A poem by Li Yu

Painting of Zhao Bo Yu (Beijing Palace Museum), detail(烏夜啼)


Lín huā xiè liăo chūn hóng,
tài cōng cōng.
Wúnài zhāo lái hán yŭ wăn lái fēng.
Yānzhī lèi,
xiàng liú zuì,
jĭ shí chóng.
Zìshì rénshēng cháng hèn shuĭ cháng dōng.

(To the tune of “Crows crying at night.”)

The flower of the forest is fading, the red
spring is over
too soon.
That’s how it has to be:
cold is the morning rain, the evening wind.
Rouged tears
drunken solitude –
when will come again?
Forever painful is life, forever
to the east runs the river.

This poem could be given the title Separation, but it mustn’t.

One reason is that Chinese poets never give title to their poems. Let the reader give one. The lack of the title is an important component of a Chinese poem. At best they indicate the title of a tune if the poem is composed to a tune as in this case. The title of the tune sometimes keynotes the poem, and sometimes stands in a telling contrast to it, as the poem composed to the tune of The joy of meeting by the same Li Yu, the last emperor of the Tang dynasty, in the prison, on the night before his execution.

And another reason is that in that case we would indiscreetly divulge what Li Yu carefully hide in the middle of the poem: rouged tears and drunken solitude. The scrupulous Chinese commentaries warn the unexperienced reader that “these two verses are two personifications.” Another version of the poem has 留人醉 “a man remained drunken” instead of “drunken solitude,” but our version is more beautiful.

The trusting question, “when will come again?” – what? everything that was mentioned and was not mentioned in the poem – is answered by Li Yu himself in the last verse. In China, which is one gigantic slope from the Himalaya to the Yellow Sea, it is a natural law that all the rivers run to the east, none of them flows backwards.

This question, borrowed from the emperor, was answered in a more cruel way by the great archaizing poet of the turn of the century, Wang Guowei who in 1927, when the river of the imperial power definitely flew away, and the revolutionary troops entered the Forbidden City, drowned himself into the lake of the Summer Palace so that he should not see the new world. Before that, perhaps to draw strength, he extracted in one single poem the various verses written by Li Yu on separation. It also begins like Spring in the Jade Pavilon, just as one of the most renowned ci’s of Li Yu. At the end of this poem he replies, not that much to the emperor who died a thousand years before, but rather to himself:

My ruler, look, the flower on this year’s branch is not the flower of the tree of the last year

because the spring of the year of 1928 will also come, and magnolia trees will blossom on the shore of the Kunming Lake as they also blossom today; but that spring he already does not want to see.

We will also write about the poem of Wang Guowei. But before that we want to translate the other poems by Li Yu quoted by him.