Sunthorn Phu – Thailand’s Beloved Poet
Everyone in Thailand Knows Him: Sunthorn Phu, the Poet
Every nation has its own literature that reflects its unique social, historical, and cultural contexts. In Thailand, one of the most important poets whose works are celebrated and read nationwide is Sunthorn Phu [สุนทรภู่] who some call the “Shakespeare of Thailand.” He was born after just four years into the Rattanakosin Period (1782 – present), but his reputation remains strong and his works are still celebrated until the present day.
Sunthorn Phu’s AdventurousLife Across the Four Reigns
Sunthorn Phu was born in the reign of King Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok Maharaj or King Rama I (1737-1809) and his life spanned across the reigns of four kings. Sunthorn Phu’s birth name was just the single-vowel word, Phu, but due to his literary prowess he was bestowed the title of Khun Sunthorn Wohan (Head of Royal Clerks) by King Phrabat Somdet Phra Boromratchapongchet Mahetsawarasunthon Phra Buddha Loetla Nabhalai or King Rama II (1809-1824). The birth name Phu was then annexed into the title, and his name came to be known as ‘Sunthorn Phu.’ Sunthorn Phu had the fortune to witness up to four reigns of Thai Kings: King Rama I – IV (1782-1868). He was born in 1786 at the north of Wang Lang or Rear Palace which is now Bangkok Noi railway station. Sunthorn Phu’s father was not a Bangkok native, he was from Rayong, a seaside city on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand and his mother was a wet nurse for the royal family. After his father and mother got divorced, Sunthorn Phu lived in the Rear Palace with his mother throughout his childhood.
Later on, Sunthorn Phu pursued his study at Chi Pa Khao monastery which was a well-known center for education at the time. Back in the days, like Sunthorn Phu, common Thai boys often studied in temples where monks taught them to read and write and impart their knowledge. Sunthorn Phu then commenced his career as a royal clerk in the reign of King Rama II. As a clerk, rumour had it that he rarely took to other parts of the job other than composing poetry.
But the life of a poet is often not a smooth one. The young Sunthorn Phu had a secret love affair with a royal servant who came from an elitist lineage. Deeming the relationship to be inappropriate, the Prince of the Rear Palace commanded that both were imprisoned. Later when the prince had passed away, Sunthorn Phu was given pardon. He then set off to Rayong where his father was, and as a poet often did, he wrote a travelogue called Niras Mueang Klaeng [นิราศเมืองแกลง] which became one of his most famous works.
Sunthorn Phu came back to work for the royal family once again, alas, he was imprisoned for the second time due to accusations of getting drunk and assaulting a senior relative. However, he was later pardoned and worked under the royal patronage of King Rama II, who had taken to Sunthorn Phu’s works and unparalleled literary skills. Sunthorn Phu composed several poems and literary works during this time, and later became a literature teacher to the royal children.
After King Rama II passed away, Sunthorn Phu no longer worked for the palace, still, he did commissioned works for several royal family members and the upper society. Throughout the rest of his life, for up to eighteen years, he spent his time as a poet and a monk who travelled around the country and composed a myriad of his well-known rhymed poems.
Wax figure of Sunthorn Phu [cr. MThai]
Sunthorn Phu’s Unparalleled Literary Prowess
Sunthorn Phu is recognized by his linguistic ability in rhymed verse, especially in the form of Thai octameter poem [klon pad – กลอนแปด] where he makes words rhyme perfectly both in terms of vowels and consonants. Not only they conventionally rhyme cross stanza but they also rhyme in each line as well. This is an incomparable quality of Sunthorn Phu’s works which fill his verses with poetic cadence that is easy to follow and easily remembered by the general public. Additionally, his poems tend to reflect emotions, thoughts, and nature of life. These elements are described so cleverly and insightful that the reader always has some insightful takeaways from his poems.
