- Why Form Matters: A Systematic 21st Century Shihua on the Song Dynasty Poet He Zhu
In the very last sentence of his study of He Zhu’s shi poetry, Stuart Sargent hopes that “some aspects of this book have lived up to the mission of the critic as summarized by William H. Gass:”
What one can do, with description and analysis and expressions of enthusiasm, is entice, lure others to peek between the covers; to remove possible prejudices or expectations that might interfere with the experience; to provide suggestions of where best to start, what to expect, how to look or read or listen; and to give reasons why the work should be treated with seriousness and respect.1
Sargent indeed has succeeded in taking up Gass’s challenge. His examination of He Zhu’s poetry presents a reading experience much like that of some Southern Song shihua texts. Like them, it is an erudite mixture of detailed analyses of poetic form, momentary flights of enthusiasm, diligent hunting for textual sources, conjectures about specific contexts, and general speculation about He Zhu’s reasons for writing as he did. Like the Southern Song shihua, however, Sargent’s study is not for the uninitiated: one needs to know a good deal about Chinese poetry and about Song dynasty culture and history in order to engage its arguments.
He Zhu (1052–1125), a late Northern Song writer, began his career in the military but, on the recommendation of Su Shi and others, moved to the civil bureaucracy, where he was modestly successful. He was famous for his ci (lyric) poems and associated with Su Shi and his circle (Zhang Lei, Huang Tingjian, and others), although he never actually was part of that group. Sargent, in the introduction, notes that He Zhu claimed in a 1096 preface to have written 5,000–6,000 poems, burned most of them, and then came to regret the recklessness of that act. The latter part of He Zhu’s collection was lost, and only 572 poems written between 1075 and 1098 remain. The extant collection is organized according to poetic form, starting with songs (gexing) and ending with seven-character (in Sargent’s term, “heptametrical”) quatrains. After the title of each poem, He Zhu includes the date and the circumstances of the poem’s creation. The note sometimes just indicates the place, but sometimes it is quite extensive.2 [End Page 1]
Sargent mirrors the organization of He Zhu’s extant collection in devoting one chapter to each of the poetic forms. The first chapter examines He Zhu’s ancientstyle (guti) poetry; the second looks at the songs, followed by one chapter each on five-character (“pentametrical”) regulated verse, seven-character regulated verse, five-character quatrains, and seven-character quatrains. Sargent arranges the poems in chronological order within each chapter. This approach of chronologywithin-formal-category has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, Sargent’s focus on a single form in each chapter allows him to make the important argument that readers must pay attention to prosodic issues. On the other hand, Sargent also is aware that at various periods in He Zhu’s life, specific issues — both aesthetic and political — came to the fore in ways that crossed metrical boundaries, and those lose clarity when scattered across chapters organized by poetic form. However, in the end, the advantages of Sargent’s approach significantly outweigh the disadvantages, and the explorations of prosody and parallelism driven by Sargent’s intense commitment to form are, I believe, the Poetry of He Zhu’s greatest contribution to the study of Chinese poetry.
Sargent’s introduction is very minimal. It would have been very useful for him to have given an introductory account of the growing partisan strife that both shaped He Zhu’s career and informed his thinking about poetry. Sargent alludes to these issues in bits and pieces as he discusses the poems, but I doubt anyone not...