The Display Stages for Poetry

07/03/2017 13:20
Long Jingyao

The Display Stages for Poetry

   Long Jingyao

 A good poem is just like a beauty. A beautiful lady is not necessarily a beauty, and if such a lady wants to be a beauty, she must be publicly acknowledged first. It is, however, the common destiny for most of the beautiful ladies not to be publicly acknowledged, and the Lucy in Wordsworth’s poems is a case in point. Although this Lucy is doubtlessly a beautiful lady, for she is “Fair as a star, when only one / Is shining in the sky,” throughout her life she remains “A maid whom there were none to praise / And very few to love.” Even one of the Four Ancient Beauties, Yang Yuhuan, or rather, Concubine Yang, narrowly missed being throwing into obscurity, as we can learn from Bai Juyi’s “Song of Eternal Sorrow”: “The Yangs had a girl who was barely grown, / And staying in the boudoir, was unknown.” Likewise, another lady of the Four Ancient Beauties, Wang Zhaojun, once was also on the verge of being kept in obscurity. Zhaojun was unmatched in fair look, and was chosen for the imperial harem during the reign of Emperor Yuan of Han Dynasty (202BC-220AD). As there were too many women for His Majesty to bed in his harem, the emperor had to choose the refined ones, and therefore he asked his royal painters to draw portraits for his women in order that he could decide whom to bed according to their looks shown in the pictures. Consequently, the fair ladies kept in the imperial harem swarmed to bribe the painters in the hope that they could be rendered more beautiful in the portraits. Zhaojun did not bribe MaoYanshou, the painter, and Mao as a result added a tear mole, which was regarded as an omen that the one bearing it could bring bad luck to her husband, to her cheek in the portrait. Thus Zhaojun remained in obscurity in the royal harem and was barely known to others. After quite some years, Huhaanyeke the Hun khan came to pay respects to Emperor Yuan, and the emperor issued an edict that five girls, including Zhaojun, be given to the Khan as a gift. On the day Huhaanyeke took his leave, the emperor summoned the five girls to show them to the Khan. When Zhaojun appeared, “The Han palace became brightened with her fair look and graceful make-ups, and as she walked about, peeping at her own shadow, all those around her were struck and petrified.” Emperor Yuan meant to keep Zhaojun for himself, but as an emperor he had to keep his words to others. Therefore, with reluctance “he then gave Zhaojun to the Hun.” But this time the emperor could never let the bygones be bygones, indeed “he made a thorough investigation into the case, and Mao Yanshou and other painters were executed on the same day, with their bodies abandoned in the public market.” This dramatic episode has always been the source of inspirations for men of letters of all times. It is obvious that for a beautiful lady to be a beauty, the way she shows her face is of vital importance.

Words are normally collected in dictionaries, and although dictionaries are comprehensive and nearly all-covering, there is hardly any person who studies words by directly reading the dictionaries. If one wants to learn and study words, he normally does so by means of certain specific display stages, such a display stage can be a poem, an article, or a painting, and for the learner, it is essential to the acquisition of the words.

After certain architecture is finished, the display stage plays a vital role in determining whether its aesthetic effect can live up to the original expectation. For example, the pyramids in Egypt must be looming against the setting sun, with the endless desolate desert lying behind them. Only in this way can people get a sense of eternity out of the pyramids. The Egyptians say, “Everything fears time, and time fears the pyramids.”

“Curating” is a buzzword in the present art circles. It studies the proper times and ways to put art works on show, the purpose is to increase the public’s awareness and acceptance of the works, and the ways to put them on show include display stages. So far as sculptures are concerned, what kind of display stages to choose requires delicate and painstaking speculations. The sculpture of David by Michelangelo is for people to appreciate with their eyes looking up, and the purpose is to highlight the mightiness, tallness and straightness of David. The sculpture itself is 2.5 meters high, but the display pedestal, or rather, display stage, is higher than the sculpture—it is 3 meters high. If the sculpture of David is put on another display stage so that viewers can appreciate it at eye level or even below eye level, the effect is totally, and of course sorely, different. The statue of Buddha also requires viewers to appreciate it with their heads high up. Generally speaking, famous Buddhist temples throughout the world are normally built on high mountains, and in order to have a look at the statue of Buddha, the pilgrims must climb the mountains step by step with their eyes looking up. Only in this way can the glory and grandiosity of Tathāgata, or to be more popular, Buddha, be highlighted and set off. In Jinzhou, a district in Dalian City, there is a certain Buddhist temple, Chaoyang Temple in name, which stands, or huddles and crouches, in a valley. Pilgrims must climb down the stone steps to enter the temple, and below the eye level, the statues of Buddha and Bodhisattva appear to be improperly short and small. This is a typical example of failures. What aesthetic or artistic effects that a painting can produce is also closely related to the display stage the picture is put onto, as Edgar Wind, a renowned art critic pointed out in 1925:

