Poems of Bai Juyi
On Reading Zhang Ji's Old Lyric Poems
Noble Zhang, what has become of you?
You worked at your poetry through thirty springs.
Masterful were your lyric poems,
Lifted above your peers by your new understanding.
For poetry, what did this mean?
A blossoming of meanings, which I will fully describe.
With elegance, which went beyond mere feelings,
You never wrote an empty word.
Reading your poems of studying immortality,
One intones the freeing of the gentleman in us.
Reading your poems of public service,
One learns the greed and corruption of state officers.
Reading your poems of working girls,
One feels the humanity of the purchased woman.
Reading your poems of industrious society,
One is urged to respond to the kind-heartedness in man.
At first, your poems are an aid to enlightenment:
Gently, they help all the myriad people.
Next, your poems bring order to the passions:
Like a broom, they sweep clean the whole body.
Then they yield the scholar's harvest
Until they have made his old age new.
Day and night, Zhang, your writing brush sang,
Your painstaking heart strong and constant.
Timeless, your opus, fit for noble offerings,
Now abandoned like so much clay and dust.
Zhang, I fear, one hundred years from now, for
Your destruction, when no man will hear you any more.
I wish you safety, within your mysterious pages
So that one hundred generations will not obscure you.
I hope that you spread, from within these lyric poems,
So that the future will bring you fame and reverence.
As wordsmith, you are the beginning of an ideal.
As journeyman, you are the root of culture.
Zhang, your poems, once known,
Endear themselves to us.
So why, now that you are almost fifty,
A minor official, poor and lowly,
Almost blind, and living along the Western Road,
Does no one make the journey to your door?
Who was Bai Juyi?
Depends on who you ask. In the People's Republic of China, they say things like:
His style was plain and easy to understand. He is best known for a couple of long poems. He was prolific. He often wrote satirical poems, critical of those in power. He frequently offended those in power. Then he gave up politics and turned to drinking.
I'm pretty much quoting a contemporary PRC poet and translator here. For him, Bai Juyi is just some poet guy. A failed politician. An old drunk. To be fair, calling him an old drunk could be jealousy. William Carlos Williams calls Du Fu (杜甫) an old drunk. For the record, Li Bai (李白) was the old drunk, who had a good long run against a life of bitterness and disappointment, until he finally cried "Ganbei!" (干杯) and drowned himself in a river's moon. Bless his heart.
Other PRC translators and editors of Bai Juyi are a bit kinder but not exactly full of praise. We'll see why as we go along. For now, let me just say that Bai Juyi was, and is, properly esteemed by the Japanese. And I agree with them, when they call him "The God of Poetry."
As for 读张籍古乐俯, this is not a young man's poem. It was written in 815, when the poet was 43. It shows him standing up for his ideals in spite of all that he has gone through. It shows us what he still cares about. And whtat he thinks about poets, their fate, and the fate of their work. He is still an idealist. And, as Kenneth Clark points out, our works of art are the children of our ideals.
Bai Juyi already loves justice and loves it in a broad and all-inclusive manner. He feels deeply for other people, plain and working people, not just gentlemen and poets. And he looks towards enlightenment without looking away from the world.