Đây Thôn Vỹ Dạ – Here Is Vỹ Dạ Hamlet

 Thomas D. Le

Đây Thôn Vỹ Dạ (Here Is Vỹ Dạ Hamlet) is one of the most anthologized poems by Hàn Mặc Tử (1912-1940), whose short tragic life has enshrined him as a legend surrounded by an aura of prestige seldom conferred upon poets of modern Vietnam. This twenty-eight-year-old master of the verse had only about ten years of his life to produce a poetic legacy that bewitches the country and secures him a revered place among the romantics of the New Poetry generation and beyond. He is credited with the creation of a genre of poetry called Crazy Poetry, which is a outcry of pain and suffering characterized by extremes of morbidity, shocking expressions, surrealist images, strong emotions of despair and love, and hallucinatory visions.

Written at the beginning of the Period of Suffering in his life, after he was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, Đây Thôn Vỹ Dạ figures among his earliest crazy poems.

While working as a minor civil servant in the Office of Land Survey in Qui Nhơn, Hàn Mặc Tử met a young, delicate, well-born girl, HoàngThị Kim Cúc (better known as Hoàng Cúc), whose father was a high-ranking official in the same Office. A discreet love sprang in the hearts of the young couple, but it was destined never to be consummated. The gulf between a well-to-do girl from a Buddhist family and an impecunious Catholic low-level functionary on the verge of unemployment was virtually unbridgeable. In 1935, as Hàn left for Saigon in search of new opportunities, Hoàng Cúc’s family removed to Vỹ Dạ hamlet near Hue. With his health beginning to deteriorate in 1936 Hàn returned to Qui Nhơn, always assuming that Hoàng Cúc had by then got married and gone forever. In reality she never did, as if to remain faithful to him and his memory until the end of her life.

According to his closest poet friend Quách Tấn, around the year 1937, having learned of Hàn’s incurable disease, Hoàng Cúc sent him a postcard, with a note mildly reproaching him for not paying a visit to Vỹ Dạ, him having been an alumnus of Pellerin High School while she was attending Đồng Khánh High also in Huế. Others held that Hoàng Cúc sent her own photograph as a student, in which she appeared in a white dress. As far as we know these conflicting accounts never got resolved although Hoàng Cúc did not die until 1989 (or 1990?) and could very well have provided the needed clarification if asked.

This note on the postcard triggered in Hàn a memory of days gone by that resulted in this short cri de coeur. By this time, Hàn had already sunk into self-imposed isolation due to his disease, then diagnosed as leprosy, an isolation which was at once physical, mental, and emotional, and had an air of finality about it. To him, life was dichotomized into the world out there and his inner world of self-exile. In the world without, there were joy, love, light, music, hope, happiness; in the world within there reigned longing, desire, darkness, silence, despair, suffering.

Typical of the second period of his works, the so-called Period of Suffering, is the presence of a disconnect within his poetic thoughts. Images and thoughts seem a disorganized and incoherent jumble consciously or most plausibly unconsciously thrown together with no logical links among them. The juxtaposition of incongruous and incommensurable images, the rapid succession of opposing emotions, the almost psychedelic melange of kaleidoscopic visions, the relentless battering of powerful motifs, and the haunting musicality of his verse are all the salient features of his poetic inspiration. We are inexorably drawn into his world of fantasy, of half-dream half-wake consciousness, of horror, of fright, of phantasm, where the macabre, the lugubrious, the phantasmagoric, and the bloody elbow one another in a surreal atmosphere.

The poetry of this period has also been known as crazy poetry. In Here Is Vỹ Dạ Hamlet, elements of Hàn’s inner world, the inner sanctum of the dreary existential consciousness, follow in quick succession those of the outside world of everyone else’s consciousness.

Though the poem has not yet exhibited the most surreal of his visions, it has already given us a glimpse of the extent of his unfettered imagination from which issue outlandish images and thoughts that escape the control of consciousness, logic, and reason.

Đây thôn Vỹ Dạ

Sao anh không về chơi thôn Vỹ?

Nhìn nắng hàng cau, nắng mới lên,

Vườn ai mướt quá xanh như ngọc

Lá trúc che ngang mặt chữ điền.

Gió theo lối gió, mây đường mây

Dòng nước buồn thiu, hoa bắp lay…

Thuyền ai đậu bến sông trăng đó,

Có chở trăng về kịp tối nay?

Mơ khách đường xa, khách đường xa,

Áo em trắng quá nhìn không ra…

Ở đây sương khói mờ nhân ảnh,

Ai biết tình ai có đậm đà

Hàn Mặc Tử

Here Is Vỹ Dạ Hamlet

Why aren’t you back to Vy Hamlet

To watch the sun rising over the areca trees?

Whose garden is so lush in jade-like green

And bamboo leaves cover whose firm square face?

The wind and cloud each follow its own way;

The stream is cheerless, the corn flowers sway.

And that boat moored in yond moonlight river

Can it lug its load of moon back tonight?

