The Kalevala
Tu Fu, Poems
Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji




The Kalevala

Philosophical critics in the nineteenth century decided that a culture is most solidly based on a great epic which incorporates all the prime factors in the national or folk consciousness — or “unconscious.” There is a whole nest of very disputable assumptions hidden here. First, that Greek culture was solidly based. It was not. Its glory was in its dynamic equilibrium — which was short-lived. National consciousness does not come from the Nibelungenlied or The Iliad. It is an intellectual notion, born with the nation-state, which came to fruition with the State as an Armed People in the French Revolutionary Wars and degenerated into the idea of the “folk unconscious” in the long drawn-out struggle of the Germans for a national identity.

All national literatures today seek for epic foundations — the Shah-nama, The Knight in the Leopard Skin, Digenes Akritas, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Serbian Ballads; even Dante’s Divine Comedy has been forced into the service of the national consciousness. (The Italian national epic is in fact the operas of Verdi.) In many cases these constructions are purely synthetic, as manufactured for the purpose as ever was Virgil’s Aeneid for Augustus, or Kallimachos’ Serapis Cult for Ptolemy. Yet astonishingly, this does not necessarily invalidate them.

It would be easy to narrow the definition of a classic to the point where it applied only to literature that fulfilled such a role. Conversely, all literature that deserves the name of classic does, in a sense, define the consciousness of a particular people and yet is in extension a moment in the conscience of mankind. In the narrowest sense again, many synthetic epics, written as myths to shape the life of a people, have been successful and have been classics in the wider sense as well. The Aeneid, the Kojiki and Nihongi, the Kalevala, the history plays of Shakespeare, the Shah-nama, these are all synthetic myths, made by intellectuals, which succeeded. They did provide foundations for the structural relationships through which their peoples saw themselves. There is nothing really strange about this. The Iliad and Odyssey and even The Epic of Gilgamesh are literary products. The notion that they were grunted out by Folk sitting about a fire and munching bones was a hallucination of a few nineteenth-century German scholars.

If effect on his own people is a measure; if intensity, profundity, and duration of impact is a measure, the most successful of all was Elias Lönnrot. “Who on earth was he?” most people will say. He was a country doctor in the most remote country in Europe, a country that had never been a nation and would not become one for another century: the Grand Duchy of Finland. As with so many country doctors, his hobby was philology and folklore. Early in the last century he began collecting the folk songs and narrative ballads of the peasantry, especially in the most remote regions — along the borders of Lapland, and in the forests of Karelia. He became convinced that these songs were fragments of a connected epic narrative that had once been as coherent as the Iliad, or the Nibelungenlied.

In this assumption he has been proved wrong, but it does not matter. As he worked his folk materials into what he imagined the original must have been, he produced the most successful constructed myth in modern literature, and one of the most successful of all time. The Kalevala saturates Finnish life. Its deep, resonant evocation of the natural environment, the rich dark green or snow-white land of forests and lakes and pastures where herdsmen, hunters, and fishers go about their timeless ways; its strong matriarchal bias; its ironic acceptance of the tragic nature of life; its dry humor; its praise of intelligence and hospitality as prime virtues — all these elements go to sustain the unique Finnish character to this very day, and that amongst the most advanced sections of the intelligentsia as well as amongst the common people.

In recent years there have appeared in several magazines little anthologies of modernist Finnish poetry, edited by Anselm Hollo, who himself now writes mostly in English and who is very much a part of the international avant-garde community. All this poetry, including his own, may or may not echo Voshneshensky or Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg or Pierre Reverdy, but it is all marked by the influence of that one great book of ballads, collected in fragments from the Finnish countryside, over one hundred years ago by one man.

Gallen-Kallela, Finland’s greatest painter, did his finest work as illustrations for the book and is famous for a sort of Pre-Raphaelite, Jugendstijl, Art Nouveau style, invented by himself and known as the Kalevala style. Either through Gallen-Kallela or directly, The Kalevala influences the most modern Finnish architecture and textile, ceramic, and silver design. What William Morris tried so hard to do for English art and letters, and failed so badly to do, the Finns do naturally. It is questionable if at any period the Odyssey and Iliad ever had as deep an influence on Greek life.

