Life of a Chinese Poet

In his youth, as he recalled, the Great Causeway of the Heavens and Earth trembled and the stars were spilled like dust, at the overthrow of a dynasty. It could seem that he was old from birth, who was always saying goodbye. During eighty years he wrote five thousand poems, in a rhyming prose or as songs for the lute.Otherwise, his life was uneventful, except for the always-remembered love that he had for a certain courtesan.

His mother refused to let him marry this girl, who was called Scented Jade, and soon afterwards he was ordered as a minor clerk to the far province of Fukien.

There he discovered, at times, the consolation of nature — its vividness, and its unthinkable reality. He writes of the wild mountains, that were as sharp and glittering as dog’s teeth, and that could be seen from among the hanging flowers of the white lanes. The river there he also admired, which he says was like the great dragon of Ch’i that turned upon itself in all the twelve directions, while subduing the five elements.

It was his dream from youth to take arms against the Golden Tartars, but the northern frontiers had been made safe; there was no fighting, but only an endless boredom there.

At fifty-four, he went home to his native village, having never gained a preferment, distressed by what he heard of the luxury and incontinence of the court. He dreamed in his work of the “vast smoke” of chariots, as they raced upon the plains; he described his travels to far outposts, by night on a river that was held in the moon’s white stare.

 Though he styled himself the Hermit of the Mossy Grove, and said that he was wild, irascible and drunken, it seems he longed for the company of other poets. He had married a local girl, when she was fifteen, and spent most of his time quietly lost in his books.

Pondering both the Taoist and Ch’an Buddhist teachings, he grew more and more enamored of nature, and found his companionship in mountains, rivers, and trees.

In rainy weather he would put aside his studies and trudge to the inn, to drink with the farming hands.

“Daily the town inn sells a thousand gallons of wine. The people are happy; why should I alone be sad?”

He was utterly sincere in his love of beauty. The thing he has seen appears on the white paper. There is a sense of overbrimming life. A Chinese critic has said, “His poetry has the simplicity of daily speech; in its simplicity there is depth, and in its poignance there is tranquility.”

When he was seventy-one, the Mongols arose once more, and began to attack the Celestial Horde; the armies of the Sung were continually defeated, and were even driven out of Szechuan. Again, he applied for enlistment, but amidst the turmoil in the corridors at the provincial capital he was pushed aside and ignored.

Giving up all hope that before he died he would see himself in battle, he returned to his village in disgust. His songs were now being sung by the muleteers in far mountain passes, by girls bringing silk to be washed in the streams. In the capital, they were exclaimed over at wine parties, and were murmured beside the Imperial Lake. He was revered, if rarely seen, in his village, but finally one morning the word went around that he had fallen hopelessly ill.

Everything was made ready — the thin coffin, the two thick quilts, and the payment for the monks; the earth was thrown out of his grave onto the hillside, and the incense was bought that would smoulder among the graveposts there. But then, the next day, he rose on his couch, and called for wine to be brought him from the marketplace; he had the blind rolled up on his view to the south, and he wrote some impeccable verses, in the tonally-regular, seven-syllable form.