Scholars of Chinese literature and literati throughout the ages have unanimously admired Tao Qian’s poetry. Some eighty-eight of his poems survive. These are of varying length and in tetrasyllabic or pentasyllabic lines. Many are prefaced by an introduction explaining the circumstances under which they were composed. Tao Qian found no place for the artificial yuefu (“music bureau”) compositions popular in his time—lyrics written to ancient tunes and titles which dictated theme, mood, and style. He did, however, on his own terms produce a set of poems “imitating” or “in the style of” earlier compositions.
Typical rhetoric describes Tao Qian’s moral sentiments as “far-reaching waves, and lofty soaring clouds.” Other famous poet-critics were drawn to imitate Tao Qian’s style, notably the eleventh century poet Su Dongpo (also known as Su Shi), who wrote a set of 120 matching verses. A focus of controversy to this day is the dissenting judgment of the sixth century Zhong Hong, who, in his Shipin (“classification of poets”), placed Tao Qian in the second of three categories of poets because, in an age of florid ornamentation, Tao Qian’s work disdained empty embellishments.
In the development of Chinese literature, Tao Qian is most securely associated with the flourishing of the dianyuan (“pastoral”) genre, the embryonic origins of which stem from the tetrasyllabic odes of the great eleventh to seventh century b.c.e. canon. Poetry, thereafter, particularly during the Tang (618-907) and the Song (960-1279) dynasties, was imbued with his influence.
Although unwilling to compromise his principles for a corrupt regime, Tao Qian was acutely aware of the Confucian moral obligation of the literate gentleman to make his abilities available to the state. A number of his poems recall this duty, and they laud members of his own clan and other eminent bureaucrats who contributed their energies to public administration: “In hearing lawsuits he is just/ A hundred miles enjoy his help.” He had had no taste for office as a youth, he says, but he too had tried to be of service, “fallen by mischance into the dusty net/ And thirteen years away from home.” Such occupation was intolerable for him “in a time of decadence, when one longs for the ancient kings.” Far too long, he had been a “caged prisoner.” In the end, he was “not one to volunteer his services” and would “not be bound by love of rank,” “scorning the role of opportunist.” On the topic of posthumous fame, he was ambivalent. He asks, Daoist-like, what is the use of an honored name if it costs a lifetime of deprivation, yet he also suggests that fame may endure as an inspiration for a thousand years. Seeking solace for what he considered his own lifetime of failure, however, he stresses the transience of fame rather than its inspirational legacy.
In versifying the destitution to which he was reduced, Tao Qian indulged in no bleak self-pity. Virtually all his poems and many of his famous prose works mention his poverty, but he counts his blessings—and by Chinese standards, then and now, he must have been relatively self-sufficient. He owned a few acres of land and an ill-thatched cottage with “four or five” rooms (sometimes interpreted “as four plus five” rooms), shaded by elms and willows at the back, and with peaches and plums stretching out in front. He cultivated (or, more likely, oversaw the farming of) hemp, mulberry, and beans, and daily extended the area under his plow, delighting in the pleasures of the woods and fields.
Occasionally resorting to hyperbole, he claims in his poems that when his crops did badly, hunger drove him to begging, knocking on doors and fumbling for words. His house burned down several times, pests decimated his stock of grain, and even in winter, his family slept without covers, longing for the dawn. On a more cheerful note, his hut is repaired; plowing and spinning supply his needs; and if he is diligent in the fields, he will not be cheated. In fact, two poems specifically praise the farmer’s lot, describing how new shoots enfold new life, and how labor, too, gives joy. Another dozen or so verses laud the “impoverished gentleman” along with other humble but principled men of ancient days. A long lament mourns “gentlemen born out of their times,” who relinquished glory and took pleasure in poverty and low condition.
One consolation in Tao Qian’s rustic plight was wine. A major part of his official biography and of his autobiographical comments focuses on his tippling, and some critics complain that his poetry revolves around little else. Certainly, no other poet before him had ever sung the praises of alcohol so prolifically and insistently, and in this, Tao Qian set a precedent for a subgenre that was to catch the imagination of later poets, notably Li Bo in the eighth century and Su Dongpo in the eleventh. Like poverty, wine is mentioned in virtually every one of Tai Qian’s poems: Twenty poems were written “after drinking wine”; another describes “drinking alone in the rainy season”; yet another long poem gives “an account of wine”; and there is a rather pathetic poem in which Tao Qian confides that he wishes he could stop drinking—though the pathos of this admission is attenuated by the form of the verse, a game wherein the word “stop” appears in each of the twenty lines.
However undesirable Tao Qian’s apparent alcoholism may seem to the modern Western reader, no odium attached itself to the poet in his time. The Chinese heritage better appreciated the spiritual liberation achieved by mild inebriation and credited much of the innocent genius of Tao Qian’s poetry to this condition. Later critics, too, have defended Tao Qian by arguing that such drunkenness was a timeworn ploy in China (the antics of the poet Ruan Ji in the third century constitute a formidable example), to a large extent feigned to avoid the jeopardy of involvement in political machinations.
Almost as much as with wine, Tao Qian was fascinated by the chrysanthemum, a flower that has come to be associated with his poetry. The chrysanthemum bloom survives the...
(The entire section is 2588 words.)