Poetry as the Defender of Besieged Human Dignity

Min-Hua Wu

I. Priceless Esprit in the Capitalist Word of the Twenty-First Century

In Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold classifies English society into the Barbarians, the Philistines, and the Populace. He defines culture as ‘the study of perfection’ (194). In search of the nation’s collective ‘best self’, the social critic sees in the Philistines the key to culture, for they compose the most influential segment of society. The nation’s strength lies in their strength, and her crudeness in their crudeness. As such, it is necessary to educate and humanize the Philistines so that the majority of the society is able to have a taste of the Hellenistic sweetness, if not the Grecian light. In ‘Dover Beach’ (1867), the Disciple of Culture laments the decline of religion in spite of himself during his honeymoon by the seashore:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.


This celebrated Arnoldian stanza serves as a perfect template for us to weep for the condition of poetry in our time. So long as we replace the word ‘Faith’ in the stanza with ‘Poetry’, we are perfectly aware of the fact that the Philistines of Victorian England have transmigrated to the fertile soil of twenty-first-century capitalism. The only difference lies in that the Philistinism that Arnold moaned about has gone from bad to worse in our postmodern consumption society driven by nothing but capital, as analyzed in Le Capital au XXIe siècle.

In the capitalist society of our time, the twenty-first-century Philistine avatars struggle to pan for gold as if the imperative pursuit of human life on earth were reduced to the debris of materialism. In stark contrast, poets alone are rich in soulful profusion and spiritual prosperity — richesse invisible that cannot be told by any ATM in the capitalist universe. By nature, poets usually cannot suffer the unpoeticality of money, machines, and mundanity. It is little wonder that poetics bespeaks ‘The Road Not Taken’ in the consumerist world of the twenty-first century, for poetry hunts for something priceless — bels esprits and belles lettres.

II. Soul Witnessing in a Time of Artificial Intelligence

We live in a time of unprecedented development of artificial intelligence. Deep Mind of Google has outsmarted the best human brain in the game of Go. However, as demonstrated in ‘The Seamless Laws Governing Poetry Recounted’ (Chien 30-40), poesy as an art involves not only human creativity, imagination and sensibility, but it is deeply rooted in the literary tradition of a national language. As far as poetry composition and interpretation is concerned, there is always a boundless universe in the tiny nut. A true poet is no stranger to the poetics of his or her language and literary conventions. Such a poetics allows a poet to witness the existence of human soul, to which artificial intelligence remains a relative stranger at its best.

For example, if we try Google Translate with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ (1), we will be treated with a translation that is ni rime ni raison. Indeed, artificial intelligence beats human intelligence in a good number of domains in the twenty-first century. Notwithstanding the software’s general dominance over the wetware, racking its boldest baldless head, Google Translates the Shakespearean line, ‘And every fair from fair sometime declines’ (7) into 從公平到公平的每一次下跌 (Every time you fall down from justice to justice). By the same token, Google renders the line, ‘When in eternallines to time thou grow’st’ (12) into 在永恆的時光中,你長大 (You grow up in eternal time). Curious enough, using poetry as a touchstone of Artificial Intelligence, we end up bringing the edge of human esprit to the fore. Not only does the translation by artificial intelligence ignore the entire rhyme scheme of the poem, but it also neglects the nuanced transformation of rhyme in the concluding couplet. Needless to say, it would be a mission impossible for Artificial Intelligence to fathom the Bard of Avon’s artistic appropriation of Anglo-French and Anglo-Saxon etymology, which is respectively displayed in the banquet of sense across his quatrains and showcased in the finale of sensibility wrapped up by his sincerest couplet (Wu 2021). In other words, the sonnet architectonics, composed of either an octave and a sestet or three quatrains followed by a couplet, remains a black hole to today’s most advanced and sophisticated Artificial Intelligence, one that boasts of defeating the most intelligent human brains in fair open games of Go. Such intellectual rivalry fought between the software and the wetware via games of Go have been simultaneously witnessed by the humanity across the globe on the Internet ever since 2016. The AlphaGo vs. Lee Sedol games of Go, also known as the Google DeepMind Challenge Match, was a five-game Go match between eighteen-time world champion Lee Sedol and AlphaGo, a computer Go program developed by Google DeepMind. The match was played in Seoul, South Korea from March 9 to 15, 2016. Shocking all humankind, AlphaGo won all but the fourth game; what’s more, all games were won by resignation. Rumors had it that AlphaGo deliberately lost the fourth game as a vanity project for the mankind. The next year, the Chinese world champion of Go games stood up to brave Artificial Intelligence. Hours later, the news media pronounced that ‘Machine wins three-game Go series after defeating Ke Jie in close game’ (Li 2017). Only this time, AlphaGo won all the games in a row regardless of salvaging human dignity, which forced the young Chinese grandmaster to escape into the bathroom in the middle of the games to burst into burning tears — tears that he shed for all human beings.

