The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric Poetry

The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric Poetry

by Cecile Chu-chin Sun


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ISBN-13: 9780226780207
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/15/2011
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Cecile Chu-chin Sun teaches in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh and is the author of Pearl from the Dragon’s Mouth: Evocation of Scene and Feeling in Chinese Poetry.

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The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric Poetry

By Cecile Chu-chin Sun

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-78020-7

Chapter One

Repetition as the Common Basis for Comparison

In comparing disparate literatures such as English and Chinese, there are three important issues to consider that have too often been ignored: Why compare them? What should be compared? and How should they be compared? Regarding the first question, "why," in my research I have learned that repetition in sound and sense is a fundamental constituent of both English and Chinese lyric poetry despite their linguistic, literary, and cultural differences. This commonality shared between two traditions that are so diverse is itself a most significant phenomenon worth further research. This is because we may be in a better position to discover where these two traditions converge and diverge at the core of their lyricism through the perspective of this fundamental constituent of poetic repetition. Furthermore, while their convergences will usually relate to shared generic properties, their divergences often point directly to irreconcilable cultural distinctions between them, for it is the nature of such deep-rooted differences to persist amid the generic commonality.

As for the second question, "what to compare," the disparateness between them is, in fact, a desideratum rather than a hindrance, for it is only by comparing literatures with no genetic relations that we may expect to be successful in locating the lyric's irreducible generic makeup, transcending linguistic and cultural barriers. Given this rationale, the scope of what is to be compared should be as wide-ranging as possible, and the poems selected from the two traditions should be fine and representative specimens that have stood the test of time. As stated in the preface, I am referring to English (mostly British) and Chinese poetry dating before the significant contacts that began in the late nineteenth century. In this study of unrelated traditions, no attempt is made to compare particular literary or historical periods or a particular English poet with a particular Chinese poet. Such comparisons are often misleading.

The remaining "how" issue raises the crucial question of methodology: how do we actually compare English and Chinese poetry from the common perspective of repetition? This question brings us to the moment of truth in this whole business of comparison, the crux of which lies in locating a viable and valid common basis on which to compare these two unrelated literatures; the principles of correspondence and impartiality are essential here. By correspondence, I mean to compare that which is similar in function and role between the two traditions, given their diversity; by impartiality, I mean a nonprejudicial attitude and an objective perspective of comparison. The importance of such a methodology is accentuated by the fact that since the development of Chinese-Western comparative studies as an academic discipline from the 1960s on, the field has often been marred by the failure to locate a basis for comparison that is equally valid for and pertinent to both traditions. What one often encounters is a "this reminds me of that" type of superficial comparison, further compounded by applications of literary theories irrelevant to the materials studied, resulting in an exercise of embarrassing futility.

To emphasize that locating a common basis for comparison is an issue of central importance and first priority, chapter 1 demonstrates how this can be done. For a test case of comparison, one English poem and one Chinese poem have been selected for analysis. This exercise verifies the validity of repetition in sound and sense as a common basis for comparison and illustrates how to locate such a common basis and preserve correspondence and impartiality throughout the entire process.

We begin with a preliminary working assumption about lyric poetry. A lyric, whether English or Chinese, is a succinct expression of intense emotion and thought couched in rhythmic language. Any lyric worthy of the name forms what Paul Valéry would call a "closed circle of resonance," where every single word resonates with every other in both sound and sense. This simple description is broad and fundamental enough to cover the basic nature of the lyric; it also provides a valid starting point to search for that common basis for comparing these two diverse poetic traditions in terms of sound and sense repetition.

In this book, sense does not refer to a poem's specific emotion and thought. Instead, it means the expression of sense, that is, how the entire complex of emotion and thought is delivered in the poetic medium. It is true that every poem, English and Chinese alike, communicates its sense content differently. Yet, however variously poems express their sense, and regardless of their cultural origin, period, style, or verse form, two fundamental traits emerge. One of them is that virtually all poems seek vivid and palpable means from the external world to express what is thought about and deeply felt within. Since antiquity, outer reality, which is tangible, easily identifiable, and inexhaustible, has been regarded as the source and inspiration for the poet's expression.

In the Chinese tradition, the familiar and proverbial relationship between qing (feeling) and jing (scene) has always been integral to poetry. "Feeling" is a collective term referring to the poets' thoughts and feelings, to their memories as well as their imaginations; as such, it covers the whole range of elusive human sentiments and thoughts expressed in a poem. "Scene," another collective term, relates to the physical context of all the sounds and sights depicted in a poem, including not only what the poets capture in the immediate reality but, very often, the landscape and locale that they remember or imagine. Usually, "scene" refers to aspects of external reality, primarily nature; but it can be broader than that, including the general context, situation, background, and so forth.

