Classical Chinese Poetry and ‘Natural-History’

One of the most interesting aspects of Adorno’s philosophy of nature is that he refuses to draw a hard-and-fast distinction between the realm of Nature and the realm of History: “each is present in each other” (History and Freedom, p.135), to be presented with a natural scene is to be presented with a historical one as well, and history always takes place within nature (this is, in Adorno’s own terminology, ‘Natural-History’). “In natural beauty, natural and historical elements interact in a musical and kaleidoscopically changing fashion.” (Aesthetic Theory p.92)

Adorno illustrates this (in both the History and Freedom lectures and Aesthetic Theory) by using the example of Holderlin’s ‘The Shelter at Hardt’.

Down slopes the forest
And, bud-like, inward
Hang the leaves, for which
Down below a ground blossoms forth,
Quite able to speak for itself.
For there Ulrich
Once walked; and often, over the footprint,
A great destiny ponders,
Made ready, on the residual site.

Adorno’s gloss: “the meaning of [‘The Shelter at Hardt’] only becomes completely clear when you understand its specific references – the fact that this was the allegorical place where Duke Ulrich of Wurttemberg is reputed to have hidden while making his escape, and that, according to Holderlin, the place itself is made to speak of this.” (History and Freedom, p.135) From Aesthetic Theory: “In this poem, a stand of trees becomes perceived as beautiful, as more beautiful than the others, because it bears, however vaguely, the mark of a past event.” (p.92)

This can seem strange to us, I think, because in our everyday language we are so used to speaking of ‘Nature’ and ‘The Human World’ (that is, to a greater or lesser extent, History) as two completely separate realms. Nature, we’ll say following Descartes, because this is certainly how he perceives Nature, is said to be something Absolute, unchanging. At the very least, Nature tends towards equilibrium. History, the human world, is dynamic, uncertain, characterised by upheaval. Nature is ‘objective’, would be there just the same without us, we human beings, the source of all that is non-natural, ‘subjective’. Of course, this is totally inconsistent, and thinkers like Adorno, as well as McDowell, tell us so. And we find a similar holistic approach, of course, among certain of the early German Romantics, Holderlin among them… but it is far from a common view, anyway, even amongst the Romantic movement more generally: very different from the sort of view of Nature found in Wordsworth, for example. This is why ‘The Shelter at Hardt’ is so remarkable.

But Holderlin is actually far from the first writer, at least in a global context, to express such a view of Natural-History. This is because, I believe, it is also present in certain classical Chinese nature-poems. Certain scholars have already noted (for example in this article, freely available, demonstrating parallels with Wordsworth), that the visions of nature in Chinese poetry, dating back to sometime BC, bear a certain resemblance to that in Romantic poetry. But obviously, as I intimated above, Nature in Wordsworth is not the same as Nature in Holderlin. Personal experience within/amplified by Nature is not the same as Nature bearing the trace of History: there is still a whiff of projection in the air. But take, for example, this poem, ‘Songs of Old and Cherished Memory’ by the revered Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu (I’m using Wade-Giles here because the poems I’m quoting are from a book published in 1944):

Many mountains and a myriad ravines converge on the Ching Men Pass.
It was here that Ming Pei was reared and grew up and her village exists today;
Once she had left the premises of the purple towers she was swallowed by the northern deserts,
There only remains her green tomb facing the yellow dusk.
Painting deprived him of the knowledge of her spring wind face;
It is vain to look for the return of her jingling jewels.
There is naught but her ghost wandering under the evening moon,
And for ever afterwards her guitar makes moan
Making clear the course of her misery in her song.

Or this one, ‘At Chang Sha passing the site of the House attributed to Chia I’ by Liu Chang Ching:

For three years you were banished to this tedious place
And you bequeated to all posterity your ‘Lament for the guest of Chu’.
Solitary amid the autumn grasses I search where the man once lived but now has gone,
I only see the setting sun through the cold woods.
The Emperor Wu Ti had many virtues but his benevolence was thin.
The Hsiang waters have no heart, they reck nothing of your lament;
In the desolate hills above the river the leaves are falling.
You unlucky fellow what had you done to bring you here at the ends of the world?

Or this third, ‘Climbing Hsien Shan with my Friends’ by Meng Hao Jan:

One generation gives way to another,
The future becomes the present and present merges with the past,
Rivers and hills alone preserve their famous features
And here are we once more come to trace them.
The water is low and round ‘Fish Weir’ Island runs shallow
In cold weather the ‘Dream Pool’ is deep;
Yang’s monument is still there,
When one has read the inscription tears wet one’s clothes.

We see, in all three of these poems, Nature and History written together with no clear delineation between the two. These are all Nature poems, certainly in their form if nothing else, but they are also History poems. In the Tu Fu poem, looking at Ching Men Pass summons up images of the whole life of Ming Pei, it has come to stand for it, and it still bears traces of her. In the Liu Chang Ching poem, the natural scenes around his house don’t seem to speak of the scholar Chia I, but this just further underlines how unjust it was that he was banished there: his is present in his absence from them. And in the Meng Hao Jan poem, the monument to Yang is incorporated as part of the beauty of the natural scene, which itself presents “famous features” as “the future becomes the present and present merges with the past.”

Adorno likes to explain natural-history with reference to Walter Benjamin. The famous passages in The Origin of German Tragic Drama with “the death’s head of history.” (‘The Idea of Natural-History’ p.263; History and Freedom p.134) “… a petrified primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the beginning, has been, ultimately, sorrowful and unsuccessful, is expressed in a face – or rather in a death’s head.” (The Origin of German Tragic Drama p.166) In Adorno the “everything… that… has been… sorrowful and unsuccessful” of course basically indicates *the whole of history*. And so this is, anyway, what these Chinese poems confront us with, this death’s head, ‘the death’s head of history’. History, present in all Nature.


Adorno, Theodor W. (1997). Aesthetic Theory. (London: Continuum)

Adorno, Theodor W. (2006a). History and Freedom. (Cambridge: Polity)

Adorno, Theodor W. (2006b). ‘The Idea of Natural-History’ in Robert Hullot-Kentor (ed) Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno. (New York: Columbia University Press)

Benjamin, Walter (1998). The Origin of German Tragic Drama. (London: Verso)

Jeynes, Soame (trans.) (1944). A Further Selection From The Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty. (London: John Murray)

Zong-Qi, Cai (1990). ‘Fusion of Feeling and Nature in Wordsworthian and Classical Chinese Poetry’, Analecta Husserliana 28.

‘The Shelter at Hardt’ via @sabarbathioth

This entry was posted in Infinitely Full of Hope. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s