»  Xin Qiji's "To the Tune of 'Picking Mulberries'"


To the Tune of 'Picking Mulberries'

by Xin Qiji, a.d.1140-1207


•  Background

The connection between melancholia and creativity was noted by Aristotle and has been a staple of popular conjecture ever since. Most recently Jonah Lehrer has written about it from the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology.

For a contrarian Chinese take on the subject, here is 12th-century warrior-poet Xin Qiji.

The Wikipedia article gives a sufficient account of Xin's life. I don't know the date of this poem, but presumably it is from his later years, a.d. 1180 at the earliest.

The poem is in the ci style, the poet selecting one from a list of several hundred prescribed forms and "filling it in" with his own sentiments. This particular ci form has two names: "Picking Mulberries" (采桑子) and "Ugly Servant Boy" (醜奴兒). The reader uses the second name.

The poem also has a subtitle: "Written on a wall on the way to Boshan" (書博山道中壁). Boshan was, and still is, a famous Buddhist temple in Jiangxi Province: there is a note on it here.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem




少年不識愁滋味, 愛上層樓
而今識盡愁滋味, 欲說還休

•  Perfectly literal, word-for-word translation

few years not acquainted-with sad disturb taste, love ascend storeyed tower
love ascend storeyed tower
in-order-to compose new songs strong speak sadness
but today acquainted-with fully sad disturb taste, desire speak yet desist
desire speak yet desist
just say sky cool good [measure word] autumn

•  My translation

When young, a stranger to grief, I loved to climb high towers.
To climb high towers —
And there compose new poems, forcing my words to sadness.

Now, knowing grief all too well, I want to speak but can't.
I want to speak but can't —
Only say: "Cool skies, a fine autumn."

•  Andrew Clark's translation (in footnote #360 here)

In youth, not knowing the taste of grief
I loved to go into an upper room,
And force myself into a funk
So I could write avant-garde lyrics.

How well I know it now, the taste of grief.
I want to speak but don't … no words
Unless to say of the cool weather,
'Tis a fine autumn.