Three Novels of Love and War "A Leaf in the Storm"

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3. Lin Yutang :“A Leaf in the Storm”


apart from its distinction as a novel  with the traditional virtues of strong plot, exciting narrative, varied and interesting characters (virtues it shares by War and Peace  and Gone with the Wind), A Leaf in the Storm is fascinating from a philosophical and ideological point of view since it puts Buddhism and Schopenhauer’s philosophy on trial in a most unexpected and devastating way. Currently, in the West there is a certain vogue amongst literati for a watered down version of Buddhism which envisages it as no more than a ‘philosophy’, by which we should understand an intellectual system that does not involve giving up the Western consumer life style and is certainly not to be classed as a ‘religion’, now become a dirty word. Buddhism, at its best, has always viewed itself, not as the last word on the subject, but as a sort of well of clear water from which very different travellers can quench their thirst, and there can be no doubt that the West,  desperately needs some sort of release from the interminable samsara of unfulfilling work, possession-gathering, status-seeking and sexual obsession that fills most people’s lives today. However, the uncomfortable fact is that Buddhism in both its forms, the Hinayana and Mahayana, is a deeply pessimistic and world-denying religion : this is its signal achievement, its originality, its merit and its usefulness as Schopenhauer realized more clearly than anyone before him in the West. As much try to dispel the sceptical, world-denying core of  Buddhism as try to eradicate the ideal of self-sacrifice from Christianity. What you are left with may well in both cases have its merits but is neither Buddhism nor Christianity.

            What is notable about A Leaf in the Storm is that it shows us  the Buddhist ethical ideal at its best, exemplified in the person of Lao Peng, but challenges its justice and relevance, while ultimately endorsing this same ideal in a slightly different form. Lin Yutang, the author of A Leaf in the Storm, was uniquely placed to write such a book. Born into a rural Chinese Christian family, as a young man he immersed himself in Buddhist and Taoism and eventually emigrated to America where he absorbed very different cultural influences. Extremely well-read in both traditional Chinese and modern Western literature, as well as being an inventor (he was one of the first people to design  a typewriter for Mandarin Chinese), he seems to have done the virtually impossible, namely to have taken the best from three mutually incompatible world-views. From Buddhism and Taoism he took tolerance, the search for peace of mind and a set of values which radically downgrades the ego; from Christianity he took the urge to give practical assistance to the underprivileged, and from America and the West he took individualism and romanticism. A Leaf in the Storm can be read as a dramatic and highly charged love-story (the romantic strand); it is also the story of how certain human individuals transcend selfish concerns and find satisfaction in life by devoting themselves to the community (the Christian element). Finally, it is a profound, though inconclusive,  enquiry into the human condition (the Buddhist element).


How did I come across A Leaf in the Wind ? By chance, in much the same way as I came across other forgotten great books such as The Black Obelisk by Remarque or Reflexions sur la Vieillesse et la Mort by Marcel Jouhandeau (that I am currently translating). A few months ago, in a room I occupy when I stay with my ‘friend’ — I don’t like the term ‘partner’ — I came across a faded old-fashioned ‘Book Club’ novel at the back of a cupboard that I was urging J  to clear out. J said it must have belonged to the people she’d stayed with when an evacuee during the war and that she’d never read it.

            As soon as I glanced idly at the first paragraph, then the first two or three pages, I was absolutely gripped and could not put the book down. The image of Poya, one of the three main characters, strolling through the outskirts of Beijing on a beautiful autumn evening, his carefree mood in stark contrast to the sombre backdrop of the Japanese Occupation during World War II, immediately captivated me. A lesser novelist would have had Poya stopped by brutal Japanese soldiers, but the peacefulness, even nonchalance, of the opening — which perfectly  balances the quiet of the close of this tragic novel —  is just what is required.


“He turned left to reach Lao Peng’s house, which was situated in an alley so small that a rickshaw could  barely go through.

   He  gave a few knocks on the iron rings of the closed gate and soon heard the coughing of a man approaching whom he knew to be the old servant of Lao Peng.

         ‘Who is it?’ the man called.

         ‘It’s me.’

         ‘Is it Yao shaoyeh?’


         The door latch was slowly drawn, to the accompaniment of a violent fit of coughing.

         ‘Is laoyeh in?’ asked Poya.

         ‘He left this morning and has not returned yet. Come in.’

(…) Poya walked across the yard into the parlour. It was a characteristically bare room, with the simplest of furniture, a cheap varnished square wooden table, a few cane chairs covered with hard cushions of dark-blue cloth, and a rickety old armchair that must have cost ten dollars secondhand at Tungan Bazaar.”


            It is a deft touch to have Lao Peng, the central male character, absent, for he is all the more in evidence because of this : it allows us to see the contents of the room, including his small library of books — “an odd assortment ranging from poultry and bee culture to Buddhism” — and to hear Poya’s inner thoughts about his best friend and mentor.  


            It transpires that Lao Peng, a failed small businessman and language teacher, is absent because he has been to a rendez-vous with Grandma Chao, the incredible sixty year old illiterate Chinese Resistance leader, and, on entering, he immediately asks Poya to advance some money to buy ammunition for the guerrillas. Add in the romantic interest when Poya confides to his friend that he is becoming increasingly captivated by the mysterious young woman with the cinnabar birth-mark behind her ear who is staying at the family home, and we have all the necessary ingredients of  a hyper romantic novel or film…



After the brooding opening, like that of a symphony by Mahler or Bruckner, the novel changes key as it shifts to the comfortable family milieu of Poya, a somewhat dandified half-Westernized Beijing intellectual, and the book becomes temporarily more like a Jane Austen or Trollope novel. It is all the more interesting to the contemporary Western reader because of this since we have few pictures of such a social ambiance, soon to be swept away for ever by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. For example, I was bemused to find that a favourite delicacy of the time, the equivalent to our Crisps, was dried ducks’ gizzards : in one scene the central character, Malin, takes one out of a glass jar and munches it for a good twenty minutes prior to the main meal. And I learn that both men and women commonly wore in winter, “quilted leg sheaths that were  tied around the ankles below and laced at the top, the seats cut away” (p. 105). Malin has some difficulty putting them on “because there was no trouser braid to which to tie the top strings since she wore foreign panties”. Another interesting detail is that, apparently, as late as the mid twentieth century, traditional ‘big-drum Storytellers’, who gave public recitations to the accompaniment of a  hand-held drum, still managed to compete successfully with Hollywood films for the attention of the Shanghai public, since Malin and her mother were mad about them.

            Throughout A Leaf in the Storm  there is the right balance struck, exactly as in Tolstoy, between interest of plot and characterization, keen social observation and philosophic speculation. However, the novel only really takes off for me with the appearance of the central character, Malin, the recapitulation of her early life in a Shanghai working-class district and her dangerous life as a penniless young woman living on the margins of society and currently pursued by the police and the Japanese.   

            Those who are sufficiently intrigued by what I have written, might be well advised to stop reading this now, and get hold of a copy of the novel either through the Library Service or via Amazon (it has long been out of print). In what follows, I cannot avoid giving away the plot which is extremely important and well managed : my concern at present  is to view A Leaf in the Storm not so much as a work of art but as a lucid voice in my exploration of the twin themes of love and war that I have been dealing with so far. As a matter of fact, it was A Leaf in the Storm which started the whole ball rolling, forcing me back to have a further look at Schopenhauer’s gloomy philosophy and ponder his powerful dichotomy between the World viewed as Will and the World viewed as Idea (or Spectacle). Then I felt I needed to re-read War and Peace and read right through, for the first time, Gone with the Wind, since I saw at once there were parallels between the storyline and setting of these three novels, and I was curious about how the very different authors approached, or evaded, the troubling underlying philosophic  issues.

            Malin, the main character in A Leaf in the Storm, at first sight strongly resembles Scarlette O’Hara. She is devastatingly attractive to men while not being a perfect beauty


“There was a slight defect in her eyes, which might be called a squint if it had been more, but which in her case was so slight that it gave her face an inimitable individuality, as if she was looking at the world from a special point of view of her own, as indeed she did.”


                                           A Leaf in the Storm, p. 28


            Like Scarlett she is fearless, hardy and resourceful with a certain worldly wisdom oddly (but beguilingly) mixed with high-flown romanticism. Left penniless and without a profession at the age of eighteen in mid-twentieth century Shanghai when her mother died, Malin learned to live by her wits from an early age and managed to negotiate the obvious perils such a situation represented for a beautiful young girl without this souring and hardening her character.

            She has a prominent birthmark under her right ear which one might think would be considered a defect, but, since it is of the right cinnabar colour, it is considered a rare trait of beauty and, when she is urged to change her name by Lao Peng to evade the police, they both go over various names, only to reject them as “either too literary or too common”. At length Lao Peng hits on the name ‘Tanni’, the Vermilion Maid, since it refers to this birthmark, and she accepts it at once. The change of name increasingly marks a profound change of personality, and it is anticipated, very much in cinematic style, by the very first time we see her in the book when she decides to do her hair “in a different way which left the red mark in clear view”.           

