Skip to main content

And a Little Jade

 




 Qin Shi Huang Di

259 – 210 BC

First Emperor of China

(An Eighteenth Century portrait)

 


And a Little Jade                                  

Qin Shi Huang Di

aspiring to eternal life

swallowed drops of Hydrargyrum

with a little jade.

 

In the spheres of runaway silver

he saw reflections of himself –

more and more, with new worlds born

under his almighty finger

 

until he grew tired of disintegration.

Qin folded up the firmament.

He gathered centrifugal planets

to return them all to where they began

 

amalgamating wayward drops.

He slowed the quick-willed silver globes

with his omnipotence.

When all the drops had coalesced

 

the imperial Qin, unaware

of all he did not know

lifted his drink to the setting sun

and felt at one with the universe.

 

For Qin Shi Huang Di

his journey to eternity

began with drops of Mercury

and a little jade.

 

 

 

 

 

This ferocious ruler, coming to the throne aged 13, was the first emperor of China. Qin Shi Huang Di lived through troubled times – his family history was extraordinarily turbulent, with  assassination attempts and dreadful retributions, and huge numbers of people killed judicially and many more lost on gigantic projects, such as wall and canal building.

But most remarkable and memorable of all is his huge mausoleum with its army of terracotta soldiers which thousands of workers began constructing early in his reign.

This colossal vanity project bears testimony to his omnipotence along with his concern with death and what it may bring.

Qin was said to have despatched hundreds of young men and women in search of the elixir of eternal life. They were never seen again, only too aware of what the tyrannical Qin’s reaction would be if they returned empty-handed.

Exactly how Qin died remains controversial, but it seems a preparation of mercury was the cause of his death.

It isn’t difficult to imagine how the apparent vitality of mercury – that fluidity, unpredictability and mutability as celebrated in its name of quick-silver – might be thought to bring its own attributes of eternal life to such an obsessed emperor.

And the other constituent of his elixir, jade – the heavenly gem, eternal and mystical – brought its own special qualities.  Not only was this precious mineral associated with imperial ritual, but as it was believed to be indestructible, it was thought to impart some sort of immortality. Jade objects were often buried with the (rich) dead, particularly in the form of intricate burial suits.

So Qin killed himself in the very process of striving for immortality.

 

Why write a poem about him?

Qin’s story, with its terrible self-fulfilment, has a powerful drama. Poetry allows the telling of it as if it’s just happened. Who knows – and does it matter – how ‘true’ the story may be? Poetry can take liberties in bringing it all to life – (that life again!) – even though thousands of years have passed.

I’ve always found mercury intriguing.

Of course something like this would never be allowed to happen now.

But I remember prodding a shining drop from a broken thermometer, breaking it into those mini globules, and then rolling them back together to see them magically restored into one again.

What power in a finger tip!

And how mysterious, reminiscent of planets, gravitational fields, invisible attractive powers – even whole solar systems…

I was never tempted to swallow it, but as I read about Qin and his obsession, I began to understand something of his fascination, the crazy logic of drinking that elixir and even started to feel sorry for him – although how he ruled makes Peter the Great seem like Edward the Confessor.

And as his story continues to be told, and more is learnt about him, perhaps he has after all achieved a sort of immortality?

 

 

 

An earlier version of this poem was published in the anthology New Contexts 1, published by Coverstory books

 

www.coverstorybooks.com

 

Comments

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A plague on all these houses

It's a great poem, Lowell's For the Union Dead. I only recently came across it - at least, that's what I thought - but it's been grunting (I choose the word advisedly) away in my head ever since, especially that fourth verse. Behind their cage, yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting as they cropped up tone of mush and grass to gouge their underworld garage. It took a little while for me to realise why. Before (I thought) I'd read it, I wrote a poem about the new housing estates springing up round our little town. I was thinking about the various creatures that had lived on the field that was to be covered with houses - sheep primarily - and then those that were to follow. The first were, well, a sort of dinosaur. Here's my second verse: At first it was the one-armed monsters, set free within their caged arena to trundle round, and gently paw the ground, then pile up mounds of earth accompanied by Lego men. I was pleased

Departure

  Departure     Here’s a poem about what’s not here, well not here any longer – distinctive life in a particular form, now gone.   And how, aware of this inevitability, I felt and what I would have liked to have done.     Departure Standing here, I scan the sky a silent sky – uncut, intact. They're gone, those screaming slicers leaving an occasional ordinary bird along with a local gull or two and earth-bound me, still here who had a need to wish them well – to say goodbye, adieu, safe flights to wherever it is they had to go. But it's too late, and I am left now wanting to describe to you to you yourself, no longer here, the presence of this absence and the silence that's been left.   The poetic convention is that when celebrating/commemorating a person’s memory, you  head the poem ‘i.m.’, followed by their initials. But although it is In Memoriam. somehow I didn’t want to put ‘i.m. S.W.’ up there under the title, I think this is because the poem is about absence – wha

The Three Hares

  The Three Hares We continue on our way running, running, running around held together tip to tip so I can hear what she can hear as well as her. And the other follows me in front of her – we are joined up by our ears so we follow, lead and follow running, running, running around we continue on our way. Running, running, running around – no cause for worry – what's to come has already been. The future's past – watch us here – we're going nowhere – the last is first and first is last. Our present moment sees us still although we seem to race – running, running, running around we continue. On our way running, running, running around hearing your persistent questions – why do you keep on asking? We cannot tell you any more. May you share your senses and find soft silence at your centre which is so close, while you go on running, running, running around. The turning of the year, with the various thoughts about the past and the future that c