It is impossible, therefore, to establish a relation between two aesthetic phenomena without changing the characteristics of both by transforming them into a new aesthetic object with entirely new characteristics. For example, when we first look closely at a picture and then contemplate it in connection with the room in which it hangs, the picture does not remain the same. By contributing to the total effect of the room it reveals new qualities which disappear the moment we return to our former standpoint.

This is also true of poetry. A well-written poem is not necessarily a good poem—in order to be such, it needs to be publically recognized and approved of first. But to get the approval from the readers, the poem is in need of a proper display stage. From the olden time to the present, scholars in the area of poetry have seemed to focus only on the contents, themes, rhythms, melodies, forms, styles, authors and historical backgrounds of poems, and they have appeared to neglect the display stages. A display stage for a poem refers to the physical backgrounds in which it appears, and these backgrounds include not only the layout of the printed poem, but also the context, such as a novel, a play, or a TV serial, where it shows its face. The display stage is of vital importance to the popularity and dissemination of a poem. The fact that we can memorize and recite a poem is normally not the result of reading it in a corpus or anthology of poems—these collections of poems are just like dictionaries, whose merits lie in their function as corpora, the collections of materials for people to carry out deep-reaching researches with, and their comprehensiveness. We normally come across these poems in our favorite novels, plays and TV serials, and as they produce very deep impressions upon us, we memorize them by heart. For a poem to gain popularity and approval from readers, the best display stages are such narrative works as novels, dramas, narrative poems (a romance, for example), and films.

Narrative literary works attract readers with enticing plots, and readers in their turn read on and on unwittingly as the situations progress and develop. For example, when one is reading A Dream of Red Mansions, amazed at and intrigued by the dramatic events in the novel, he is inclined to submerge himself in the mysterious atmosphere of these remotely hidden courtyards, and subconsciously identify himself with the personae, and at last, bitterly, sadly, sorrrowly, and pathetically recite the sentences in “Verse on Flower Burying” on a late spring day when flower petals are flying in the sky:

Withering, blooms are flying in the sky;

Luster lost, smell gone, for them who would cry?


At the moment you are the sorrowing Daiyu, and these pathetic sentences are the authentic reflection of your innermost feelings. Smooth, natural, and calm, and by no means compulsive, such an act of reading is conducted mostly in unconscious.

The fact that we love a certain poem sometimes is simply a case of love-me-love-my-dog. Simply because we love a novel, or a film, in which a poem appears, we love the poem as a result. This is a case of empathy, something like what Niu Xiji, a poet of the Five Dynasties (907-960) implies in the two sentences, “Recalling the green silky skirt, / I care about the grass everywhere.”For example, as we like The Lotus Lantern, an animated cartoon, the doggerel which the single-eyed Taoist monk likes mouthing produces a very deep impression upon our mind:

Running around, going about,

I’m worthless but gay, beyond doubt.

Never show people your true self,

But flirt with folks with your lithe snout.

Whether we can memorize the poem or not is not relevant to whether it is well-written or not, but relevant to whether we like the movie or not.

Some poems appear in certain long narrative works as the natural development of the plots. Their appearance is by no means incongruous, incondite and far-fetched, they sound unaffected, natural, intimate and familiar, quite like, in Keats’ words, “leaves” that “come naturally to a tree”, and we memorize them as the specific detail of the plot. For instance, the wicked queen in Snow-White, a fairy tale by the Grimm bothers, likes to stare at the magic mirror on the wall and asks:

Looking glass upon the wall,

Who is the fairest of us all?

And the magic mirror answers:

Queen, you are full fair, ’tis true,

But Snow-White fairer is than you.

As these versified sentences are the natural extension of the plot, and as they are indeed very rhythmic and melodious, one can easily memorize them.

In As You Like it, a comedy by Shakespeare, Orlando falls in love with Rosalind, and when he learns that Rosalind has gone into the forest for some reason, he tries to follow her footsteps, but in this wild and uninhabited forest, where can he find his beloved Rosalind? The young fellow misses his girl and quite beyond himself, he composes a love song for Rosalind on a slip of paper and hangs it on a tree. Celia, the cousin and best friend of Rosalind, comes across the slip and brings it to Rosalind, and hence readers (or audience) read the poem together with the two bosom friends:

From the east to western Ind,

No jewel is like Rosalind.