In the West, critical terms such as qing and jing do not exist, yet the entire spectrum of Western figures of speech—including such familiar literary devices as imagery, simile, metaphor, and symbol—is dictated by a similar quest to express the poets' innermost thoughts and emotions and their cherished memories, dreams, and fantasies through concrete means taken from external reality in order to body forth that which often eludes one's grasp. In this regard, I. A. Richards refers to the two components of a metaphor as "tenor," the idea, purport, or main subject of the metaphor, and "vehicle," the thing said, the chosen expression, or that which serves to carry the tenor. In Robert Burns's famous line "My luve is like a red, red rose," for example, "my luve" is the tenor and "a red, red rose" is the vehicle. Our impression of the speaker's lovely lady is formed as a result of the interaction between tenor and vehicle. In fact, the notion of tenor and vehicle can be expanded to refer to the two members of practically any figure of speech. Almost invariably, the vehicle in a figure of speech refers to a means selected from external reality to express and embody what is felt within. Despite their differences in language, literary convention, and cultural orientation, English and Chinese poetry share this important common trait: they both turn to sensory reality to articulate the elusive lyrical sense.

This first common trait to express, in the sense of "pressing out" what is felt within, is accompanied by yet another concomitant trait, equally fundamental, essential, and, most importantly for a comparative study, equally shared by the two traditions. This is the deep-seated urge to reiterate over and over again the emotions and thoughts that profoundly affect or move the poets. Such an impulse to repeat is a universal phenomenon we are all aware of from our own personal experiences of highly charged events and emotions. To vent our uncontrollable feelings of joy, fear, anger, sheer exasperation, and so forth, we often mutter the same sounds or exclamations. In the hands of lesser poets, such exclamations are often just empty fillers, but in Robert Burns's song-poem "Green Grow the Rashes," for example, the multiple occurrences of the "O" exclamation (twenty-five if one counts the chorus attached to each of the five stanzas) give just the right relief for the poet's emotion.

In lyric poetry, Chinese and English alike, this need for strong emotive expression through repetition, sometimes obvious, sometimes disguised, is constant and powerful. It is this very urge that prompts a writer to compose a lyric—often the most expressive genre in literature—where sound and sense can be so succinctly, intimately, and effectively intertwined in continuous repetition. In the sense dimension of a lyric, repetition expresses itself by pivoting around a central complex of emotion and thought, often through some physical counterpart in the external world. Whether we are talking about "scene" in Chinese poetry or figures of speech in Western poetry, what is at issue is not only an expression of the poet's inner world but also a repetition of such an elusive world in terms of something else, concrete and palpable, external to that otherwise inexpressible inner life. The urge to express an emotion is, indeed, concomitant with the urge to repeat it. Thus, the notion of Chinese "scene" and its counterpart in English, the vehicle in various figures of speech that carries the tenor forward, are among the most important and fundamental means in the poetic act of repetition.

Hence, in this constant and persistent quest and urge to express and to repeat what is felt within lies an important common ground for comparison of Chinese and English poetry. Within this common ground, however, there is a major difference, producing, so to speak, different kinds of fruit and vegetation. Suffice it to say at this point that the way in which "scene" relates to "feeling" in Chinese poetry is fundamentally different from the relationship between vehicle and tenor in English poetry. Simply put, in Chinese poetry, there is a mutually illuminating and spontaneous rapport between "scene" and "feeling," whereby "scene" not only evokes "feeling" but simultaneously expresses it. This kind of rapport is rooted in Chinese culture as part of the pervasive harmony and resonance among all things in the world, including the relationship between man and nature. In the West (as exemplified in English poetry), the vehicle of a metaphor, for example, does not usually relate to the tenor of the poem with such affectively evocative rapport. The vehicle is usually a means—subservient to and, at the same time, independent of the tenor—rather than something intimately connected to the emotional expression of a poem as part of its living context. Such a relationship between vehicle and tenor reflects the very different view of reality in Western culture, where human beings assume absolute supremacy over the physical world. While both Chinese and Western poetry seek to express and to repeat what is felt within through counterparts in the external world, the way each tradition relates to that external world for such expression and repetition is fundamentally different.

