Elegy in Three Parts
by Yuán Zhěn
• The poet
Yuán Zhěn (a.d. 779-831) was a poet and storyteller of the Táng dynasty. He was a close coeval and dear friend of the much more famous Bái Jūyì.
The two poets were so close that after I had posted a pair of Bái's poems a few days ago it seemed only right and proper to add one of Yuán's so that they could be as close companions on my "Readings" page as they had been in life.
In his day job Yuán Zhěn was a scholar-official. This was in a very turbulent time. The 53 years of his life saw the reigns, or parts of the reigns, of seven emperors. One of the seven abdicated, one was assassinated, and another may have been assassinated.
(The competing theory in that last case is slow accidental poisoning by an elixir the Emperor was taking in hopes of attaining immortality. Death by elixir-poisoning was a common fate in old China. And you think Big Pharma is bad? …)
The traditional afflictions of imperial Chinese government — factional struggles in the palace, ambitious warlords in the provinces, peasant uprisings, etc. — were more than usually fraught in Yuán Zhěn's lifetime. He managed to stay on his feet through it all, but his fortunes fluctuated. At their highest, during a four-month period in the early 820s, he served as zăixiàng — variously translated as "Chancellor" or "Prime Minister" — under the Mùzōng Emperor.
• The poem
The subject of this elegy is Yuán's first wife, Wéi Huìcóng, who died in 809 at age 26, when Yuán was 30. (Chinese-language sources give the ages as 27 and 31, following the traditional Chinese reckoning in which you are one year old at birth.)
The elegy is structured in three parts, each from a different time perspective.
- From the time of their marriage to Huìcóng's death.
- From her death to the present.
- From the present into the future, when the poet himself will die.
Who is that Hsieh in line 1? (The modern spelling would be Xiè.)
My (Chinese-language) notes tell me this is an allusion to Xiè Yì, leader of one of the powerful clans that dominated the Eastern Jìn dynasty (a.d. 317-420). Xiè Yì's favorite child was a daughter, Xiè Dàoyùn, who became an accomplished writer and poet. Her name and background would have been known to Yuán Zhěn's readers. "She was seen as a symbol of female talent during her time and during later dynasties," Wikipedia tells us.
Yuán Zhěn's first wife Wéi Huìcóng, the subject of this elegy, was the daughter of a certain Wéi Yì. He was not the leader of any clan, but was held in sufficient esteem by the imperial court that after his death he was honored with a fancy title; and Wéi Huìcóng was his favorite child.
So Yuán Zhěn is saying that both women were the favorites of distinguished fathers and both (he is suggesting in implied praise of his dead wife) were intellectually accomplished.
There are three more allusions of this sort in the poem, signified by capital initial letters in my pinyin transcription. Bynner's translation anonymizes all except Xiè.
I, line 2: Qián Lèi was a famous recluse of the Warring States period (475—221 b.c.), who dressed in rags. The poet is comparing himself, in his poverty-stricken younger years, with Qián Lèi.
III, line 3: Dèng Yōu (a.d. ?—326) was a prefect — a provincial official — in the last chaotic years of the Western Jìn dynasty. In a dire situation he sacrificed his own infant son in order to save the son of his dead brother. He reasoned that he himself could have more sons while his brother obviously couldn't. "His wife consented," says the chronicle. He never subsequently had a son.
Our poet Yuán Zhěn actually did eventually have a son. In 811 he took up with a lady named Ān Xiānpín, described in most sources as a concubine of lowly origins (Arthur Waley, in his biography of Bái Jūyì, calls her "an exemplary concubine"). Ān Xiānpín died in 814, occasioning another (but shorter) elegy from Yuán. Some time after that Yuán married a second wife, Péi Róuzhī (more commonly Péi Shū). She gave him a son.
That's according to most of the sources I checked. Some others, however, say that Yuán married Ān and had a son by her. Péi, they say, was his third wife. I don't know which version is the true one.
III, line 4: Pān Yuè (a.d. 247-300) was a poet particularly famous for three poems of lamentation he wrote in memory of his dead wife.
Witter Bynner just anonymizes these three. "A better man than I" is Dèng; "a poet better than I" is Pān.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
• In pinyin:
Qiăn Bēi Huái Sān Shŏu
Xiè gōng zuì xiăo piān lián nǚ
zì jià Qián Lèi băi shì guāi
gù wŏ wú yī sōu jìn qiè
nì tā gū jiŭ bá jīn chāi
yě shū chōng shàn gān zhăng huò
luò yè tiān xīn yăng gŭ huái
jīn rì fèng qián guò shí wàn
yŭ jūn yíng diàn fù yíng zhāi
xī rì xì yán shēn hòu shì
jīn zhāo dōu dào yăn qián lái
yī sháng yĭ shī xíng kàn jĭn
zhēn xiàn yóu cún wèi rěn kāi
shàng xiăng jiù qíng lián bì pū
yě céng yīn mèng sòng qián cái
chéng zhī cĭ hèn rén rén yŏu
pín jiàn fū qī băi shì āi
xián zuò bēi jūn yì zì bēi
băi nián dōu shì jĭ duō shí
Dèng Yōu wú zĭ xún zhī mìng
Pān Yuè dào wáng yóu fèi cí
tóng xué yăo míng hé suŏ wàng
tā shēng yuán huì gèng nán qī
wéi jiāng zhōng yè cháng kāi yăn
bào dá píng shēng wèi zhăn méi
• Witter Bynner's translation:
Oh youngest, best-loved daughter of Hsieh,
Who unluckily married this penniless scholar,
You patched my clothes from your own wicker basket,
And I coaxed off your hairpins of gold, to buy wine with;
For dinner we had to pick wild herbs —
And to use dry locust-leaves for our kindling.
. . . Today they are paying me a hundred thousand —
And all that I can bring to you is a temple sacrifice.
We joked, long ago, about one of us dying,
But suddenly, before my eyes, you are gone.
Almost all your clothes have been given away;
Your needlework is sealed, I dare not look at it . . .
I continue your bounty to our men and our maids —
Sometimes, in a dream, I bring you gifts.
. . . This is a sorrow that all mankind must know —
But not as those know it who have been poor together.
I sit here alone, mourning for us both.
How many years do I lack now of my threescore and ten?
There have been better men than I to whom heaven denied a son,
There was a poet better than I whose dead wife could not hear him.
What have I to hope for in the darkness of our tomb?
You and I had little faith in a meeting after death —
Yet my open eyes can see all night
That lifelong trouble of your brow.