Sunthorn Phu: The Poet of Four Reigns

By Montri Umavijani

For his Bicentennial in 1986, Sunthorn Phu (1786 - 1855) was honoured by UNESCO as a great man as well as Thailand people's poet. The Year also witnessed a nationwide celebration. A new edition of his works, translations, and biographical studies were published. Besides, the cultural fairs and entertainment attested to the esteem in which the poet was held.

However, little was actually done for the critical understanding of the Bicentennial Poet. First, the usual English spelling of his name was arbitrarily changed to Sunthon. Then, arguments by critics centered around such peripheral matters as his ancestry, his birth place, the dates of his compositions, etc. Lack of evidence was writ large on their opinions. Soon afterwards, one compromise after another was made among the critics. In the case of Sunthorn Phu's parentage, for example, it was eventually agreed that his father was a native of Rayong, while his mother came from Phetchaburi. Hopefully, that would leave Sunthorn Phu himself a native of Bangkok, or of Them Buri, to be exact.

As a true Buddhist, Sunthorn Phu has left no trace of himself. The only place that may beassociated with him is a temple in Bangkok called Wat Thepthidaram in which he Spent the last few years of his long monkhood from about 1840. While it is almost impossible to read the poet's works as an illustration of his life, it is actually misleading to extract the poet's life from his works. He was a fictionalist who could journey a long way from a small starting point. Did not he write one of his poems in his son's name ? Another poem which was taken from his canon and ascribed to his student may one day be reinstated.(1) And other works of Sun-thorn Phu may be discovered, if old manuscripts are not destroyed or sold to ignorant people the way they are now.

Sunthorn Phu criticism was for a long time influenced by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab's brief biography of the poet, published in 1922.(2) This piece of writing was evidently derived from an unpublished Life of Sunthon Phu by Phraya Pariyatithammathada.(3) The main tenets of Prince Damrong's criticism had the poet pinned down as a commoner who could not have received a very good education. His verse, even though melodious and partaking of common speech, was simply "market verse." Besides, Sunthorn Phu had two bad flaws, namely, drunkenness and amorousness. To these was added the unusual pride and arrogance which caused him to offend the future King Rama III and thus earned his "dark period" during that reign. This theory of the "dark period" of Sunthorn Phu was a double-edged knife : While it made the poet appear in a bad light, it also hurt King Rama 111's reputation for having done the "people's poet" an ill turn. Two later critics, Chant Khumvilai (4) and Prince Chand Chirayu Rajani, (5) tried to deny some, if not all, of these charges against the poet. Especially, Prince Chand's theory was diametrically opposed to that of Prin Damrong.(6) Ac-cordingly, two myths of Sunthorn Phu have been created. However,Prince Chand thought that he was a world-class bard like Chaucer or Shakespeare. At that time, only Prince Prem Purachatra (7) believed in making Sunthorn Phu known to the world through translations.

The present state of Sunthorn Phu criticism is very insecure. Any date or event given of the poet's life and works is necessarily compounded of critics's opinions. Even Prince Damrong's essay which serves as an introduction to every edition of Sunthorn Phu, is weighted down by additional notes of conjectural nature by later editors.

It may be well to treat Sunthorn Phu as the Poet of Four Reigns, from Rama I to Rama IV, and see his career as a progression.

The First Reign (1772 - 1809)

Sunthorn Phu was born in 1786, nineteen years after the sacking of Ayutthaya by the Burmese and four years after the establishment of Bangkok as the new capital city. Whilst the holocaust was still vivid in his mind, he witnessed two wars being simultaneously fought against the enemy, namely, the actual battles throughout the First Reign and the spiritual, or psychological warfare between righteousness and unrighteousness. He was privileged to be a commoner in that period. With the New City still made of wooden structures, the commoner was not so lowly as Prince Damrong thought. For even King Rama II himself was not a born prince. And Sunthorn Phu's early education at War Sri Sudaram in Them Buri was tantamount to that of any prince. Besides, his background gave him a vantage point.

