Poems of Bai Juyi
A Gift for My Wife
In life, we'll share the same chambers of intimacy.
In death, the same chambers of dust.
Other people value outward appearances.
On the other hand, there's you and I.
I'm just a poor scholar in black
With an able wife who overlooks my poverty.
We have the diminished expectations of peasants
And still my wife treats me like an honored guest.
Like Tao Qian, who couldn't earn a living,
I can barely afford kindling after the bills are paid.
The geese on the roof refuse to serve the empire
As first light sweetly illumines what you're wearing.
You're not even interested in my books.
I've heard about people like you.
Up till now, thousands have tried to write down
What kind of great scholar they were.
I'll worry about that when I'm dead.
For now, I can't stop thinking of you.
I know we worry about clothes and food
But right now we're satisfied and warm.
Vegetables will do to keep us from starving.
No need to worry about work under this precious roof.
Cotton bindings are enough to keep out the cold.
There is no need here for my splendid words.
Other scholars' houses offer the words of the ancients.
We will innocently offer children instead.
So I am just a loyal, suffering scholar.
And you are newly married now to me.
We'll keep ourselves poor and plain
And grow old together in our happiness.
This poem really makes me love Bai Juyi. It was written in 807 and is a traditional for-your-wife poem. It has lots of layers. I have chosen to show the layer of how his wife, if she was as sweet as he was and I assume she must have been, would have taken it.
A few remarks. The first two lines are probably formulaic for this kind of newlywed poem. Most poems like this probably went on like this as the poor new wife inwardly sighed. Tao Qian was a well-known Han poet who came from an impoverished family. He was later the governor of the province of Xu just as Bai Juyi was later three times governor of different locales. He wasn't just any poet, either. He carried a stringless qin (琴) everywhere he went, saying when asked about it: "I am reaching for the heart of this matter. Why should I struggle over this note or that?"
The line "No need to worry about work under this precious roof." is a bit of a chunfeng double entendre which wouldn't fit in less than a paragraph. Gao (膏) is to dip one's writing brush in ink. Which a scholar would do constantly as he worked. A writing brush is also a euphemism for just what you would think it is. So as Bai Juyi's wife, sitting beside him on the bed, reads this, she pokes him with her elbow and leans her head on his shoulder.
So we now know that Bai Juyi has been married through all the poems so far except for the 赋得古原草送别 he wrote when he was 16. If you recall, I was hoping that in exile, as described in 赠元稹, that Bai Juyi was drinking wine in the snow and sleeping in late with a female friend. Well, he was. And she was his wife. I find this all very romantic. As soon as I learn more about Bai Juyi's wife, I will be sure to share it with you.
Arthur Waley mentions this poem and judges from it (and six other poems) that Bai Juyi didn't like his wife, that his wife was homely, and so on in the same unkind vein. All his evidence is based on his personal interpretation. No facts are involved. And a kinder heart would interpret their marraige differently. The layered meanings of Chinese make many interpretations possible. I prefer to assume a good-heartedness until I have a reason to judge otherwise. And Bai Juyi seems to be as good-hearted as they come.
One recalls that Waley was a minor member of the Bloomsbury Group. So perhaps he was influenced, anachronistically in his translation efforts, by that group's post-Victorian ideas about human intimacy. His own lovelife, marraige, and infidelities were certainly a post-Victorian mess.