I dream of one so far away, oh far away;

Your dress is so pure white it’s hard to recognize;

Here fog and smoke obscure so much of the landscape.

How could one tell who is the passionate lover?

Translated by Thomas D. Le

16 February 2008


In this poem rises the voice of a man desperately in love of the unattainable, whether it be a woman or simply the normal everyday world, for the realm in which he exists is anything but normal.

The first stanza depicts a typically peaceful and friendly country corner where the lush green garden is likened to precious jade and where the sun rises over the areca trees and the bamboo grove, spreading its glory across the abode of the sweetheart. Here the poet makes use of one of his favorite motifs, the sun, to symbolize the object of his desire, which is the life that is being denied him. The sun to Hàn represents light, hope, intense activity, energy, in short, life or rather life out there for the rest of mankind.

Lurking behind this bucolic charm are at least three characters: the questioner, the owner of the luxuriant garden, as denoted by the indefinite pronoun ai (someone), and the one with the square face. Who are they? It is common to assume that the poet is distinct from the speaker or persona although in many cases we can discern the poet hidden behind the persona to lend it at least a partial voice. It may be possible in some poems even to assume that the speaker is the reader, as the latter can identify himself or herself with the unknown speaker in emotions and in thoughts. But Here Is Vỹ Dạ Hamlet is a dramatic monologue, in which only the poet’s peculiar character speaks. It is this character that holds the various strands of the poem together and provides essential information with which to construct an intelligent understanding of its meaning.

To start, we need to sort out who the characters in the first stanza are. Under one reading, we can assume that the person posing the question, “Why aren’t you back to Vy Hamlet?” is no other than the young woman with whom the speaker is in love, i.e., Hoàng Cúc, who lived in Vỹ Dạ at the time of the poem and who very plausibly would love to see the poet. Now who is the owner of the garden? Since the speaker asks about “whose garden?” we have very little clue for guessing. But we still need to know in order to determine the role this lush garden plays in the development of the poet’s thoughts. Obviously, reference to the garden that is as precious as jade continues the metaphor of the brilliant sun to convey the image of a desired object. That is the real world to which Hàn so avidly aspires, but about which he can only dream. Knowing this, the garden’s owner can be anyone in the coveted world out there, including his beloved, but most likely the latter. Finally, who is the individual with the square face partially concealed by bamboo leaves? Although we do not know the reason why such a character is introduced here, we can see some continuity in an exposition that lays out a consistent setting for the rest of the poem to unfold itself in. Thus we conjecture that this individual is either Hoàng Cúc or someone else, including the poet himself. If we lean toward Hoàng Cúc, again for continuity and consistency, then all three characters in this stanza refer to her. This allows the speaker to portray an idyllic scene amidst benign nature inhabited by the one being that the poet values the most. Now we can also claim that the square-faced character is some indefinite person, which is quite plausible considering the Vietnamese fondness for the indefinite pronoun ai. On the other hand, if we think the square-faced character is the speaker, then we will have to deviate from normalcy to explain why someone far away can be in Vỹ Dạ at the same time. This scenario is not so refractory to rationalization as it may seem. In a creative process such as Hàn’s, where the unconscious plays a vital role, almost any goes. And if logic and reason are violated and the writing is automatic (as Andre Breton proclaims in his first Surrealist manifesto), then so be it. In any case, this backdrop sets the stage for a reversal to come in the next stanza.

Under another reading, the questioner and the speaker are one and the same. The indefinite ai in line 3 stays indeterminate, and the square-faced character merges with the other two. In this case, the entire first stanza may be seen as an extended self-interrogation by the speaker himself, who then proffers all the enticements for a visit: the natural beauty of Vỹ Dạ, its pastoral setting, its gardens, areca trees and bamboos. The woman is not even in the picture; her presence is felt not in any lines but between the lines. Yet she must be in the background to listen in. It is as if the speaker is thinking aloud, knowing she is within earshot, querying himself about the reasons for staying away from the locale of desire, and at the same time trying to remind himself of the world beyond his pale.

I tend toward the latter interpretation of a dramatic monologue. On this view the entire poem is just a monologue by the speaker, who is trying to explain why he never visits Vỹ Dạ. And that reason may be inferred in the second stanza: Vỹ Dạ Hamlet, where Hoàng Cúc now lives, embodies the cheery but off-limits world of others. By this stratagem Hàn projects his longing for the outer world onto a humble hamlet. Furthermore, we can from this point on almost identify the speaker with the poet in flesh and blood. He loves Vỹ Dạ, a metaphor for life and normalcy, where a young man can enjoy being a young man, with love and hope foremost on his mind. And so he reaches out or rather up, much like Tantalus, who strives for the fruit to allay his hunger only to see it recede beyond grasp. Both feel the insufferable pang of defeat and frustration knowing that every time they try, failure is the inevitable price. The important difference between their fates is that whereas Tantalus is serving a sentence handed down by Zeus, Hàn is serving his own self-imposed sentence. It is true that even in his sequestration he continues to receive friends and admirers. But Hàn knows his own limits and can only yearn to be in the world of the wholesome since the reality of his unwholesome being holds him at bay, denying him the enjoyment and the normal existence to which he is entitled. The sun that showers the tops of areca trees, those ramrod-straight slender trees that poke high into the sky as a symbol of high aspirations, is part of the world of normality. It sheds light everywhere, to all corners except his own dark refuge. For Hàn is very much immured in his psychological hermitage, albeit one dictated by his self-exile from the wider world and from which he finds no escape. Therein lies the tragedy of his condition.