Sunthorn Phu spent his childhood and adolescence in the Palace of the Back, as his mother was a wet-nurse to a princess of that Palace. At about twenty, he wrote a story in verse titled Khobutr for a prince. This was evidently modelled after King Rama I's Unarut and Ramakien, but with a difference. There was, in it, an emphasis, on knowl-edge and education as well as on forgiveness of one's enemies. This would become characteristic of his works.

In 1807, he made a trip to see his father who was ordained a monk in Rayong. This resulted in a travel poem in the nirat genre, titled Nirat Muang Klaeng. (8) Later in the same year, he accompanied a prince of the Back Palace to the Buddha's Foot Print in Saraburi. He wrote about the experience of this trip in Nirat Phra Bat. In these early works, Sunthorn Phu showed himself a master of the glon form (9) as well as an excellent storyteller. The two travel poems, however, relied more on outward descriptions than on inner thoughts and feelings. But already he had intro-duced his two major themes, namely, the impermanence of things and the inconstancy of women and men. These he would turn to time and again with changing perspectives.

When Sunthorn Phu left for Muang Klaeng, it was after he had been imprisoned for an affair with a court woman named Chan. Incidentally, the death of the Prince of the Back Palace in 1807 gave him an opportunity to marry this woman. But the married couple were highly temperamental. On leaving for the Buddha's Foot Print by the end of that year, he wrote that his wife had been angry with him for more than one month. They came back together, but eventually broke with each other for good. With this wife he had a son named Pat to whom he ascribed one travel poem.(10)

The poet was destined to know many women. This was not done as the aristocrat's polygamous practice, but he picked and lived with one woman at a time. And he never blamed any of them for the fact that they could not live together. The only wicked woman he ever showed was not a real person but his own creation, namely,Mora in Chan-thakorop. This woman who, in sudden sympathy for the ugly bandit who had lost his army for love of her, gave him the sword to kill her own husband was a parody of the faithful Sita in King Rama I's Ramakien. Had Sita but taken pity on the demon, all would have been lost. Sunthorn Phu thus showed himself the common poet par excellence who took to task the moral atmosphere of his day. It is a pity that the work was dismissed from the opus by Prince Damrong.

The Second Reign (1809 - 1824)

Sunthorn Phu was thirty-five years old when he entered the royal service in the Second Reign. He was given the title of Khun Sunthorn Voharn and a house at Ta Chang, near the Grand Palace. King Rama II or Lertla was every inch a poet and daily spent long hours writing poetry with his choice company. He was blessed with a long period of peace and a son who took charge of all material interests on his behalf. This son, Prince Jesdabodin and the future King Rama III, was also a remarkable poet and was in the King's poetic retinue together with Sunthorn Phu. There was a royal pavilion built on the Chao Phya River where the King composed his Ramakien, Khun Chang Khun Phan, Sang Thong, and others.

There is a well-known story of how Sunthorn Phu came to offend the future king. Prince Jesdabodin who evi-dently had considerable respect for Sunthorn Phu as a poet, showed the latter the part of Sang Thong he had written before he actually presented it to the King. Sunthorn Phu quickly inspected it and voiced approval. However, when Prince Jesdabodin read the beginning of Canto Five con-taining the line, "The King (Thao Samont) then thinks of fulfilling his daughters' wishes..." Sunthorn Phu raised the ques-tion, "What did they wish for ?" The Prince had to change his line to, "The King then thinks of getting his daughters mar-ried." Though the line was improved, the relationship between future king and poet was impaired forever.

This was the story that Prince Damrong used to support his theory about the misery and homelessness of Sun-thorn Phu after the death of King Rama II. What appeared like a deserving punishment for the poet's misdemeanour towards the future king in time became a stone around the royal neck of King Rama III. Knowing him to have had great tolerance in religious matters, among other things, this conjecture has lost its credibility.

Sunthorn Phu's life in the Second Reign must have been uneventful, except for the intellect. But intellectual de-light counted the most for him. It was always exciting to attend King Rama II's poetic composition. At one time, the King composed Ramakien and came to a description of the demon king's carriage. It was an enormous thing, as tall as the mountain which divided the worlds, drawn by 100,000 lions on each side. After having put it down, however, the King was helpless to make it move. Sunthorn Phu came to his aid, adding:

What Sunthorn Phu supplied was nothing other than the natural phenomena" of the love scene in Thai literature. The royal carriage was driven by love force and lust. This was very true of Ramakien which was a long war caused by love for a woman, just like the Trojan War. King Rama II seemed to take it well in spite of the lurking element of parody.