As such, poetry justly stands for the arena in which human beings dare to take up the gauntlet against Artificial Intelligence technology; poetry in a sense endows human beings of the twenty-first century with desperately needed dignity when Google Translate cannot help but throw in the towel. Seen in this light, it is no exaggeration to say that poetry champions human soul that, when occasion arises, tends to make artificial intelligence a laughingstock. In the arena of poesy, even if artificial intelligence may succeed in not making itself a spectacle, it serves at best as a backburner, so to speak, in front of the God-given human wetware that features Blakean divine vision. Although ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, as W. H. Auden claims (II.5), it stands for the gem of human cultures and civilizations. In every language, its poetry has established a Great Wall against the gazing of the curious others. The most frustrating task for Hercules is to appreciate a poem written in a foreign language rather than to carry out the Twelve Labours. Poetry immortalizes what it intends to celebrate: ‘So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, | So long lives this and this gives life to thee’ (Shakespeare 13-14), which Google Translates into 只要男人能呼吸或眼睛看得見,如此長壽,這賦予了你生命 (So long as a man, not a woman, can breathe or eyes can see; such a longevity endows you with life).

On the other hand, if we try today’s up-to-date online translation APP with Du Fu’s reputed Chinese wuyen lushi (regular verse of five characters in each line), entitled 春望 (Spring View):


(Du 265)

we will be given the following English translation:

The country broke mountains and rivers            
in the city spring grass and wood deep.
Feel when splashing tears,
hate other birds startled.
In March, the family book arrived at Wanjin.
Whiteheads are shorter and more wanty.

One needs not be a Sinologist to see how ridiculous the English rendition done by Artificial Intelligence is. The translation in itself is poetry-free in that it represents neither rhyme nor reason of Du Fu’s immortal masterpiece of the Tang dynasty. The perfect rhyme scheme in the Tang poem evaporates; the poetic form of eight lines is turned into one of seven lines—A most intolerable odd number that ruins the formal poetics that governs the perfectly symmetrical lushi of the Tang Dynasty. Du Fu’s alchemistic word-scaping in the magic employment of Chinese characters has been reduced into utterly infantine illogicality and sheer mystery, if not misery. In this case, it holds water to say that Du Fu’s poetry makes it to defend human dignity, which is itself a fortress besieged by Artificial Intelligence in the twenty-first century. Robert Frost is renowned for his unique definition: ‘Poetry is that which gets lost in translation’. If it is totally lost in machine translation, it is only very partially lost in human translation:

On war-torn land streams flow and mountains stand;
In vernal town grass and weeds are o’ergrown.
Grieved o’er the years, flowers make us shed tears;
Hating to part, hearing birds breaks our heart.
The beacon fire has gone higher and higher;
Words from household are worth their weight in gold.
I cannot bear to scratch my grizzling hair;
It grows too thin to hold a light hairpin.

(Xu, ‘Spring View’ 1-8)

Although the original perfect rhyme scheme is also largely lost in this translation rendered by Mr. Xu Yuanchong, the human brain does prove to outwise Artificial Intelligence in poetry translation in this case, a timely case that speaks volumes for the human vs. machine intellectual confrontation. Evidently, poetry provides human beings a moment and a stage for them to witness the existence of soulful timelessness in a time when artificial intelligence assumes sweeping hegemony over dwindling human calibres and competences.