To the sunny landscape of the first stanza is contrasted the dreariness of the second. The speaker is starting to turn inward, first by noticing that the wind and the cloud each follows its own path, a rather implausible event in the natural world since the cloud normally goes where the wind blows. But why should his imagination follow any rules of logic or obey any laws of nature? Unshackled by convention or logic, his mind drifts freely in and out of reality during the Period of Suffering, in which strong emotions are expressed in startling diction and bizarre images or combinations thereof. The wind and the cloud are no more than symbols. It is this symbolism that endures in the remainder of Hàn’s poetic career, becoming more and more accentuated as he descends deeper and deeper into the abyss of despair. In fact, he speaks more in symbols even though his images are stark and vivid. Here the real-world objects symbolize himself and his sweetheart, each heading in a different direction so that meeting is well nigh impossible, be it physical, emotional or otherwise. The stream in the second verse can from the setting be identified as the legendary Perfume River that waters the dreamy city of Hue and its surroundings, including Vỹ Dạ, in the midst of which Oyster Isle, sways with cornfields. The melancholy river sets a mood of gloom. The sun suddenly gives way to the moon. Unlike in the real world, light yields to darkness without transition. Here we see how Hàn’s mind works in times of overheating, with unconscious thoughts erupting like geysers from their thermal depths.

Rather incoherently he asks whether that boat moored on the moon-bathed river would have enough time to carry the moon back to him tonight. Why convoke a moored boat to convey the moon to him? Because he so yearns for love, so wants to be loved. The moon is Hàn’s predominant motif since it surfaces in about two-thirds of his poems of insanity. It does whatever he wants it to do. Here he personifies the moon and makes it his sweetheart. Since he cannot reach her, his only option is to hope that the moon-cum-beloved would try to come to him in his own world in a boat whose way the moon lights up on a river the moon bathes. This strange “moon-of-all-trades” image so totally bereft of logic or verisimilitude can only be the product of a fevered mind that obeys no laws of rational thought. Will she make it in tonight before the sunrise breaks up his dream? We can discern a sense of urgency, a sense of yearning for the fulfillment of a dream in this poignant question. Yet in all levels of consciousness, including the unconscious, he knows that his condition is hopeless and that his dream inevitably turns into a nightmare. This is precisely what his supersensitive soul has to contend with in the abyssal despair of his existence. We encounter this theme of star-crossed love and of unfulfilled yearning repeatedly in Hàn’s work. And it is this consciousness of the unbridgeable chasm between him and the world of his longing that constitutes the tragedy of his life. Young, desirous, lustful, enamored of life and love, he reaches out only to be pulled back into his cocoon of emptiness. Not that women shun him; they adore his poetry and probably fantasize about being with him. But given his physical condition, they cannot afford to be too close. And he is keenly aware of it.

The last stanza returns him to the universe of his own making. Here he can only dream of his beloved in that far-off land with just the image of her pure white dress. The repetition of “far away” in the first verse can be understood as more than mere distance; it measures the gaping gulf of his inner space as well. That distant land is the land of the clean, of the unsullied, of the normal. Yet his interior space is filled with dark thoughts and weird images. It is the realm of the unclean, of the morbid, and of the pathological, which is so far removed from the world of everyone else. And he is painfully aware of it.

Whiteness is another motif in Hàn’s thought. It serves a variety of functions, one of which being the only ray of hope he could cling to while his whole being is imprisoned in the fog and smoke of hopelessness that obliterate the world around. But what does he mean by not recognizing her for the whiteness of her dress? Can it be that the white dress, a typical schoolgirl’s dress, represents the essence of purity, the paragon of chastity, the highest virtue a woman can possess? And if so, then there is no hope for him. Being impure, he knows it as a Catholic, he is denied association with the pure. He must be banished, quarantined, as is legislated in Leviticus. He knows he must be sequestered from life itself. In his isolation, hope is dead. The world is dead. Yet, he tenaciously fights on with the fierceness of one in love with life. He has to because he is still young and he refuses to give up and let go. With all the strength born of despair he wants to live and claim his rightful place among the living. He loves with a passion and wants so much to make his heart known to the world, especially to the young woman he loves.

Does anyone, including her, know who is more passionately in love than whom? Asked rhetorically, the question is really an assertion of Hàn’s desperate love, to which he expects no response, if he still has any scintilla of sanity left. It is heart-rending to realize that Hàn is fully aware of the fact that only on the brink of death does one know to love passionately.

Thomas D. Le

25 March 2008