The T'ang Dynasty poets were usually prefects who spent their lives moving from one provincial city to another. The changes in position were often the result of political vicissitudes: falling out of favor for known or unknown reasons. A transfer was usually akin to an exile. Therefore, a large number of T'ang poems are either about sailing the rivers of China from one post to another or about bidding farewell to friends and fellow poets: either those the poet is leaving or those who are departing from the poet.
Not surprisingly, the endless traveling and leave-taking takes on a philosophical cast when it comes to the writing of poems: one begins to see one's life as a journey and, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, "a continual farewell." Elements of Taoism and Buddhism fit naturally into this picture as well.
David Young Cameron (1865-1945), "A Castle on Mull"
The following poem is by Tu Fu (712-770), who is one of the four great poets of the T'ang Dynasty (the others, as I have noted before, are Li Po, Wang Wei, and Po Chu-i).
A Traveler at Night Writes His Thoughts
Delicate grasses, faint wind on the bank;
stark mast, a lone night boat:
stars hang down, over broad fields sweeping;
the moon boils up, on the great river flowing.
Fame -- how can my writings win me that?
Office -- age and sickness have brought it to an end.
Fluttering, fluttering -- where is my likeness?
Sky and earth and one sandy gull.
Tu Fu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor and translator), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).
David Young Cameron, "Morvern and Mull"
Thoughts while Traveling at Night
Light breeze on the fine grass.
I stand alone at the mast.
Stars lean on the vast wild plain.
Moon bobs in the Great River's spate.
Letters have brought no fame.
Office? Too old to obtain.
Drifting, what am I like?
A gull between earth and sky.
Tu Fu (translated by Vikram Seth), in Vikram Seth, Three Chinese Poets (Faber and Faber 1992).
David Young Cameron, "A Castle by the North Sea" (1924)
Traveling at Night
A breeze on the riverbank,
The tall mast
Of my boat alone in the night.
All across a vast plain.
The moon leaps
In the Great River's flow.
Has not made a name for me,
And now, due to age and illness,
I must quit my official post.
Floating on the wind,
What do I resemble?
A solitary gull
Between the heavens and the earth.
Tu Fu (translated by Greg Whincup), in Greg Whincup, The Heart of Chinese Poetry (Doubleday 1987).
The poem is much more than the lament of a disappointed poet-bureaucrat: it is about the journey all of us are in the midst of. I am aware that the idea of "life as a journey" has become a commonplace, and thus may be suspect, especially in light of the many trivial uses to which it is put in our demented age. But that does not mean that we have to be ironic about it, or discard it. If an idea has an element of human truth in it, we should not let it be destroyed simply because it has been ill-used.
David Young Cameron, "The Summer Isles" (1935)