11 July 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/28


Spring goes, and the hundred flowers.
Spring comes, and the hundred flowers.
My eyes watch things passing,
my head fills with years.
But when spring has gone, not all the flowers follow.
Last night a plum branch blossomed by my door.

Man Giac, translated from the Vietnamese by W S Merwin with Nguyen Ngoc Bich

Poems about spring usually begin with its arrival, but this one begins with its departure – its departure, along with its hundred flowers, hundred being one of those numbers that is a specific amount but also suggests a general abundance. It is in the second line that spring arrives; just two lines, and two years have already swept by. This suggests that spring is not really the main topic of the poem. The title has given us rebirth as a guiding concept, and spring of course is a traditional and obvious symbol of rebirth, as the earth comes back to life after winter. But the third and fourth lines give us a different perspective. We now have a speaker, telling us of his eyes and his head. He is probably an older man, or at least one of a meditative bent, given his years of experience and his interest in time passing. The seemingly objective statements in the first lines reappear to our memories in a new, subjective light: a person (rather than a general omniscient narrator) is telling us about the spring and the flowers going and coming; they are among the things this man has watched and the memories that fill his head. We now have a poem meditating on the passage of time and perhaps the recurrence of memory. There has been a slightly generic feel to all this so far: the generalities of spring and the unspecified flowers, the universal experience (among those still living) of watching the years pass. We move on to an observation the speaker has made after many springs: not all the flowers go. Then, in the last line, and for the first time in this poem, we suddenly have a line filled with specific details: last nightplum branch blossomsmy door. Perhaps night is also an indication of the speaker's age and even his approaching death. The plum blossom is a powerfully significant symbol in Asian cultures: noted for its beauty, it is one of the first trees to bloom, even when snow is still falling, so it is considered a harbinger of spring, and as such a symbol of hope and perseverance; like all such blossoms, its peak time is brief, making it a symbol of the transitory nature of life. This union of opposite significances – the on-coming renewal of spring, the swift passing of life – does not exhaust its symbolism, but it does suggest why this flower of all others is one named in this poem about time, memory, and renewal. Among the hundred flowers coming and going, we have this one specific flower blossoming forth in the final image, something both real and to be remembered for the rest of the speaker's (or even the reader's) life.

This eleventh century poem was translated by a twentieth- / twenty-first century American, and can be found in East Window: The Asian Translations by W S Merwin.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a lovely poem, posted just two days after my birthday, too. I was very touched by it, especially after you pointed out that the plum blossom comes early in Spring, but he points out that Spring has gone, so this blossom has come at a very unexpected time, which gives one hope of nice things still to come in our later years.