A Song of Valediction: Dreaming I Roamed on TiānMŭ Mountain
by Lĭ Bái (often written as Li Po), A.D. 701-762
Back in 2001 I got the notion of trying my hand at poetry translation. I tackled one of Lĭ Bái's poems, Mèng Yóu TiānMŭ Yín LiúBié — "A Song of Valediction: Dreaming I Roamed on TiānMŭ Mountain." The result, which was not altogether satisfactory, can be inspected below, or here. I have also included Witter Bynner's translation for comparison.
Here is a reading of the poem in modern Chinese by a Chinese actor, Sūn DàoLín. I have taken it from a CD titled Táng Shī Sòng Cí JīngDiăn YínSòng — "A Classical Recital of Táng Shī and Sòng Cí." (Táng and Sòng are the names of two medieval dynasties. Shī and Cí are styles of poetry.)
Lĭ Bái is one of the "three greats" of Tang poetry, the other two being Dù Fŭ and Wáng Wéi. The commonplace, and not entirely facile, thumbnail sketch of these three tags each with one of the main strands of Chinese life-philosophy: Dù Fŭ with Confucianism (sober, worldly), Wáng Wéi with Buddhism (intellectual, spiritual), Lĭ Bái with Taoism (romantic, fantastic).
This poem was written in 742, when the poet was 40 or 41 years old.
TiānMŭ Mountain is in XīnChāng County of the modern ZhèJiāng Province. ChìChéng (pronounced "chrrr-cherng") and TiānTái are neighboring mountains.
The Blessed Isles are mythical. They were supposed to lie out in the Pacific and to be the abode of Immortals. Bynner translates the term as "Japan," wrongly I think. For poetic purposes Japan was often included among the Blessed Isles; but to educated Chinese of the period, the distinction between Japan (real) and the Isles (mythical) was clear.
"The Five Summits" refers to the five holy mountains of China: Mount Tài in ShānDōng Province, Mount Héng (衡) in HúNán, Mount Huà in ShănXī, Mount Héng (恒) in HéBěi and Mount Sōng in HéNán.
Mirror Lake is south of the city of ShàoXīng, in ZhèJiāng Province. The Shàn is a small river in the nearby district now ShèngZhōu City.
"Master Xiè" (pronounced "shee-eh") refers to the poet and hermit Xiè Língyùn, 385-433 A.D.
A white deer was supposed to be the steed of choice for immortals. It was Lĭ Bái's conceit that he was a "banished immortal" — an immortal expelled from heaven for misbehavior.
The last line (as printed here in the Chinese, but two lines in my translation: "How can I …" etc.) is so well-known as to be an idiom.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
[Reader repeats that line.]
[Reader repeats that line.]
[Reader repeats last three lines.]
Sea travelers talk ocean islands, mist waves hidden indistinct believe difficult seek.
Far-south people speak TiānMŭ, clouds multicolored clear extinguished or can observe.
TiānMŭ connect heaven towards heaven span,forcibly uproot five peaks overshadow ChìChéng
TiānTái four ten-thousand eight thousand zhàng [a unit of length, about 11 feet], opposite this wants-to fall-away east south bends-to.
I desire because [genitive] dream Wú Yuè, one night fly cross-over mirror lake moon.
Lake moon reflect my shadow, dispatch me arrive Shàn River.
Xiè Master lodge place now still, green water ripples clear monkeys sad-call.
Foot wear Xiè master clog, I ascend blue cloud ladder.
Half cliff see sea sun, sky middle space heaven bird.
Thousand cliff ten-thousand turn road not definite, lost flower lean-on rock sudden already dusk.
Bear roar dragon sigh abundant cliff fountain, chestnut-tree deep forest ah startle layer peak.
Cloud blue blue ah desire rain, water calm calm ah bring-forth mist.
Split broken peal!, hill peak collapse break-down.
Cave heaven stone door, crash! thus middle open.
Blue dark great vast not see bottom, sun moon illuminate brightness gold silver terrace.
Rainbow as clothes ah wind as horse, cloud 's ruler ah numerous numerous then come down.
Tiger drum harp ah phoenix return carriage, immortal's person ah array like hemp-seed.
