.  I think I shall come back to this point again. 

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