            She differs from Scarlett in being well-versed in Chinese literature and history (without having ever been to college), but above all because  she has what Scarlett O’Hara, and similar figures such as Becky Sharpe, completely lack : common humanity. The one-roomed flat where she lived with her mother faced an undertaker’s  and  


“she could not bear to see a child’s coffin, or a humble woman buying one for her child. ‘You kow,’ she said to Poya, ‘even in death there is a difference between the rich and the poor. Sorrow strikes deeper among the poor bereaved of their kin. Sometimes I saw rich brothers, clad in silk, come to buy an expensive coffin for their parent, bargaining as jocularly as if they were buying a piece of furniture.’ ”


            She is speaking to her lover, Poya, himself a rich man who, while not going quite so far as the rich brothers bargaining ‘jocularly’ over the price of a coffin, is to say the least extremely casual in his attitudes to people in distress. When she tells him about Lao Peng feeding starving refugee children, he says rather sharply — “You don’t expect me to hand out food to refugees, do you?”  


The Wheel of Karma 


The first half of A Leaf in the Storm is, in the main, an exciting adventure story which has a charm and innocence about it similar to certain Shakespearian comedies, since Malin  dresses up as a boy in her efforts to evade the police and pretends to be the nephew of Lao Peng, who himself poses as a travelling merchant. Although they pass through the outskirts of the war zone, we do not see any actual killing or even fighting. It is all somewhat like the beginning of World War II for children in England before the blitz really got going : the evacuee children relished the unaccustomed freedom of life in the country and, temporarily, found the war a stirring Enid Blighton adventure. Malin herself is a city girl  who has never even seen a mountain much to the amusement of the donkey drivers. The guerrillas they meet include swashbuckling figures straight out of Chinese folklore like Rattlesnake who sings opera tunes to the assembled villagers before leading a band of virtually unarmed peasants to rescue their women from the hands of the Japanese. And when eventually Malin gets united to her lover Poya in a hotel in war-torn Shanghai, the atmosphere is very much like that of a  Hollywood forties war movie — Casablanca with a happy ending in view. However, all this is about to be shattered into a thousand pieces and the tragic second part of the book is all the more effective for having this lengthy mainly light-hearted prelude.

            In point of fact, the leitmotif  of Buddhistic renunciation sounds as early as page 8, though we hardly notice it then.  While waiting for Lao Peng’s return in the opening scene, Poya idly opens a book and comes across the story of Ananda and Pchiti. Ananda, traditionally the Buddha’s favourite disciple, is doing the rounds with his begging bowl and comes to the house of the beautiful prostitute Maudenka. Her daughter, Pchiti, is attracted to him and she persuades her mother to cast a love spell over him. Ananda, bewitched, enters her room :


“The Lord Buddha had known all along what was happening to Ananda and now called Manjusri and bade him repeat the great Dharani at the place where Ananda was yielding to temptation. As soon as Mansruji reached the house, the magic spell was broken and Ananda regained his self-control. Mansruji encouraged Ananda and Pchiti and they returned with him to meet the Lord Buddha.” 


            I found the parable tiresome in its moralism the first time round  — there is, incidentally, plenty of this kind of stuff in Buddhist hagiography. It seemed to strike a false note, though with hindsight I see that it encapsulates much of what will come to pass during the course of the novel. Note the odd ending, quite different to a Christian morality tale : instead of being punished as one might expect, the pair are not only pardoned but rewarded, since “they return with him [Mansruji] to meet the Lord Buddha”.

            The climax of the first half , and the hinge-pin of the entire  book since it leads on to the dramatic change from the personality of Malin to that of Tanni, is the Shanghai dance-hall scene where Malin comes across Poya dancing with another woman, Sianghun, and the pair pretend they do not recognize her. This is not an ordinary betrayal. Malin, who has only returned to Shanghai in order to meet Poya and, hopefully, get married to him, is being sought not only by the Japanese authorities but also by the Chinese Resistance because of her previous association with a prominent Chinese traitor who had used her name, Tsui Malin, without her knowledge, to receive and transmit letters. In reality, when she found out what was happening, she denounced him  to a Resistance group and fled to Beijing (where she meets Poya). However, a newspaper report accused her of making off with the man’s jewellery and of complicity in the whole affair. Back in Shanghai for the first time since these events, Malin keeps strictly to her hotel room where she is registered as the niece of Lao Peng, and anxiously awaits the arrival of Poya who has a family house in Shanghai. He is delayed but eventually reaches Shanghai and visits Malin clandestinely in order to keep her presence there a secret from his family, especially his wife. At this stage Poya does not know about Malin’s past involvement with various men in Shanghai including the Chinese collaborateur. They visit a dance-hall together where Malin introduces him to Sianghun, a young woman Malin knows from their common past as paid dancing partners, and who works there still in this capacity. After the meeting, back in Malin’s hotel room, Malin and Poya formally plight troth Chinese fashion  by writing their names on two scrolls of red silk, promising to love each other “until the rocks decay and the seas dry up”. This pledge is not just play acting since by Chinese law at the time, once witnessed and presented to a lawyer (as subsequently happens), it becomes legally binding. It looks as if Malin’s fortunes have changed for good.

            However, the following day Poya is escorted to the house of a Shanghai godfather figure, Mr. Tung, who has put his organisation at the service of the Chinese Resistance and in particular arranges for the assassination of prominent Chinese collaborateurs. He tells Poya that Malin is on his list and asks if he knows her and where she is living. Poya makes an evasive reply but from this point onwards, since he knows he is being followed, he does not go to see Malin or telephone her. The following day he decides to go to the dance-hall in question to warn Sianghun to say nothing to anyone about Malin’s presence in Shanghai. Malin, now known as Tanni,  naturally, cannot understand what is happening and, fatally as it turns out, she suggests to a peasant girl, Yumei, who is living with her, that they go to a dance-hall (which the latter has never seen) to pass the time.

            The scene is brilliantly described : we see the well-dressed fashionable people, both European and Chinese, desperately seeking pleasure in the midst of war (just as many people did in Paris under the German Occupation) while starving refugees throng the streets outside. Just after Tanni and Yumei arrive, five half-naked Russian women dancers perform somersaults in the middle of an applauding crowd — “Shames one to death”, says the outspoken peasant girl Yumei, “but it is beautiful”. By ill luck, Poya is dancing with Sianghun telling her about the situation, and he knows that agents of the Underworld are there watching him so he has no choice but to pretend not to recognize Tanni and the pair walk coldly by pretending they do not know her.


“Tanni sat stupefied, her hands cold and numb.

      The band struck up the St. Louis Blues. The lights dimmed, and the huge glass in the ceiling was turning round and round, throwing its coloured points of light on the jostling crowd. Tanni heard the mad squeals of the saxophones.

      With her senses heightened by anger, Tanni saw what others in the room did not see. They were living in a madhouse inhabited by madly whirling shadows of grotesque human shapes — puny shadows wearing masks which covered emptiness within, going around in that giddy swirl. The music was shrieking its own emptiness in a wild ecstasy of destruction. Everything crashed, reeled, shrieked, swam before her like that infernal music and the ghostly faces of men and the white arms of women suddenly became very small, as we sometimes see the room before us when we sit up too long at night… The people were dancing like automatons without a heart, except one bleeding heart that was her own.”


            So far the above passage might have come from any number of Western writers, though one should note the repetition of the term ‘emptiness’ which has strong Buddhistic connotations. But what follows would not have come from a Western novelist : this is not just a moment of heartbreak and disillusionment, as it would be in a contemporary film, but a moment of enlightenment in the  Buddhistic sense, a moment when the true nature of life in the world becomes apparent, and not only in a negative sense :  


“The feeling that all was over brought her a strange inward feeling of peace within, like calm on the sea after a violent storm.  (…) Tanni knew the beauty of the human form. But at that moment she saw human nature in all its naked brutality, and seeing it after her sharp impression of a human madhouse a moment ago, she saw the folly and futility and incompleteness of her past life, the life of the senses that she had known so well.”  

                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  pp. 218-9


            That night, returning to her hotel room with Yumei, she has a dream which she recounts to Yumei

“I ran on and on and I suddenly realized that I was naked and that many men were chasing after me. I was rolling along very fast, more like skating than like running , and soon I was rolling on a big waterwheel and my body was attached to the wheel, and it went round and round and my body with it going backwards, and there were many people watching me, some of them, laughing and some of them admiring my body.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 211


A little later the wheel grinds to a halt and she manages to get off it.


“I landed suddenly on my feet. And who do you think I saw…. Lao Peng. He was in a monk’s robe and staring at me. And we went along the road hearing the squeak of the water wheel behind me. We went up a hill and stood on the top and looked down the valley, and he said to me: ‘Look there. That is the Wheel of Karma!’ And I saw the wheel turning, with a big word ‘Nieh’ [Karma] in the centre, and there were still many naked women tied to it. Then I saw there were many other wheels in the valley and they kept turning with many women on them. ‘Was I turning like that?’ I asked, and Lao Peng said: ‘Yes’.”


