Poems of Bai Juyi
Feeling Like a Crane
Well, here's a crane without a flock --
Flying, always flying, to rest in wild fields.
To keep from starving, he pecks at decaying mice.
To stave off thirst, he steals a drink where he can.
Chaste and handsome, by nature upright and honest,
Compared to other birds, how graceful he is.
Like them, he wanders, but with different aspirations.
And he's been this way ten years or more.
He rises, addicted to the desire
To pull against the hand that holds him back.
His proud swagger fills the small ponds he lights in,
As he tries to eat before the local chickens get it all.
He yearns for paddies ripe with rice
As he struggles with the smell of rotten fish.
He yearns to find his right master
As he struggles with the crowd of crows and kites.
No one can really know his wild heart.
His nature is, well, changeable.
Even when he's well-fed, he'd rather remain like this
Than perch up high on some Imperial pavilion.
In 云居寺孤桐, we saw that Nature, for the Chinese, was the color of Nature, all the colors of Nature, as perceived by Man (male and female). It can also be the context of Man's solitude. We will see that when it is, Nature is often limited to the environs of a monastery, perhaps an abandoned one. But the works of Man are in the same frame with the elements of Nature. Flora and fauna are metaphors for Man. The phoenix tree was a monk in 云居寺孤桐. In 杂兴三首 三, I translated the last line: "And the remaining herd dwindled in the darkness." The actual characters were more like: "The remaining normal-sized deer shrank to become a variety of much smaller deer." Metaphor for Man.
This poem, 感鹤, is almost always translated as "Crane Feelings" and the translator, Western or Chinese, describes how the crane feels and perhaps makes a weak effort for this to be a general metaphor for Man. This is silly. Tang Chinese, perhaps even modern Chinese without exposure to the Western ideal of Nature, could not have imagined such a poem.
感鹤 comes from 810. Bai Juyi is married, employed, and has yet to experience exile. But he does write this poem, a gentle, iconic deprecating metaphor for one man in particular, Bai Juyi himself. In a city of millions, in a bureaucracy of thousands, he is a crane without a flock. Where everyone is concerned about today, he pecks at old little things and quenches his thirst for what he needs where he can and in stolen moments. He doesn't fit in with the brash and corrupt world he finds himself in and as he approaches 40, he realizes he has felt this way for over a decade.
Once you join me in this point of view, the rest is very clear. He is being ironic. And self-deprecating. He even laughs at himself, gently. One interesting Chinese element that I couldn't work into a reasonably-lengthed line comes where I made it: "To pull against the hand that holds him back." The line above it is pretty accurate. But this one actually goes more like: "To pull against the string attached to the hunting arrow he has been pierced with by the hunter." In the West there have long been birding arrows with blunt heads used to stun birds. You stun them, break their neck and have them for dinner. Similarly, in China there were light-headed hunting arrows with silk lines attached. You shot the bird and, if it didn't fall down, you reeled it in. These arrows are the 矰 and they occur pretty often in Tang poetry, usually as metaphors like this one.
Like most of us trapped in a late culture, Bai Juyi never really breaks free of the cord that binds him. Not until retirement, anyway, and you can't fly very far or very high by then, even if you try. He does keep his wild heart. He remains changeable. And he never does comfortably perch on top of his passing Imperial pavilions. His life, like Li Bai's, is a good long run against the forces arrayed against the goodness of the individual. You could make, perhaps, a case of Bai Juyi doing better in this struggle than Li Bai did. But I would never presume to judge between them. I am caught up in the same struggle they were in. And they are my ideals in this struggle.