Poems of Meng Jiao
Lonely bones, hard to sleep at night.
Insect chorus, chirping to each other.
Old sadness, without any tears.
Autumn comes with a pattering of rain.
Strength gone, as if it were never there.
Weakness comes, weaving its confusion.
I've come to the end, no new ideas.
Memories enough, in this thicket of sadness.
How can I bear to follow the sails south,
To tread again the scenery of the past?
Autumn moon, a face like ice.
Old peddlar of a lonely ideal.
Cold dew, drips down broken dreams.
Cutting wind, combs my chilled bones.
On my mat, I write sick words.
Down in my bowels, anxieties churning.
I doubt my mind, unreliable,
Empty sounds, on and on, without end.
Like a lute tree withering on the heights,
You can hear the echoes of my sad tunes.
A slice of moon stands in the doorway.
Chestnut limbs move like flying swords.
Old bones, they sit and tremble.
Sick strength, barely hanging on.
Insects bitter, as life rushes to its end.
Birds imperiled, nests burning bright.
Beautiful widows, weaving their old threads.
I cry alone, lashed by old longings.
Floating years cannot be pursued and yet
My weak footsteps return to them every night.
Autumn finds me old and poorer.
Broken-down house. No leaf in the door.
Slice of moonlight falls on the bed.
Cold wind coming from all four walls.
In scattered dreams, I don't get far.
Weak-hearted, I give in and return.
Autumn flowers will soon be brown.
They linger, struggling, in their radiant glow.
My wild steps tread down my young ways.
My own sickly plans work against me.
Far below, worms eat the roots of grass.
Ideas come and I fade away.
Wind is clattering the spears of bamboo.
In a distant doorway, I see dim light.
Gods and monsters fill my weak hearing
But so dimly I can't make it out.
Autumn leaves fall helpless in rain.
Autumn wraps the heavens in a single cloud.
Sick so long, my bones are almost sharp.
Stiff and growning, I can still write.
Writing sick like this is draining,
Strength failing as the sun sets in the west.
Slender, a single thread of fate,
Mere words, bind me to creation.
Old bones fear autumn's moonlight.
Autumn moonlight like a blade's edge.
Thin gleam, can't defend against it.
My cold soul sits here and congeals.
Bound woman nesting in an empty mirror.
Immortal whirlwind shakes a floe of ice.
Frightened footsteps. Afraid I'll fall.
Sickness worsens. Don't come near me.
Lonely bed, I awaken to realization.
Lying weak. Heart pounding hard.
Bathing in the river, I can't see the water.
Muddy and turbid, now as if clear.
Poetry's youth - ancient empty talk.
Poetry's weakness - today's lack of substance.
Lingering illness raises other concerns.
Morning to night, never of one mind.
Autumn insects cry weakly in the distance.
For all their noise, you can't find them if you look.
Autumn grasses thin out like my hair.
Chaste fragrances scattered like rare gold.
Late and precious, how could they last?
The passing scenery gathers darkness.
My own weak efforts only shame me.
I can't realize what I want to express.
Revealed talent, always completely misunderstood.
Hidden wisdom has long been deep.
Preventing depth makes us vulnerable.
This idea the ancients taught us.
In the end, the scenery is hollow.
Autumn winds, a martial rattling.
Work and work, it doesn't clothe you.
Your cries are like the crickets' chirping.
Autumn's sounds arise at midnight.
What you rely on fails before you start.
Creation is like an autumn garden --
Once cut, it won't grow back.
Youth is like a hungry firework,
A glimpse and it won't shine again.
Gentleman, firm as lofty mountains.
But small men quarrel over nothing.
Too much quarrelling and life is short.
Heaven's Way admonishes us.
Cold revelation, worn out from long search.
Withering conservatism, boastful in the dawn.
Deep in autumn, moon seems worn out.
Voices of the aging insects turning rough.
Crimson berries hanging from the branches.
Gold's virtue, spreading everywhere.
Trees and flowers have a final moment,
Chill blossoms, like a residue of spring.
The sadness of others crops up here and there.