                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 223


            Tanni burns the wedding pledge and also, to the peasant girl Yumei’s emphatic approval, the brassières which are now seen as a symbol of Westernisation and ‘emancipation’ in a negative sense.      

      Then “Tanni lost interest in her body”. It has become fashionable, even politically correct, to view sex in an entirely favourable light and to dismiss fears about it becoming too powerful in society as old-fashioned rubbish and superstition. But there is a fatal ambivalence about sex, mankind’s most powerful instinct since it can even overcome the instinct for self-preservation. Even if sex is not inevitably associated with aggression (which it all too frequently is in imagination if not in fact) it is certainly linked to competitive display and jostling for position. One moment it may appear to lead to a Garden of Delights, at another one feels there is something almost demonic about it — one has only to look at the porn on the Internet to obtain both impressions simultaneously.  

            The dance-hall scene is immediately followed by a chapter where the narrator/author, coming forward for the first time,  gives scarcely credible examples of the depravity of the Japanese military (without dwelling on them unnecessarily) and raises, without resolving it, the question of the nature and origin of  human evil. The sensuality displayed at the dance-hall which suddenly appears to Tanni as something maniacal, is paralleled by the ‘ecstasies’ of physical sadism in which the Japanese soldiers indulge themselves and indeed mix with sex. The two extremes are seemingly both part and parcel of the same eternal round of birth, suffering, death and rebirth from which the only escape is the Buddhist  Nirvana.


Salvation through Action


And yet not so. Lin Yutang, brought up as a Christian, is not content with this essentially passive and inactive avenue towards salvation, and Malin/Tanni is too vital a character to make a good Buddhist, at this stage in her life at any rate. She leaves Shanghai immediately after the dance-hall scene (refusing to listen to Poya’s explanations on the telephone) and eventually traces Lao Peng to where he is qworking for the Buddhist Red Cross. They find an abandoned mansion near Henkow where no one goes because it is supposed to be haunted, and turn it into a centre for refugees. At first, she shows some interest in Buddhist teachings partly because they must in some way explain the enigma of Lao Peng himself, — “You have the secret of being happy,” she says to him, “Is it your Buddhism? Why did you never explain it to me?” Lao Peng says that religion “has nothing to do with learning, it is an inner experience”. Nonetheless, Tanni finds some of the doctrines strange and incredible : what she takes from Buddhism is not its otherworldliness but its compassion.       

            Tannu thus finds a different sort of happiness in useful, charitable actions : she is revered by the odd assortment of waifs and strays who make up the refugee community as a sort of Mother Theresa and they call her Kuanyin chiehchieh after the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. karma leads on to salvation through karma — the term originally just meant ‘action’, ‘activity’.  She is so changed from the former Malin that Lao Peng scarcely recognizes her at first  :


“The final shock had not only shattered her hope but had changed her attitude toward all romance. Defeated once more, and acknowledging defeat with a sad finality, she also seemed to have transcended love.”   


                                                A Leaf in the Storm   p. 231


            At one point it even looks as if, having renounced personal human love for communal, eros for agape, she will, by a kind of positive ‘poetic justice’, get human love thrown into the bargain, since Poya eventually manages to get a letter through to her explaining the tragic misunderstanding in the dance-hall which she accepts.

            A lesser author would have left things there, and we would have had a happy ending. This would be emotionally more satisfying than what actually happens, but the book would have been a far less subtle and penetrating one. However, before tracing Tanni’s further development, it is time to turn the spotlight on the two men with whom she is irrevocably involved, Poya and Lao Peng.

respect from other people.




“He [Poya] was young and tall and called handsome, brought up in all the luxury of a large, rich family, with cultivated tastes in art, literature and the pleasures of living…. ”


Although one hesitates to say he has ‘peace of mind’, since one hopes there is more to it than that, he has the sort of easy indifference which one associates with certain Roman aristocrats. He views everything including the Japanese Occupation and even his own love affairs dispassionately, as if it concerned other people rather than himself. (This is how the ancient philosophers and certain types of Buddhists were encouraged to view life.) He fancies himself as a military strategist and indeed his ideas, based apparently on the actual deployment  of Chiang-kai-chek’s armies, are by no means stupid. But he feels no desire to volunteer himself — strangely enough there was no conscription in China at the time — though he does eventually, through his connections, procure himself a job well away from the front surveying the terrain for the building of a great road for the retreating  army. He treats it more as a means of visiting celebrated Chinese beauty spots and historical sites than a serious contribution to the war effort.      

            If this were all there were to him, he would not be the stuff to fill a good deal of this novel. But there are two things which mark him out from the average educated, wealthy Westernised Chinese of his time and which are both related to his family background. 

            A certain respect for, and hankering after, ‘true love’, despite a life of casual philandering, no doubt owes something to the tragic incidents of his childhood. In what was most likely a typical incident amongst wealthy Chinese families of the time, Poya’s grandmother, who disapproved of her son marrying a servant-girl for love, drove Poya’s mother out of the house when the grandfather was absent, kidnapped the child and refused the mother entrance to the house. The latter committed suicide when Poya was still a child. Also, typically, the grandmother became tormented, not exactly with remorse, but fear of being pursued by her dead daughter-in-law’s ghost.  Another member of the family, Red Jade, committed suicide for love and so, with hindsight, it is not quite so surprising that this seemingly superficial and self-satisfied Beijing intellectual eventually carries out a supreme act  of self-sacrifice at the close of the book.

            The second strand comes from his grandfather and is what connects him to Lao Peng.  


“[But] with all Poya’s mental gifts and polish and savoir-vivre and worldly understanding of women, he had a touch of mysticism which he inherited from his grandfather. This …. enabled him at once to understand the different character of his friend’s genius. Old Peng had all but saved him from becoming a cynic, which would have been the development of a young man of his intelligence and circumstances.”                    A Leaf in the Storm   (page 5)

Lao Peng


Lao Peng is introduced to us in the very first scene as someone truly remarkable which indeed he turns out to be.


“Poya sat down in the creaky armchair, picking up the newspaper which lay on it, intending to read. But soon he let the sheets slip from his hand and fall to the floor. He sat reflecting on a mystery, more important to him than the war news. Ever since he had come to know Lao Peng a few years ago, the man had fascinated him. It seemed unbelievable that in this bare room lived a great man in obscurity, the only perfectly happy man he knew, without wife and children. A man who had found himself, ‘without fear and without worry,’ as Confucius described the gentleman.”                        


                                               A Leaf in the Storm  p.3


            Lao Peng’s imperturbability is not destroyed by the war, though we are told there was a period when he and Poya  would spend their evenings “drinking in sorro w” as they called it, ending up weeping  as they talked about the disastrous retreat of the Twenty-ninth Army and the abandonment of Biejing to the Japanese. Lao Peng is too naturally ‘good’ a person, and also too commonsensical, to blithely ignore the human tragedy all around him , dismissing it as ‘illusory’ along with the rest of physical reality, or as other people’s karma. Instead, he devotes what remains of his small fortune to helping refugees and supporting Grandma Chao’s guerrillas. “You will feel better,” he says to Poya, “travelling and seeing the people and doing things. (…) It was silly how we used to drink and weep.” Though he does not actually fight, he aids people who do and the moral issue of whether, as a practising Buddhist, committed to pacifism, he should support armed resistance does not apparently bother him unduly.     

            In the eyes of Poya and Tanni, and many other people who come across him, Lao Peng seems to have achieved what so many philosophers and writers like Rimbaud spent their lives searching for, “la clef du bonheur”, the ‘key to happiness’.  


“ ‘You are a happy man, aren’t you?’ asked Tanni. The fascination of this middle-aged man was strong upon her.

‘Happy?’ he said. ‘I have no worries and I have a clear conscience, if that is what you mean.’ ”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm  p. 239


            The lack of false modesty or diffidence in his reply makes a pleasant contrast to what a Christian, with his eternal guilt complex, would have said in reply. Lao Peng actually convinces us that he is not only a ‘good’ person but someone one would actually want to meet. He has something of Gandhi in him but, great man though Gandhi was, I do not think I would have particularly wanted to meet him. Lao Peng does not have anything cranky, or even especially striking,  about him : he is, as ‘enlightenment’ is supposed to be, ‘nothing special’.

            But as it happens, Lao Peng is standing on the edge of a precipice. At the beginning, he is not troubled by Malin, as a beautiful young woman,  except inasmuch as he fears for her since, as a Buddhist, he knows that this passion between her and Poya is bound to lead to sorrow.


“He could understand why his friend was enchanted with her. He had known many young men and women and heard stories of their romances. There was always something pathetic about love and romance — the greater the love, the more tragic the romance. (…) And so when he saw Malin’s bright eyes and heard her pleasing voice, he felt a kind of pity that those eyes and that voice controlled a destiny that she must live through.”