III. Immortalizing Collective Consciousness of Humankind

In Revolution in Poetic Language, Julia Kristeva theorizes how French avant-garde poets subvert the symbolic to hark back to the semiotic chora (25-26) that features maternity. It is in poetic language alone that the reader is favored with a transport of the semiotic jouissance (Sèméiotikè 270-77). In addition to the enrichment of individual subjectivity as well as subjective experiences, poetic language symbolizes another God-given, most elevated and perfectly sublimated national language for either the community of human subjects or the communication amongst human subjects. Admittedly, the language of poetry is no other than a new language within a national language that communicates the finest element of human soul, the most unforgettable experience of human life, and the most inexpressible moment in human history.

With poetry, a short single line may arouse collective memory and consciousness. For instance, Du Fu’s aforementioned 家書抵萬金 (A family letter is worth a thousand gold nuggets in a wartime of endless devastations) arouses Chinese people’s haunting memories of diasporic odyssey during chaotic periods of war. Furthermore, poetry possesses magic power to make ordinary things, like a bridge, immortal. In French literature, Guillaume Apollinaire’s ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’ has immortalized Le Pont Mirabeau as a human construction in the capital of lights, love and fashion. With the French poet’s murmering lines: ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine | Et nos amours | Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne | La joie venait toujours après la peine || Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure | Les jours s’en vont je demeure…’ (Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine | And our love | Must I remember it | Joy always followed pain || The night falls and the hour tolls | The day goes by and I remain…), the iron bridge across La Seine has been magically poeticized and thusly eternalized as the endless water flowing beneath (1-6). Miraculously, once an architecture in Paris is kissed by poetry, it becomes immortal in history and literature. In a similar timbre, the poetic phenomenon of immortalizing objects remains the same in Chinese literature. For example, 楓橋夜泊 (‘Mooring at the Maple Bridge at Night’) was written by Chang Chi (715-779), a young scholar who just failed his imperial exams of the Tang Dynasty when he composed the lines. This chiyan jueju poem (a style of poetry composed of seven-character lines) of but four lines, which is a household poem even in Japan, reads with natural images accompanied by a smooth and suave rhyme: 月落烏啼霜滿天 | 江楓漁火對愁眠 | 姑蘇城外寒山寺 | 夜半鐘聲到客船 (501). The single poem has been passed down from generation to generation. It immortalizes not only the poet as a scholar who fails in imperial exams, but it contributes to eternalizing the commonplace locale as well. Today, tourists – literary pilgrims to be more precise – from the Sinophone world, inside or outside the Chinese mainland, keep swarming to Chiangsu Province to do homage to this celebrated historical site, albeit a small temple per se. I myself brought back to Taiwan a souvenir from the legendary Hanshan Temple (寒山寺) – a polished bead made of local pine cone. As the Hanshan Temple has been perfectly poeticized by the chiyan jueju poem, so has the nut of the pine trees about the temple been charmed of its literary genius loci. The power of words in poetry is to a certain extent more powerful than nuclear explosion. It traverses farther across geographical boundaries and it travels further across generations to defy the edges of both space and time. 

When one needs to express his/her greatest pain of losing a child, Victor Hugo’s ‘Demain, dès l’aube…’ appears to be the common language in the French-speaking world:

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.


Tomorrow, at dawn, when day breaks on the countryside,
I’ll set out. You see, I know you are waiting for me.
I’ll go by the forest, and I’ll go by the mountain.
I cannot stay far away from you any longer.

I will walk with my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Seeing nothing outside, nor hearing any noise,
Alone, unknown, the back hunched, the hands crossed,
Sad, and the day for me will be like the night.

I’ll not look at the gold of the evening which falls,
Nor the faraway sails descending towards Harfleur.
And when I arrive, I will put on your tomb
A bouquet of green holly and flowering heather. 1

In a like manner, the literary tradition of the Chinese language also provides lamentation of a similar nature. Wang Anshi (1021-1086), politician and writer of the Song Dynasty, wrote a jueju poem (a poem of four lines) titled ‘Adieu to my Daughter Buried in Yin County’ (別鄞女) to record the most tragic moment of his life as a father. The poem serves as a common language in the Chinese-speaking world for such a heart-rending occasion. Language is merely language, but the poetry written in a certain language forms a more elevated and purified language within the triteness and banality of that very language, which serves to convey something otherwise almost unconveyable. To a certain degree, this poetic moment best accounts for what Sir Phillip Sidney calls ‘this purifying of wit’: ‘[T]his enriching of memory, enabling of judgement, and enlarging of conceit—which commonly we call learning, under what name soever it come forth, or to what immediate end soever it be directed, the final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of’ (510).



