Poems of Meng Jiao
At Peace, Living Far from Home
I've settled for peace rather than fame.
I love it here, living on these heights.
Thirsty, drinking at bubbling clear springs.
Hungry, eating nameless greens.
Frustrated by plants I don't dare cook,
Mending clothes and writing poems,
Old traveler reaches virtue through poverty.
Today, my true self arises.
Poor old man is not poor enough.
A sage would have an abundance of wisdom.
Everyone urges labor and toil.
At mind's end, who can relax?
Myriad horses pound through my mind.
Their rushing chariots raise a cloud of dust.
The exalted guest is only partly seen.
On the great Way, a night of emptiness.
In bed, I dream of cavernous halls.
Sitting, I can't store up lasting peace.
A petal or a hair startles my ears.
Only the smell of incense stands out.
I'm afraid all this practice isn't good for me.
I remember my relatives hoeing barren fields.
I don't struggle too much with life's burden.
In winter, bamboo accepts what it must.
No one can be your spiritual guide.
Pledge, from the first, to weigh your heart.
Jade fragrance, already like a river.
Everyday chant and take refuge in Buddha.
The first question is, Does this poem come from Meng Jiao's wandering years or from after Autumn Mind? The latter seems possible as this could all be from memories of his wandering years. If the scroll order of poems is any indication (we should be so lucky), Meng Jiao wrote most of his enduring poetry after passing his exams. I suspect that, given the amount of his poetry that we have, Meng Jiao, like Bai Juyi, put his poetry together for posterity and was reasonable successful in preserving it. So I also suspect that he did not preserve a lot of earlier poetry which he didn't want us to see. So this could well be part of his post-Autumn-Mind effort to break from nostalgia using straightforward ancient forms. In other words, 古文 as 古文, not as neo-古文 á la Han Yu.
Also this poem seems to verify that Meng Jiao leans towards Buddhism, in his efforts of piety. The final line, with its 咏归, is pretty unambiguous. If you have made a real effort at sitting meditation, you will recognize how honest Meng Jiao is about his not terribly successful practice. This is another reason I think this is a later poem. He tells us a lot about himeself. But he does it unselfconsciously and naturally.
Finally, this poem has a good example of how little a translator has to offer on the best of days. Consider that every Tang poem has two, often three, different meanings. More are actually possible. You get only one from me which on a good day means a 50% loss of poem. Then for every line, I can only convey a third or less of its implications. So best case, you get 17% of the poem when it's all done.
Let's look at line four of the sixth quatrain above:
I translate it as: "In winter, bamboo accepts what it must." But what it says is much more like:
"In winter, bamboo must be willing to be reduced like a salted or pickled vegetable so that, by implication, it is still good in the spring."
The final character, 菹, besides being "salted or pickled vegetables," also means "to cut up or mince human flesh and bones." Possibly, an ancient punishment? Early Shang cuisine? But, if you think about it long enough, you can make something of that meaning as well. It just makes for a paragraph-sized line in your translation. Which is why you get "In winter, bamboo accepts what it must."
This all relates to why I learned, and continue to study, Chinese. Even if a translator is twice as good as I am, he only gives us 34% of the poem. I want the whole thing and no translator can give us that.