                                                A Leaf in the Storm, p. 109


            However, this turns out to be a moment of hubris. The forty-five year old Lao Peng, whose wife is dead, sincerely thinks he has got  beyond the attraction of the senses, a dangerous illusion for anyone to have as the early Christians found to their cost. “His mind classified feminine charms with the desires of the senses, and he saw not a lovely girl before him, but a woman in the abstract” (p. 109). Lao Peng is not in the least the repressed puritan who projects his inner torment onto the world around him and takes it out on other people, especially women, either in reality or in imagination. Lao Peng genuinely means it when he says, “We must not judge”. By Victorian standards — and mid-century China within the well-to-do families can only be compared to Victorian England — Malin was a thoroughly scandalous person who had been the mistress of several older men at a young age and was believed (though wrongly) to have run away with the money and jewels of one of her lovers. As Malin senses, Poya, like most male philanderers, is far from having a liberal attitude towards women on the sexual level (except, of course, where his own advantage is concerned), and for this reason she keeps back details of her previous life from him. But she has no hesitation in telling Lao Peng everything — “She felt that if anybody would understand her, Lao Peng would. She felt at ease with him as she was not with Poya”.

            During their flight together from Beijing — Poya remains in the capital and does not know what is going on exactly — Lao Peng is thrown into intimate contact with Malin day and night but both of them handle the situation with good sense and discretion. People of the present era may simply say, or think, “Why the hell doesn’t he just take the girl?”  But there are serious issues involved, far more serious than passing sexual satisfaction. Apart from anything else, Lao Peng is Poya’s best friend and he has entrusted Malin into his care. “He found himself under the obligation to take her to Shanghai for Poya. The attitude dictated by old tradition was that ‘a friend’s wife should never be taken advantage of’’”.

            Apart from that, any sexual involvement would, one feels, ruin everything. As it is, there is something of a children’s escapade about the situation especially since Malin, like a Shakespearian heroine, is dressed up as a boy. The relationship has a genuineness and a charm which the Hollywood romance with Poya entirely lacks. Added to this, they are both in serious danger and, as time goes on, are united by their joint charitable work in the ruined house they turn into a refuge for old people and orphans. All this takes Malin away from Poya more irrevocably than the latter’s apparent betrayal, though she does not realize this for a long time. 

            As it happens, it is not simply the sexual attractiveness of Malin that troubles Lao Peng — he would have been repelled by Scarlett O’Hara or Becky Sharpe — it is  the combination of sex appeal with her trusting and affectionate behaviour towards him. He has enough self-knowledge to admit, to himself, that he is not so much of an ascetic as she and Poya think he is. For most of the novel the ups and downs of their life fleeing from the Japanese and running the orphan hostel in the keep them busy enough for the situation not to become too intolerable. However, once Tanni discovers that she is pregnant (from Poya) Lao Peng offers to marry her “for the child’s sake”. This is a point of no return, not from the marriage point of view which soon proves to be no longer necessary since Poya finally succeeds in making contact by letter  and explains the circumstances of his apparent betrayal which Tanni eventually accepts.

            But Lao Peng has revealed himself. The real drama in the latter part of the book is not the commonplace eternal triangle situation, but the inner drama within Lao Peng himself. This is one of the things which takes the book completely out of the normal run of such stories.  For Lao Peng has lost what, in Poya’ eyes, and in Tanni’s, made him unique, his peace of mind that they both sense has something to do with his strange Buddhist beliefs. He coped with the war and, even had he been captured by the Japanese, would doubtless have inspired his fellow prisoners in much the same way as Pierre does in War and Peace when he is taken prisoner during the disastrous French retreat from Moscow.


“Suddenly he felt the supreme irony of it — to be caught in the meshes of passion, at forty-five? What was love? Where was the border between the natural affection of congenial and devoted friends and the deeply personal love between man and woman? How unconvincing the theory of Buddha’s impersonal love seemed now! Certainly he had come to love Tanni as a person. How else should it be?  To abolish personal hatred was easier than to abolish personal love. If the assumption of self and individuality was the origin of all struggle and all hatred, it was also the strongest basis of our sentient life. He loved Tanni as a person; it was useless for him to think of her as an abstract woman….”


                                 A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 303



            Yet it is precisely as  an ‘abstract woman’, not as a person, that the Stoic sage, the Christian saint and the Buddhist bodhisattva is supposed to love someone : this is rising above the ‘principle of individuality’ and seeing the world as Idea, not as Will. 


            As if to add insult to injury, parallel to Lao Peng’s turmoil, we have the tragic-comic situation of Poya back in Shanghai embarking on a casual affair with Tanni’s old friend, Siangyun. Siangyun, a sympathetic character, while not being exactly a courtesan makes a precarious living, as Tanni once did herself, as a dance-hall hostess and occasional mistress of well-to-do married men. She has a worldly wisdom which would appear cynicism in someone else, but in her case inspires respect. At this moment in time, Poya has not heard from Tanni or Lao Peng for over two months. Siangyun tells Poya that they must certainly be living together.


“ ‘You shut up!’ said Poya angrily. ‘You don’t know Lao Peng. He is my friend.’

   ‘I have never yet seen a man who could resist a woman,’ she said. ‘Not even a monk.’ ”

         Siangun had a fund of droll stories making fun of the monks, over which she laughed as she told them. They always played upon the same theme, of the reputed sainthood of men and women, especially of the Taoist immortals and sainted widows, and always ended with a shattering climax.”


                                                     A Leaf in the Storm, p. 285


            This is very to the point and, once again, takes A Leaf in the Storm right outside the usual ‘romantic’ story which certain other passages might lead the reader to believe it is. Poya is hardly in a position to contest Siangyun’s views, since he himself has started this quite unnecessary affair when he is supposed to be ‘eternally’ in love with Tanni. It is, moreover, an affair on the cheap since he does not bring her expensive presents and “when he gave her a hundred dollars she thanked him in a way that was almost humiliating” — in the context her ‘thanks’ were doubtless ironical. It is Siangyun, who flaunts  a cynical worldly-wise philosophy, or rather makes an attempt to do so, who is in reality the victim of Poya. There is even something of the detestable Clare of Tess of the d’Urbervilles about Poya — scratch a serial seducer and you will find, if not a puritan, at least a traditionalist.   


The Dénouement


The eternal triangle is ‘resolved’, if one can call it that, by the mutual self-sacrifice of all of the characters involved — somewhat in the manner of  Racine’s Bérénice.

            Poya eventually makes contact with Lao Peng and Tanni in the refugee house near Henkow and tells Tanni that he has had their marriage vows legalised and is about to divorce his wife, Kainan, a superficial and self-satisfied creature with whom it is impossible to have much sympathy. He does not know that Tanni is pregnant, but it would seem that this Chinese wartime romance is set after all for a happy ending and Tanni is even visited by a member of the Yao family, Mulan,  who is sympathetically inclined towards her, while knowing something of her past, and who facilitates the marriage as much as she can.

            The first person to sacrifice himself, or at any rate his emotions and aspirations, is Lao Peng who leaves the refugee home in Tanni’s care, ostensibly to move into the interior nearer the war zone. Tanni, however, knows that he is removing himself so as not to impede her marriage.


“This great-hearted man was now without a question taking himself out of the way as unselfishly as he had offered to protect her name before the word from Poya came. (…) The sacrifice on his part touched her more deeply even than his offer to be father to her child.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 321/339


            This personal act is set against a backdrop of the newfound, stubborn resistance of the Chinese to the Japanese. In the first part  of the book, what fighting there is, which we do not see at close quarters anyway, is  of the Robin Hood variety and this matches the mood of the ‘romance’, if such it can be called, of Malin and Lao Peng travelling incognito through the countryside with Malin dressed up as a boy. But in the second part, the war becomes a much more serious and ugly business as the civilians are bombarded mercilessly and millions of starving refugees throng the roads and rivers of eastern China. Lao Peng and Tanni themselves narrowly escape death in a bombardment and the refugee hostel itself is hit. The self-sacrifice of Lao Peng and eventually Tanni and Poya also, on the personal plane is matched by the increasing heroism and self-sacrifice of the Chinese soldiers, the guerrillas and ordinary civilians.


“Eight hundred volunteers came forward, when three hundred were asked for, to form a suicide squad, and they captured by hand-grenade fighting the Changtoushan Hill immediately north of Taierchuang. (…) The first historic victory over Japan had been promised and delivered.

         On April 7th, Wuchang was in uproar. At half-past seven, Miss Tuan came to the refugee home like a mad person, bringing news of the victory which she had heard by radio.”


            Tanni herself leaves to go nearer to the front to gather orphan children but takes the opportunity to visit Lao Peng and finds him alone and ill in a hotel near the war zone.


