Autumn begins unnoticed. Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,
summer's blaze giving way. My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.
Meng Hao-jan (689-740) (translated by David Hinton), in David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (Counterpoint 2002), page 42.
Meng Hao-jan spent most of his life in and around Hsiang-yang (also known as "Xiangyang"), which is in the modern-day province of Hubei. It is a region that was known for its mountains and rivers. Meng Hao-jan's character and poems were an important influence on the four great poets of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907): Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Po Chu-i. Li Po wrote the following poem about him:
At Yellow Crane Tower Taking Leave of Meng Hao-jan
As He Sets Off for Kuang-Ling
My old friend takes leave of the west at Yellow Crane Tower,
in misty third-month blossoms goes downstream to Yang-chou.
The far-off shape of his lone sail disappears in the blue-green void,
and all I see is the long river flowing to the edge of the sky.
Li Po (701-762) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 211.
Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "The Mill in the Valley" (1892)
I suspect that many of us share the urge to now and then visit another place and another time in the company of our favorite poets. Hence, for some accountable reason, I will periodically feel a sudden hankering to visit Brittany with Ernest Dowson, Cornwall with Arthur Symons, Dorset with Thomas Hardy, Japan with Bashō, Alexandria with C. P. Cavafy, et cetera. Escapism? No doubt.
This past week, autumn in ancient China has been calling me.
Alone Beside the Autumn River
All spring, my sorrows grew like lotus leaves.
Now they wither as my autumn sadness grows.
Grief is as long and wide as life.
Watch the autumn river. Listen to it flow.
Li Shang-yin (813-858) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 202.
The first three lines of the poem may be too morose for some tastes. But they are beautifully morose, don't you think? In any event, the final line redeems all sorrow, sadness, and grief. One of the wonderful features of classical Chinese poetry is that it continually reminds us to direct our attention to the lovely particulars that lie in front of us, at this moment. What is in front of us at this moment puts everything into perspective. Time-bound timelessness.
Duncan Grant, "Charleston Barn" (1942)
Yes, these poetic journeys to strange lands may indeed include an element of escapism, especially if they also involve time travel. After all, who, on occasion, does not wish to abandon one's current place and time? Yet it is usually the case that these excursions, if they are taken in the company of good poets, lead to the proverbial "shock of recognition": Ah! I know that World. We must return to the here and now, but all of these places and times continue to dwell within us, reminding us of the continuity of life and of human experience.
The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.
Po Chu-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919), page 57.
W. G. Poole, "Savernake Forest" (1939)
Thus, autumn in China 1,200 years ago does not seem at all strange to me. Mind you, this has nothing whatsoever to do with any special powers on my part: it is entirely attributable to the honesty, sensitivity, and artistry of the poets. Call it a cliché, but, when I read their poems, their world feels like my world. Another cliché: I have no doubt that they are telling the truth. "True and not feigning." As far as what it means to make one's way through life, nothing has changed over the past twelve centuries.
Lu-lung Village, Autumn
Refusing worldly worries,
I stroll among village strollers.
Pine winds sing, the evening village
smells of grass, autumn in the air.
A lone bird roams down the sky.
Clouds roll across the river.
You want to know my name?
A hill. A tree. An empty drifting boat.
Hsu Hsuan (916-991) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, page 212.
Roger Fry, "Village in the Valley" (1926)