But what can my heart do?
Old men are different every day.
Life and death are with you all the time.
Sit and have a nice peaceful cry.
Or lie reviewing myriads of memory's scenes.
Old eyes can't see across the courtyard.
With poor hearing, how can you follow the wind?
Returning is like being scraped with a knife.
So you escape into your fine-grained intelligence.
Waves have worn down your first works.
If virtuous, fortune comes back in the end.
Alone, separated from your literary friends,
Your closest relation is some old wild hermit.
Green years mourned as withered.
Moon Festival bursts forth in its weakness.
Four seasons rush each other in passing.
Ten thousand worries naturally crowd in.
The south escapes down to a watery vastness.
The north, impoverished by its barren lands.
Ancient feelings of a long, deep river.
Fading longings for an autumn mountain peak.
Give up food, it's hard to fill your belly.
Clothed in leaves, it makes you uglier still.
Wisps of dust cannot make you whole.
Who will understand these old chants?
In distant bamboo, howl the gods and monsters.
Bright iron births the young horned dragon.
The ambitious have their varied motives,
Bearing fragrance, obeying evil in their hearts.
I've mused on how writing wears out my clothes.
Arrived at death teaching my first boy.
Improving happiness does not improve one's reputation.
Improving reputation makes one deaf and stupid.
So bright, these words in my mind.
If only I could write them in their transcendence.
Distant hardships every day increase.
Old strength fades out step by step.
I often fear, lying here in bed, that if I went
Out to the gate, I wouldn't make it back.
The starving will all eat heavily.
The chilled will all dress heavily, too.
Floating in vastness, who can leave the shore,
Travel recklessly, and still have followers?
In the midst of speaking, the words fall apart.
Outside myself, distress arises.
Worms have already eaten the cassia from within.
The chaste beauty of its autumn blossoms is ruined.
Cursed words lose all their fragrance.
All the ages have heard their stinking rhyme.
On death's bed, we start regretting. But
Regretting the past won't call it back.
How sad, the flippant paths we've taken.
Day is over. Our team of horses races on.
The spread of ideas, people avoid completely.
Trim dead branches and everyone howls.
Wind cries in the thorn branches, sick at heart.
Lute tree's leaves all covered in frost.
Old insects cry like hollow iron.
Startled beasts roar like ringing jade.
Autumn air washes out our voices.
Late shadows ride sluggish across our toil.
The gathering audience cannot be stopped.
Their choking spirits cannot be avoided.
Lame, we walk through abundance.
Who are those like us, sitting in the distance?
We are bound together by not even a thread but
Severing our minds requires a thousand blades.
Pure poetry has been sacrificed on the altar.
Gold chysanthemums. The people's happiness.
Clean up what the ancients have left us.
Sigh at today's insignificance.
In the distance, an age's end is speaking.
In this desolation, we can't hear what it says.
A frosty spirit penetrates old bones
And the old men turn to ice.
Their niggling pricks us in the dark
But their cold pain will not defeat us.
Crying out, spirit reaches understanding.
Strong, we cling to our supports.
We want to break out of these constricting forms.
But if belly is empty, the mind will collapse.
Urging remedies is more or less stupid.
This speech is like seeing what you hate.
Arising in the ear, it opens the choked spirit.
You begin to see that skill requires capacity.
Broad daylight shows you ills enough.
Through dark cracks you hear the seething flies.
Others smell how strong it is.
The smell of it even congeals a little.
Hidden poison thus goes unloathed.
Arising in abundance, endure the suffering.
Frozen in mid-air, its fate is short.
This winter warns our mind to return.
For coming and going, everyone has time.
Hot or cold, all approach bitterness.
Admiring desication, old men call the tune.
They plead with fate, hoping to be summoned.
Yellow River flows up into Heaven
But its waters ceaselessly return.
Men's minds are not as good as rivers,
Single-minded, they leave and don't return.
Single-minded, clever, and deceptive,
Unwilling to approach the immortal isles.
Single-minded, they are untiring.
I only hear them reach the provincial stage.
