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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

By 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,

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:

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;

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

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

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

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.

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!

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,

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

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,

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:

“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

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,

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.

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

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.

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.”

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

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.”

“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:

“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

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

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.

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,

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,

Whilst thou hast reached it at a single bound:—

Henceforth the gods alone can teach thee tune.”