The Tide that Pushes and Pulls: Vietnamese Romanticism by Erika Garbanzos

During the colonial period of Vietnam, there was contact with the Western literary movement that opened the people’s eyes to new developments in poetry. There was a poetic development during the nineteenth and early twentieth century that spawned through the desires of the Vietnamese poets to immerse themselves in French verses and prosody rules. Known as the New Poetry Movement, it deviated away from the old classical poetic tradition, and it resulted in a “war” between the ancient tradition and the new modern tradition.

When looking at what had most likely sparked the New Poetry Movement, it can be said that it may have been Phan Khôi, a Confucian scholar, that began it all. With his poem Tình Già (Elderly Love), it broke free from the traditional rules as it came at the most opportune time. During the release, there was already a generation of people that desired new kinds of prose that breaks free from traditionalism. His poem shows an ill-fated love together with an unconventional verse form. There was no mentioning of Chinese myths and no usage of traditional verses. Even the words used were written with simplicity and spontaneity. The poem more or less talks about two lovers who could not marry because of tradition. Already, this text is apparent in breaking free from tradition. When the two lovers see each other again after twenty long years, their love for each other returns and simply lets that love take control of their actions. During the time of this poem’s release, that kind of thing would be considered risky, even taboo. The poem contains a glorification of the self, the individual. Clearly, it was a departure from the traditional.

It was not only Phan Khôi that introduced new techniques during this time. There were also new verse forms, ways of expression, and ideas that seem to have come from the general public. It was a complete change in direction for Vietnamese poetry, which can either be good or bad depending on the person. All in all, what binds the New Poetry Movement together is their release from traditional constraints together with a kind of individualism and love for freedom. One particular poet during this time embodies the style and spirit of the New Poetry Movement with his creation of 450 poems, and his name is Xuân Diệu.

xuan-dieuXuân Diệu is a well known poet born in 1916. A prolific poet, his poetry contained intense, burning emotions that even contain insatiable yearning. His themes mostly comprised of love and audacious imagination. He was fresh in poetic imagery, being intensely personal in his tone, and it is no surprise to say that Xuân Diệu was clearly a romantic poet even when compared to French and English Romantics.

As stated, he wrote a great deal of poems (450 of them). To simplify things, the author of this article has chosen a particular poem that also shows Xuân Diệu’s constant theme of love, which is Phải Nói or Say It in English.

Translated by Thomas D. Le in April 4, 2004, the poem is as follows:

Say It

“I am deeply in love, dear, is that not enough?
“How greedy you are, and demanding too!
“You already know, for I’ve told you I love you.
“Why insist on me repeating old stuff so oft?”

You love me deeply, but is that enough?
If you are in love, but you just keep it inside
And not show it, then words are empty,
And beauty is as cold as marble.

I have an immense desire, did you know?
And absolute, too. I’m in constant search of you.
If today’s truth is truth no longer tomorrow,
How can, my dear, love ever be old too?

Be deeply in love, but that is still not enough.
You’ve got to say love, hundreds, no, thousands of times.
Be so loving that every night is one of spring,
And birds and butterflies freed in the love garden.

Say it, you must say it, you must.

With words that dwell privy in your eyes and your brows
With joy, bashfulness, and ecstasy at dusk,
With head cuddling, smile on your lips, and grasping arms,
With wordless intensity, what else do I know!

Just make sure you don’t stay frigid as ice
Or be unmoved beside one burning with desire,
Nor be as placid as still water in the pond.
Be deeply in love, but that is still not enough.

To better understand the poem, it would be good to take note that this is simply a translation, so that means some of the meanings in the poem may have been lost upon translating it. Now, let us talk about the poem in detail.

“I am deeply in love, dear, is that not enough?
“How greedy you are, and demanding too!
“You already know, for I’ve told you I love you.
“Why insist on me repeating old stuff so oft?”

Reading this stanza, it may be said that there is a person, possibly talking to the persona of the poem, who is getting tired of saying the same things. They have already clarified, possibly so many times already, that they love the person. It becomes clear that they might be tired of saying it so many times, given that they comment that the person they are talking to is both greedy and demanding. You already know, this speaker tells them, and they question why they must keep repeating themselves. From what they are saying, it can be assumed that they are tired of constantly saying they love them when he had already done so since the beginning.