Incidentally, the King had two major queens, comparable to the two heroines in his epic Inao, Butsaba and Chintara. Apart from his poetic problems, this was the main source of his worry. It was believed that Sunthorn Phu persuaded the King to write the folk drama Kraithong. (12) In it, he found vent to his dilemma. Kraithong had several Charming wives but he was far from being happy. So, finally, he had to put his wives in separate houses and let them be. With acuteness the hero learned his moral lesson : "Do not peep into jars!"

Sunthorn Phu himself continued with the theme in Laksanawong, written in 1816. There, a king had a discarded wife who came back disguised as a young brahmin to serve her husband. Even though she was many months with child, she would not reveal herself. As a scribe, she helped him write the tell-tale title, Inao. A court intrigue by another concubine caused her to be executed. In the macabre scene, she gave birth to a child at the stroke of the sword!

The poet's next work, Singhakraiphop, started off like Sang Thong. But it got lost in a welter of sub-plots. It was an interesting story of nature getting stronger than nurture. A king spared the life of a bandit's baby and brought it up as his own child. The boy grew into manhood and was just like his real father. In due time, the kingdom was at stake. It was eventually saved by the king's real son who had been brought up as a commoner.

Sunthorn Phu began his major epic, Phra Abhai Mani, in about 1821. He proceeded with care and made a good plot for it. But he did not have much time for this work, for he had been given royal command to contribute to the great epic Khun Chang Khun Phan.

Considering the part of the epic that was assigned to Sunthorn Phu, he probably was not yet a major poet, at least not in the sebha genre.(13) "The Story of Plai Ngarm" lay outside the main plot. However, Sunthorn Phu availed himself to the opportunity and turned it into one of the best sections of the epic. The episode is an educational story complete in itself. In it, the hero is seen from birth to manhood.

At one point in the story, Plai Ngarm went to visit his father, Khun Phan, in prison. Sunthorn Phu must have lent to the hero his experience of going to see his father in Rayong, at the age of twenty. As for the prison life, the poet seemed quite familiar with it. So when Plai Ngarm pleaded to stay in prison with his father, Khun Phan said to him vehemently :

Interestingly, Sunthorn Phu portrayed King Panvassa in Khun Chang Khun Phan after his beloved King Lertla. Seeing young Plai Ngarm, King Panvassa thought of granting royal pardon to Khun Phan who had already been imprisoned for over ten years. But he was immersed in poetic composition :

Sunthorn Phu continually thought of King Rama II all his life. Passing by the royal pavilion on the Chao Phya, he lamented his Lord and Master. Even as late as 1842, when he made a trip to the Great Stupa in Nakhon Pathom, he fervently prayed for the King's soul.

At an uncertain date in the Third Reign, Sunthorn Phu wrote Nirat Inao about the sorrows of the young hero over his windborne wife Butsaba. The wife had been carried away by an angel as a punishment for the hero's vacillating heart. Unlike the other nirats, this work was written in the third person. The hero's thoughts and feelings were de-scribed rather than acted. Besides, the poet used an unusual quick rhythm and flowery style. It was as if the hero of King Rama 11's Inao were held up for scrutiny, in anticipation of the novel form. As a parody, it was subtler than the known parody of Inao, namely, Phra Maha Montri's Raden Lundai. (14) Thus Sunthorn Phu showed his lifelong attachment to King Lertla. His loyalty to the King took the purest human form.

The Third Reign (1824 - 1848)

This was the period in which the poet led the most eventful and varied life. Judged from his literary output, Sun-thorn Phu became a major poet and wrote his great nirats as well as his masterpiece PhraAbhai Mani.

