Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > Asia
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Asia: Vols. XXI–XXIII.  1876–79.
Chinese Empire: Kin
The Music-lesson of Confucius
Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903)
THE MUSIC-LESSON of Koung-tseu the wise,
Known as Confucius in the Western world.
Of all the sages of the Flowery Land
None knew so well as great Confucius
The ancient rites; and when his mother died,        5
Three years he mourned alone beside her tomb,
As the old custom bade, nor did he miss
A single detail of the dark old forms
Required of the bereaved, for he had made
Himself a model for all living men:        10
A mirror and a pattern of the past.
Now when the years of mourning with their rites
Were at an end, Confucius came forth
And wandered as of old with other men,
Giving his counsel unto many kings;        15
But still the hand of grief was on his heart,
And his dark hue set forth his darkened hours.
To drive away these sorrows from his soul,
Remembering that music had been made
A moral motive in the golden books        20
Of wisdom by the sacred ancestors,
He played upon the Kin,—the curious lute
Invented by Fou-Hi in days of old;
Fou-Hi of the bull’s head and dragon’s form,
The Lord of Learning who upraised mankind        25
From being silent brutes to singing men.
In vain Confucius played upon the lute;
He found that music would not be to him
What it had been of old,—a pastime gay:
For he had borne through three long years of grief        30
Stupendous knowledge, and his mighty soul,
Grasping the lines which link all earthly lore,
Had been by suffering raised to greater power;
For he who knows and suffers, if he will
May raise himself unnumbered scales o’er man.        35
The music spoke no more its wonted sounds,
But whispered mysteries in a broken tongue
Which urged him sorely. Then Confucius said:
“O secret Music! sacred tongue of God!
I hear thee calling to me, and I come!        40
Of old I did but know thy outer form,
And dreamed not of the spirit hid within;
The Goddess in the Lotos. Yes, I come,
And will not rest, nor will I calm my doubt,
Till I have seen thee plainly with mine eyes,        45
And palpably have touched thee with my hand,
Then shall I know thee,—raised to life for me
For what thou truly art.
                    Lo! I have heard
That in the land of Kin a master lives,
So deeply skilled in music, that mankind        50
Begin again to give a glowing faith
Unto the golden stories which are told
Of the strange harmonies which built the world,
And of the melody whose key is God.
Now I will travel to the land of Kin,        55
And know this sage of music, great Siang,
And learn the secret lore which hides within
All sweet well-ordered sounds.” He went his way,
Nor rested till he stood before the man.
Thus spoke Siang unto Confucius:        60
“Of all the arts, great Music is the art
To raise the soul above all earthly storms;
For in it lies that purest harmony
Which lifts us over self and up to God.
Thou who hast studied deeply the Kouà        65
The eight great symbols of created things—
Knowest the sacred power of the line
Which when unbroken flies to all the worlds
As light unending,—but in broken forms
Falls short as sky and earth, clouds, winds, and fire,        70
The deep blue ocean and the mountain high,
And the red lightning hissing in the wave.
The mighty law which formed what thou canst see,
As clearly lives in all that thou canst hear,
And more than this, in all that thou canst feel.        75
Here, take thy lute in hand. I teach the air
Made by the sage Wen Wang of ancient days.”
Confucius took the lute and played the air
Till all his soul seemed passing into song;
Then he fell deep into the solemn chords        80
As though his body and the lute were one,
And every chord a wave which bore him on
Through the great sea of ecstasy. His hands
Then ceased to play,—but in his raptured look
They saw him following out the harmony.        85
Five days went by, and still Confucius
Played all day long the ancient simple air;
And when Siang would teach him more, he said:
“Not yet, my master, I would seize the thought,
The subtle thought which hides within the tune.”        90
To which the master answered: “It is well.
Take five days more!” And when the time was passed
Unto Siang thus spoke Confucius:
“I do begin to see,—yet what I see
Is very dim. I am as one who looks        95
And nothing sees except a luminous cloud:
Give me but five more days, and at the end
If I have not attained the great idea
Hidden of old within the melody,
I will leave music as beyond my power.”        100
“Do as thou wilt, O pupil!” cried Siang
In deepest admiration; “never yet
Had I a scholar who was like to thee.”
And on the fifteenth day Confucius rose
And stood before Siang, and cried aloud:        105
“The mist which shadowed me is blown away,
I am as one who stands upon a cliff
And gazes far and wide upon the world,
For I have mastered every secret thought,
Yea, every shadow of a feeling dim        110
Which flitted through the spirit of Wen Wang
When he composed that air. I speak to him,
I hear him clearly answer me again;
And more than that, I see his very form:
A man of middle stature, with a hue        115
Half blended with the dark and with the fair;
His features long, and large sweet eyes which beam
With great benevolence,—a noble face!
His voice is deep and full, and all his air
Inspires a sense of virtue and of love.        120
I know that I behold the very man,
The sage of ancient days, Wen Wang the just.”
Then good Siang lay down upon the dust,
And said: “Thou art my master. Even thus
The ancient legend, known to none but me,        125
Describes our first great sire. And thou hast seen
That which I never yet myself beheld,
Though I have played the sacred song for years,
Striving with all my soul to penetrate
Its mystery unto the master’s form,        130
Whilst thou hast reached it at a single bound:—
Henceforth the gods alone can teach thee tune.”

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