Yet most non-Finnish readers find The Kalevala puzzling and hard to read. In the first place, the trochaic meter, which is natural to Finnish, sounds artificial and monotonous when imitated by German and English translators. In Hiawatha, Longfellow deliberately imitated the Kalevala in meter, method, subject, and purpose. He took one of the first comprehensive collections of American Indian legends, itself distorted and Europeanized, and formed them into a connected narrative with many elements of the story borrowed from the Kalevala. He cast his American epic in the same eight-syllable trochaic lines and used the same repetitive devices and fixed epithets — none of them natural in English or American speech.

He hoped to write a poem that would connect white Americans with the earth beneath their feet through the Indian past, as the Greeks had been connected with groves and springs and mountains through their nymphs and satyrs and local deities. For two generations Hiawatha was taught in school and every American child could recite it, and the poem did play, feebly, something of the role Longfellow had hoped for it. Then it began to fail, and today most Americans, young or old, consider it comic, if they have ever heard of it. Yet the Kalevala is still successful amongst Finns who read Paul Éluard and Finns who read nothing. Why?

First, both Elias Lönnrot and his peasant informants were much better poets. Recited in the original language, the Kalevala has a gripping sonority and haunting cadences that make it quite unlike any other great poem in any language, and the repetitions and recurring epithets have a chime and echo very different from Longfellow’s mechanical use of them. Longfellow’s trochaics have the thump of doggerel and, since the meter is so unnatural in English, sound absurd. Lönnrot’s meter swings; the rhythms are native to the language, and he continuously varies them; his trochees shift back and forth across the beat — swing, in other words. It is the difference between a heartbeat and a metronome.

The plot of Hiawatha is as clear as Longfellow could make it, far clearer than his sources — an incomparably more logical narrative than anything in the Kalevala. Modern research has proved that Lönnrot’s sources were inchoate indeed, much of them not narrative at all. He reworked them into a most extraordinary pattern — not a story or series of tales, but a long-drawn-out dream sequence. The heroes of the Kalevala are not warriors or knights-errant; they are shamans — magicians, smiths, and dreamers — men of mystery and cunning. Their adventures are inconclusive, often seemingly pointless, and cryptically frustrating, and their connections are hidden underground.

The original Hiawatha was such a person too, but Longfellow exorcised him — took away his magic — and assimilated him to nineteenth-century rationalism. Lönnrot did the opposite. He awoke the night side of the nineteenth-century professional and middle-class mind, represented by himself, and connected it with the prehistoric culture of the subarctic medicine men which he found surviving amongst the Finnish peasantry.

No wonder Carl Jung was fascinated by the Kalevala. It is a kind of socially negotiable Jungian dream, full of archetypes and animuses and animas, totemic symbols of the soul; Methusaleh figures; sacred, unobtainable maidens; impossible tasks and mystic beasts — all set in the forests, lakes, and waterfalls of primeval Finland. All its tales seem to be moving toward an unknowable end — the ultimate integration of the integral person — just like the dreams of Jungian patients under analysis.

Yet the Kalevala is far more than any psychoanalytic text. Its heroes struggle in dreams, but they simultaneously live wide awake in the Finnish land, in conflict with a hard but beautiful environment. They are undivided beings, in a real world. In our modern destructive world civilization, Finland stands out as enjoying a high level of ecological success. The Finns cope with their setting of living nature far better than do the Russians or Americans. This talent is reflected in and reinforced by the Kalevala, certainly the most ecological of epics. In the poem, as in Finnish life, there survives that ecological life philosophy without which no subarctic people could endure. Like the Lapps or Eskimos, they must cooperate with nature or perish. They are still there. So the Kalevala succeeds and endures because it expresses not just a national consciousness, but the consciousness of the kinship of a race of men with all living creatures about them. Maybe it was put together by a country doctor five generations ago, but it is the opposite of a synthetic epic: it is a synthesis of nature, man, time, and place.

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The only cheap, easily available English translation is in Everyman’s Library (Dutton), two volumes, by W.F. Kirby, in rather antiquated language and with poor notes. There is a fine, scholarly edition by F.P. Magoun Jr., published by Harvard University Press.

[NOTE: Although I would still recommend the Magoun edition above all, there are now also two good modern poetic versions, by Eino Friberg and by Keith Bosley. See translation samples.]