“He was soundly asleep. (…) Lightly and noiselessly she approached his bedside and stood looking at this man who in her eyes was without fear and without reproach, who had done so much for her and now had come to live in solitude on her account.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 353

            Tanni realizes that, now that everything is prepared for her, she does not want to live the sort of life that Poya could give her. During this scene, which cannot  be given in detail, the true nature of their feelings for each other is revealed. However, Lao Peng insists on her going through with her marriage to Poya, probably rightly, and the situation seems impossible when eventually Poya arrives. He is at first somewhat irritating, even to Tanni, by his casual behaviour and he takes Tanni and Lao Peng as well on a sort of sight-seeing trip to a place well known in Chinese history and folklore which happens to be on the edge of the war zone. He has realized by now what the situation is between Tanni and Lao Peng and has learned a lot about their life in the refugee hostel. Tanni is now becoming conspicuously pregnant and the marriage has to be speeded up. They happen to come by chance to a spot where there is still sporadic fighting and Lao Peng leaves them to make his own way back along the canal, Tanni and Poya being on a bicycle. Poya sees that Tanni is sobbing because she fears that Lao Peng might die getting back. But then there is a clatter of hooves and a small group of twelve Japanese cavalry come riding across the field. Poya gets up from their cover, stands there in the middle of the road, aims at the horsemen and kills three before he is fatally wounded himself.


“She bent over him, calling his name between her sobs.

         “Tanni, don’t cry,” he said in a gasping whisper. “Marry Lao Peng.” He stopped and began again with great effort. “All my money is yours. Bring up the child.” Pointing to his pocket, he said with a last smile: “It is there. Our pledge!” “


                                                         A Leaf in the Storm, p. 381



          This self-sacrifice of the apparently superficial and unreliable Poya is not, as we find out later, a quixotic spur-of-the-moment act. Tanni later has the opportunity to see his Diary where he discloses his feelings about the situation, and writes notably


“Oh, what a fool I have been! Lien-erh [Tanni] must be quite a changed person. She has gone beyond me. I must yet try to understand her better — this Buddhism and her interest in the war work. I feel almost unworthy of her.”


  This supreme act of self-sacrifice, all the more impressive because it comes from a character with whom one has lost sympathy, is followed by an equivalent act of self-sacrifice by Tanni. She is given the free choice by the Yao family to get married posthumously “before Poya’s spirit-tablet in the presence of the closest relatives”, in which case the child will be legitimate but this will condemn her to life-long widowhood. It is made clear that financial arrangements should be no part of the decision since the family is committed to providing well for the child in any case. Tanni has to show her decision be the next day wearing either a blue or a white knot in her hair — white being the colour of mourning in China. She is in effect free to marry Lao Peng at last but, true to character, he advises her to accept the marriage


“ “Courage, Tanni! You will soon have your baby and he will fill your life. Lose yourself in work for others and you will find that greater happiness which is above the sorrows of our individual lives.”

            “Can I still join you in your work?”

            “Why not? After this, both you and I must find a higher happiness.” ”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 390



            Buddhism is a religion of withdrawal and compassion but not a religion of active charity and self-sacrifice. By a combination of the best of the two religions, Lin Yutang concludes the novel — ending that is sombre but not tragic. It is quite the opposite of the ending of Gone with the Wind since in the latter romanticism triumphs, or attempts to at any rate, and different from the ending of War and Peace which is somewhat bathetic though we do have the young Prince Andrei raising the banner of idealism in the last scene. On the other hand, Lin Yutang has an easier task since he has chosen not to show us what happens ‘twenty years after’.


“A calm settled over the refugee house at Hungshan. Lao Peng and Tanni found in their common devotion a happiness which they ahd not thought possible.

   Not far away was Poya’s grave. Above it stood an ep[itaph chosen by Tanni and approved by Lao Peng. It was a non-Buddhist, but curiously universal text :

   Greater man hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.     







A Forgotten Novel : "A Leaf in the Storm"

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“A Leaf in the Storm”  by Lin Yutang


this strikes me as being a great book, and there are probably not more than a dozen or so novels about which I would say this. On reading the final pages alone in a carriage on the way to London, I actually found myself bursting into tears.   

      Why do I find this forgotten book, discovered by chance at the back of a cupboard in a friend’s house, so interesting and moving?

      Let us deal with the more superficial reasons first. The author, Lin Yutang, was a twentieth century Chinese man who eventually emigrated to America and wrote fluently in both English and Chinese. As a highly cultured individual who embraced Western literature and ideas while retaining deep interest in traditional Chinese art and philosophy, he was very much a man who straddled two worlds, and we have very few articulate accounts of people like this. Moreover, unlike the author of  The Three Swans, he has no particular axe to grind which makes his book, though dealing with a chapter in Chinese history if anything even more dreadful  than Mao’s Cultural  Revolution, a much more humane and inspiring book. The modernization of China had in fact been going on apace for more than fifty years before Mao ever came to power : China’s  ‘Cultural Revolution’ should, in a sense, be backdated to Sun Yat Sen’s time for it was in the early twentieth century that Western ideas and mores really began to powerfully affect the Chinese people.

            As a realistic — but not naturalistic — novel there are plenty of details about how Chinese of all classes during the mid-twentieth century period actually lived, what clothes they wore, what furniture they possessed, how they travelled  and what sort of things they ate. I was bemused, for example, to find that a favourite delicacy of the time, the equivalent to our Crisps, was dried ducks’ gizzards : in one scene the central character, Malin, takes one out of a glass jar and munches it for a good twenty minutes prior to the main meal. And I learn that both men and women commonly wore in winter, “quilted leg sheaths that were  tied around the ankles below and laced at the top, the seats cut away” (p. 105). Malin has some difficulty putting them on “because there was no trouser braid to which to tie the top strings since she wore foreign panties”. And I learn that, as late as the mid twentieth century, traditional “big-drum Storytellers” in Shanghai still managed to compete successfully with Hollywood films for the attention of the urban public. At the same time the Shanghai young Chinese women seem to have been amazingly ‘modern’, far more so, to judge by certain scenes in the novel, than their equivalents in, say, Italy during the same era.  

            For all that, I would like to think that, even if I were a contemporary Chinese man or woman, to whom many of these everyday details would be a good deal less strange, the novel would still have much the same effect on me. As a love story acted out against the backdrop of war, A Leaf in the Storm makes one think immediately of War and Peace on the one hand or Gone with the Wind on the other. Though a good deal shorter than these two epics, and marred by a slow beginning, in many ways it stands up quite well against these mammoth best-sellers.

          A Leaf in the Storm tells a highly romantic story and   could easily be turned into a tremendous Hollywood film — quite as good as Titanic  — but it is also a novel with an underlying  philosophy and message. The implicit ethic is an ethic of self-sacrifice, but not taken to a masochistic or suicidal extreme : Lao Peng even departs from the strict non-violence of traditional Buddhism by actively aiding the insurgency, and we feel that, in the circumstances, this is entirely right. The principle of self-sacrifice is something that has completely disappeared from western society, especially since the decline  and fall of Christianity, and the result is a  culture of  self-indulgence and self-seeking whose baleful results are only too obvious today. A Leaf in the Storm  is, philosophically, a strange mish-mash of Buddhist, Christian and Romantic ideas  but it is an impressive and entirely successful mixture.  Lin Yutang, the author, was brought up as a Christian but later immersed himself in Taoism and Buddhism, while his literary tastes, Chinese and European, were clearly Romantic. The Buddhist in him counters the intolerance of Christianity, the Christian in him offsets the abstractness and lack of warmth of Buddhism, and the Romantic in him makes him, at moments, sweep aside impatiently both Christian and Buddistic morality, at any rate where ‘love’ is concerned.

            A Leaf in the Storm is notable in that it presents us with a genuinely ‘good’ person, Lao Peng, who is both convincing, likeable and even interesting! Novelists and scriptwriters have serious problems with ‘good’ characters since audiences and readers, especially women, so obviously prefer violent and masterful characters like Heathcliffe or Scarlett O’Hara (without even mentioning  debased film ‘heroes’ such as James Bond and Rambo). Dostoevsky gets round this by making his good characters physically or socially disfavoured — Prince Myshkin is an epileptic and Sonia a poor prostitute. But this has always struck me as being an easy way out and is one of the reasons why Dostoevsky is markedly inferior to Tolstoy as a writer and thinker, at any rate the Tolstoy of War and Peace. As for Dickens, his ‘good’ characters, with one or two exceptions, tend to be either implausible or silly, or both at once. But Lao Peng, the unassuming  middle aged Buddhist comes over as someone one would actually like to meet — whereas I am not sure I would have enjoyed meeting Gandhi.


         “Beijing did not know Lao Peng. He had done nothing extraordinary. His outward life had been one failure after another. But ever since he [Poya] came to know him, the man had fascinated him. It seemed unbelievable that in this bare room lived a great man in obscurity, the only perfectly happy man that he knew, without wife and children. He was a man ‘without fear and without worry’ — Confucius’ definition of the gentleman.”


            A Leaf in the Storm also has some tremendous minor characters straight out of Chinese folklore (though for all that perfectly credible) such as Grandma Chao, an innocuous looking, illiterate Chinese woman of sixty, who runs single-handed a vast guerrilla network, or, at the opposite extreme, the swashbuckling, boastful guerrilla leader known as Rattlesnake.

