Po Chü-I - Song of the Lute. 


Hsün-yang on the Yangtze, seeing off a guest at night;

maple leaves, reed flowers, autumn somber and sad:

the host had dismounted, the guest already aboard the boat,

we raised our wine, prepared to drink, though we lacked flutes and strings.

But drunkenness brought no pleasure, we grieved at the imminent parting;

at parting time, vague and vast, the river lay drenched in moonlight.

Suddenly we heard the sound of a lute out on the water;

the host forgot about going home, the guest failed to start on his way.

We traced the sound, discreetly inquired who the player might be.

The lute sounds ceased, but words were slow in coming.

We edged our boat closer, inviting the player to join us,

poured more wine, turned the lamps around, began our revels again.

A thousand pleas, ten thousand calls, and at last she appeared,

but even then she held the lute so it half hid her face.

She turned the pegs, brushed the strings, sounding two or three notes—

before they had formed a melody, already the feeling came through.

Each string seemed tense with it, each sound to hold a thought,

as though she were protesting a lifetime of wishes unfulfilled.

Eyebrows lowered, hand moving freely, she played on and on,

speaking of all the numberless things in her heart.

Lightly she pressed the strings, slowly plucked, pulled and snapped them,

first performing “Rainbow Skirts,” then “Waists of Green.”

The big strings plang-planged like swift-falling rain;

the little strings went buzz-buzz like secret conversations;

plang-plang, buzz-buzz mixed and mingled in her playing

like big pearls and little pearls falling on a plate of jade,

or the soft call of warbler voices resonant under the blossoms,

the hidden sobbing of springs and rills barely moving beneath the ice.

Then the icy springs congealed with cold, the strings seemed to freeze,

freeze till the notes no longer could pass, the sound for a while cut off;

now something different, hidden anguish, dark reproaches taking form—

at such times the silence was finer than any sound.

Then a silver vase would abruptly break, water come splashing forth,

iron-clad horsemen would suddenly charge, swords and halberds clanging.

As the piece ended, she swept the plectrum in an arc before her breast,

and all four strings made a single sound, like the sound of rending silk.

In the boat to the east, the boat to the west, stillness, not a word;

all we could see was the autumn moon white in the heart of the river.

Lost in thought, she put down the plectrum, tucked it among the strings,

straightened her robes, rose, put on a grave expression,

told us she had once been a daughter of the capital,

living in a house at the foot of Toad Barrow.

By the age of thirteen she had mastered the lute,

was famed as a member of the finest troupe of players.

Whenever a piece was over, her teachers were enthralled;

each time she donned full makeup, the other girls were filled with envy.

Young men from the five tomb towns vied to give her presents;

one selection won her she knew not how many red silks.

Silver hairpins set with inlay—she beat time with them till they broke;

blood-colored gauze skirts—she stained them with overturned wine.

This year brought joy and laughter, next year would be the same;

autumn moons, spring breezes—how casually she let them pass!

“Then my younger brother ran off to the army, the woman I called ‘mother’ died;

and as evenings went and mornings came, my looks began to fade.

My gate became still and lonely, few horses or riders there;

getting on in years, I gave myself as wife to a traveling merchant.

But merchants think much of profit and little of separation;

last month he went off to Fou-liang to buy tea.

Since coming here to the river mouth, I've guarded my boat alone;

in the bright moonlight that encircles the boat, the river waters are cold.

And when night deepens, suddenly I dream of those days of youth,

and my dream-wept tears, mixed with rouge, come down in streams of crimson.”

Earlier, when I heard her lute, already I felt sad;

listening to her story, I doubled my sighs of pity.

Both of us hapless outcasts at the farther end of the sky;

meeting like this, why must we be old friends to understand each other?

Since last year when I left the capital,

I've lived in exile, sick in bed, in Hsün-yang town.

Hsün-yang is a far-off region—there's no music here;

all year long I never hear the sound of strings or woodwinds.

I live near the P'en River, an area low and damp,

with yellow reeds and bitter bamboo growing all around my house.

And there, morning and evening, what do I hear?

The cuckoo singing his heart out, the mournful cry of monkeys.

Blossom-filled mornings by the spring river, nights with an autumn moon,

sometimes I fetch wine and tip the cup alone.

To be sure, there's no lack of mountain songs and village pipes,

but their wails and bawls, squeaks and squawks are a trial to listen to.

Tonight, though, I've heard the words of your lute,

like hearing immortal music—for a moment my ears are clear.

Do not refuse me, sit and play one more piece,

and I'll fashion these things into a lute song for you.

Moved by these words of mine, she stood a long while,

then returned to her seat, tightened the strings, strings sounding swifter than ever,

crying, crying in pain, not like the earlier sound;

the whole company, listening again, forced back their tears.

And who among the company cried the most?

This marshal of Chiu-chiang, wetting his blue coat.



Po Chu-I. Selected Poems. Trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia UP, 2000. 71-72. Print.


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