The Role of Nature in the Poems by Li Bai and Robert Frost
Nature has always been one of the most important themes in poetry of all epochs and societies. It serves as an endless source of metaphors, associations and inspiration for poets and artists. Despite the differences in culture and time some poets appear to have a range of striking similarities in their understanding of nature. Li Bai, a Chinese poet of the eighth century, and Robert Frost, an American author who worked at the first half of the twentieth century, were both deeply interested in nature, its functions and powers. This essay is devoted to the analysis of differences and similarities in the ways these authors understood nature and described it in their poems. Li Bai’s poems Viewing Heaven's Gate Mountains and Sitting Alone on Jingting Shan Hill and Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and The Road Not Taken would be used to study the role of nature in the works of these authors.
Li Bai and Robert Frost lived in very different societies that had different systems of cultural and religious values. This fact stipulates the most important difference between the ways nature is shown in the poems by Li Bai and Frost. These poets have a completely different perspective concerning the essence of human interaction with the nature. In Li Bai’s poems the human is seen as an integral part of nature and does not exhibit any signs of actual confrontation with the outside world even in cases when the person is suffering from the negative impact of the natural forces. In contrast to Li bai, Frost draws a clear dividing line between people and nature. The people who appear in his poems either challenge nature or highlight their “human” features that differentiate them from the natural world, like trees, grass, lakes, etc. This dissimilarity becomes evident while analyzing the works of these poets where the speaker plays an important role. In Li Bai’s poem Sitting Alone on Jingting Shan Hill the speaker lacks action. He is calmly watching the nature without making any movements, both physical and psychological. The speaker sits on the same place and there are no disturbances in his soul as he is fully engaged in watching the nature. Li Bai writes, “We gaze at each other, neither growing tired” (qtd. in Hinton 190). This poem perfectly supports the system of religious values common for the times of Li Bai. “According to Daoist beliefs, man is a crucial component of the natural world and is advised to follow the flow of nature’s rhythms” (Nature in Chinese Culture). Therefore, the speaker shows no signs of counteracting the nature, but rather pays attention to its deeper understanding.
In contrast to this Chinese poet of the eighth century Robert Frost lived in the period of rapid social and industrial changes that defined the main themes in his oeuvre. In the poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening the speaker is riding a horse. He is getting through the woods to the village or town where he lives. Therefore, Frost creates two separate zones – some urban place where people live and the nature. The speaker is on the move, but he becomes fascinated with the mystery and coldness of the woods so much that he wants to go there. However, he understands that he has “promises to keep” and continues his way towards civilization (Frost 35). Here the human is not a part of nature and, what is more, there is certain danger in stopping by woods as they represent sleep and probably even death. It is obvious that the main principles of human interaction with nature are completely different in the poems of Li Bai and Robert Frost, but they can be fully explained by the dissimilarities in the social and cultural values of the societies to whom these poets belonged.
However, the works of these two poets reveal surprisingly many similarities that prove that the basic principles of depicting the nature may be universal and thus understandable to the representatives of all societies at various periods of time. First of all, it must be mentioned that both Li Bai and Robert Frost treat the nature primarily on the metaphorical level. The natural objects described in their poems are exceptionally rarely used in their direct meaning. In the poem Viewing Heaven's Gate Mountains water becomes one of the central images. Li Bai writes, “The River Chu cuts through the middle of heaven's gate, / The green water flowing east reaches here then swirls” (qtd. in Hinton 194). However, this image has little to do with the literal understanding of water as one of the physical elements. It is a multidimensional metaphor that reflects the fluidity of life and its ability to change. This image can be also associated with the necessity to pay attention to all the moments of life, even the tiny ones, as they are bound to pass away as it does the water in the river. In this poem Li Bai compares these moments to a short gleam of sun on the sails of the boat. The same approach is taken by Robert Frost. In his works the natural elements also always acquire some new metaphoric meaning. For instance, in his poem Frost speaks of “two roads… in a yellow wood” (74). These roads mean the choices that a person may make in his life. When the poet says that the road was “grassy and wanted wear”, he tries to show that people do not often make this choice and therefore it becomes really attractive for an adventurous person like the speaker (Frost 74).
Another important similarity between the poems of Li Bai and Robert Frost is that both authors describing various natural elements often combine deep reflections and lyrical beauty. Faggen analyzing the role of nature in Frost’s poems says that this poet often “hovers on the boundary between the meditative and the lyrical” that can be also true for almost all Li Bai’s poems (183). In Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening the speaker says that the “woods are lovely, dark and deep” and he is drawn there by some enigmatic force (Frost 35). These woods are both beautiful and able to evoke deep thoughts in the mind of the speaker. The same situation occurs in both Li Bai’s poems analyzed in this essay. For example, this mood dominates the poem Sitting Alone on Jingting Shan Hill where the speaker is, as it happened in Frost’s poem, fascinated with the complexity and mysteriousness of the nature. He admires “a flock of birds” and “a lonely cloud” that put him into a very meditative mood (qtd. in Hinton 190).
To conclude, the representation of nature in poems by Li Bai and Robert Frost has some important differences. They significantly differ in their understanding of the human place in nature and the ways people should interact with the outside world. However, despite great differences in terms of culture and time period, these poets also use some common approaches to depicting nature. Li Bai and Robert Frost almost always treat natural concepts and objects as metaphors and symbols. Moreover, they tend to combine meditative and lyrical elements that are supposed to better communicate their messages to the audience.