Few figures loom so preeminently over a domain as much as Tao Yuanming does over Asian poetry. He is quite simply perpetual. And yet many in large parts of the world are quite oblivious to his life and work.
Also known as Tao Qian (not to be confused with the political officer and warlord Tao Qian of the Han dynasty) was a Chinese poet who lived in the 4th century “Eastern Jin Dynasty”, an important period which saw him live between 2 of of the famous 6 Dynasties. His poetry drew from the difficult beauties of rural, pastoral life, a form now known as “Fields and Gardens poetry”, writing of caged birds, hillside wanderlust, a simple life, and of course chrysanthemums, a favourite subject of his.
Born to a previously wealthy aristocratic family, Yuanming lived a rather difficult life after resigning from his court employment due to the excessive formalities and corruption he witnessed. He retired to the countryside where he endured a difficult but content life, where he could fully indulge his love for nature and wine.
His problems are a large window into this period of his life, few as they are. While writers of his day sought to use the most flowery expressions available to them at every opportunity, Yuanming wrote with bare clarity. This allows us to see him as he was- an honest man who truly loved nature.
Here are 3 excerpts from 3 of his most famous poems:
Returning To Live In The Country
Young, I was always free of common feeling.
It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains.
Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap.
Waking up, thirty years had gone.
The caged bird wants the old trees and air.
Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.
I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor.
Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden.
Autumn chrsanthemums have beautiful color,
With dew in my clothes I pluck their flowers.
I float this thing in wine to forget my sorrow,
To leave far behind my thoughts of the world.
Alone, I pour myself a goblet of wine;
When the cup is empty, the pot pours for itself.
As the sun sets, all activities cease;
Homing birds, they hurry to the woods singing.
Haughtily, I whistle below the eastern balcony–
I’ve found again the meaning of life
(Translated by Wu-Chi Liu, from the book, “Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry,” co-edited by Wu-Chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo. Source: here)
Begging For Food
The pangs of hunger drove me from my home;
with no idea of where to go
I travelled on for miles
until I reached a village,
knocked on the nearest door,
blurted out some clumsy words.
The owner understood my need
his warmth dispelled my shame
that I’d come empty-handed.
We played and sang till sunset,
the wine-cups often tilted,
with the pleasure of new-found friends
we chanted and composed verses.