I need help analyzing this poem, "Looking For a Monk and Not Finding Him." I think it could be about death, but then at the end you get the feeling that all is not what he thinks because he...

I need help analyzing this poem, "Looking For a Monk and Not Finding Him." I think it could be about death, but then at the end you get the feeling that all is not what he thinks because he realizes there is still life since he hears the monkey. Am I on the right path?

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Let's do a close reading for meaning and see whether this poem is indeed about death or about something else. When stumped for the meaning of a poem, it helps to go line by line and determine what is actually being expressed. This is what we'll do now and look at the poem bit by bit.

I took a small path leading
up a hill valley, finding there
a temple, its gate covered
with moss, and in front of
the door but tracks of birds;

In this first section, what do these words and images represent?

  • The temple represents and symbolizes religion.
  • The moss on the gate represents that the temple is unused: no one puts a hand to the gate to open it to enter, thus moss has grown on it.
  • What we see in front of the door is bird tracks. In paraphrase, we can say that in front of the door is the footpath. There are no human foot prints on the footpath. There are only bird tracks because birds are the only ones nearing the front door.

The picture emerging from a close reading of the first section is that we are presented with a temple of religious worship that has long lain dormant with no worshipers, none who come with prayerful petitions or rejoicing. It is disused and abandoned to nature, to moss and birds.

in the room of the old monk
no one was living, and I
staring through the window
saw but a hair duster hanging
on the wall, itself covered
with dust;

  • Here we learn that there are no monks in the temple. It is disused even by the clerics of the religious order: it is disused from without (no footprints) and from within (no monks).
  • While looking in from without through window panes, there is nothing to see inside except a coarse garment made of animal hair designed to irritate penitents into repentance. Yet there is no one to be repentant or to repent.
  • The garment, called a duster, that is made of animal hair is ironically covered in dust itself. This represents disuse, neglect, decay within the temple that matches the disuse without (outside) the temple.

...emptily I sighed
thinking to go,

"Emptily" represents feelings of being disillusioned, lost and unhallowed (unsanctified) by religion because religion's place of penance and worship is disused and decayed.

...but then
turning back several times,
seeing how the mist on
the hills was flying, and then
a light rain fell as if it
were flowers falling from
the sky, making a music of
its own; away in the distance
came the cry of a monkey, and
for me the cares of the world
slipped away, and I was filled
with the beauty around me.

Here we come to the climax of the poem, to the message that Li Po wants us to understand.

  • Nature represents and symbolizes the authentic temple: it is the temple of true spirituality while the temple stands in contrast as the symbol of decayed religion.
  • The poetic speaker's lament turns to celebration under the influence of the rain's flower-like melodic melody.
  • His disillusionment turns to spiritual enlightenment.
  • The contrast between religion--which, like the temple and monks and duster, decays and becomes a waste--and true spirituality--which, like the mist and hills and light rain like flowers and music--is immortal and vital and living, like the monkey.

Thus all his cares, all his disillusionment and lostness, slip away leaving him experiencing the beauty of true spirituality in the true true temple, which is nature.

So while this poem is about decline, disuse and decay, it is not about death. It is about the contrast between empty (deserted, like the monk's room) religion and true (living, like the monkey) spirituality. The poetic speaker persuasively bids us turn away from the empty temple of empty religion to the true temple of true spirituality that is seen in life, love, and beauty.

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