You love me deeply, but is that enough?
If you are in love, but you just keep it inside
And not show it, then words are empty,
And beauty is as cold as marble.

Now it is time for the persona to speak. Given that it is no longer in quotation marks, it is clear that the persona is the one the first speaker was talking to. The persona responds by asking if simply loving them is enough. If love is only kept to oneself, then can one really call it love? It pushes the reader to think about their own experiences. Will keeping the love hidden within you be enough to actually call it love? If you do not say or do anything about it, will the love really be something true? The persona questions this, and it makes the reader wonder about something: Could it be that the persona is actually constantly doubtful? Maybe that is why they need constant affirmation of the first speaker’s love. Assumptions aside, it would be best to continue on with the poem.

I have an immense desire, did you know?
And absolute, too. I’m in constant search of you.
If today’s truth is truth no longer tomorrow,
How can, my dear, love ever be old too?

This is rather easy to understand, the persona of the poem is admitting to their feelings. The question posed before can also be brought up again in this. Is the persona in constant doubt of love from others or, more specifically, from the first speaker? This doubt is apparent with the persona’s belief that truth can possibly change and not be truth tomorrow. Could the persona believe so little? It makes the reader question if there is something that had made the persona think this way. It may be going too deep already in the poem, but it is a good thought to think about.

Be deeply in love, but that is still not enough.
You’ve got to say love, hundreds, no, thousands of times.
Be so loving that every night is one of spring,
And birds and butterflies freed in the love garden.

Say it, you must say it, you must.

Here, we see again the demand of the persona for the first speaker to clearly say love more than a thousand times. It is clear, however, that it must not be simply saying it nonchalantly. It should be a declaration of love that makes it feel as if it’s spring (which is usually called the season of love), and birds and butterflies must seem like they are freed from the garden of love. Say it, the persona tells them, say it you must. It must not simply be a play of words, the speaker must also declare it wholeheartedly and true.

With words that dwell privy in your eyes and your brows
With joy, bashfulness, and ecstasy at dusk,
With head cuddling, smile on your lips, and grasping arms,
With wordless intensity, what else do I know!

“What else do I know,” the persona tells the speaker. Maybe this is a way of warning the speaker that the persona can tell if they are truly saying they love them wholeheartedly. They remember the emotions that are apparent in the speaker’s eyes. They remember the motions that clearly portray their love for the persona. The persona remembers them all, the stanza clearly explains. They know how the speaker shows their love for them, and the persona remembers them and the intensity of love that lies within those actions.

Just make sure you don’t stay frigid as ice
Or be unmoved beside one burning with desire,
Nor be as placid as still water in the pond.
Be deeply in love, but that is still not enough.

Finally, we move on to the final stanza. After the persona talks about the love that the first speaker shows through their actions, the persona reminds them not to stay frigid in saying their love for them. They remind the other not to be constant, thinking that love is simply enough. The desire for the persona for the other to constantly show their love is apparent in this final stanza. It is not just being deeply in love that is enough, there must be a constant affirmation of it. The first speaker must show it constantly, must not be complacent with simple assurance that they are in love with them. That is, the author of this article believes, is what the persona is saying.

Now that we have reached the conclusion of the poem, the theme of love can clearly be seen and that it is most likely apparent in Xuân Diệu’s other works. He uses the idea of love imaginatively, and he makes sure that the creativity of the poem is apparent in his use of images.The images used are clearly expressive, and the yearning that was earlier stated is prevalent in this work. However, while we can assure ourselves with the nature and message of this poem, it is good to be reminded that this is just a translation. Some of the meanings may have been lost, which would’ve added more to the Romanticism clearly present in Xuân Diệu’s work. While we may never really know (unless we take up Vietnamese language), we are sure of the fact that Xuân Diệu is a romantic poet, using imagination and creative imagery to create a poem that resonates with the modern reader. As the tide that is this poem will affect the reader, it will push and pull them until, inevitably, the reader is heavily affected so.

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