Sunday, November 04, 2018

Soundless hang mountain waterfalls, rainbows of jade


I have been reading J. D. Frodsham's translations, The Collected Poems of Li He, recently reissued by Calligrams.  If you are not familiar with Li He (790-816), here's how he's described in the blurb:
Li He is the bad-boy poet of the late Tang dynasty. He began writing at the age of seven and died at twenty-six from alcoholism or, according to a later commentator, “sexual dissipation,” or both. An obscure and unsuccessful relative of the imperial family, he would set out at dawn on horseback, pause, write a poem, and toss the paper away. A servant boy followed him to collect these scraps in a tapestry bag.
The book is wonderfully well-furnished with notes and an extensive introduction.  There is a short analysis of Li He's use of colour, similar to what I wrote about recently in relation to Georg Trakl (1887-1914).  Despite living 1,100 years and over 7000 km apart, Li He and Trakl had a lot in common.  I mentioned Trakl's use of black - 'black decay, black snow, black wind, black waters, black silence'.  For Li He, there was white, which in China is associated with mourning and misfortune.  'Even in the West, psychologists tend to associate a strong liking for white with psychic abnormality ... He's landscapes, drenched in this white radiance, shine with an unearthly pallor.' 

Li He in Wanxiaotang Zhuzhuang Huazhuan (1743)

Frodsham writes that Li He 'was haunted by the mystery of whiteness as another great, poet, Lorca, was haunted by the spell of green.'  This is a reference to Lorca's 'Romance Sonambulo' which begins 'Verde que te quiero verde', 'Green, how I want you green.'  Start looking for doomed poets who were obsessed with colour and you will quickly encounter other cases.  Dylan Thomas, for example, uses green 46 times in his poetry, black 39 and white 37.  This information comes from a 1972 article comparing Thomas and Lorca's use of green.  'Fern Hill' is the Thomas poem most infused with the colour green, where it means youth, innocence, and the hills and fields around a Carmarthenshire farmhouse where the poet went to stay as a boy.  

An analysis by Eliot Slater revealed that Shelley and Keats were 'relatively abundent' in their use of colour.  However, 'Shelley uses for the greater part straightforward and commonplace words: yellow, blue, snowy, purple, green, grey, white, black, golden, hoary, dun, azure, etc., and very rarely such exotic terms as "moonlight‑coloured". Keats is much freer with such words, and phrases as vermeil, damask, verdurous, Tyrian, rubious‑argent, ruddy gules, volcanian yellow, etc.'  Shelley favoured blue and green, Keats used white more than any other colour.

Which brings us back to Li He... J. D. Frodsham provides a table showing that white (bai), ecru (su) and jade-white (yu) appear 172 times in Li He's poetry.  After that, comes gold or metal (jin, 73), red (hong, 69), blue-green (ching, 68), emerald (lu, 48), yellow (huang, 45), sapphire (bi, 26) and purple (zi, 25).  Frodsham lists of some of the 'white' lines in Li's verse (which is what I did for Trakl, only with blue). For example,  

The entire mountain bathed in a white dawn
A white sky, water like raw silk.
Jade mist on green water / like pennants of white.
And, as Frodsham writes, it is against this pallid background that 'the other colours burn with a brilliant flame...'
A thousand hills of darkest emerald

Smoky yellow mantles the willows 

Twilight purple freezes in the dappled sky
I will end here with a longer quote, as these isolated lines cannot do Li He's poems (and Frodsham's translations) justice at all.  I think it should be alright to include one whole short poem here, 'Cold up North', which describes ice on the Yellow River (a subject I once wrote a whole post about here).  The poem is unusually straightforward for Li He, and requires no particular explanation.  In its colours, it moves from the darkness of a winter sky to the jade white of frozen waterfalls.
One quarter lours black while three turn purple,
Ice vaults the Yellow River, fish and dragons die.
Tree-bark three feet thick splits against the grain,
Chariots of a ton or more travel on the river.

Frost-flowers on the grass, big as silver-coins,
No brandished blade could penetrate the sombre sky.
Swirling in a raging sea the flying ice-floes roar,
Soundless hang mountain waterfalls, rainbows of jade.