Lost, all is lost, and yet, life goes on…
The title of the poem is usually translated as, Taking Leave of Friends on my Way to Huazhou. Du Fu simply calls it Huazhou (華 州), a city in Shaanxi Province, where Du Fu would take a short-lived post.
All is lost.
What is lost in the translation is the complexity and beauty of the rhyming pattern and the several allusions that make this poem mysterious and inviting.
The overall rhyme is aaaabaca. There is also a significant amount of internal rhyme that adds to the musicality of the words and emotions. For instance, in the first three lines we have these characters:
line one: 昔, xi, meaning past or former times.
line two: 西, xī, meaning West, referring to western regions
line three: 至, zhi, a verb, meaning to arrive
Now, relate these three sounds back to the poem’s title 華 州, Hua Zhou, and the poet’s name Du Fu.
Repetition, the key to meditation in Tao philosophy, and the very soul of poetry.
Alas, it is lost, lost in translation.
此 道 昔 歸 順
西 郊 胡 正 繁
至 今 殘 破 膽
應 有 未 招 魂
近 得 歸 京 邑
移 官 豈 至 尊
無 才 日 衰 老
駐 馬 望 千 門
That was the way I chose to flee
At the west of the city, a fool in the crowd
To this day, the memory of panic makes me sick
Should my soul not return
Now, the court has come back, the city is full
But the emperor sends me away again
Old and useless, my day is done, alas
For one last look at the thousand gates
Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was called the city of a million people and a thousand gates.
Du Fu’s official posting came late in life, from 758 to 759. This was in the midst of the An Lushan Rebellion. The rebels approached the capital from the west and the government fled. In 756, the capital fell, and panic, famine, and destruction followed. The success of the government forces against the rebels allowed a return, but Du Fu’s advice to the emperor was short-lived and in 758, Du Fu was made Commissioner of Education in Huazhou, a demotion which he resented. Soon, he moved on to Qinzhou, where he wrote approximately 60 poems, likely including this one. This stay was also short, six weeks.
There is an accompanying note to Du Fu’s poem:
In the second year of Zhide, I escaped from the capital through the Gate of Golden Light and went to Fengxiang. In the first year of Qianyuan, I was appointed as official to Huazhou from my former post of Censor. Friends and relatives gathered and saw me leave by the same gate. And I wrote this poem.
Zhide is reference to the honor shown him by the emperor, but it is also a play on words, a triple entendre.
to be worthy, deserving
to have no alternative but to, obliged to
splendid virtue, majestic moral character, great kindness