Tu Fu, Poems

“Tu Fu is, in my opinion, and in the opinion of a majority of those qualified to speak, the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet who has survived in any language.”

This is certainly true, but it dodges the issue — what kind of poet is Tu Fu? Not epic, not dramatic, but not in any accepted sense lyric either. Although many of his poems, along with others of the T’ang Dynasty, have been sung from that day to this, and although the insistent rhythms, rhymes, and tonal patterns of Chinese verse are lost in free-verse translation so that we do not realize how musical even the most irregular Chinese verse is (the most irregular, curiously enough, owes its very irregularity to the fact that it was written to preexisting melodies), almost none of Tu Fu’s verse is lyric in the sense in which the songs of Shakespeare, Thomas Campion, Goethe, or Sappho are lyric.

Rather, his is a poetry of reverie, comparable to Leopardi’s “L’Infinito,” which might well be a translation from the Chinese, or the better sonnets of Wordsworth. This kind of elegiac reverie has become the principal form of modern poetry, as poetry has ceased to be a public art and has become, as Whitehead said of religion, “What man does with his aloneness.”

It is this convergence of sensibilities across the barriers of time, space, and culture that accounts for the great popularity of Chinese poetry in translation today, and for its profound influence on all major modern American poets. In addition, Tu Fu, although he was by no means “alienated” and at war with society like Baudelaire, was in fact cut off from it and spent his life, after a brief career as a high official of Ming Huang, The Bright Emperor, as a wandering exile. His poetry is saturated with the exile’s nostalgia and the abiding sense of the pathos of glory and power. In addition, he shares with Baudelaire and Sappho, his only competitors in the West, an exceptionally exacerbated sensibility, acute past belief. You feel that Tu Fu brings to each poetic situation, each experienced complex of sensations and values, a completely open nervous system. Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. Later generations of Chinese poets would turn these piercing, uncanny commonplaces into formulas, but in Tu Fu they are entirely fresh, newborn equations of the conscience, and they survive all but the most vulgar translations.

Tu Fu is not faultless. As Court Censor, a kind of Tribune of the Patricians, under Su Tsung, the son of Ming Huang, he seems to have been a cantankerous courtier. He took his sinecure job seriously and, an unregenerate believer in the Confucian classics, proceeded to admonish the Emperor on his morals and foreign policy. He was dismissed and spent the rest of his life wandering over China. He stayed longest in his famous grass hut in the suburbs of Ch’eng Tu in Szechuan. As the dynasty disintegrated and China entered on an interregnum, a time of troubles, he started wandering again, slowly, down the great river, always longing for the capital. His last years were spent on a houseboat, and on it, at 59, he died, possibly from overexposure during a flood and storm.

This is a troubled enough life, but Tu Fu writes of it with a melancholy that often verges on self-pity. He is a valetudinarian. By the time he was thirty, he was calling himself a white-haired old man. He always speaks of his home as a grass hut and presents himself as being very poor. Actually, though they were thatched, his various houses were probably quite palatial, and he seems never to have relinquished ownership of any of them and always to have drawn revenue from the farms attached to them. He had the mildest literary affection for his wife, whom he did not see for many years. He wrote no love poems to women; as with most of his caste, his passionate relationships were with men. Much of this is just convention, the accepted tone of Chinese poetry of the scholar gentry. Tu Fu’s faults are microscopic in comparison with the blemishes that cover Baudelaire like blankets. Behind Baudelaire’s carapace is a sensibility always struggling for transcendence. In Tu Fu the vision of spiritual reality is immanent and suffuses every item presented to the senses. Behind the conventions, behind the faults which make him human and kin to all of us, are a wisdom and a humanness as profound as Homer’s.

No other great poet is as completely secular as Tu Fu. He comes from a more mature, saner culture than Homer, and it is not even necessary for him to say that the gods, the abstractions from the forces of nature and the passions of men, are frivolous, lewd, vicious, quarrelsome, and cruel and that only the steadfastness of human loyalty, magnanimity, compassion redeem the nightbound world. For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things. This is the essence of the Chinese world view, and it overrides even the most ethereal Buddhist philosophizing and distinguishes it from its Indian sources. There is nothing that is absolutely omnipotent, but there is nothing that is purely contingent either.

