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明 文徵明 《草書書自作詩四首》 卷

Four Poems, in cursive script


In a masterful display of controlled spontaneity, sixty-four columns of large cursive script march confidently across five joined sheets of white paper. Aside from natural transitions in the text, most columns contain four characters, with only slight variations in size and spacing. They transition easily from columns in which each character is distinct to those in which some or all of the characters are linked in a smooth, continuous impulse of the brush. Spacing between columns is roughly maintained, and though many individual characters exhibit a strong internal slant from upper right to lower left, each column remains true to its own vertical axis. Master calligrapher Wen Zhengming tamed and contained cursive script’s tendency to escape its bounds. Written in a quick, unhesitating rhythm, every passage pulses with vigor and energy.


Wen Zhengming composed these four poems during 1512, the first two during the summer and the second two in late October. Each poem is a regulated verse of eight lines with seven characters per line (qiyan lüshi 七言律詩). Here, Wen created a symmetrical narrative arc, bookending the sequence with poems about viewing the moon while the two middle poems describe visits to local Buddhist temples, one to the west of Suzhou and one to the east. The second poem is titled “Roaming to Huanzhu Temple”

《游幻住菴》 行行西郭兩牛鳴,路轉橋橫得化城。深巷鳥啼山木暗,清溪日煖白烟生。

Roaming to Huanzhu Temple
Plodding on and on to the outer burbs, the pair of oxen groan
Wending our way across a bridge, we reach the Walls of Change
In the deep lane a bird cries out the mountain trees are dark
On the clear creek when the sun warms up a white mist appears
Excited by former sages, I grieve they are relics of the past
Whenever I get to an Empty Gate, I drop the ways of the world
Though I yearn to meditate on a mat of rushes, I may not stay
To the azure clouds I turn my face as the evening bell sounds

Signature and recipient

I have written out some of my vulgar poems to send Master Bangzhi and ask for his instruction, Zhengming [respectfully] bows his head

Though we have identified most of Wen Zhengming’s close friends and associates, the “Master Bangzhi” he mentioned in his dedication at the end of the scroll remains a mystery. Wen used polite, formal language for his dedication, however, suggesting that the men may have been of different ages or statuses—or that they were not very close. All four poems touch on the emotion of missing a friend, suggesting that the man lived far away, possibly in the imperial capital. Under the pretext of recounting recent activities—and perhaps to honor a request or to fulfill a social obligation—Wen cleverly selected four poems he had previously composed to express his affection for this distant friend. Written in magnificent calligraphy, the sequential quartet of vignettes or poetic “postcards” all communicate, “Wishing you were here.”


Wen Zhengming did not inscribe a date on the scroll, but as noted above, we know he composed the four poems in 1512. Wen came up with new poems constantly and, given his request for “instruction” from Master Bangzhi, he had probably written these four fairly recently. He also inscribed the third poem on one of his paintings—Chrysanthemums, Bamboo, and Rock, Osaka Municipal Museum of Fine Arts—which he dated the ninth day of the ninth lunar month in the renshen year (October 18, 1512). Although Wen wrote that version of the poem with a more pointed brush and in much smaller cursive script, the overall affinities of style between the two works are unmistakable. He very likely wrote this handscroll shortly after composing the poems: between late 1512 at the earliest and 1515 at the latest.

Most of Wen’s extant works in large cursive script date from much later in his life. This handscroll is both an outstanding and rare surviving example of his early works in that style.

明 文徵明 《草書書自作詩四首》 卷
Four Poems, in cursive script

Wen Zhengming (1470–1559)
China, Ming dynasty, 1512–15
Handscroll; ink on paper
Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art F1988.6

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