Poems of Meng Jiao
Bitter Cold Among the Common People
(I spent a year near the capital of Henan. This poem is in sympathy for the great suffering of those people.)
Without fire to warm their beds,
Half the night they stand and sob.
Where did this death blow come from
That turns the wind to thorns and needles?
Frost blowing in through all four broken walls
Makes suffering hard to avoid.
In the great hall, they strike the bell for hot tea
And at dawn you hear them cooking.
The cold wish they were moths and could
Burn to death in the cooking oil.
Cooking oil, like the veil of immortality, lying
Beyond the endless, empty repetitions of mortality.
In the end, they fall dead to the ground
Like the heavy tread of tired wanderers.
Who are these wanderers?
They are the lords of sadness.
Bai Juyi wrote more than one poem of common people suffering in the cold. He would describe them in plain, clear language. Then he would describe his shame for not sharing their suffering. I think he was sincere. But Meng Jiao shared their suffering, at least to some extent. And he does several things here Bai Juyi never did.
In lines 7 and 8, he shows the people struggling together to make warm drinks and what food they could afford. In the third verse, he describes their absolute despair, expressed in their wishing for death. And the third verse continues with their yearning to pass beyond the cycles of suffering, which their common perception of religion promised them, into a fullness of life. But that yearning is unfulfilled. In the final quatrain, Meng Jiao tells us what it sounds like when a body falls down dead to the ground. So he was standing closer to the suffering than even Bai Juyi had stood.
And finally, Meng Jiao manages to elevate the poor and express the magnitude of their suffering together in one phrase: "They are the lords of sadness." To me, this is an extraordinarily literary poem. Meng Jiao is able to use his experience and all of the facets of his individuality and place it in the service of others, while entirely effacing himself.