Tu Fu is far from being a philosophical poet in the ordinary sense, yet no Chinese poetry embodies more fully the Chinese sense of the unbreakable wholeness of reality. The quality is the quantity; the value is the fact. The metaphor, the symbols are not conclusions drawn from the images; they are the images themselves in concrete relationship. It is this immediacy of utterance that has made Chinese poetry in translation so popular with modern Western poets. The complicated historical and literary references and echoes disappear; the vocal effects cannot be transmitted. What comes through, stripped of all accessories, is the simple glory of the facts — the naked, transfigured poetic situation.

The concept of the poetic situation is itself a major factor in almost all Chinese poems of any period. Chinese poets are not rhetorical; they do not talk about the material of poetry or philosophize abstractly about life — they present a scene and an action. “The north wind tears the banana leaves.” It is South China in the autumn. “A lonely goose flies south across the setting sun.” Autumn again, and evening. “Smoke rises from the rose jade animal to the painted rafters.” A palace. “She toys idly with the strings of an inlaid lute.” A concubine. “Suddenly one snaps beneath her jeweled fingers.” She is tense and tired of waiting for her master. This is not the subject matter, but it is certainly the method, of almost all the poets of the modern, international idiom, whether Pierre Reverdy or Francis Jammes, Edwin Muir or William Carlos Williams, Quasimodo or the early, and to my taste best, poems of Rilke.

If Isaiah is the greatest of all religious poets, then Tu Fu is irreligious. But to me his is the only religion likely to survive the Time of Troubles that is closing out the twentieth century. It can be understood and appreciated only by the application of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” What is, is what is holy. I have translated a considerable amount of his poetry, and I have saturated myself with him for forty years. He has made me a better man, a more sensitive perceiving organism, as well as, I hope, a better poet. His poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.

[A few of Rexroth’s Tu Fu translations are online at this website. You can also compare diverse translations of one of Tu Fu’s poems here.]



Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji

Murasaki Shikibu, the authoress of The Tale of Genji and lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko, was born about AD 978 and died about 1031. Japanese civilization as far as the general populace was concerned was at a lower level than the contemporary Polynesian. Almost all Japanese lived lives of squalid, laborious poverty. Set apart from the brutalized mass was a tiny aristocracy, a few thousand people at most, whose culture had been transmuted into a way of life of a peculiar refinement so intense, subtle, and delicate as to constitute a utopia of exquisite sensibility and hyperesthesia.

Nothing like it has ever existed before or since. The records that have survived from other remotely similar ruling castes — of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, Persia, or India, for instance — are crude, impersonal, stereotyped by comparison. From the eleventh-century Heian court of Japan we have a number of imaginative and complex records of the most intimate interpersonal relations, diaries and novels and poems, many of them written by women. Not only does The Tale of Genji far surpass all of these, but most people who have read it agree that it is probably the world’s greatest novel.

There is a huge and extraordinarily contradictory literature on Genji in modern Japanese. Some liberal critics consider it a suffragist denunciation of male promiscuity. Marxists have called it a satire on the evil ruling class. Mystical Buddhists see Prince Genji as a Bodhisattva. Westernized literary taste compares Lady Murasaki to Marcel Proust. The overt plot of the novel is simple enough in principle and infinitely complicated in detail. It is the story of the erotic relationships of Prince Genji, called Hikaru, The Shining One; of his friend and brother-in-law To no Chujo; and of their descendants, to the second and even third generation, with an illimitable number of women — wives, mistresses, and wives of others. The story is told entirely from the woman’s point of view. The men have titles of generals, administrators, but nothing is ever said of any work they might do beyond writing love notes, playing musical instruments, and climbing over balconies. The Japanese court had already become nonfunctional and parasitic, but even its symbolic activities are reduced by Lady Murasaki to the basic complexities of sexual refinement.

This is only the superficial plot. Underneath it runs a profound concealed drama: the working-out, reduction, and final redemption of an evil karma — the consequence of a moment of irresponsible jealous anger. Early in the book and offstage, as it were, the elaborately decorated bullock cart of Lady Rokujo, Genji’s mistress, is scratched by the cart of his wife. She gives way to a spasm of wrath, and a being, an incarnation of her anger, “takes foot,” as the Japanese say, and struggles throughout the book with the grace that emanates from Genji gratuitously.