Her worth, being mounted on the wind,

Through all the world bears Rosalind.

All the pictures, fairest lined,

Are but black to Rosalind.

Let no face be kept in mind,

But the fair of Rosalind.

Thus the poem is known to all, becoming a true celebrity among countless fellow poems.

Occasionally, some poems appear time and again in certain long narrative works, facilitating the development of the works, and meantime exerting powerful aesthetic influence on readers. In The Pillars of the Earth, a popular novel by Ken Follet, the innocent jongleur is forced to go to the gallows and is hanged under the charge of felony simply because he has chanced to witness the death of Prince William, the potential successor to the position of Henry I. Before he is executed, he sings a heart-breaking song:

A lark, caught in a hunter’s net

Sang sweeter then than ever,

As if the falling melody,

Might wing and net dissever.

At dusk the hunter took his prey,

The lark his freedom never.

All birds and men are sure to die

But songs may live forever.

The jongleur compares the lark to himself, and sings about his own ill-starred fate. We can safely say that every word in the song is wet with tears and red with blood. The poem lives up to Nietzsche’s expectation of literature, as he once claimed that among all the literary works, what he preferred are those written in blood. The poem also satisfies Allan Poe’s literary principles—according to Poe, the most legitimate subject matter for poetry is melancholy, and death is the most melancholy material. Allen, his wife, witnesses the whole process, she cuts off the head of a cock, and curses all those involved in these heinous and wicked conspiracy. Many years later, when she is forced to leave the parish of Kingsbridge once again, she sees Bishop Waleran, the man who has masterminded the murder of her late husband. Waleran does not recognize her, he only thinks that she looks familiar, but Allen sings the song to his face, which sends Waleran trembling, and thus readers can easily remember the poems with its recurring, eerily beautiful melody.

The song in “The Fisherman and his Wife”, a German fairy tale, is a similar case. A fisherman catches a flounder while fishing. The flounder tells him that he used to be a prince, and because he was cast under a spell, he was transformed into a flounder. Feeling sympathetic with the flounder, the fisherman sets it free. When the fisherman returns home, he tells his wife about this amazing episode, and his greedy wife again and again sends him away, ordering him to ask for boons from the flounder in return for his kindness to it. Quite expectedly, every time the fisherman goes to the seashore, he hums the same doggerel:

Flounder, flounder in the sea,

Prithee, hearken unto me:

My wife, Ilsebil, must have her own will,

And sends me to beg a boon of thee.

As the story is really intriguing, as the doggerel is really catchy, and as the fisherman repeats the doggerel again and again, it is quite natural for readers to memorize the song.

Sometimes certain lyrical poems are simply something dubbed in a long narrative work as ornaments or embellishments, and they are not closely relevant with the theme and plot of the narrative work in which they appear, but the sudden pause and change of a certain writing style and pattern can give a surprise to readers and refresh them, and as a result readers may have a very deep impression of these poems, which suddenly appear in the long literary work. For the readers, their state of mind changes as the reading time changes. According to Allan Poe, the length of a literary work should be within the psychological and physical limit of common readers, and if a work surpasses such a limit, it is very likely that readers may get bored and tired, and once this happens, a certain phenomenon called aesthetic fatigue arises. Nevertheless, stylistic variations can help to appease the aesthetic fatigue, and that is why it is necessary for long operas and plays to take recourse to interludes. Lord Tennyson wrote many long narrative poems, and he was inclined to put in some short lyrical poems as decorations, which serve to refresh the aesthetically fatigued readers. “Tears, Idle Tears” in The Princess is one of many examples:

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,

Tears from the depth of some divine despair

Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,

In looking on the happy autumn-fields,

And thinking of the days that are no more……

Chances are that this lyrical poem is too touching, and The Princess, which to it is like a pampering kanga, is too lengthy, and the latter is overshadowed by the former. Many readers can easily recite “Tears, Idle Tears”, and as for what is The Princess, they do not have any faintest idea.

