The Poet

by Hermann Hesse (1914), translated by Denver Lindley

THERE IS A STORY told that the Chinese poet, Han Fook, while yet a young man had a strange and compelling wish to learn all there was to learn about the art of poetry, and to strive for perfection in the writing of it. In those days, he was still living in his home on the Yellow River, and with the help of his family who loved him dearly, he had just become engaged to a young lady of good family. The marriage was to be set for a day which promised good fortune. Han Fook was then twenty years old, a handsome youth, modest, well mannered, schooled in the sciences, and despite his youth, was already recognized among men of letters of his homeland for some excellent verse. Without being exactly rich, he had the prospect of an adequate fortune which would be augmented by the dowry of his bride. Since this bride was, moreover, very beautiful and virtuous, nothing seemed lacking for the young man’s happiness. Nevertheless, he was not satisfied, for his heart was filled with the ambition to become a perfect poet.
       One evening, as a festival of lanterns was being celebrated on the river, it so happened that Han Fook was wandering alone on the far bank of the river. He leaned against the trunk of a tree which grew over the water, and saw reflected in the river thousands of lights swimming and shimmering. He saw men and women and young girls greeting each other on the boats and floats, all glowing like beautiful flowers in their festive dress. He heard the soft murmur of the shining water, the songs of the girls, the humming of the zithers, the sweet tones of the flutes, and over the whole scene the blue night hovered like the vaulting of a temple. His heart beat faster as he gave in to the mood rising within him. He was the only witness to all this beauty! Even though he longed to cross the river and to enjoy the festival in the company of his bride and his friends, he wanted even more ardently to remain an observer, to drink in his own impressions of the scene, and then to transform them into a perfect poem. The poem would reflect the deep blue of the night, the play of light on the water, the joy of the festival guests, and also the yearning of the silent onlooker who leans on the trunk of the tree over the river. He sensed that if even he were to experience all the festivals and all the pleasures of the earth, they would not make him completely happy, for he knew that he would remain an onlooker, a stranger, as it were, isolated in the midst of life. He sensed the unique quality of his soul, which at once compelled him to feel deeply the beauty of the earth, and also to know the secret longings of an outsider. The thought made him sad, but as he pursued it further, he realized that true happiness and satisfaction could only be his if he could once succeed in creating with his poetry a perfect mirror image of the world. In this way he would possess the world itself, refined and immortalized in reflected images.
       Han Fook scarcely knew whether he was still awake or had fallen asleep when he heard a slight sound and saw a stranger standing next to the tree trunk. It was an old man with a venerable air, clad in violet-colored robes. Han Fook rose and spoke to the stranger with the usual words of greeting for old men and eminent people. The stranger, however, smiled, and spoke a few lines of poetry. The young man’s heart stood still in wonder, for in these lines was all the beauty and perfection which he had just experienced, expressed according to all the rules of the great poets. “Oh, who are you,” he asked, bowing deeply, “you who can see into my soul and who speak more beautiful verses than I have ever heard from my teachers?”
       The stranger smiled the smile of one who has attained perfection, and said, “If you wish to become a poet, then come with me. You will find my hut by the source of the great river in the northwest mountains. I am called the Master of the Perfect Word.”
       With that the old man stepped into the narrow shadow cast by the tree and disappeared immediately. Han Fook, after searching for him in vain and finding not even a trace, now firmly believed that everything had been a dream brought on by fatigue. He hurried over to the boats across the river and took part in the festival, but between conversations and the sound of the flutes, he continued to hear the voice of the stranger. Han Fook’s very soul seemed to have gone away with the man, for he sat apart with dreaming eyes among the merrymakers who teased him for his love-sickness.
       A few days later, Han Fook’s father wanted to call his friends and relatives together in order to set the day of the wedding. But the bridegroom opposed his father, saying: “Forgive me if I seem to violate the obedience which a son owes his father. But you know how great is my longing to distinguish myself in the art of poetry. Even though a few of my friends praise my poems, I well know that I am still a beginner and still have a long way to go. Therefore I ask you to let me go for a while into isolation in order to pursue my studies of poetry, because once I have a wife and a house to take care of, I will be held back from those things. Now, while I am still young and free from other duties, I would like to live for some time for my poetry alone—and my poetry will, I hope, bring me joy and fame.”
       The father was amazed at this speech, and he said, “You must love this art above everything else, since you even want to postpone your wedding because of it. Or, if something has come between you and your bride, then tell me so that I can help you bring about a reconciliation or provide you with another bride.”
       But the son swore that he loved his bride no less than before, and that not even the shadow of a disagreement had fallen between them. At the same time he told his father that a great master had revealed himself to him in a dream on the day of the lantern festival, and that it was his greatest wish in the world to become the pupil of this master.
       “Well and good,” said the father, “then I will give you a year. In this time you may pursue this dream of yours which may have been sent to you by a god.”
       “It may be two years,” said Han Fook hesitantly, “who can tell?”
       The father let him go and was grieved. The young man wrote a letter to his bride, took leave of his family, and went his way.
       When he had traveled for a very long time, he reached the source of the river and found a bamboo hut standing by itself in the wilderness. On a braided mat in front of the hut sat the old man whom Han Fook had seen on the bank by the tree trunk. The old man sat and played his lute, and when he saw the guest approach respectfully, he did not get up, nor did he greet him. He only smiled and let his sensitive fingers play over the strings. A magic music flowed like a silver cloud through the valley, so that the young man stood in wondering astonishment and forgot everything else until the Master of the Perfect Word put aside his small lute and stepped into his hut. So Han Fook followed him with awe and remained with him as his servant and pupil.