Uphold the ancients and don't forsake them.
Forsake them and your aspirations shatter.
Forsake them and your swords will break.
Forsake them and your music will be pitiful.
Kongzi mourned the forsaking of the ancients
And his times fell into the depths.
Poetry has long forsaken the ancient mind,
Arriving at its current chill frigidity.
Old bones have no corrupted flesh.
Old clothes are like forest moss.
I urge you to uphold the ancients.
Uphold them, clear away the dust.
Cursed words don't see the blood.
Killing people -- such confusion.
Voices like a poor man's dog,
Barking down a hole, so respectfully.
Curse the pain of old ghosts wailing.
Curse the immersion in worthless gold.
How could we ever say enough?
Suffering and haggard, let everyone hear.
Ancient curses never die.
They come to us in countless scrolls.
Today we chant the ancient verse.
Good and evil should be ours to distinguish.
Qin's fires could not burn the voices.
Qin's fires were powerless against culture.
So let us renew those curses
Until we shake the creative forces of Heaven.
It is difficult to tell when this was written. It would be nice if the poets didn't dwell upon their old age at the sight of their first grey hair. And they might refrain from playing up their weakness during illness. The title, 秋怀, could be "autumn feelings." But Meng Jiao, in this poem, seems more concerned with his mind.
I suspect that Meng Jiao has passed his exams. He's probably still working as a librarian and single. He's not sick or old. But he is unable to move the art of his poetry forward. He is looking for inspiration in the past. But his past, and I can sympathize with this, is chock full of things he'd rather not go back to. But he's going anyway. And by doing so, he is moving his poetry forward. This is not like any of his prior poetry.
Line 2 here begins with 老客 which could be "old guest," "old traveler," or "old exile." But it is also "peddlar." I feel that Meng Jiao is calling himself an "old peddlar of lonely ideals." In line 7, I think he is doubting the results of his mind, not his own sanity. He writes sickly words and reads them back, hearing only empty sounds. He is listening for something and not hearing it, which we might express as reaching for something but being unable to grasp it.
The first quatrain here is the setting. The second is how he perceives these memories he is reaching for. And the final couplet expresses his failure to find what he is looking for. I doubt the insects and birds are actually insects or birds. Birds with burning nests is an image he has already used for the hardships of civilians in an age of war. But I do wonder who the beatiful widows are. Was the woman who didn't bring a willow branch also a beautiful, perhaps slightly older, widow? Something to keep in mind.
Chinese poets rarely are talking about what they appear to be talking about. Meng Jiao is certainly this way. But this verse reminds me of fever dreams I've had. And the images are so strange and vivid that a fever dream seems a likely explanation for them. Although the bound woman in the mirror could be No Willow Branch again. If I am reading his realization correctly, Meng Jiao is moving away from both the 古文 ideas of Han Yu and away from the weak poetry of his own time.
What came to me here is that the insects (虫) in this suite of poems are Meng Jiao's contemporary poets. And perhaps "grasses" (草), which in the Tang meant the meadow as a whole with wildflowers and wild grasses, are their poetic works. And in spite of my fever-dream idea, I'm still not convinced Meng Jiao is at all actually ill here. For him the times are late, the world fades into darkness, and good poetry is scattered and faint like the fading wildflowers and the cries of dying insects. He is certainly sickened by the literary world's weakness. And he doesn't hesitate to take his own share of the blame.
This poem is certainly from before his Mourning the Gorges suite was written. In this present poem, there is still an undercurrent of appealing to Heaven and to the ancients. Also, the poem is filtered through Meng Jiao's sense of aging and, perhaps, his present illness. At least, he has a sense of illness, in his relation to the world in this poem, which he shares with us. In the Gorges, these elements are absent. He no longer appeals to authority and no longer imposes his sense of self into the poem. The poem is presented as a pure realization of his thought. By the Gorges, Meng Jiao has gotten himself out of the way of his writing. But he is making a personal kind of progress here. So far, historical personages like Qu Yuan and the King of Chu are conspicuously absent. Perhaps he is letting these fall away as part of the "ancients empty words" from his revelation. And the writing is often bolder, freer, even stranger than in earlier poems.