Some subject matters in Sunthorn Phu’s works are often considered progressive for a poet of his time. Female characters in his works, for example, are assertive and quick-witted, instead of being portrayed as malleable like in other Thai literary works in the past. Some women in his works are governors of provinces, and some are soldiers who fight in war like Suwanmalee (สุวรรณมาลี), a character in Phra Apai Mani who was hurt from the battle but still went back to fight, or even Phisuea Samudra who is an ogress with strong magical powers. His works also contain characters of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds. The epic Phra Aphai Mani, for example, contains important characters who are Thai, Western, Chinese, and Indian. This international awareness reflected the blooming global trade scene in Siam during his lifetime.
Famous Works of Sunthorn Phu
- Phra Apai Mani [พระอภัยมณี]
Of all of Sunthorn Phu’s works, perhaps the most well-known piece is Phra Aphai Mani. This epic poetry tells the story of Phra Aphai Mani, a prince who encounters many adventures. The story starts with the young Phra Aphai Mani who opts to study music instead of governance. His father, the King, became enraged at this decision and exiled him from the land. Later, Phra Aphai Mani was kidnapped by Phisuea Samudra (which means ‘ocean ogress’ in Thai) who fell in love with him while overhearing him play the pee (a Thai oboe). Phisuea Samudra took him to live with her in a cave under the sea. Phra Aphai Mani later escapes and goes on a long journey with many fantastic encounters along the way. One of such encounters is with a Ma Nil Mangkorn (dragon horse) which is a hybrid between a horse and a dragon. The fantastic beast is endowed with magical abilities of being an eternal creature that cannot be hurt by any weapon but is eventually tamed by Phra Aphai Mani’s son, Sud Sakorn. The beast then becomes Sud Sakorn’s personal ride and loyal companion. The story of Phra Aphai Mani remains one of the most popular Thai literary works due to its beautiful poetic verses and vivid imagination. With its creativity and masterful composition, Phra Aphai Mani was declared to be as the best Thai fable written in verse by the Thai Royal Society of Literature. The work has been adapted into several comic books, animations, and even television series.
Statue of Phra Aphai Mani [cr. Matichon]
- Niras Phukao Thong [นิราศภูเขาทอง]
Sunthorn Phu was revolutionary in writing Niras (A form of Thai poetry usually written about travel and departure from loved one.) In fact, he was perhaps the first to popularize this form of Thai literature. His Niras poems are paragons for later generations of poets who follow in his footsteps until today. His most famous Niras is Niras Phukhao Thong (Golden Pagoda Niras or นิราศภูเขาทอง). Niras Phukhao Thong recounts Sunthorn Phu’s journey with his son to pay respect to the Golden Pagoda in Ayutthaya which was Thailand’s former capital. It was written when he was at the lowest point in his life: when he exiled himself from the palace and became a monk. This is perhaps why the poem contains many hauntingly tragic reflections about the nature life, which Sunthorn Phu conveyed through beautiful descriptions of scenery and events. Thai Royal Society of Literature declared Niras Phukhao Thong to be the best of all Niras.
The Golden Pagoda in Ayutthaya Province [cr. TAT]
A Poet of National and International Importance
In Thailand, you can just ask any Thai on the street about Sunthorn Phu, and one will certainly know a thing or two about him. His birthday on June 26 is celebrated every year as Sunthorn Phu day. And there is even a monument of him in Rayong, his father’s birthplace. In 1986, UNESCO honoured Sunthorn Phu as a World Poet considering his contribution to language and literature.
Despite all his contributions, his artistry, creativity and importance to both national and international literature, his works are rarely translated into English or any other languages. Even if they are, his rhymes and puns are difficult to translate into other languages in keeping with its beauty in the original Thai verse. Still, it would be worth it to have a chance to read some of his works, no matter in what language. To bid farewell to readers, let’s read this piece from Niras Phu Khao Thong translated with original rhyme scheme by the courtesy of M.C. Chand Chirayu Rajani:
Near to, I could smell the King’s scent,
Sweetly rend’ ring the ait at hand:
The King died, tasteless became the land
He died, and scentless my own fate.
In the Palace His ashes in an urn,
I in turn my merit dedicate
To Him, and the Majesty in state
For a great and glorious reign.
Author: Chertalay Suwanpanich
Editor: Tayud Mongkolrat
25 June 2022