In a recent post, I mentioned that I like to let a poem sit with me for a while in order to give it time to unfold. I think this is particularly important with respect to Chinese and Japanese poems. They are deceptively short and "simple." We mustn't make the mistake of thinking that they are therefore "simplistic." Appreciating them takes patience and -- for those of us who are not Chinese or Japanese -- a willingness to let go of our discursive tendencies (as well as of our tendency to jabber).
The fact that a "simple" four-line poem by Li Po (701-762) can be translated into sometimes widely varying English versions suggests that there may be more to the poem than immediately meets the eye. This doesn't mean that the poem needs to be "explicated" or picked apart. It just needs to be given time to quietly sit.
Still Night Thoughts
Moonlight in front of my bed --
I took it for frost on the ground!
I lift my eyes to watch the mountain moon,
lower them and dream of home.
Li Po (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (translator and editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).
Graham Sutherland, "Lammas" (1926)
In the Quiet Night
The floor before my bed is bright:
Moonlight -- like hoarfrost -- in my room.
I lift my head and watch the moon.
I drop my head and think of home.
Li Po (translated by Vikram Seth), in Vikram Seth, Three Chinese Poets (Faber and Faber 1992).
In a note to the poem, Seth states that "the moon in line 3 is specified as a hill moon or mountain moon." Ibid, page 51.
Samuel Palmer, "The Bellman" (1879)
On a Quiet Night
I saw the moonlight before my couch,
And wondered if it were not the frost on the ground.
I raised my head and looked out on the mountain moon;
I bowed my head and thought of my far-off home.
Li Po (translated by Shigeyoshi Obata), in Shigeyoshi Obata, The Works of Li-Po the Chinese Poet (J. M. Dent 1923).
Graham Sutherland, "Michaelmas" (1928)
Quiet Night Thoughts
A pool of moonlight on my bed in this late hour
like a blanket of frost on the world.
I lift my eyes to a bright mountain moon.
Remembering my home, I bow.
Li Po (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Banished Immortal: Visions of Li T'ai Po (White Pine Press 1987).
My lack of Chinese precludes me from opining as to which translation is the "best." Of course, this raises the perennial question: is the "best" translation the one that is the most "accurate" or the one that captures the "poetic" essence of the original? I am not about to dive into that oft-contested battle. I only wish to suggest that this sort of poetry deserves patience and contemplative attention, for it has a depth that belies its surface simplicity.
Samuel Palmer, "The Lonely Tower" (1879)