Friday, April 04, 2008

River Snow

There is a good account of landscaping, written 1200 years ago, in one of Liu Zong-yuan's 'Eight Accounts of Yong-zhou' (see Stephen Owen's Anthology of Chinese Literature). Liu Zong-yuan went exploring with two companions and found a beautiful spot near Gu-mu pond. Above a fish-weir, they saw a hill covered with trees and bamboo, and littered with a landscape of rocks that resembled strange animals. The whole site covered no more than an acre and, to his joy, Liu Zong-yuan found that it was available for purchase. Having bought it, the three companions 'went to get tools, scything away the undesirable plants and cutting down the bad trees, which we set fire to and burned. Then the fine trees stood out, the lovely bamboo were exposed, and the unusual rocks were revealed. When we gazed out from upon it, the heights of the mountains, the drifting of clouds, the currents of streams, and the cavorting of birds and beasts all cheerfully demonstrated their art and skill in performance for us below the hill. When we spread out our mats and lay down there, the clear and sharply defined shapes were in rapport with our eyes; the sounds of babbling waters were in rapport with our ears; all those things that went on forever in emptiness were in rapport with our spirits; and what was as deep and still as an abyss was in rapport with our hearts.'

Liu Zong-yuan goes on to reflect that were this splendid scenery situated within easy reach of the nobility, they would be fighting each other to buy it. Here in out-of-the-way Yong-zhou it's capability, as Lancelot Brown would have put it, went unnoticed until he came along.

This Chinese site has a bit of information on Liu Zong-yuan in slightly eccentric English, describing him as having "been stern in a manner of aloofness and arrogance though he was sad and depressed all his life. In his poem "River Snow", he drew a self-portrait by describing a lonely fisherman fishing in snow." There is a nice translation here of 'River Snow', which 'has been the subject of numerous landscape paintings. It is a terrifically imagist poem; the twenty characters of the poem create a whole landscape, sketch an intimate scene, and suggest a chill ineffable solitude. There is also a Buddhist element to the poem, and Liu Zongyuan's old man becomes like Wallace Stevens's “Snow Man,” with a “mind of winter”.

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