Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunthorn Phu

Great poet's wisdom lives on

When things go bad with our nation, when disasters befall us, when our fortunes turn for the worst, when our future looks uncertain, we should look to the great men from our past for anecdotes, inspiration and hope.

Unfortunately, few Thais nowadays seek wisdom in or can freely quote by heart the immortal works of Sunthorn Phu (1786-1855), Rattanakosin's greatest poet.

Ironically, Sri Thanonchai is mentioned more frequently in present day conversation, although he is a fictitious Ayudhaya character, known for his clever self-serving tricks and sophistry.

Most people believe that having a Sri Thanonchai character is an indispensable element for advancement and survival.

Indeed, it seems that we are going back to glorify the age of Sri Thanonchai.

Few then care enough about the real-life character of Sunthorn Phu, who truly transformed Siam's literary landscape with his foremost poems and insights into the vicissitudes of life.

Sunthorn Phu was born on June 26, 1786 - 19 years after the fall of Ayudhaya and four years after the founding of Bangkok as the new capital.

He was a commoner, most probably born in Bangkoknoi, on the Thonburi side.

Some historians believe he came from Klaeng, Rayong.

But this theory of Sunthorn Phu's family roots is under dispute.

His mother was a wet nurse working in the Palace of the Back (Wang Lang).

Sunthorn Phu was the foremost poet of his day, living through four reigns during the formative period of Bangkok.

He wrote five narrative poems, including the masterpiece Phra Abhai Mani, three or four books of proverbs and nine travel poems or nirats.

He was held as the people's poet as his work always had something for everybody.

But it was love that he frequently expressed.

Sunthorn Phu spent several years in the sangha.

There was a story that he belittled King Nangkhlao, or Rama III, while they were writing poetry before King Lertla, or Rama II.

So when King Nangkhlao was enthroned, Sunthorn Phu was obliged to become a monk.

Even Prince Mongkut, who would later become Rama IV, sought shelter in the monastery.

Field Marshal Thanom Kittikajorn, who lost power due to the pro-democracy movement in 1973, also entered the monk-hood when he returned to Thailand after his temporary exile in Taiwan.

Sunthorn Phu wrote of his introduction to the impermanence of things and the inconsistency of women and men in his early works.

He was the master of the glon genre of poem writing.

His nirat were unsurpassed, and depicted his wanderings to different parts of the country, from Ayudhya, to Saraburi, to Rayong.

We all have ups and downs in our life.

When we're in love, we only have to turn to Sunthorn Phu for his great love poems: Even without earth, sky, and sea, My love would go on eternally; Born on earth or in water, I would seek your love forever: If you were the great ocean, As a fish, I'd fulfil my passion; A lotus, myself a bee, then, To live in your sweet pollen; A little cave, I would be A lion to haunt it hourly; I'll follow you wherever, In every life to be your partner.

(From Montri Umavijani's Facets of Thai Cultural Life, Bangkok 1999) Or when we're down, we can always turn to Sunthorn Phu for hope.

From his Nirat Phra Prathom, a nirat he wrote out of devotion to King Rama II and his sense of renewal.

I salute the Pagoda of the Holy Relics: May the true religion live forever.

I make merit, so the Buddha helps me Increase my power to attain enlightenment.

And I'd like my words, my book, To preserve, till the end of time and heavens, Sunthorn the scribe who belongs To the King of the White Elephant.

(From Montri Umavijani's Suthorn Phu: An Anthology, Bangkok 1990) Indeed, life is difficult and unstable.

And in Sunthorn Phu's wandering spirit, we can always find inspiration to cope with the difficult and the unstable while remaining noble.

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