            Unlike most serious western novels, there are no villains in A Leaf in the Storm — Lin Yutang does not need them — except, of course, the faceless and ubiquitous Japanese invaders. Sex is present but kept in its rightful place and Lin Yutang thankfully spares us the tiresome descriptions of intercourse that a contemporary novelist, even more so a film director, would consider de rigueur.      

            Many great novels have disappointing endings and I for one wish Tolstoy  had never written the bathotic Epilogue to War and Peace where the two main characters who survive the war, Natasha and Pierre, turn into a tiresome middle-aged couple : it seems hardly worth having gone through so much to end up with so little.  

            A Leaf in the Storm ends in a surprising and thoroughly satisfying manner, neither tragic nor happy exactly, and the great thing is that we feel that each of the three main characters really has learned something from his or her experiences and is a better person at the end than he or she was at the beginning (even Lao Peng). Of all novels known to me, A Leaf in the Storm strikes me as the one of which Schopenhauer would have most approved. The main characters pass from the turbulence that comes from subjection to the World as Will to the serenity, inevitably mixed with sadness, that comes from renunciation of the individual Will and everything that goes with it.


“ ‘What about you?’ she asked feebly.

‘I shall carry on my refugee work. Try to remember the vision you had at the Chenghow hotel. Courage, Tanni. After this, both you and I must try to find a higher happiness. (…) Lose yourself in work for others and you will find that greater happiness which is above the sorrows of our individual lives.’”  

                                 A Leaf in the Storm, p. 390



What makes a good poem?

‘What features should a good poem have?’ ‘What makes a poem good?’

For a start one would expect a successful poem to be doing what poetry is especially good at – so one way of approaching this question is to ask what a poem can do that other literary forms cannot. Well, a poem is, or at any rate was originally, vocal, intended to be heard, and, whether heard or not, it differs from prose by having a discernible repeating rhythm. One would thus expect a good poem to be musical.

Apart from being agreeable in itself, rhythm helps the reciter to learn a poem off by heart and helps the listener, or silent reader, to recall lines and passages without having ever made any conscious attempt to memorise them. Poetry — at any rate poetry that scans — is memorable: apart from proverbs and extracts from the Bible, most of the literary snips we carry around with us are in verse, and not in free verse either.

Despite Pater’s dictum (that “All art aspires to the condition of music”), poetry is not music manqué. A poem uses words and words mean something in a way sounds do not — Oxford University Press does not publish a dictionary of sounds. Many celebrated poets very much had a message to get across to the world, Dante, the Romantics, the World War I poets, Auden &c. &c. So why didn’t these people write reports or philosophic treatises? The answer is that for certain kinds of truth a poem is a very effective, indeed nearly ideal, vehicle. Truths of human experience, it would seem, as opposed to, for example, mathematical or physical truths. This, of course, applies to other art forms also such as theatre, but poetry holds an advantageous middle position: it is compelling enough to give you an ‘inside’ view, yet has enough distancing to encourage reflection. This is what Wordsworth was getting at with his famous phrase about “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. There are two features here : intensity and distancing, both essential. A poem without intensity is not arresting, but without a certain distancing it ends up as a sequence of ‘Ooh!’s and ‘Aaah!’s.

A poem, if read silently rather than listened to, needs to be read slowly — and this is an important point. It would be intolerable to be forced to read a book of (good) poems at the same pace as one reads a newspaper. But why is this the case? Basically, because a good poem has content that is worth pondering, dwelling on, coming back to again and again. One could say that a good poem should have depth but this is not quite the right word, since it is not exactly depth in the philosophic sense that is important. Often the points being made in certain very memorable poems are seemingly obvious, unsubtle, yet somehow well worth making, as when, for example, Housman writes

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

Instead of ‘depth’, to describe what I have in mind, I prefer the term pithy, though it is not perhaps ideal either. An author who has this quality to a remarkable degree is Thomas Hardy. This is why we read him, not for his sound or imagery.

A poem attempts to make a definitive statement on a particular theme. I shouldn’t think many people who have read and enjoyed The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Fitzgerald’s translation are much tempted to want to try their hand at expressing this particular brand of melancholy hedonism in their own words — Fitzgerald has pre-empted them.

Secondly, there is the question of constraints. Poetry has constraints that prose does not – one might go so far as to define poetry as rhythmically constrained prose. (In the exceptional case of Haiku which has no metrical constraints, it makes up for this for having very strict constraints of length and also, traditionally at any rate, subject matter.) If our aim is ‘truth’ in a narrow sense, i.e. truth rather than entertainment, formal constraints are thoroughly undesirable which is why no contemporary scientist, journalist or historian writes in verse. Coleridge in his Essays and Lectures on Shakespeare says exactly this, “Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. (…) The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement, or communication of, truth; the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure.” The latter point is surely worth making: published poetry should be in some sense enjoyable and enjoyable not only to write but to read. A textbook on physics may conceivably be enjoyable to read, but this was not the main intention concern of its author.
These considerations give me a few initial guidelines — or, some would say, prejudices. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As it happens, I have for some years now been taking the trouble to type out manually (or very occasionally to photocopy) poems which I keep in a file “Memorable Poems” and the other day I wondered whether loafing through these offerings, there were any features more or less common to all, or a large number of, these chosen poems. I had never previously pondered the question of what makes a good poem, let alone written an article on the theme. I made a list of such features and give it below. This approach — my original one — is thus strictly a posteriori : I chose the poems first over a period of years and only later looked for common denominators.
A poem should, on the basis of my selection, be (not in order of importance)

  1. Enjoyable (!)
  2. Brief
  3. Concise
  4. Musical
  5. Intense
  6. Distanced
  7. Universalised
  8. Pithy
  9. Definitive
  10. Unified
  11. Memorable
  12. Accessible

Of course, not every poem in my personal anthology exhibits 1 – 12 inclusive but they all score on 1 and on at least five or six other counts (though I repeat I did not choose them with my criteria at hand). I take two examples at random.

Dylan Thomas’s And Death Shall Have No Dominion is in my file. I immediately give it a tick for 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 i.e. it is enjoyable, brief, musical, intense, universalised, definitive and memorable. And I think it deserves at least a double tick for 3 (musicality) — it sounds magnificent read out loud whether it means anything or not. It is not so certain that the poem meets the other criteria. I do not think anyone would call Dylan Thomas pithy mainly, although he is usually very sure of how he feels, he is never quite sure of what message he is trying to get across. It is debatable whether the poem is accessible since, although no foreign or erudite words are used, as is typical with Dylan Thomas there is an uncertainty about his wild mixing of metaphors and how literally we are to take them. Still, most ‘men-and-women-in-the-street’ hearing this poem recited at a funeral would get the broadly pantheistic message — and Dylan Thomas’s messages are rarely more than broad.
R.S. Thomas’s The Coming, a very different style of poem, makes it to my collection and scores at once 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 11. It most likely rates double ticks for 2, , and 5, pithiness. Though not disagreeable in sound, it is hardly in the Dylan Thomas class for reading aloud and so doesn’t make 3, musicality. Whether it rates 12, accessibility depends on whether we consider a poet has the right to assume a working knowledge of Christian theology on the part of the reader. Certainly, this limits the accessibility as compared, say, to taking a more universal theme such as love or the coming of spring.

Something should be said on each of these counts.

1. Enjoyable Isn’t this obvious? No, in fact it is somewhat contestable. Most books and articles are written not to please but to inform, and some are deliberately written to displease, shock, appal &c. either from sheer bloodymindedness or from a desire to convince or convert. I suppose there’s no absolute reason why someone shouldn’t use verse in this way but one would like to feel that poetry is kept apart from politics and religion and other things people argue and fight about.

This raises serious problems if, as most writers do these days, one wants to be both a pleasure to read and ‘true to life’. Can/should the ugly and trivial be turned into something pleasurable? One way out is by humour but funny poetry is rather limited and some subjects, e.g. war, demand serious treatment. Poets who experienced the ultimate horror of World War I were acutely conscious of the beauty/truth predicament and grappled with it in different ways : for my taste Rupert Brook is too pretty (not truthful enough), Wilfrid Owen too grim (not very enjoyable to read), Sassoon at his best just about right.

2. Brief How brief? For my taste a poem should fit on two open pages so one does not need to turn over the page. Most in my selection are shorter, single page poems. The longest in my selection is Tennyson’s Ulysses , seventy lines, which is near the maximum length to which I at any rate can give my full attention without a break, probably near the maximum that one can listen to as well.

‘Long poems’ these days are not that long and are usually broken up into sections.

3. Concise. This is not the same as being brief: it all depends how much or how little one has to say. Since there is no limit of length in ‘free verse’, poets today tend to ramble on until they run out of things to say, then stop. The resulting poem, though typically only about twenty lines in length, is more often than not long-winded rather than concise. D.H. Lawrence, perhaps the only really good true ‘free verse’ poet, does manage to get away with it, but even he only just. Cypresses would be a much more devastating poem if it was as tight as, say, a poem by R.S. Thomas.

4. Musical  Nothing needs to be said, I think, on this score — except that contemporary poetry is singularly unmusical, and this is not a good thing.