Sudden spirit tremble cause-to soul shake, agitate startle arise then long sigh.
Only wake time 's pillow mat, lose toward come 's mist dawn-glow.
World among proceed happiness ever like this, ancient come ten-thousand matters east flow water.
Part-from lord go ah what time return? Now on white deer blue precipice space.
Must go immediately ride seek-out famous mountain.
How can break-down eyebrow bend waist affair power wealth, make me not able open heart face!
Seafarers tell of the Blessed Isles —
Veiled, indistinct in the mists of the sea.
Southern folk speak of TiānMŭ Mountain,
Now seen, now hidden in slow-shifting clouds.
TiānMŭ soars straight to the sky, to the span of heaven,
Above the Five Summits, shadowing ChìChéng Peak,
While TiānTái himself, in towering splendor,
Seems merely a foothill off to the southeast.
Ah, but I long for dreams of the South —
To fly across Mirror Lake under the moon!
My moon-shadow roaming far to Shàn River,
Where Master Xiè's retreat may still be seen,
And green water ripples to monkeys' sad calls.
In that old poet's clogs I ascend through the mists.
Midway see sunrise on the sea,
Hear the great heaven-bird's cry.
I weave my way between trackless cliffs.
Lost in foliage I rest … when swiftly comes dusk.
Wild beasts' roaring shakes river and cliff;
The forest trembles — Oh! The massed peaks shudder!
Clouds darken with yearning to rain,
Streams fade beneath thickening mist.
The mountains tumble!
With a mighty growl from deep within,
Heaven's stone door swings aside!
First boundless dark — then sun and moon
Reveal the palace of the immortals!
Ah! Clothed in rainbows, riding on winds,
Sallies out the host of heaven!
With tigers for musicians, phoenix as charioteers —
Oh, numberless are their ranks!
My spirit cowers, my soul trembles! But —
I wake … and sigh for my loss.
Nothing here but the pillow I slept on;
My glimpse of heaven naught but a dream.
So always with human rapture;
The joys of all time flow away to the east.
I bid thee farewell — Who knows for how long?
When the need stirs me I shall mount a white deer
And ride to seek the holy mountain!
How can I bend my knee to men of power,
Who will not let my spirit fly?
A seafaring visitor will talk about Japan,
Which waters and mists conceal beyond approach;
But Yüeh people talk about Heavenly Mother Mountain,
Still seen through its varying deeps of cloud.
In a straight line to heaven, its summit enters heaven,
Tops the five Holy Peaks, and casts a shadow through China
With the hundred-mile length of the Heavenly Terrace Range,
Which, just at this point, begins turning southeast.
… My heart and my dreams are in Wu and Yüeh
And they cross Mirror Lake all night in the moon.
And the moon lights my shadow
And me to Yien River —
With the hermitage of Hsieh still there
And the monkeys calling clearly over ripples of green water.
I wear his pegged boots
Up a ladder of blue cloud,
Sunny ocean half-way,
Holy cock-crow in space,
Myriad peaks and more valleys and nowhere a road.
Flowers lure me, rocks ease me. Day suddenly ends.
Bears, dragons, tempestuous on mountain and river,
Startle the forest and make the heights tremble.
Clouds darken with darkness of rain,
Streams pale with pallor of mist.
The Gods of Thunder and Lightning
Shatter the whole range.
The stone gate breaks asunder
Venting in the pit of heaven,
An impenetrable shadow.
… But now the sun and moon illumine a gold and silver terrace,
And, clad in rainbow garments, riding on the wind,
Come the queens of all the clouds, descending one by one,
With tigers for their lute-players and phoenixes for dancers.
Row upon row, like fields of hemp, range the fairy figures.
I move, my soul goes flying,
I wake with a long sigh,
My pillow and my matting
Are the lost clouds I was in.
… And this is the way it always is with human joy:
Ten thousand things run for ever like water toward the east.
And so I take my leave of you, not knowing for how long.
… But let me, on my green slope, raise a white deer
And ride to you, great mountain, when I have need of you.
Oh, how can I gravely bow and scrape to men of high rank and men of high office
Who never will suffer being shown an honest-hearted face!