Sentiment and hermits

In his poem “Old Age,” the poet Ou Yang Hsui (1007-1072) tells briefly of the burdens of getting sick when old: dry, dull eyes, aches, a fuzzy brain dull and forgetful.

When I was young I liked to read. Now I am too old to make the effort. Then, too, If I come across something interesting I have no one to talk to about it.

In theory, a solitary ought not to miss another’s presence but Ou Yang Hsui’s expression of loneliness is not unusual even among the worldly. Nor is a hermit immune to sentiment.

Kenneth Rexroth notes that in fact the Chinese Tang poets inclined to sentiment, especially with advancing age. The poets, male and female, thought of their forties as old age, referring to the first gray hair. By late forties, the course of their days was uncertain, and by fifty the end seemed near. Perhaps given the vagaries of life expectancy in antiquity, this sentiment was not unjustified. Studies of life expectancy in past centuries revised longevity based on survival into adulthood, so that older age was not infrequent, but the poets preferred a different criteria.

When the famous recluse Tu Fu (712-770) visited retired scholar Wei Pa, he reflected:

We sit here together in the candle light.
How much longer will our prime last?
Our temple are already grey.
I visit my old friends
Half of them ave become ghosts.
Fear and sorrow choke me and burn my bowels …

Reflections on transience are emblematic of Chinese and Japanese poetry, the genius of which is the subtle ability to address sentiment and philosophy and meld them into a poem. Tu Fu, rightly considered one of the world’s greatest poets, was more properly a recluse rather than a hermit, Confucian but revealing elements of Taoist and Buddhist thought. His revelation of sentiment is always within reflections on impermanence and melancholy, what the Japanese would later call mono no aware, the poignancy of things.

Impermanence seems a coarse philosophical term, a technical concept, but the poets appreciated the cyclical aspect of nature and came to identify it with seasons. The history of Japanese poetic technique culminates in use of images associated with seasons, illustrating the nature of things. Japanese hermit-poet Ryokan (1758-1831) mastered not only the poetic techniques but expressed them with personal sentiment. His motivation was clear: “If you don’t write of things deep inside your own heart, what’s the use of churning out so many words?”

Thus, concerning old age, Ryokan wonders: “My old friends, where have they gone?” and of old friends remarks: “Will we ever meet again? I gaze toward the sky. Tears streaming down my cheeks.”

In old age he had collected many memories, “poignant memories of these many years,” and more than a few times will admit in these reminiscences “my tears flow on and on,” or “a flood of tears soaks my sleeves,” or “I cannot staunch my flow of tears.” At other times, gazing upon the natural setting or seasonal events outside his hermit hut, he feels “limitless emotion, not one word.”

But not only do memories of old acquaintances move Ryokan. The sight of images reflective of the passing seasons also moves him to sentiment, images that became commonplace seasonal words and images in later haiku poetry. Thus Ryokan offers images and sounds such as:

rain and snow, monkey cries, river sounds ceasing at winter, the flight of crows, the chirping of crickets, “a solitary pine tree,” “lonely autumn breezes,” “wisteria completely faded,” the sound of a distant mountain stream, a cuckoo singing in a willow or the song of a nightingale, autumn breezes, the silently falling leaves or snow.

But, says Ryokan, as if in a confiding whisper: “I’ll tell you a secret: All things are impermanent!” In the end, he says, “My life is like an old rundown hermitage: poor, simple, quiet.”

Or, to switch from our Chinese and Japanese sentimentalists, we may further quote W. B. Yeats writing in Celtic Twilight, who assigns to sentimental souls “the visionary melancholy of purely instinctive natures, and all animals …” In the context of their sentiments and observations, Yeats might say that “Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”