Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As Marsha L. Wagner points out, the arrangement of the sequence is thematic rather than geographic. It is possible, therefore, to view the poems as individual segments woven together into a matrix of meaningful motifs, which eventually combine into the main themes of the sequence.

There seems to be a thesis in the sequence taken as a whole, which can be seen from the general movement of the poems. In “Meng Wall Hollow,” which serves as an introduction to the sequence, ancient trees decaying on the poet’s new homestead remind him of the past owner. The idea that he too will be replaced by another saddens him. The elegiac tone continues in “Huatzu Hill,” where the ceaseless migration of birds and the autumnal hue of the endless range again sadden the poet. Significantly, however, the cheerlessness of the two opening poems dissipates quickly and disappears from the rest of the sequence. This change of mood is the unifying spirit of the collection as a whole.

In the remaining poems, three themes can be singled out. The first is the pastoral landscape as a self-contained and self-maintaining entity. There is a conspicuous absence of hubbub from the picturesque retreat. Human activities are restricted and minimal. Where human beings appear, their presence has no consequence to the serenity of the setting, because their activity is peripheral or incidental to the natural course of action of the landscape. Not even the woodcutter knows where the dense bamboos and shrubs are taking him on the off-track trail (“Bamboo Hill”). In the empty mountain, where one can hear voices but not see those to whom they belong, the setting sun’s stray rays light upon the green moss (“Deer Park”). Nobody is aware of a man sitting alone in the bamboo grove, singing and playing the lute, while the moon comes along, shedding its light (“Bamboo Grove House”). Magnolia flowers bloom and fall by the brook, where a house stands deserted (“Magnolia Slope”). In these poems, human action—even if allowed—is thus reduced to the level of nonintrusion. Guaranteed to act out its own drama without being disturbed, the landscape unfolds itself as a self-sufficient phenomenon (“Magnolia Park,” “Rapids by the Luans’,” and “North Hill”). Even human beings living in this world become part of the landscape, as “White Stone Shallows” suggests.

While the...

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