Poems of Meng Jiao
Chanted at Parting
River's surface pales in morning's twilight.
We have often parted at this riverside.
In our parting cups, we have our tears to drink.
This parting branch of willow has no buds of spring.
All our smiles suddenly fade.
Too soon there will be plenty of fresh sorrows.
Eastern billows and setting suns have
No pity on the far-traveling man.
A few remarks on parting. Officials could not leave their district without permission. So you saw your friend off as far as the border, which was often a river. There you would have a parting cup of wine. A willow branch was a customary symbol of telling someone you wish they would stay. "Willow" (柳 liu3) is a pun on "stay" (留 liu2). And going by Tang poetry, every river was lined in willows which the poets never tire of telliing us look like smoke or mist in the distance. Close up, they look like trees.
Which brings me to Meng Jiao and this poem. Poems of parting are as common as smokey willows in Tang poetry. But this is the most direct and one of the most poignant I have translated. No clichés, just the record of a moment. We can't really place this poem in time or space. If it mentioned horses or a cart, we could say it was from after Meng Jiao's becoming an official. But his friend could be leaving on a boat and neither of them need be in imperial employ. The only clue we have is the use of 河 rather than 江 for "river," which makes this a northern river and places Meng Jiao in his later northern officialdom, rather than his earlier southern wandering. Of course, this theory is torched if 河 is an artistic choice rather than a pedestrian usage.