Poet of the Fields

Portrait of Tao Yuanming (Tao Qiang) by Chen Hongshou (1599-1652)

The poets of Ancient China were writing about their love of nature for centuries. Tao Yuanming (365-427 AD) was a poet of the Eastern Jin period and is known as the founder of pastoral poetry. The following fu poem is from Waiting for the Owl: poems and songs from Ancient China, translated by Ian Johnston. Ian is shortlisted for 2011 NSW Premier’s Translation Prize. We’ll know the results on Monday 16 May.

Waiting for the Owl is proudly published by Pardalote Press

Going Back Home

Tao Yuanming

 My family was poor. Ploughing and planting were not enough to support us. Our house was full of young children but our jars held no grain. I could see no way of making a living. My parents and friends strongly encouraged me to become an official. I had a mind to get away but could see no path to follow. At the time there were disturbances on all sides but the local lord was kind, and an uncle, who saw my poverty and distress, found me a position in a small city. The turbulence of the time had not settled and in my heart I was fearful of distant service. Pengze was a hundred li from my home. Still, the public fields were productive and there was enough to make wine, so I took up the post. Only a few days had passed before I felt a longing to go back home. What to do, then? I have a nature that cannot be curbed or repressed. Even though cold and hunger may be pressing, to go against it makes me ill. To involve myself in the affairs of men is to become a slave to mouth and belly. So I was sad and ashamed to compromise the ideals of my life. Nevertheless, I thought I would try to last out a year and then pack up my things and slip away by night. But then my sister, who had married into the Cheng family, died at Wuchang, and my feelings bade me hasten away. So I took it upon myself to abandon my post. From the middle of autumn to the winter, I had been in the office just over eighty days when this matter directed my heart. I have called the poem ‘Going Back Home’. It was written during the eleventh month of the year yisi (December 405).

Going back home

My fields and garden will be covered with weeds.

Why don’t I go back?

It was I who made my heart the body’s slave,

so why continue in disappointment and lonely sorrow?

I know I can’t rework the past,

but I can look towards the future.

Truly I have strayed from the path, but not too far.

Today feels right, where yesterday felt wrong.

The boat rocks, tossed by a gentle wind,

my garments flutter, blown too by the breeze.

I ask a traveller about the road ahead.

I resent the faintness of dawn’s first light,

then I see buildings and run forward with joy.

A young serving boy welcomes me,

my little son waits by the door.

The three paths are now overgrown

but pines and chrysanthemums still stand.

Taking my child’s hand, I enter the house

where a full jug of wine waits ready for me.

So lifting my cup, I pour myself a measure,

glance at the trees in the courtyard, and smile.

I lean on the southern window, stirred by pride

and think how easy it is to be content with little.

Each day a walk in the garden completes my joy.

Although there is a gate, it is always closed.

With my stick for support, I walk or rest

and sometimes lift my eyes to marvel.

Clouds, without purpose, drift from the hills.

Birds, tired of flight, know when to rest.

In fading light as the sun starts to set,

I walk, pausing to touch a solitary pine.

I have come back home.

I seek only seclusion and an end to wandering.

The world and I remain too far apart.

If I ride off again, say what would I seek?

Pleasure enough in my family’s loving chatter,

and the joy in lute and books dispels care.

The farmers tell me that spring is now here,

so there’ll be work to do in the western fields.

Sometimes I call for a covered carriage.

Sometimes I row my solitary boat.

In deep seclusion, I seek out the gullies

and by steep paths traverse the hills.

The trees delight in their splendid foliage,

the brook bubbles up at its source.

It is good that everything has its season.

I sense that my life has run its course

and comes to this end.

‘What comes through Johnston’s work is that rare but necessary thing with translation of the first order: an intimate feel for the original, and a vigorous intuition with regard to what might be done with it in English; it is that same intellectual grasp of the Mandarin that gives his poems their stamp of authority. It is a rare event that a scholar with a literary touch, a scholar with a powerful mind who is also a poet, devotes himself to works of translation. His projects can only enrich Australian letters in a major way.’ – Barry Hill



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