Tuesday, January 1, 2013
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei
Though I studied Chinese formally for only a year, I enjoyed working my way through these brief lyrics with the aid of a foot-high stack of reference books. Apart from my rudimentary knowledge of the language, Chinese poetry is so highly intertextual that I cannot pretend to any authority in these versions. The beauty and profundity of Wang’s work is perhaps not altogether lost.
Apart from the poems’ formal elegance, sensitive depiction of nature, and the implied Buddhist insights, I am struck by the Tang poets’ emphasis on friendship, a value often muted in the modern American world where romantic heterosexual love tends to displace other emotions.
In spite of the emphasis on the natural world in his poetry and paintings where people are either absent or diminutive and unlike some of his fellow Buddhists, Wang Wei took an active role in government administration. His poems have been consistently celebrated. For the imagist movement in modern English poetry, the use of his work by Fenollosa and Pound was most influential.
With mountains all around I see you off.
I shut my brushwood door at the day’s end.
Next spring the grass will once more come up green –
will you return again as well, fine friend?
My worthy friend just come from my birthplace,
I know you’ll tell me all the home town news.
The day you left, did you see blossoms on
the plum tree next to my silk window screens?
With song of flute I cross to that far beach.
The sun now sets, my worthy friend has left.
Just by the lake I turn my head back once.
Above grey mountains curls the whitest cloud.
With sough of wind and fall of autumn rain,
shallow, shallow, water slips down rock.
All by themselves the waves collide and splash.
The snow white egret’s startled and descends.