Similarly with regard to the sound dimension of a lyric, the other important element in poetry, we are also looking for a common basis on which to compare these two linguistically unrelated poetic traditions. Comparison of this dimension in poetry certainly does not mean to compare how the so-called sing-song sounds and tones and rhythms of a Chinese poem resemble or differ from the sounds and rhythm of an English poem. That would be neither possible nor meaningful, since the poems are written in totally different languages, originating from fundamentally unrelated linguistic families. However, despite all the obvious differences between the Chinese and English languages in sound, syntax, and grammar, there is a great similarity between them in the way each tradition appropriates its own linguistic characteristics to the phonic dimension of its poetry. Traditional Chinese poets, for example, would agree with Robert Frost that writing a poem without rhyme is like playing tennis without a net; and they would also insist that the play area has to have certain lines laid down as boundaries, thus making the game more challenging and exciting. Hence, what concerns us is how the two languages—given the unique makeup of each—utilize their own particular linguistic resources to create a specific sound pattern, rhyme scheme, or type of prosody in any given verse form.

Both Chinese and English poetry use alliteration, assonance, reduplication, rhyme, and refrain, as well as repetition of word clusters, to create rhythms and cadences, even though poets in the two traditions do not employ all of them in exactly the same way. In Chinese poetry the use of alliteration and assonance involves, as a rule, only two characters; in English poetry there is no limit to the number of words involved. An important point is that a "character" in Chinese is a drawn graph corresponding to one syllable. Most Chinese characters are monosyllabic, meaning each character represents an independent unit of meaning contained in a single syllable; hence the notion of a "character" in Chinese may be considered more or less equivalent to that of a "word" in English. Some phonic devices are more frequently employed in one tradition than in the other or, even within the same tradition, in one historical period than in another. The use of alliteration in the Old English tradition retained much of its hold into the Middle English period (for example, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, distinguished by its varied-length stanzas, each concluding with a two-stressed "bob" and a four-line "wheel," rhyming ababa) and, on a much less pronounced level, into modern times. In the art of mass media communication, repetition is omnipresent. A variety of versification techniques, especially those including alliteration and assonance and even rhyme, are employed, as in "Coca-Cola" and "a real deal," for example.

But most worth noting is that all these diff erent phonic devices are driven by the self-same urge to repeat the same sounds, words, or even whole verse lines, with or without variations such as occur in refrains or incremental repetition. This repetition is all the more significant and striking when we consider that these two traditions of poetry are written in such different languages and seem to offer very little to compare: Chinese is tonal, English is not; English is written alphabetically, Chinese is not; Chinese is basically monosyllabic, English is primarily polysyllabic (although there were more monosyllables used in Old English). It is clear, then, that the common urge to repeat on the phonic level—employing three of the basic phonic units, sounds, words, and verse lines—is greater and manifests a fundamentally deeper constant than the linguistic differences that divide these two poetic traditions.

Thus, Chinese and English poets share an impetus to deliver their lyrical sense through a recurrence of sound patterns in their shared basic phonic units, as well as an impulse to repeat the sense dimension of their verse in terms of something else, particularly through sensory counterparts in external reality. To validate the sound and sense repetition defined above as a viable common basis for comparing English and Chinese poetry and to investigate the relationship between these two dimensions of poetic repetition, I offer a test case of comparison involving a sample poem from each tradition: Shakespeare's Sonnet 113 and a ci (song-lyric), "Changxiangsi" ("Everlasting Love"), by the Tang dynasty poet Bo Juyi (772–846). The similarity of their sentiments—both deal with the familiar emotion of lovesickness—provides a convenient starting point to analyze the various features of sense repetition so well illustrated by Shakespeare's Sonnet 113:

    Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind,
    And that which governs me to go about
    Doth part his function, and is partly blind,
    Seems seeing, but effectually is out;
    For it no form delivers to the heart
    Of bird, of flow'r, or shape, which it doth latch.
    Of his quick objects hath the mind no part,
    Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch;
    For if it see the rud'st or gentlest sight,
    The most sweet favor or deformèd'st creature,
    The mountain, or the sea, the day, or night,
    The crow, or dove, it shapes them to your feature.
    Incapable of more, replete with you,
    My most true mind thus maketh m'eyne untrue.

The speaker, absent from his beloved, loses interest in anything from external reality and turns his sight inward to see only the beloved in his "mind's eye." Utterly preoccupied with his inner vision of the beloved, his eye can hold little else.


Excerpted from The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric Poetry by Cecile Chu-chin Sun Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chinese Historical Periods

Prologue. Setting Repetition in Its Larger Context of Culture

1 Repetition as the Common Basis for Comparison

2 The Overt Mode of Repetition: Sound

3 The Covert Mode of Repetition: Sense

4 Mimesis and Xing

Epilogue. The Telosof Poetic Repetition

Appendix: Original Texts of Chinese Poems and Critical Passages




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