Next came a career of shifting bureaucratic postings, often to far-flung provinces of the kingdom. This accounts for the numerous poems of departure, and of longing for home, that appear in Chinese poetry, as well as for the many laments for family members and friends who will never be seen again. These careers were often marked by periods of exile for running afoul of higher authorities, followed by reinstatement, and assignment to yet another remote district.
Finally, if a poet was fortunate, came retirement, often to the countryside. This was seldom a prosperous retirement: poets might earn some degree of fame, but they were hardly ever wealthy.
I am very fond of the poetry of T'ao Ch'ien (also known as T'ao Yuan-ming) (365-427), whose life followed this course, with a difference that is crucial to his poetry: he left the civil service after only 13 years, and moved to the country to become a farmer.
A long time ago
I went on a journey,
Right to the corner
Of the Eastern Ocean.
The road there
Was long and winding,
And stormy waves
Barred my path.
What made me
Go this way?
Hunger drove me
Into the World.
I tried hard
To fill my belly,
And even a little
Seemed a lot.
But this was clearly
A bad bargain,
So I went home
And lived in idleness.
T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918). The poem is untitled.
Roger Fry (1866-1934), "La Salle des Caryatides in the Louvre"
In his translation of the previous poem, Arthur Waley uses the word "idleness" to describe T'ao Ch'ien's life upon his return home to the countryside. But we should be careful not to take the word in its sometimes pejorative sense. I, for one, find idleness to be a positive state of being, allied with repose and serenity. In this, I follow Robert Louis Stevenson:
"Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity."
Robert Louis Stevenson, "An Apology for Idlers," in William Lyon Phelps (editor), Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson (1906), page 27 (italics in the original). I realize that there is an element of playfulness in Stevenson's essay, but I wholly agree with the sentiment expressed above.
Further, when it comes to traditional Chinese culture, it is essential to consider "idleness" in the context of Taoism and Buddhism, both of which place great emphasis upon a detached, contemplative life.
The following untitled poem by T'ao Ch'ien is the first in a series of four poems in a sequence titled "Returning to My Home in the Country."
In youth I couldn't sing to the common tune;
it was my nature to love the mountains and hills.
By mistake I got caught in that dusty snare,
went away once and stayed thirteen years.
The winging bird longs for its old woods,
the fish in the pond thinks of the deeps it once knew.
I've opened up some waste land by the southern fields;
stupid as ever, I've come home to the country.
My house plot measures ten mou or more,
a grass roof covering eight or nine spans.
Elm and willow shade the back eaves,
peach and damson ranged in front of the hall.
Dim dim, a village of distant neighbors;
drifting drifting, the smoke from settlements.
A dog barks in the deep lanes,
chickens call from the tops of mulberry trees.
Around my door and courtyard, no dust or clutter;
in my empty rooms, leisure enough to spare.
After so long in that cage of mine,
I've come back to things as they are.
T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).
Watson provides this note to lines 9 and 10: "The mou, a land measure, differed at different times and places; T'ao's plot was probably about one and a half acres. A span is the distance between two pillars in a Chinese style house." Ibid, page 129. Repetitions of the sort that appear in line 13 ("dim dim") and line 14 ("drifting drifting") are a common feature of Chinese poetry from its earliest days.
Roger Fry, "The Cloister" (1924)
The active "idleness" of a contemplative life of repose is embodied in this untitled poem.
I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.
T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).
Line 4 is lovely, but Waley's phrase "a heart that is distant" might be subject to misinterpretation. I do not think it is intended to suggest coldness or a lack of emotion. Burton Watson translates the line in this fashion: "With a mind remote, the region too grows distant." Waley and Watson are the two best translators of Chinese poetry into English, so their different versions of the line suggest that T'ao Ch'ien's words are subtle. My best guess is that the concept here is one of detachment from worldly affairs: the "noise" of the World, with which we are all familiar.
Roger Fry, "Market in a Disused Church in France" (1928)