It was also the period in which the poet was ordained. There is a belief that he was twice ordained. If so, his or-dination in 1824 could either be his first or his second. But it is clear that he went into monkhood right after King Rama II's death, presumably in fear of royal menace from the new King. He spent some time at Wat Rajaburana. (15) Meanwhile, King Rama II's Queen Kunthon put her two sons under the poet's care, since he had taught her eldest son, Prince Arporn, in the Second Reign. However, Sunthorn Phu seemed restless and soon left for Ayutthaya in 1827. He mentioned something about being harrassed while at War Rajaburana. On the way to Ayutthaya, he passed the royal pavilion by the river

After his return from Ayutthaya, he became absorbed in alchemy and magic medicine for longevity. He made several trips in search of these. He, therefore, wrote for his two princes a series of worldly maxims called Phleng Yao Thawai Owat, almost like lessons in absentia. Then, in 1831 he went to Phetchaburi again and wrote Nirat Muang Phet, based on the cumulative experience of many trips to that place.(17) Nirat Muang Phet together with Nirat Phukhao Thong are considered his best poems in the genre. This is easily understandable. Both are characterised by an equilibrium of the outward journey and the inward one. By then, Sunthorn Phu had become a master who could turn a travelogue into a work of art. In 1834, he went to look for magic medicine at a deserted temple in Ayutthaya. He wrote a poem in his son's name, called Nirat Wat Chao Fa.

About this time, he got a new patron, Prince Lakkhananukhun, who was a son of King Rama III. This probably made him take up the writing of Phra Abhai Mani again. Such a big programme needed support and readership. Incidentally, the Prince's elder sister was also much interested in the story. This was Princess Vilas who, later, was given the title of Krommun Absorn Sudathep.

The Princess was a favourite daughter of King Rama III. The King built for her a temple called Wat Thepthida-ram or the Temple of the Angelic Daughter. The temple was completed in 1839, and Sunthorn Phu was invited to stay there. He was, therefore, given the opportunity to write most of Phra Abhai Mani and Singhakraiphop, probably for the Princess.

Sunthorn Phu wrote about the time he came to Wat Thepthida in Ramphan Philap (Lamentations):

At one point, he summed up poignantly:

If such had been the case, he would not have known where to turn. In fact, we really do not know what happened to the poet, except that he was not on good terms with the abbot of Wat Thepthida. As a rule, he could be more sorrowful in his poems than in reality. Temperamentally speaking, he would not feel happy if he ever found himself happy. Anyhow, in 1841, he made a trip to Suphan Buri with his sons, presumably in search of fool's gold again. It was a costly trip, one he could not have afforded if he had really been penurious. The result was a long nirat in the kloang form, (18) called Nirat Suphan. In it, we find the most exciting adventure story in Thai poetry.

In Ramphan Philap, he described a most unusual event. At Wat Thepthida, he dreamt of an angel. She came to him and led him into the Chapel where he saw :

The angel had to leave the earth. She asked the poet to follow her to heaven. He thought that perhaps he would soon die, so he left the church in 1842. But the one who died, in 1845, was Princess Vilas alias Krommun Absorn Sudathep, still young and ever beautiful-Sunthorn Phu's angel.

In 1842, he made a trip to the Great Stupa in Nakhon Pathom and wrote Nirat Phra Prathom. There is a doubt whether by then he had already left the church. An ambiguity of tone is inherent in this nirat. Some critics believe all the great nirats were written when the poet was in the monkhood. This certainly is one of Sunthorn Phu's greatest. It could be explained that the poet made the trip as a monk, but he wrote the work as a man. Compared to Nirat Phukhao Thong and Nirat Muang Phet, this nirat employed dream and memory to the highest degree. The poet went back in time and recalled his loves as well as reviewed his life. By far his greatest devotion was to King Rama II :

Even in immortality, he would remain a loyal subject to King Lertla. This is as far as human love can go.

The Fourth Reign (1848 - 1868)

In fact, the Fourth Reign for Sunthorn Phu began in 1842, the year he entered the service of Prince Issares-rangsan, the future Second King Phra Pin Klao. It also came to an end in 1855, with the poet's own death.

At the age of 66, the poet was created Phra Sunthorn Voharn. He held the position like that of the Poet Laure-ate. Some critics believe that he wrote Swasdi Raksa (The Safeguarding of Welfare) for Phra Pin Klao's eldest son in this Reign. It was originally thought to have been an earlier work, intended for Prince Arporn in the Second Reign. It is a good work and is part and parcel of Thai culture. But it lacks the personal conviction of Phieng Yao Thawai Owat, written for Prince Arporn's brothers.

