Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978

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.

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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 landscape continues to dominate the rest of the sequence, a theme focusing on the human condition begins to develop from “Dogwood Bank” through “Willow Waves.” The six poems, which can be regarded as a miniseries, are devoted to the pleasant experience of having a friend come for a visit in the congenial retreat. Although visitors seldom arrive, the gatekeeper sweeps the mossy bypath just in case a mountain monk chances by (“Sophora Walk”). The dogwood will provide “dogwood cups” when a guest comes (“Dogwood Bank”). The lake pavilion, which lotuses bloom all around, is an ideal place to drink with a friend (“Lake Pavilion”). Perhaps the friend would find it enjoyable to play the flute on a boat while cruising around the lake, which is so large that one hardly knows the people on the other side (“South Hill,” “Lake I”). Even the willow trees (commonly associated with parting) here are different, for unlike those by the palace moat, they do not grow for the sake of making farewells unbearable (“Willow Waves”). In this group of poems, readers, like the visitor, are invited to witness the possibility of a peaceful life in which one’s well-being is nurtured by nature. “Willow Waves,” in which the poet uses willows at the palace moat to hint at separations brought about by war or demotion, highlights the difference between the life of the recluse and that of the civil servant. In a world where the order of things is ecologically arranged and where human activities are sanctioned by natural elements, existence acquires a special meaning.

Finally, the sequence also contains a mytho-philosophical discourse based on allusions to history and the Taoist classics. The Twirling Stream retreat possesses the power of nature to effect a fundamental change in the course of human action because it stands for an entire Weltanschauung. This theme, hinted at early in the sequence, begins to gather momentum roughly at the middle and culminates in a triumphant conclusion at the end. In “Apricot Wood House,” the poet imagines that the unusually precious—almost godly—material (apricot wood and fragrant reeds) used to build the roof will bring about something auspicious (“rain among men”). The lake area in which neighbors do not know one another is reminiscent of the agrarian utopia propounded in the sixth century b.c.e. Classic of the Way of Power by Lao-tzu (“South Hill”). “Gold Dust Spring,” which seems to be associated with Taoist alchemy, has longevity and immortality to offer to its drinkers. The last two poems concluding the sequence indicate tellingly that the retreat is opposed diametrically to the mundane world. In “Lacquer Garden,” Wang Wei alludes to the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu’s contempt for the position of prime minister offered to him while he was the garden-keeper. The allusion intimates that the poet would act similarly, not out of arrogance but out of “incompetence.” As a result of the denial of worldliness, something is gained. In “Pepper Garden,” Wang Wei’s allusive imagination turns to Songs of the South by the banished poet Ch’ü Yüan. In his frustration, Ch’ü Yüan often referred to himself in terms of fragrant herbs being mistaken for weeds. Just as Ch’ü Yüan is befriended by the gods in his poetry, Wang Wei imagines that one could also become a host to the gods in the arcadia of the retreat. Together, these poems give one the impression that the Twirling Stream Country House is an incarnation of the Taoist utopia on Earth.

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