       A month passed, and Han Fook had learned to despise all poems which he had written before. He erased them from his memory. And after a few more months he erased even those poems from his memory which he had learned from his teachers at home. The Master spoke hardly a word with him. Silently, he taught Han Fook the art of lute playing until the very being of the pupil was filled with music. Once Han Fook composed a small poem, in which he described the flight of two birds across the autumnal sky, a poem which pleased him quite well. He didn’t dare show it to the Master, but one evening he sang it near the hut. The Master heard it well but said not a word. He only played softly on his lute. Immediately the air became cool and the darkness increased; a sharp wind arose even though it was the middle of summer. Across the sky, which had now become gray, flew two lines of birds in their mighty yearning for new lands. All of this was so much more beautiful and perfect than the verses of the pupil, that Han Fook became sad and silent, and felt himself worthless. The old man made this come to pass each time. When a year had gone by, Han Fook had learned lute playing almost to perfection, but the art of poetry appeared ever more difficult and more sublime.
       When two years had gone by, the young man became overwhelmingly homesick for his family, for his homeland, and for his bride. So he asked the Master to let him travel.
       The Master smiled and nodded. “You are free,” he said, “and may go wherever you want. You may come again, you may stay away, just as you like.”
       So the pupil started on his journey and traveled without stopping until one morning in the dawn he stood on his native shore and looked over the vaulted bridge to his home town. He crept furtively into his father’s garden, and heard through the bedroom window the breathing of his father who was still asleep. Stealing among the trees next to the house of his bride, he climbed to the top of a pear tree and saw his bride standing in her room, combing her hair. When he compared the sight before his eyes with the vision that he had painted of it in his homesick imaginings, it became clear to him that he was indeed destined to be a poet: that in the dreams of poets there is a beauty and grace which one searches for in vain in everyday reality. So he climbed down from the tree, fled from the garden, fled over the bridge out of his native town, and returned to the high valley in the mountains. There as before sat the Master in front of his hut on his simple mat, plucking the lute with his fingers. Instead of a greeting, he spoke two verses about the blessings of art. Upon hearing these deep and harmonious sounds, Han Fook’s eyes became filled with tears.
       Again Han Fook remained with the Master of the Perfect Word, who now gave him lessons on the zither since he had mastered the lute. The months vanished like snow in the west wind. Twice more it happened that homesickness overcame him. The first time he ran away secretly into the night, but before he had reached the last curve in the valley, the night wind blew over the zither which hung in the door of the hut and the sounds flowed after Han Fook and called him to return in such a way that he could not resist. The other time, however, he dreamed that he was planting a young tree in his garden and that his wife was standing by him and that his children were sprinkling the tree with wine and milk. When he awoke, the moon shone into his room. He got up, bewildered, and saw the Master lying asleep next to him, his gray beard trembling gently. Suddenly a feeling of bitter hatred towards this man came over him—this person who, it seemed to him, had destroyed his life and deceived him about his future. He wanted to fall upon him and murder him, when the old man opened his eyes and began immediately to smile with a fine, sad gentleness which disarmed the pupil. “Remember, Han Fook,” said the old man quietly, “you are free to do whatever you wish. You may go into your home country and plant trees, you may hate me, or strike me dead—it is of little importance.”
       “Oh, how could I hate you?” cried the poet, deeply moved. “That would be like hating heaven itself.”
       So he remained, and learned to play the zither, and after that the flute. Later he began to write poems under the Master’s direction. Slowly he learned the mysterious art of saying only that which is simple and straight-forward, but in such a way as to stir up the listener’s soul as the wind stirs up the surface of the water. He described the coming of the sun as it hesitates on the edge of the mountains, and the soundless slipping away of fish when they flee like shadows under the water, and the gentle rocking of a young willow in the spring winds. To hear it was not just to hear about the sun, the play of the fish, or the murmuring of the willow; rather it seemed that heaven and earth harmonized each time for a moment of perfect music. Each listener thought with joy or sorrow on whatever he loved or hated: a boy’s thoughts would turn to games, a young man’s to his beloved, and the old man’s to death.
       Han Fook no longer knew how many years he spent with the Master at the source of the great river. Often it seemed to him that he had entered the valley only yesterday and been welcomed by the old man’s string music. Often he felt as if all the ages of Man and Time itself had fallen away and become insubstantial.
       One morning he awoke alone in the hut and though he looked and called everywhere, the Master had disappeared. Overnight fall seemed to have come. A raw wind shook the old hut and large flocks of migrating birds flew over the ridge of the mountain range, although it was not yet time for them to do so.
       Then Han Fook took his little lute and descended into his native country. Wherever he encountered people, they greeted him with the sign of greeting which is due old men and eminent people. When he came to his native town, his father, his bride, and his relatives had died. Other people lived in their houses. That evening, a lantern festival was celebrated on the river. The poet Han Fook stood on the far side of the river, on the darker side of the river, leaning against the trunk of an old tree. When he began to play his little lute, then the women sighed and glanced, delighted and disturbed, into the night. The young men called to the lute player, but they could not find him. They called loudly, because not one of them had ever heard such sounds from a lute before. But Han Fook smiled. He looked into the river, where the reflected images of a thousand lanterns were swimming. Just as he no longer knew how to distinguish the reflected images from the real ones, so he found no difference in his soul between this festival and the first one, when he had stood here as a young man and heard the words of the strange Master.

Questions for Discussion
These questions for discussion are taken from an old literature textbook.

1. What stages must Han Fook pass through in his search for artistic perfection? What must he master; what must he sacrifice?
2. What does the Master of the Perfect Word teach Han Fook about the relationship between the artist and the world around him? Why does he rarely speak, save to assure Han Fook that he is free? What is the significance of his final disappearance?
3. In what ways are the setting and mood of the story appropriate?
4. What does the final scene suggest about the relationship between art and life and the relationship between art and time?