Then came a series of uninspired works. King Rama IV ordered the poet to turn the Royal Chronicles into verse. This he did, but one can hear him yawning at times. Sunthorn Phu quickened to life, however, when he wrote lullabies and dance-songs. He first composed them for the Palace of the Front of Phra Pin Klao, then for the Grand Palace. Many of these lullabies and songs were derived from his narrative poems such as Phra Abhai Mani and Kobutr.

Sunthorn Phu probably spent his last years teaching some royal children. It was a sedentary life which did not induce much great writing. The nirat-writing period was over, since he did not travel anymore. He needed the actual journey both to perceive and to recall memories of the past. It seemed he suffered a decline of creative powers, or obscurity as a result of changing taste. There is evidence for the latter. A woman poet ac-cused Sunthorn Phu of having written fictitious stories for ignorant people. (20) This latent criterion of truth immediately was detrimental to the imagination. And indeed, poets after him were no longer inventive. They just took up Jataka tales and added scanty backgrounds to them. Because of this ban on "lies," the element of fiction was entirely missing until the Western novel form was introduced nearly a century later.

Another great innovation of Sunthorn Phu is evident in his travel poems. In them, there was a concern for autobiography as a literary form. The poet mixed facts with self-projected images in such a way that he might be writing autobiographical fiction. This artistry went unnoticed in his times.

Sunthorn Phu died in 1855, at the age of 70. The date is unknown. By then, he must have been passed over, but, not for very long. By dint of irony, it was printing that caused a quick revival of Sunthorn Phu. For, in 1870, a foreign printer named Dr. Smith started printing Phra Abhai Mani in serial form for the public. This printer made so much money from it that he and other people went on printing the poet's works, including the nirats. It made Sunthorn Phu the most popular author ever.

The Bicentennial of Sunthorn Phu in 1986 was an occasion to pay homage to the poet who has been a teacher to the nation. With his moral attitude and deep sensitivity, he assisted in the making of Rattanakosin or the City of Bang-kok. He thoroughly knew the Thai character and so he knew what the future would hold for the people. Through his works, we can and must test the destiny of the nation.


1. Nirat Phra Thaen Dong Rang, believed by Prince Damrong to be Sunthorn

Phu's work, but later rejected by another critic. (Back)

2. This serves as an introduction to all editions of the poet's works. (Back)

3. Published in as late as 1986 for the Bicentennial of Sunthorn Phu. (Back)

4. A Hundred Years of Sunthom Phu, Bangkok, 1955. (Back)

5. A History of Sunthorn Phu's Poems, 2 vols., Bangkok, 1976. (Back)

6. Prince Chand denied the poet's drunkenness and poverty. (Back)

7. Prince Prem Purachatra translated Nirat Muang Klaeng, excerpts from Nirat

Suphan, as well as retold the masterpiece of Sunthorn Phu in The Story of Phra

A bhai Mani. (Back)

8. Published by the National Identity Board in 1984. (Back)

9. A kind of flowing verse with varying numbers of syllables, the most popular

is Glon 8. (Back)

10. Nirat Wat Chao Fa. (Back)

11. The fish in Indian mythology. (Back)

12- Krait'ong, trans. Prem Chaya (Prince Prem Purachatra), Bangkok, 1981. (Back)

13- A kind of singing drama. (Back)

14- Raden Lundai, trans. Montri Umavijani, Bangkok, 1982. (Back)

15. There are arguments on how long he actually stayed at War Rajaburana.

The line adopted here is Prince Chand's, to the effect that the three periods

mean the trut, sat, and vassa, within just one year. (Back)

16. Sunthorn Phu : An Anthology, trans. Montri Umavijani, Bangkok, 1990, pp.63-64. (Back)

17. Perhaps the poet's mother had relatives there. (Back)

18. The quatrain with interlacing rhymes and tonal accents. (Back)

19. Nirat Phra Prathom, trans. Montri Umavijani, Bangkok, 1986, p.55. (Back)

20. The criticism was made by Khun Phum, a lady-poet in the Fourth Reign. (Back)

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