A difficulty with this poem is Meng Jiao's use of "dew" or 露. It is also a verb meaning to "show" or "reveal." So it sometimes seems to me to be used as "reveal" in the higher sense of "revelation" because he also speaks of "realization," "realizing" ideals or the failure to do so. "Wind" or 风 is also "manners" or "customs" and so "conservative ideas and expressions." The Chinese of the Tang don't really seem to distinguish between "heart" and "mind." The character 心 is ambiguous this way and so are 怀 and even 肠. It's always kind of both that they are talking about. So choosing an English one is always a diminishing of meaning in the translation.
I get the sense that this stanza in a critique of conservatism in poets and their poetry. Meng Jiao does not exclude himself from this critique. In fact, I think he is criticizing what he recognizes in himself. So "age" here is the weight of the past in poetry. This is further proof that Meng Jiao is leaving the 古文 ideals. He consciously shows this with 楚铁 or "bright iron" as this is one way to use the character for Chu without meaning the ancient kingdom. No iron in the time of Chu. The young horned dragon makes, unless my memory is failing, its first appearance here. I have no idea what it symbolizes in the Tang. But it returns with a vengeance in Mourning the Gorges. The Moonviewing Festival is also a celebration of poetry. And Meng Jiao is not impressed with the state of moon-viewing poems. Further down in the stanza, I think he is even criticizing other attempts to free poetry from the past, the "avoidance of food" and the "wearing of leaves." Meng Jiao knows what he wants from poetry. He just can't get it to flow out of his brush onto paper.
Even with the bit about lying in bed and feeling weak, I don't think Meng Jiao is old here or sick at all. I don't think he has even remarried yet. The oldness weighing him down is the writing of the past. He's sick of its burden and wants to strike out on his own. But, tellingly, he would like to be followed out there as well. It is a mistake to make too much of Meng Jiao being some cold, harsh outsider. He had plenty of poet friends. Even those, like Han Yu, who disagreed with his ideas, truly liked him. Just look at Han Yu's epitaph for Meng Jiao. They were like loving brothers. And in his official work, Meng Jiao had more support from his superiors than Bai Juyi ever got. I think Bai Juyi was larger than life to his superiors, who were known to quote him without knowing who they were quoting. Meng Jiao was not a poetry-star, like Bai Juyi and Yuan Zhen. But if you were around him, you liked him and his poetry.
I have said that Meng Jiao was an idealist. But perhaps that is just the cynic's way of expressing his own lack of idealism. So let's be clearer. Meng Jiao believed in the importance of poetry, that it could free the mind. Poetry cannot save a civilization. It can only save the individual. Most people will indeed howl if you try to open up their congealed thought. It's the gathering audience that contains ones listeners, those who would like a higher mind. You can see that Meng Jiao does not see poetry as separate from the realities of the world. He is aware of the pain at hand, as well as in the distance. I think his reference to empty bellies is literal as well as figurative. Bai Juyi had the distance of sympathy. Meng Jiao has the immediacy of empathy. This final verse puts the kay-bosh on PRC claims that Meng Jiao was an anti-Confucian proto-Marxist. Meng Jiao's thought was steeped in Confucian virtues. He did not break from the past. He broke from sentimental, weak nostalgia. He broke from the Tang conventions binding him to the rules of couplet and quatrain. He trumpeted the impotence of the Qin, which is the impotence of the Ming and of the Xian (that would be the current dynasty - 现代.)
Like the women poets of the Tang, Meng Jiao has fallen victim to shallow interpretation based on the comments of later writers taken out of context or, if not out of context, then translated anachronistically. The proponderance of primary sources for Meng Jiao is his own poems. Before I started translating him, no one had translated more than ninety of his poems. And, so far as I have seen, all such translations were tainted by those shallow preconceptions I just mentioned. We now have half-again as many Meng Jiao poems as when I started. But with over two hundred remaining, we can hardly say we know Meng Jiao.