September 14, 2012- “Autumn Begins” by Meng Hao-jan
September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
Autumn begins unnoticed. Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,
summer’s blaze giving way. My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.
Meng Hao-jan (689-740)
“Autumn Begins” is a poem rich in Taoist and Chan Buddhist philosophy, important elements for classical Chinese poets and Meng Hao-jan in particular.
The poem is an act of meditation. It is concerned with the narrator’s failure to notice, and his subsequent awareness. There is no action in the poem besides observation.
By the third line, the narrator becomes “still”. This stillness is an instance of “wu wei,” the Taoist term for the emptiness and void of the universe, or the creative quietness of absence. The narrator achieves wu wei by the third line of his meditation and thus can notice the “shimmering dew,” in the fourth line, an instance of the presence of the universe, or yu, contrasted with the absence of wu wei.
Not only is the poem thematically illustrative of Taoist cosmology, but also both the poem and the poet are exemplars. To help demonstrate how the poem in its structure and composition reflects this absence/presence wu/yu duality of the universe, we need to look at the original classical Chinese version:
These characters translate literally to:
not aware beginning autumn night gradually long, clear wind gently gently double icy cold
blaze blaze summer heat withdraw thatch study quiet, stairs below clump grass see dew radiance
While this sounds nonsensical in its pure form, in Chinese classical tradition the words are not meant to create coherent phrases but to evoke images based on the original pictographic classical Chinese characters. The image, as a physical written character and as an image conjured by association with a particular character, is a representation of yu, or the presence of the universe, within the poetry. The absent grammar, such as missing prepositions, conjunctions and verbs to link these images together, represents the wu of the poetry- the space between the presence of the physical images.
Rereading the above English exact translation, we experience “presence” in the concise and economical words and “absence” in the missing links.
The poet is a microcosm of this universe too. We feel his powerful presence in his self-reflection, but we miss him because of his absent, almost hidden words.
In this poem the empty space and the missing words are just as important as the actual words in the poem, a perfect way to demonstrate the equitable dichotomy of wu and yu in Taoist thought. The poet and the reader commune with the universe by invoking both aspects.
Lastly, autumn is symbolic of that descent into wu, or emptiness, as it marks the beginning of the seasonal change towards the dead of winter- the “wu” half of the year according to Taoism.