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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Lao Qu -- a Buddhist sonnet by Bai Juyi

This morning I translated a lovely sonnet by Bai Juyi.  Of course it's not really a sonnet,  but it is somewhat similar, the original poem having been composed in adherence to strict formal requirements.  It's called regulated verse (近体诗 or Jintishi), which is a poetic form that developed during the Tang Dynasty.  As you can see from the original Chinese version reproduced below, this particular type of regulated verse called for a total of eight poetic lines, arranged in four couples, with each line consisting of 5 characters.

The poet Bai Juyi was a fascinating character.  I've been translating a number of his poems lately and his writing really demonstrates incredible range, reflecting a wide breadth of experience, from quite worldly and full of merriment, to all but ascetic in temperament.   His self-given courtesy name (equivalent of the western idea of pen name) was Le Tian (乐天), which idiomatically means carefree or easy going.  But Bai Juyi was a devout Chan Buddhist and after a long and successful career in government service, towards the end of his life he ended up living in a monastery and referred to himself as the Hermit of Xian. 

The title of this poem is Lao Qu (老去), which may be literally translated as Old Leaving.  The same two characters appear as the first two characters of the first line of the poem.  

Lao Qu

Growing old and departing
Leaving wife and child behind
But when winter arrives
Consolation comes via poetry

Warmth and chill both derive
From the same swig of wine
But the chill is diminished
Reciting a poem’s first lines

To surmount the mind
Still calls for struggle
Through diligent fasting
The body retains lean form

From the beginning of time
So the Dharma ordains
Increase and decrease are
Conjoined and entrained

*  *  *



老去愧妻儿    冬来有劝词
暖寒从    冲冷少吟
由来世    益合相随