Monday, October 16, 2017

Poems about feelings

My first impression of the Verses on Red Leaves is that it is too sentimental for my taste. But if I look past my own personal preferences and ask why this poem exists and what it is trying to say, I find that it has an interesting kind of depth. It is not really about autumn leaves, but about the feeling of seeing autumn leaves.

Like the Lament on the State of the Times, this poem is written in a way that is completely divorced from any particular era, place and person. We don't know where it is that red leaves are falling, or what kind of trees they are falling from, and we don't know who sees them. All we know, by the end of the poem, is how the narrator felt. Each couplet expresses some aspect of that feeling in a semi-independent way.

The first two couplets introduce the theme. Like many introductory couplets, both lines of the first couplet rhyme, and the rhyme of the poem reflects the theme (fulgiyan, “red”, is an an-rhyme). The mongniohon of the second line means “gasping for breath” (according to Norman) and describes the narrator’s physiological response to the scene.

Part of the experience of surprise is confusion, which begins with the narrator not being able to identify the source of the brilliant color. In lines 5-12, the narrator walks in slow-motion through a pantomime of confusion, mis-identifying the brilliance as lighting, rainbows, a forest fire, or morning clouds illuminated by the sun.

At line 13 the confusion is resolved, the narrator looks closely, and understands that the source of these brilliant colors is a pink autumn wood. From the tension of surprise we move to a more relaxed enjoyment of the experience. The colors are compared to peaches and apricots, and even the biting frost is compared to the flush of wine.

In the final couplet, the narrator departs the scene in a carriage, which he hopes will bring him to a halt in the springtime.

One of the interesting features of the poem is that the couplets can really stand on their own as self-contained expressions of feeling. This could make the poem ripe for allusion, because you could pull out a single couplet and re-use it somewhere else. It will be interesting to see how often one Manchu poem alludes to another in this way.

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