Poems of Bai Juyi
徐州故张尚书有爱妓曰盼盼 善歌舞雅多风态 余为校书郎时游徐泗间 张尚书宴余酒酣 出盼盼以佐欢欢甚 余因赠诗云醉娇胜不得 风袅牡丹花一欢而去 尔后绝不相闻迨兹仅一纪矣 昨日司勋员外郎张仲素绘之访余 因吟新诗有燕子楼三首 词甚婉丽诘其由为盼盼作也 绘之从事武宁军累年 颇知盼盼始末云 尚书既殁归葬东洛 而彭城有张氏旧第 第中有小楼名燕子 盼盼念旧爱而不嫁 居是楼十余年幽独块然 于今尚在余爱绘之新咏 感彭城旧游因同其题作三绝句
In Xuzhou, Minister Zhang had a favorite singing girl, Panpan. She was good at singing and dancing and had a very elegant attitude. When I was a proofer of scrolls, I travelled to Xuzhou, along the Si River. Minister Zhang invited me to a banquet. At the height of drinking, Panpan appeared and delighted us very much. I wrote her a poem saying, "My drunken attentions could not surpass the grace of this peony blossom." After that banquet, I never heard of her again. Then, only today, I find myself writing about her. Yesterday, while managing my property accounts, Zhang Zhongsu, the calligrapher, came to visit me. Remembering Minester Zhang, I composed this new poem of three verses, Swallow Tower. The lyrics are exquisite, based on my talks about Panpan with Zhang. Zhongsu was posted to the military district in Xuzhou for a year. He knew the whole story of Panpan and told me: "When Minister Zhang died, he was buried along the East Luo River. And in Peng City, near Xuzhou, was an old property of the Zhang's. In the middle of it was a small tower called Swallow. Panpan cherished Zhang's love for her and never married. She lived out her life in that tower all alone. The tower is still there." I love Zhongsu's story and I know Peng City from the old days. So for all these reasons, I wrote these three quatrains.
Window full of moonlight, curtains full of frost.
Lamp guttering in the cold barely lights the bed.
In Swallow Tower on a seventh month night,
Autumn comes to find you growing old alone.
Pearl-covered gauze sleeves are the color of smoke.
How many times weeping have you wished for sleep?
You no longer dance to the Rainbow Garments tune.
You put away those things eleven years ago.
This spring a visitor returned from Luoyang.
Long ago, he had stood by your minister's grave.
It is said that white poplars make the best columns.
Why should fair women be any less strong?
These three jue2ju4 (绝句) are a particular kind of quatrain in classical Chinese poetry. Seven characters. A specific rhyme scheme. Rules we will never truly understand. We can pretend we know the rules. But we can't really know how the characters were pronounced. Modern day Cantonese descends fairly directly from old court Chinese. But this and old dictionaries provide only hints. Now consider that these poets would send these poems to each other as a challenge to write an answering poem in the same rhyme scheme. They would lay traps to make the answer as hard as possible. On one occasion, Bai Juyi had to go around getting help from his fellow poets in order to answer a particularly difficult rhyme in a challenge from Yuan Zhen.
I was fifty-four years old when I began to study Chinese. I am beginning to realize just how little my study will achieve. Twenty years is nothing in dealing with this "magnificent disease." Reading, speaking, writing, so much to learn. My calligraphy with a brush is worse than my two-year-old grand-daughter's sidewalk chalk pictures. My calligraphy with a pen is only now becoming better than shameful. My personal dictionary, built up from Tang dynasty poetry translation has barely passed 3000 entries and every hundred characters of poetry adds another 15 or 20 bigrams and odd characters. Way long, feet sore. Happy walking beneath old trees.