5. Intense. Coleridge talks about a poem “attaining its end by the use of language natural to us in a state of excitement…”. What naturalism fails to grasp is that most of what goes on in everyday life is pretty dull and most of what is said is not worth remembering. The language of poetry, even in a dramatic monologue, should not aim be ‘natural’, it has to be heightened.

6. Distanced This is necessary in order to get beyond private outpourings which may be therapeutic to the author but tend to be tedious and  embarrassing to read.

7. Universalised

The idea is to exclude purely private writing.

“Soldier from the war returning…”

As Auden comments, “It is quite unimportant, though it is the kind of question that is not infrequently asked, who the soldier is, what regiment he belongs to, what war he had been fighting in, &c.  The soldier is you or me, or the man next door. Only when it throws light on our own experience (…) does poetry convince us of its significance.” (Auden & Garrett)

8. Pithy. Difficult to define. Certainly must be concise and must make one think. Best conveyed by illustration,



Only a man harrowing clods

In a slow silent walk

With an old horse that stumbes and nods

Half asleep as they stalk.



Only thin smoke without flame

From the heaps of couch-grass;

Yet this will go onward the same

Though Dynasties pass.


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Yonder a maid and her wight

   Come whispering by :

War’s annals will cloud into night

   Ere their story die.


               Thomas Hardy

There is so much here in small compass: a theory of economic history as against history viewed as wars of ‘great men’, the suggestion that personal values are ‘higher’ than general ones, and so on. The poem is notable also for its ambivalence, typical of Hardy – are we to view the human story as something futile and trivial (“only a man harrowing clods”, “only thin smoke without flame”) or, on the contrary, should we exult Zen-like in the ‘ordinariness’ of life?

9. Definitive. A really good poem is a definitive statement of a particular theme which almost attains the status of a sacred text (for this reason).

It follows that a good poem, or at any rate a great poem, cannot be idiosyncratic, subjective since this stops it being definitive. Rimbaud in his Une Saison en Enfer could have listed the drinks/drugs he took, the pubs where he sat – as a contemporary writer would do — but he doesn’t bother us with such trivia.

10. Unified. Ideally sound, imagery, theme and stance should all be unified anda listener who was ignorant of the language would ‘understand’ the poem. This cannot happen, of course, and in cases where we have unity of sound and emotion (as often in Hopkins or Dylan Thomas) this is done at the expense of subject-matter which is either non-existent or thoroughly opaque.

To give an impression of unity, the style must be appropriate to the subject matter. Thus, since we today at any rate feel the neatness of rhyming couplets is alien to the spirit of epic, Pope’s translation of Homer is a non-starter. However, in his Heloise and Abelard there is a pleasing ‘contradictory’ unity of style and theme (polyphonic?) since the passionate sincerity ‘carries’ the baroque style while the mannered form effectively stops the poem collapsing into sentimentality.

11. Memorable A poem should be memorable both in the figurative and the literal sense. If it’s not memorable, what’s the point of it?

Memorable because it makes a strong impression. But does not all writing aim to do this? No, the greater part of a novel , setting of scene, past history of character &c. is intended to be skipped through fairly rapidly, and the same of course goes for newspaper articles often destined to go out of date in the course of a single day. It would be intolerable if everything were memorable and Thoreau remarks pertinently “how hard it is to forget what it is worse than useless to remember”.

Memorable in the literal sense, i.e. easily learned off by heart. In good traditional poems expressions and whole lines stick in the mind without one making any specific attempt to learn them off by heart. But modern literature, set adrift from its origins, is largely incapable of providing an up to date equivalent to the mass of proverbs, jingles, Biblical and Shakespearian snippets that we still carry around in our heads. There is the anecdote of the diplomat at a large dinner party who challenged the guests to recite a single poem written during the last twenty — or maybe it was fifty —  years. No one could.

“Of the many definitions of poetry, the simplest is still the best: ‘memorable speech’. (…) The test of a poet is the frequency and diversity of the occasions on which we remember his poetry.

from Introduction to The Poet’s Tongue, W.H. Auden & John Garrett

12. Accessible. By this I mean accessible to the reading public. It is ridiculous that so many twentieth century poems, often written by persons who regard themselves as socialists, require a whole barrage of footnotes and critical commentaries.

Blogger jeanne said…
Dear Sebastian,
Thrilled to discover you on the Web again. It’s been a long time since we were in touch.
I am most impressed with your awesome talents and have forwarded your poetry blog (which I loved) to your Uncle and my daughter.

The Unities and Neo-Classical Drama

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french neo-classical tragedy could not be more out of sync with contemporary tastes and practices. Most of the successful neo-classical French plays were written with scrupulous respect for the so-called Three Unities, Unity of Plot, Unity of Place and Unity of Time. The first meant that everything had to be concentrated on the main action, so no sub-plot and no interesting minor characters; the second meant that all the action had to take place at a single spot, for example the corridor of a palace as in Racine’s Britannicus, and the third meant that the action should ideally take place in ‘real time’ (the time of  the actual performance), or at least not exceed the duration of a single day. As if this were not enough, two further principles, that of vraisemblance, or ‘credibility’, and bienséance, or ‘propriety’, excluded miraculous and fantastic events, and meant that all violence and lovemaking (including kissing) had to take place offstage. It is hardly surprising that French neo-classical tragedy, contrasting as it does so flagrantly with Shakespeare and Elizabethan tragedy generally, has never been popular in this country and these days is even put on less and less in its country of origin.

            Although it is fair to say that the seventeenth century French critics, especially Chapelain and Boileau, did go somewhat further than Aristotle, it is quite untrue  to claim, as many contemporary literary critics do, that ‘neo-classicism’ was a post-Renaissance French invention that has little connection with the theory and practice of the ancients. The vast majority of extant Greek tragedies do take place either in real time or within the space of a single day or night, and the action is almost always restricted to a single spot. And in Greek drama there can be  no question of a subplot since even extending the number of characters on stage at any one time to three was, at the time, viewed as a ‘modern’ innovation  — though admittedly there is the Chorus. As for bienséance, violent actions like Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon invariably take place offstage and there can be no question of Hollywood clinches, since, amazingly, there are no love scenes at all in any extant Greek tragedies. Aristotle does mention credibility and criticises severely plays which rely on improbable or miraculous interventions — though the fact that he needs to say this shows that there were certain plays that violated the rule.  All in all, French neo-classical theory is simply a tightening up of rules and principles that were very much in existence in the classical era. (Comedy and the Roman theatre are another matter.)    

            In my youth I shared this lack of interest in French Neo-classical Drama  and, during all the years I spent in Paris in the Sixties, never went once to the Comédie Française to see a single play by Racine or Corneille. We are today so used to seeing plays and films which take place in any number of completely different locations, have subplots and minor characters that are often more engaging than the protagonist and main plot, not to speak of the present-day appetite for completely unnecessary explicit sex and violence, that adhering to the Unities and Proprieties of 17th century French theatre seems almost suicidal.

            But when I came to write a full length tragedy of my own, The Chosen One (see the website, I found to my surprise that, without meaning to, I had written a play which scrupulously observed the Three Unities and, on top of that, the Principles of Credibility and Propriety — since the violent end takes place offstage.

            In the right hands and with the right subject, the unities give a claustrophobic intensity to the action which Shakespearian theatre and contemporary cinema cannot rival. Othello, a domestic tragedy with few characters, is the nearest Shakespeare ever got to writing a neo-classical  drama. It is, however, weakened by having the First Act take place in Venice, rather than Cyprus (where the rest of the play is situated), and by giving too much  importance to  the opposition of Desdemona’s father to her marriage, since this is neither here nor there from the point of view of the main plot.  

            Casting my eyes over the shelf in my library devoted to plays, I come across several  modern plays which adhere more or less to the unities, probably without intending to. The action of  Journey’s End, by R.C. Sherriff, about the only World War I drama ever put on today, all takes place in a dugout on the Western front between Tuesday and Thursday morning. There are no female characters, no subplot, and almost everything turns around the relationship between Stanhope, the Commanding Officer, and the young recruit, Raleigh, who knew him at public school and idolises him. A contemporary Hollywood film would almost certainly miss the brooding intensity of this disturbing play, by interspersing the scenes in the dugout with gory bayonet charges and idyllic periods of leave at home, or, more likely, visits to French prostitutes between two spells at the front. This play is about the nearest one can get to ancient Greek tragedy since there is a frightful sense of fatality throughout : the real central character of the play, as someone said, is not Stanhope or Raleigh but the war itself whose presence is always felt —  and for most of the time heard as well in the form of interminable gunfire — just as the Trojan war is the main protagonist in tragedies such as Ajax, or indeed the Iliad itself.   

            Also, I find on the same shelf, Dangerous Corner, by J.B. Priestley, one of his best plays which, like the better known An Inspector Calls, takes place in the drawing room of a house after dinner during the space of a single evening. Although there is a death, it happened some time previously and the play consists entirely of increasingly angry arguments amongst the middle-class people who knew the dead man and which, bit by bit, reveal a whole lot of things that were originally utterly submerged. Without either fighting or lovemaking, the play is gripping, even intolerably so. 

