Poems of Bai Juyi
The Foxglove Gatherer
Barley dies without spring's rain.
Fall's early frost will stunt the wheat.
In his late years, with other mouths to feed,
Among the fields, he picks foxglove.
What will this gatherer use it for?
He'll trade foxglove for good dry grain.
Before first light, his burden pierces his shoulders,
At dusk, his basket is still not full.
He brings his harvest to vermillion gates.
Then takes his pittance to the wheat flour shop.
But the lords can feed their horses fat
And fill the earth with their destructive light.
Yes, your horses can trample these fields more easily
Than you can ease the suffering of all these empty stomachs.
I think it is a mistake to smooth over Bai Juyi's transitions, as if they were planned. I think he started this poem, for instance, after watching an old man pick foxglove in other men's fields. Bai Juyi might have walked over and talked to the man. The wealthy, behind their vermillion gates, would have their servants buy foxglove for its medicinal properties. Then the man would purchase what edible flour he could with the little the rich were willing to part with. And with this, he fed his family, perhaps the children of a now dead son. This would be the burden which pierces his shoulders before dawn.
Diguang (地光) is a cool word. It means "flashes of light which occur before an earthquake." I've been around earthquakes and lightning but never the two at once and connected. Interesting to think about. Bai Juyi has his own flashes of light in the final two lines of verse three, where the plight of his poor aquaintance calls to mind the ease of the man's opposites on the "good side" of town. And then the earthquake comes as Bai Juyi berates the warring nobles and their mounted troops, who throughout the late Tang trampled the fields in their violence, at the expense of everyone else's stomachs. Of course, in the end, the wealthy stomachs were emptied too. What goes around, comes around, as cultures slide into oblivion.