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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Poplar and Willow (a song of spring)

The Poplar and Willow is a Tang Dynasty song that celebrates spring.  Back in the day it was one of the most popular melodies that would typically have been played on the zither or qin.  Many of the great Chinese poets wrote lyrics to accompany the melody.  I've never heard the tune -- I don't think anyone alive can claim otherwise since no recordings survive - but perhaps we can finesse the problem with our inner ear by simply enjoying the lilt of the lyrics, some of which fortunately have survived. 

Here's one version of a lyric written by Wang Anshi during the Song Dyanasty.

The poplar and the willow
And the apricot blossom
Such good comes from where?

On stone and roof beam
Of my thatched cottage
The rain beats down
Like Heavenly thunder

 Then the green droops in quietude
And a pathway beckons into
The forest’s depth but I pause

To examine carefully
Flowery red brushstrokes
Now clearly written along
The pond’s embankment




It's worth mentioning that the poplar and willow are important symbols in Daoist cosmology (and therefore in Tang poetry) as they epitomize Yin and Yang energy, representing two very distinct paths for growth.  Poplar and willow thus serves as something of a shorthand for every growing thing, in the midst of the plant world coming back to life.

The poplar and willow remains an important theme down to the present day in Chinese literature.  The 20th century despot and would-be poet Mao Tse Dung wrote a version of the Polar and Willow song, somewhat suggestively titled - I Lost My Proud Poplar - which seems to give the lyric a bit more of a sensual and leering flavor.  What else would you expect from one of the world's great despots?  I haven't bothered to translate Mao's poem myself but you can read a translation by Tony Barnstone here.

For my part, this morning, a fine morning indeed, after walking down to the Creek, where I was serenaded by a chorus of our local songbirds, I decided to write a version of Poplar and Willow of my own:

On a spring morning
Approaching perfection
 The wind has begun to shift
With a lingering chill
It also whispers a hint
Of the warmth to come

The buds are not done
With their slumbering
But with each breath
The poplar and willow
Stir to the moment
On the verge of awakening
Yet dreaming still
Of everything that
Remains to be done

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