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June 8th, 2001

  A Song of Valediction: Dreaming I Roamed on TiānMŭ Mountain

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[The following, a sort of Chinese "Kubla Khan," is one of the best-known poems by China's best-loved poet. In the original it is inexpressibly beautiful. The last two lines are so well-known as to constitute an idiom. I have appended some more detailed notes at the end of the poem.]
 
A Song of Valediction: Dreaming I Roamed on TiānMŭ Mountain

                by Li Po (Lĭ TàiBái), tr. John Derbyshire

Seafarers tell of the Blessed Isles —
Veiled, indistinct in the mists of the sea.
Southern folk speak of TiānMŭ Mountain,
Now seen, now hidden in slow-shifting clouds.
TiānMŭ soars straight to the sky, to the span of heaven,
Above the Five Summits, shadowing ChìChéng Peak,
While TiānTái himself, in towering splendor,
Seems merely a foothill off to the southeast.

Ah, but I long for dreams of the South —
To fly across Mirror Lake under the moon!
My moon-shadow roaming far to Shàn River,
Where Master Xiè's retreat may still be seen,
And green water ripples to monkeys' sad calls.
In that old poet's clogs I ascend through the mists.
Midway see sunrise on the sea,
Hear the great heaven-bird's cry.
I weave my way between trackless cliffs.
Lost in foliage I rest … when swiftly comes dusk.
Wild beasts' roaring shakes river and cliff;
The forest trembles — Oh! The massed peaks shudder!
Clouds darken with yearning to rain,
Streams fade beneath thickening mist.

Thunder peals!
The mountains tumble!
With a mighty growl from deep within,
Heaven's stone door swings aside!
First boundless dark — then sun and moon
Reveal the palace of the immortals!
Ah! Clothed in rainbows, riding on winds,
Sallies out the host of heaven!
With tigers for musicians, phoenix as charioteers —
Oh, numberless are their ranks!
My spirit cowers, my soul trembles! But —

I wake … and sigh for my loss.
Nothing here but the pillow I slept on;
My glimpse of heaven naught but a dream.
So always with human rapture;
The joys of all time flow away to the east.

I bid thee farewell — Who knows for how long?
When the need stirs me I shall mount a white deer
And ride to seek the holy mountain!
How can I bend my knee to men of power,
Who will not let my spirit fly?

 

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Notes.

Li Po (modern Chinese people say "Lĭ Bái" or "Lĭ TàiBái") lived a.d. 701-762, in the high summer of the Táng dynasty. There is a life of him by Arthur Waley (The Poetry and Career of Li Po, 1950) and quite a good fictionalized autobiography by Simon Elegant (A Floating Life, 1997), which includes the author's own translation of this poem, in part. I reviewed the latter book for the Washington Post.

Witter Bynner includes a translation of the above poem in his anthology of Chinese poetry, The Jade Mountain.

TiānMŭ Mountain is in XīnChāng County of the modern ZhèJiāng Province. ChìChéng (pronounced "chrrr-cherng") and TiānTái are neighboring mountains.

The Blessed Isles are mythical. They were supposed to lie out in the Pacific and to be the abode of Immortals. Bynner translates the term as "Japan," wrongly I think. For poetic purposes Japan was often included among the Blessed Isles; but to educated Chinese of the period, the distinction between Japan (real) and the Isles (mythical) was clear.

"The Five Summits" refers to the five holy mountains of China:  Mount Tài in ShānDōng Province, Mount Héng (衡) in HúNán, Mount Huà in ShănXī, Mount Héng (恒) in HéBěi and Mount Sōng in HéNán.

Mirror Lake is south of the city of ShàoXīng, in ZhèJiāng Province. The Shàn is a small river in the nearby district now ShèngZhōu City.

"Master Xiè" (pronounced "shee-eh") refers to the poet and hermit Xiè Língyùn, 385-433 A.D.

A white deer was supposed to be the steed of choice for immortals. It was Li Po's conceit that he was a "banished immortal" — an immortal expelled from heaven for misbehavior.