            Again, coming across a copy of the remarkable and unjustly forgotten play, Das Heilige Experiment (English title The Strong Are Lonely), by Fritz Hochwalder, I see that the action takes place during a single day, July 16, 1767, at the College of the Jesuit Fathers, Buenos Aires. The compression is all the more striking since not only does this single day decide the fate of the leading characters but that of the 150,000 Indian inhabitants of an entire country, present-day Paraguay. The same historical event, the deliberate dismantling of the Jesuit South American utopia by the Spanish authorities, is the basis of the film, The Mission, starring Jeremy Irons, though in the film it is the Portuguese, and not the Spanish, who are made responsible. Though I would not want to miss the magnificent scenery of the film and the harrowing ending, the moral dilemma of the Jesuit leader is much more acute, and in consequence much more moving, in the play, precisely because everything is concentrated on it. There is also, unlike the film, no love interest or subplot.

            To let slip the opportunities of flashback, spectacular scenery and contrasting settings would seem perverse in the case of cinema. I cannot offhand think of a film which obeys the unities completely but the black-and-white films of the Thirties and Fifties came much closer than films do today. Dispersion, not intensity, is currently the order of the day and the action drama cum thriller, which of necessity flouts all the neo-classical rules, has for a long time been the dominant genre in cinema. Odd Man Out comes close to the neo-classical ideal since all the action  takes place during a single night in Belfast and everything is concentrated on the predicament of the wounded IRA leader, brilliantly played  by James Mason, wandering about the dismal streets trying vainly to escape the police on his heels. Training Day, starring Denzil Washington, takes place during a single day. A good three-quarters of Casablanca takes place in Rick’s Bar, and there are doubtless one or two other examples.    

            French 17th century tragedy is closer to opera than present-day theatre. Audiences of the time obviously enjoyed the lengthy and, to our ears, thoroughly undramatic monologues delivered by virtually immobile actors and actresses in much the same way as we enjoy arias by Pavarotti and Domingo. They also quite clearly responded favourably to the extremely elevated moral tone of most of the tragedies : virtue (of a certain type) actually excited the audiences of the time, ‘turned them on’, if you like, in much the same way as sexual scenes and violence excite contemporary viewers. A typical theme of neo-classical drama is the conflict between honour and personal desire, duty and natural inclination. We are all inheritors of the Romantics who dictated, once and for all, that emotion is always right and that law and order, inasmuch as it goes against instinct, is always wrong. But the characters of French neo-classical drama generally choose duty and honour : even when they transgress social rules and customs, as  Phaedra does, they do so unwillingly. They invariably  prefer death to dishonour. E.M. Forster famously wrote, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”. But, is this really a good principle?  I think not. Many people in France during the German Occupation were precisely faced with this very dilemma and the issue has become contemporary once more because of  terrorism. Society collapses into chaos without a moral code of some sort and all moral codes involve self-sacrifice.

Arthur Rimbaud and May '68

On Thursday 8 May 2008 the author of this website, Sebastian Hayes, gave a talk on the French nineteenth century poet, Arthur Rimbaud, at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. Since there was to be a commemoration of the 1968 Paris ‘Student Revolution’ on the following Saturday at the same venue, the author angled his talk with this in mind.

Sebastian Hayes started by stating in advance that, considering the audience and the moment in time, he was not going to emphasize the specifically literary importance of Rimbaud, or his command of style, though these matters were briefly dealt with in his essay Rimbaud Revisited 1968 — 2006 which appears in his recent book, Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer, A New Translation with Notes (available online from However, he did want briefly to disperse two myths, firstly that there was anything particularly remarkable in Rimbaud destroying his early work, and, secondly, that Rimbaud had a sensational sex life (as one might perhaps imagine from the recent film).

As to the first, Sebastian Hayes pointed out that it is not rare for young authors to destroy part or all of their work, either through genuine distaste, disappointment concerning publication or as a ploy to gain attention. The author himself destroyed all his writings, including Diaries, and all the books he had with him in a bonfire when he was about twenty-eight — a volume of Arthur Rimbaud and the novelette Manon Lescaut were the only books to escape the auto-da-fe. A university friend of the author, Ian Watson, informed us one day that he, likewise, had burned all his poems. What is remarkable in the case of Rimbaud is the quality of the work destroyed (or left forgotten by him) and the subsequent resolve of the writer : Rimbaud never went back to literature after his nineteenth year and even stopped reading poetry and fiction. In a letter to his mother from North Africa, the older Rimbaud confessed that “if I had a son I would want him to become an engineer, not an artist” and when Delahaye, a schoolfriendof Rimbaud’s dared to ask him if he still did any writing, Rimbaud looked at him “as if I had asked him if he still played with a stick and hoop” (Delahaye).

 Far from leading an extravagant sexual life, Rimbaud as an adolescent was shy with girls and is only known to have had one long-standing relation with a woman, Argoba, an Ethiopian girl in Harar. Argoba was not ‘noble savage’ like Gauguin’s Tahitian mistresses : she dressed in European clothes, was a Catholic and liked smoking cigarettes! In Sebastian’s opinion, Rimbaud’s celebrated liaison with the French poet Verlaine was much more of an emotional than a sexual affair, and there is no evidence whatsoever that Rimbaud had any other homosexual relations. Rimbaud can certainly be claimed as a pioneer of the ‘sexual liberation’ of the Sixties but, like Moses, he never entered the Promised Land himself. (One wonders what he would make of the scene today — not much I reckon.)

The author went on to say that Rimbaud’s main preoccupation, not to say obsession, was to find a way of ‘changing the world’ by some sort of total revolution which would not only be social and political but also individual, psychological and cultural. (The English equivalent is Blake.)  Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), Arthur Rimbaud’s most important work, is the record of the total collapse of such  utopian hopes. The rest of Rimbaud’s life was miserable : “It is as if, once he had renounced the idea of being a ‘damned soul’, he became instead a ‘damned man’ “(Rimbaud Revisited, p. 62).

The author then made the connection with May ’68 in France, the West’s longest General Strike and France’s ‘Cultural Revolution’. It was a thoroughly Rimbaudian movement, so much so that when the author (who was living in Paris at the time) came across slogans such as ‘Prenez vos desirs pour des realites’ (‘Consider your desires to be realities’) and ‘La revolution sera une fete ou ne sera pas’ (‘The revolution will be a festival or will not take place at all’), he actually wondered if they were not taken from some recently discovered manuscript of Arthur Rimbaud. But no, they came from the Situationnists, Guy Debord mainly. The May ’68 movement had an absolute quality ‘Ce que nous voulons — tout!’ (‘What do we want ? Everything !’) that the adolescent Rimbaud would have thoroughly approved of, and the Rimbaud of Une Saison en Enfer would have equally thoroughly rejected as megalomania.

The author said, or to be more precise intended to say to his largely Left-wing audience, that it would have only been too easy for him, as a ‘veteran of May ’68’ to say what a great moment in time it had been and “if only we could recover that spirit again”. But, as it happens, the author had very mixed feelings about May ’68 and the social and political movements of the Sixties generally even at the time. Their legacy long-term effect on the West has been largely bad, not to say disastrous. Never perhaps has there been a decade which promised so much and delivered so little. The cultural legacy has been narcissism, irresponsiblity, amorality, superficiality and self-centredness. The Sixties movements were a rebellion without a cause. But if you want to change the world you must have a cause, and you must make some attempt to translate this cause into reality within your own personal life.

Sebastian Hayes concluded by saying that ‘revolutionary’ movements in the West since May ’68 have failed completely for two reasons : 1. the revolutionaries have largely lost contact with the working class (half the time they can’t be bothered to work and live on the dole), and 2. there is a complete lack of any coherent moral or ethical perspective. Those who consider themselves revolutionaries must show people that there is ‘another way to live’, something different from the present materialistic, selfish life-style spreading across the globe. The roots of contemporary irresponsibility and selfishness do not lie in the Thatcher era but should be traced right back to the Sixties themselves and, if not to May ’68 itself (which was idealistic in style and aims) at least to its immediate aftermath.

Sebastian Hayes emphasized, in the subsequent discussion, that during May ’68 he did not personally see a single person smoking hash, tripping with LSD or even drunk, and that he did not know of any sex orgies going on in the Sorbonne — most of the time people were too excited and/or too frightened to be capable of sex. On a previous occasion when Sebastian spoke about May ’68 to a similar gathering, the audience was incredulous and aghast when he said this, as the present one was in part. On the contrary, Sebastian added, during May ’68 and just afterwards, there were always endless earnest discussions going on late into the night about how a ‘revolutionary’ should behave in life, including how he or she should conduct his or her personal relations. Sebastian said that ‘La revolution sera une fete ou ne sera pas ‘ is not sufficient and needs to be coupled with the requirement that the ‘revolution’ — supposing the term has any meaning these days — should introduce a new and better form of morality that people really put into practice on a day to day basis.     Sebastian Hayes

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