On The Birth of a Son by Su Tung-Po

On The Birth of a Son by Su Tung-Po explores the place of intelligence in society, looking at how it actually leads to unhappiness, rather than joy. Tung-Po uses his own life as an example, suggesting that although intelligent, he has ‘wrecked’ his life due to this trait, actually hoping that people can be born ‘Ignorant and stupid’. If they are freed from the curse of intelligence, they can then grow up to be ‘cabinet ministers’, Tung-Po poking fun at politicians.

On The Birth of a Son by Su Tung-Po

 

Summary

On The Birth of a Son by Su Tung-Po begins by discussing how when a ‘child is born’, the families hope that they are ‘intelligent’. However, the poet describes how his life has been wrecked by his own intelligence, living an unhappier life than someone who was born ‘stupid’. He wishes stupidity on newborns, allowing them to pass over the sad life path that he has followed. The final line of the poem is a political joke, suggesting that ‘cabinet ministers’ and politicians, in general, are stupid, lacking all ‘intelligence’. Although published almost 1000 years ago, I believe a lot of modern audiences would agree with this final line.

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure

On The Birth of a Son by Su Tung-Po is written in a single stanza, measuring 8 lines in total. This single structure could be a reflection of how the poet is exploring only one life in his poem, his own life being the only he can give sufficient detail on. Due to this, he confines his poem to one stanza, reflecting the singularity of life. Indeed, Tung-Po could also be suggesting the transience of life, the incredibly short poem reflecting the short nature of life itself.

 

Poetic Techniques

One technique that Tung-Po uses when writing On The Birth of a Son is enjambment. By using enjambment across some of his lines, Tung-Po speeds up the meter of the poem, lines flowing seamlessly onto one another. This could further the structural suggestion that life is short, many of the lines quickly flowing on to the next.

The syntax of the poem is also incredibly important. Keywords, or traits in this case, such as ‘intelligent’ and ‘stupid’ are placed as the final word of their respective lines. This is then followed, in both cases, by a harsh end stop, which further emphasizes these words. In doing this, Tung-Po furthers the idea that these qualities of intelligence are the core value of a person’s life, determining what kind of life they will lead.

 

On The Birth of a Son Analysis

Lines 1-2

Families when a child is born
Hope it will turn out intelligent.

The poem begins by focusing on the plural, ‘families’, suggesting that what Tung-Po is going to be describing is a universal hope and expectation. This is not simply bound to people he knows, or his own family, rather extending to encompass all of society in the plural form of the word. Although the title state this poem is reflecting on the birth of ‘a son’, the opening line states a genderless ‘child’, suggesting that this is not a poem directed only at male children.

The use of enjambment across the first to second-line reflects the sense of ‘Hope’ that the families feel, the sudden movement from line to line reflecting a sense of elation and expectation. Moreover, by using enjambment, the end stop after ‘intelligent’ becomes more pronounced, making this word further emphasized in drawing attention to the central characteristic of the poem.

The use of ‘turn out’ suggests that intelligence is the height of someone’s character, the finality of this phrase revealing that intelligence is the final thing someone will develop within their life. It is not something you can tell instantly, but rather something that must be worked on alongside inherent gifts.

 

Lines 3-4

I, through intelligence
Having wrecked my whole life,

The third line begins with the personal pronoun, ‘I’, instantly revealing that the poet will be discussing his own experiences. The caesura following this word furthers the emphasis placed on the personal pronoun, with Tung-Po ensuring that the reader understands he is now speaking from anecdotal experience.

Tung-Po discusses how ‘through intelligence’ he has ‘wrecked my whole life’, revealing the negative impact intelligence has had on his own life. The statement details ‘whole’ suggesting that he has completely ruined every aspect of his life due to ‘intelligence’, it is not something that has ruined only one feature.

 

Lines 5-6

Only hope that the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.

Tung-Po, therefore, has a ‘hope’ that newborn babies will ‘prove/Ignorant and stupid’, not following down his path of intelligence. Indeed, by grammatical isolating ‘Ignorant and stupid’ on their own line, Tung-Po furthers the emphasis placed on these words, developing the idea that these are favorable characteristics. The new line also serves to capitalize ‘Ignorant’, again displaying its importance through capitalization, something that ‘intelligent’ never has within the poem. This could insinuate Tung-Po’s favoring of ignorance over intelligence.

 

Lines 7-8

Then he’ll be happy all his days
And grow into a cabinet minister.

The certainty of the future tense, present within ‘he’ll’ insinuates that Tung-Po is completely sure that a child born ‘stupid’ will have a better life than one born ‘intelligent’. There is no sense of disbelief or uncertainty, no conditional tense, but rather the certain ‘he’ll’. In line with how Tung-Po has ‘wrecked my whole life’, the stupid child will be ‘happy all his days’, the opposite impact coming from ignorance and stupidity. These two qualities and their impacts are therefore placed as contrasts, emphasizing them both.

Finally, the last line of the poem reveals a political joke. Tung-Po states that ‘cabinet ministers’ will be made from these ‘stupid’ children, insinuating that the current political figures within his society are ‘ignorant and stupid’. Tung-Po was a controversial figure, actually being banished from two provinces during his life, hence his disdain and a keen interest in making fun of the political landscape.

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