(Wang 960)

Adieu to my Daughter Buried in Yin County

In the prime of life, I look like an old fellow;
Sadness in my eyes overwhelms my soul.
Tonight, on a boat I bid adieu to my daughter
And Hades has ever since forced us asunder. 2

By the same token, in the age of global village, couples and families can no longer avoid experiencing separation from each other in a certain phase of their lifetimes. 但願人長久,千里共嬋娟 (Though miles apart, we’ll share the beauty she [the moon] displays), a short line in Su Tongpo’s (1037-1101) celebrated ci poem of the Song Dynasty remains the most ideal language to express the separatee’s candidest longing and sincerest good wish (Xu, Tang 93). The most beautiful thought in the most beautiful language created by poets amounts to the aforementioned Arnoldian study of perfection. Even though ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, as W. H. Auden declares in his poem, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, its existence is a greatest happening par excellence. In A Defence of Poetry, the most visionary poet of British Romantic period contends: ‘A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why’ (Shelley 784). Perchance, the Modern Parnassus has lagged far behind the all-in-all intellectual progression, such as mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, moralists, metaphysicians, historians, politicians, and political economists who, one after another, came to occupy the summit of the humanity’s intellectual pyramid early in thenineteenth century (Peacock 500-01). Nevertheless, as demonstrated in the defeat, if not defeatism, of the AlphaGo vs. human Go champions contests, and as discovered in the dignified victory of the Artificial Intelligence vs. human brain in poetry translation, we human beings are justified to say that ‘Poetry is indeed something divine’ (Shelley 788). As Emily Dickinson chants in her secluded life, it is poetics that privileges human beings to dwell in possibility (Yu 125); it is poetry that lends human beings a pale light when we live on a darkling plain (Arnold ‘Dover Beach’ 35); again, it is poetry that asserts human beings to hold the battlefield, one that has been invaded by the invisible yet inescapable “bandits” of our time, namely postmodern capitalism and artificial intelligence. By endowing humanity with divinity, poetry alone defends the besieged fortress, la forteresse assiégée, as the French call it, a fragile fortress whose courtesy name is human dignity. In a nutshell, preferably of the Hanshan Temple, poetry itself stands for a human friend in need and a human friend indeed. Alas! It is humanity, not poetry, that calls for new defences.


1. The French-English translation is rendered by the author of the essay. It is done to facilitate the reading of the English language reader. It does not represent the perfect rhyme scheme of the French poem, nor does it duplicate the flawless Alexandrine meter of the original by Monsieur Victor Hugo. 

2. The Chinese-English translation is rendered by the author of the essay. The translator has tried his best to retain some rhyming effect in a somewhat domesticated manner. The original poetic meter, however, tends to fall outside the translator’s command if absolute fidelity to the formal poetics be regarded as the standard.

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Min-Hua Wu
is Associate Vice President for the Office of International Cooperation, NCCU and Assistant Professor at the Department of English, National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan. He completed his doctoral dissertation in English literature at the Paris-Sorbonne University fully funded by a Taiwan government scholarship. Besides a Chinese-French translation prize awarded by the Council for Cultural Affairs, Taiwan, he is a three-time awardee for the National Taiwan University Chinese-English Literary Translation Awards and three-time awardee in English-Chinese translation contest for the Liang Shih-ch’iu Literary Awards. Co-author of Chang Pao Chun Chiu: Li Ao’s Landscape of Lettres (Ink Publishing, Taipei), he has published in The Wenshan Review, Brontë Studies, The Emily Dickinson Journal, Review of English and American Literature, Asia Pacific Translation and Intercultural Studies, East Journal of Translation, Chengchi University Press, and Modern Chinese Literature, amongst others. He has been co-editing a special issue on ‘Literary Translation and the Translator’s Subjectivity’ for The Wenshan Review: Literature and Culture with Paula Varsano, Chair and Professor of Chinese Literature, University of California, Berkeley. In addition to academic research, he has published his Chinese poems in English and American Literature E-Newsletter and Apple Daily News; he as published his English poem in Literature Today.