Lady Murasaki in her descriptions of Genji gives many clues to his character. “The Shining One” is a Bodhisattva epithet, and his body has the unearthly perfume that distinguishes such a savior, but she presents him as an unconscious as well as an indifferent Bodhisattva — a profoundly original religious notion. A Bodhisattva is a being who turns away from the bliss of Nirvana with the vow that he shall not enter ultimate peace until he can bring all other beings with him. He does this, says mystical Buddhism, indifferently, because he knows there is neither being nor nonbeing, peace nor illusion, saved nor savior, truth nor consequence. To this Lady Murasaki adds the qualification that he does it without knowing it — an idea derived from Chinese neo-Taoism, Shingon Buddhism, and rationalization of primitive Shintoist animism and from the philosopher Wang Ch’ung, from whom also comes the clearest statement of the personalized, subsisting embodiment of evil emotion, act, or thought.

Lady Murasaki grew into her novel. The most profound and subtle writing occurs in the later half, after Genji is dead. As the generations go by, the karma, the moral residues, of the lifetimes of Genji and his beloved friend To no Chujo cross and recross in their descendants and are at last resolved when a young girl, beloved by descendants of both, struggles with the demon and destroys it forever in a series of gratuitous acts as indifferent and unconscious as the original grace of which she is the re-embodiment.

The story that seems on superficial reading to be only an endless kyriale of philandering turns out to be an unbelievably complicated web of moral tensions and resolutions. Modern Japanese, even more than Western readers, find this outlandish and incomprehensible. The hannya, the devil that speaks through the mediums called in when the girls it is killing are dying, is almost always accepted by the critics as the ghost of Lady Rokujo, although at the beginning of its career she not only is still alive but has forgotten the incarnating episode and left the court to become a priestess of the national shrine of Ise, where she eventually dies in what we would call a state of grace. Although the hannya speaks in her name, it is only the personalized subsistent moment of hate which grows by feeding on the souls it destroys.

A similar situation surrounds Genji’s birth, the death of his mother, and his first love affair. The plot is stated in a kind of overture at the beginning of the novel, as it is resolved in a recapitulation of all the principal motives at its end. Strung on the skein of this subtle plot are any number of subplots of like nature. The episodes, with an ever-receding profundity, are encapsulated one within another like Chinese boxes, or they are reflected one within another like a universe of mirrors and diamonds — the universe of universes of the Kegonkyo, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the most visionary of all Buddhist documents.

When in the Sutra the complex of universes is revealed to the historic Buddha Sakyamuni, he bursts into laughter. I have never known anyone to read The Tale of Genji who was not thrown into a state of aesthetic joy, a kind of euphoria of response which very few other works of art can produce — the state of being that Marcel Proust sought in the paintings of Vermeer or the Jupiter Symphony and that he tried to reproduce in his readers at the most crucial episodes in his novel. The Tale of Genji communicates this ecstatic revery and joy, like Genji’s perfume, with unconscious, effortless indifference.

For almost two generations Arthur Waley’s beautiful translation has been the standard version. It, rather than the original, has been translated into many languages, including the modern Japanese. Waley has brought out the subtlety, exquisite refinement, psychological complexity, and moral profundity to a degree that could easily be missed by the most learned and astute reader of the Medieval Japanese text. Lady Murasaki’s novel is a great but inaccessible classic in Japanese. The Waley translation is both a major English and a major international classic, accessible to all the world.

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The Tale of Genji has recently been issued in one volume as a Modern Library Giant. This is the cheapest and most convenient edition now on the market. There is a brief introduction by Waley which provides all the information you need to follow the story. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, by Ivan Morris (Knopf, 1964), is fascinating background reading after you’ve finished the novel. Following a bout with Lady Murasaki, most people become avid Japanophiles for a while and read everything they can lay hands on about classic Japanese culture.

[NOTE: The subsequent translations by Edward Seidensticker and by Royall Tyler are somewhat more literal than Waley’s. You can compare the style of all three translators here.]

[Rexroth’s review of The World of the Shining Prince]


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

Other “Classics Revisited” essays