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The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827-860) (Harvard East Asian Monographs (Hardcover))
Harvard University Asia Center, 2007
596 pp., $59.95
Li Shangyin, First Month at Chongrang House
Locked up tight, barred gate on gate,
cased in green moss,
hallways deep within, tower remote,
here I pace back and forth.
I know beforehand the wind will rise,
a halo around the moon;
and still the dew is too cold,
the flowers have not yet bloomed.
A bat brushes the curtain sash,
I end up tossing and turning,
a mouse overturns the window screen,
somewhat startled, wondering.
I snuff the lamp and all alone
talk with the lingering scent,
still singing unaware
"Rise and Come by Night."
Stephen Owen has written a monumental series of studies devoted to the poetry of China's Tang Dynasty (ad 618-907, with an interregnum between 690 and 705): The Poetry of the Early Tang; The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High Tang; The End of the Chinese "Middle Ages": Essays in Mid-Tang Literary Culture; and now The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827-860). In these books Owen surveys for English speakers a period widely regarded as the greatest in Chinese literature. In addition to several other freestanding books, worthy of note in their own right, Owen has another other major work, An Anthology of
Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. In just under 2,000 amply annotated pages, he makes a kind of epic, in translation, of the entire Chinese poetic canon.
His books are not prose settings for Chinese poems in English that speak for themselves, the way Ezra Pound's "translation" of Rihaku's "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," stands on it own. Instead, they are prose explorations of poetics, of the ways poetry is made, and read, in a
far-off time and place. A highly specialized inquiry? Yes, yet Owen's scholarship resonates nonetheless. When he talks about the difference between contemporary reputation and canonic stature, about the tendency of poetry to either tie itself too closely to the immediate or to cut itself off from extra-literary concerns, to aim high or pitch low, he could as easily be talking about ...