Three Chinese Poets
Author: Vikram Seth
Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Penguin India
Publication Date: 1992 (originally published), 13 October 2005 (re-published)
This book is a collection of poetry by three classical Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty which has been translated by Vikram Seth. The three T'ang dynasty poets namely: Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu translated here are among the greatest literary figures of China, or indeed the world. The Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) was founded by Tai Zong, with its capital at Changan; after his death, an erstwhile concubine became empress as the Empress Wu. The collection of poems solidifies the immense variety of China and the Chinese poetic tradition and across a distance of twelve hundred years.
The three poets are stereotyped as Wang Wei: Buddhist recluse; Li Bai: Taoist immortal; and Du Fu as Confucian sage.
In the book’s introduction section, Seth tells us about the influence of translations on his life and work; that sometimes he is moved so much upon going through a piece of literature, that he learns another language to read the original, if the text is in another dialect.
The poets mentioned in the book: Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu ,have much in common in their style of writing- they use finite stylistic forms, techniques, or movements in their poetry with mainstream words, preferring the ordinary over the extraordinary, and normally including abandoned adjectives and similes.
The stylized world of these poems are relishing. Although simple, but some of the metaphors do carry a lot of significance attributing to the Chinese culture and traditions. For example,
In the Quiet Night by Li Bai:
The floor before my bed is bright:
Moonlight – like hoarfrost – in my room.
I lift my head and watch the moon.
I drop my head and think of home.
The image of ‘the moon’ in Chinese poetry is to be taken notice of. It is indeed in itself a legend (of the jade rabbit and Chang Er), but it is something more than that, it symbolises something more concrete. For Chinese people in particular, it symbolises ‘family reunion’.
It takes expertise to comprehend an alien language and Seth has successfully been able to do that. Infact, if observed minutely, it seems Seth’s own poetry or the poetic style has been heavily influenced by these poetic legends.
About the Author:
Born in 1952 in Calcutta, India, Vikram Seth was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Stanford University and Nanjing University.
He has travelled widely and lived in Britain, California, India and China. His first novel, The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse (1986), describes the experiences of a group of friends living in California. His acclaimed epic of Indian life, A Suitable Boy (1993), won the WH Smith Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book). Set in India in the early 1950s, it is the story of a young girl, Lata, and her search for a husband. An Equal Music (1999) is the story of a violinist haunted by the memory of a former lover. Vikram Seth is also the author of a travel book, From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), an account of a journey through Tibet, China and Nepal that won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and a libretto, Arion and the Dolphin: A Libretto (1994), which was performed at the English National Opera in June 1994, with music by Alec Roth. His poetry includes Mappings (1980), The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985), winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia), and All You Who Sleep Tonight: Poems (1990). His children's book, Beastly Tales from Here and There (1992), consists of ten stories about animals told in verse.
Vikram Seth's latest works include Two Lives (2005), a memoir of the marriage of his great uncle and aunt, and Summer Requiem (2015), a book of poems.