Narrative works can provide readers with the necessary life experiences and emotional accumulation and foreshadowing, which they lack in their daily life, to appreciate a certain poem. Aesthetic feelings arise when the emotions and feelings contained in a poem meet those cherished by a reader, and therefore whether it comes or not depends on the individual life experiences and emotional storage of a reader. For a common reader, if he is not a Christian, it is very hard for him to have any strong aesthetic feelings when he reads Dante’s The Devine Comedy, and a young man without much life experiences is not very likely to be amazed and petrified at Chen Ziang’s “Thinking of the eternal universe, / In despair I am shedding tears alone.” However, Li Bai’s “Thoughts on a Silent Night” can arouse echoes and resonance in the hearts of countless people throughout the world. Why? Because homesickness or nostalgia is something many people have experienced. With its plot developing, the aesthetic mentality piling up, and a sentimental atmosphere playing up, a narrative work can help readers enter the innermost conscious of the characters, and readers, in their turn, come into the possession of the necessary storage of experience and accumulation of emotions to personally appreciate a certain poem, which appears in this narrative work, by means of identification with characters as well as imagination. Poems can become increasingly popular and attractive with the approval from more and more readers.

It is through a German film, namely, Heintje, that many Chinese get to know “The Last Rose of Summer” by Thomas Moore, an Irish poet, and come to love it. For the common people, how many have suffered from the experience of losing an affectionate mother untimely, a beloved wife untimely, and a lovely daughter untimely, just as Heintje, Carl, and William have in the film? With the plot progressing, the viewers unconsciously submerge themselves in the feelings and emotions of Heintje, Carl and William, and begin to miss and long for the deceased angel as a son, a husband, and a father. Being thrown into such a state of mind, the audience set themselves free, completely indulging themselves in the sorrow of bereavement, and giving themselves up to the sad, melancholy, pathetic, and eerily beautiful rhythms and notes:

’Tis the last rose of summer,

Left blooming alone.

All her lovely companions

Are faded and gone.

No flow’r of her kindred,

No rosebud is nigh,

To reflect back her blushes

Or give sigh for sigh.

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one

To pine on the stem,

Since the lovely are sleeping

Go sleep thou with them;

Thus kindly I scatter

Thy leaves o’er the bed,

Where thy mates of the garden

Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow

When friendships decay,

And from loves’ shining circle

The gems drop away!

When true hearts lie withered

And fond ones are flown

Oh! Who would inhabit

This bleak world alone?

Perhaps the most pathetically intriguing poem in Jinyong’s The Legend of the Condor Heroes is “Four Looms Light”, which can be regarded as the record as well as the symbol of Yinggu’s decades of unchanged love, bitter and miserable as it is, for Zhou Botong, the Old Urchin. But in this human society, just how many people have experienced in person such a suffocating life-and-death waiting? As readers open the book and turn the pages, step by step they are following Yinggu, who is pining with her nostalgia and longing for her lover in loneliness and despair day after day, year after year. And internalizing her experience, they have seen rounds and rounds of seasons passing by, and as a result black, lustrous hair turns grey, and young, fair faces become old and haggard. Thus, when “Four Looms Light” appears in the novel, readers can readily understand how every word, and every sentence is wet with tears and red with blood:

Four looms light,

The woven love-ducks are ready for flight.

Oh that these young heads turn untimely white.

Among the green spring waves and grass,

Amid the early morning cold,

They are bathing their red plumes in twilight.

This poem was composed by a poet of the Song Dynasty (860-1279), and as it was not very popular in its days, we are not clear about the name of its author now, and as a result we have to make do with the term “anon”. After the publication of The Legend of the Condor Heroes,this poem is widely known by its readers, and it has travelled far and wide, being on its to greater reputation and renown.

Of course, if we want a poem to be popular and to reach and touch people’s hearts, no other ways are better than wedding it with music, that is, setting music to it and turning it into a song. For example, after Heine, the German Romantic poet, finished his “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges”, Mendelssohn the German musician set music to it and hence it became a song, which has been popularly sung throughout the world. Similarly, in 1805 Thomas Moore wrote “The Last Rose of Summer” to the music of “A Young Man’s Dream”, and after it took its appearance, people kept composing music for it, but the most popular piece was composed by Flotow, a German musician. In 1847, Flotow was preparing for his opera Martha, and he set music to the German version of “The Last Rose in Summer”, which was meant to be sung by certain Lady Harriet, a character in Martha. Quite unexpectedly, the song became extremely popular, and it has been passed on from one continent to another, and from one people to another. Songs, nonetheless, fall within the scope of poetry, which we have been speculating over in this essay, and as music is the conveyor for poetry, not the display stage, we are not going to elaborate on the relationship between music and poetry herein.









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