Dispelling Sorrow – Du Mu

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Dispelling sorrow

In English, the title,  遣怀, of Du Mu’s poem is often given as Dispelling Sorrow. There are other choices equally as good: Drowning my sorrows or Scattering my sorrows, for example. One could also substitute for the word sorrows: woe, unhappiness, pain, regret, and so on. A longer translation is ‘easing the ache in my heart”.

Whatever title one gives it, the thought is a remembrance of better times.

Dispelling Sorrows

Down on my luck, wandering and drunk
Oh, those slim waisted girls of Chu in the palm of my hand
Ten years gone by, and still I dream of Yangzhou,
Why, even in the blue houses, you said I was fickle.
Sadly, the poem’s meter and rhyme are both lost in translation.

Pinyin (phonetic Chinese)

Luòpòjiānghú zài jiǔ xíng,
Chǔyāo xiānxì zhǎng zhōng qīng.
Shíniān yī jué Yángzhōu mèng,
Yíngdé qīnglóu báo xìng míng.

Chinese characters

杜牧

落魄江湖载酒行
楚腰纤细掌中轻。
十年一觉扬州梦,
赢得青楼薄幸名

French translation, Dissiper la tristesse

Au bord de la rivière, le vin à la main
Rappelant ces filles minces, Si petit qu’ils pouvaient danser dans ma paume.
Dix ans passés, réveillés, À partir d’un rêve Yangzhou,
Où parmi les maisons bleues, J’ai gagné un nom pour la changeabilité

Du Mu, cowboy poet of the Tang dynasty

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Du Mu and a glass of wine

Du Mu is a late Tang poet whose death occurred about 50 years before the official end of the Tang dynasty.

He joined the imperial civil service at a young age and was assigned to the city of Yangzhou on the Yangtze River. It was “the most prosperous city in the whole world,”  famous for rich merchant families, poets, courtesans, and scholars.  Du Mu’s stay was relatively brief, followed by a succession of posts to minor prefectures, none with much success.

Ten years (十 年) go by. Like Rip Van Winkle, Du Mu wakens as if from a dream.

If we take the poem literally, Du Mu is now 35 years old and down on his luck. He consoles himself with a glass of wine (,  also spirits generally) and reflects on those heavenly days in the blue houses (青楼) of Yangzhou with the slim waisted girls of Chu (楚, the district of Chu, also can mean “pain”).

Why even then, Du Mu recalls he had gained a reputation among the courtesans for fickleness (薄 幸) .

Wine as a motif

Wine is Du Mu’s relief and so, he is often picture with a glass of wine in his hand. Du Mu wrote several poems about drinking. One poem was entitled Drinking Alone, and another  Drunken Sleep.

He died in 852 at the age of 49 in Chang’an, 50 years before the official fall of the Tang dynasty.

Dispelling Sorrow 杜牧

The title of the poem, 杜牧, is often translate as Dispelling Sorrow. Today one might say, drowning my sorrows in drink. Alternate translations: relieving my worries, awakening, and others that don’t make sense. How about washing away my worries with wine?

Du Mu, wine and women

One can imagine Du Mu, mounted on his pony, with his worldly possession packed in his saddle bags, traveling from town to town, trying to fit in, but never quite finding a place to settle down. In his sorrow he takes to spirits and song. Sounds to me like the makings of a country western song.

How about Tennessee Whiskey by Chris Stapleton? “I used to spend my nights out in a barroom. Liquor was the only love I’ve known, But you rescued me from reachin’ for the bottom, And brought me back from being too far gone.”

So what’s the difference between Chris Stapleton’s Whiskey and You and Du Mu?

“There’s a bottle on the dresser by your ring. And it’s empty so right now I don’t feel a thing. I’ll be hurting when I wake up on the floor. But I’ll be over it by noon.”

Poetry is the universal language and it speaks to us across time and across cultures.

In the palm of my hand as motif

English has a similar saying – “in the palm of my hand”. The words imply an ability to control another person.

Second line, the Chinese characters 楚腰 (Chǔyāo), Du Mu’s reference is to the Han beauty, Zhao Feiyan, Empress of the Western Empire (16–7 BC), who it is said was so light she could dance in the palm of the emperor’s hand.

“Why do you drink?” asked the girl.
“To forget,” replied the poet.
“Forget what?” inquired the girl, who was now sorry for him.
“Forget that I am a poet,” he confessed, hanging his head.

“Not all who drink are poets,” said the girl.
“Don’t think I don’t know it,” said the poet.

The courtesan replies

Courtesans were not only beautiful but also accomplished in the arts. Yu Xuanji, for example, gives us the woman’s view:

at night, against my pillow,
I weep secret tears
by day, among the flowers,
I hide a broken heart
why, if we can make poets friends
then, should we not take lovers?

Life’s illusion

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Lost in Translation

Beware of translations. They often miss the meaning of the words. But the greater sorrow is that they do they convey the sense of rhyme and meter. So too with this poem by poet Du Mu, which is often translated as Dispelling Sorrow, but whose literal meaning is The Awakening.

The Awakening

What little we know here is that an older Du Mu (遣 怀) is recalling his heavenly days with the girls of Chu in Yangzhou. Ten years later he awakes to these thoughts with a bottle of wine and little else to show.

杜牧 The Awakening
落魄江湖载酒行,

楚腰纤细掌中轻

十年一觉扬州梦

赢得青楼薄幸名

Down on my luck, wine in hand…

Oh, those slim girls of Chu,

So tiny they could dance in the my palm of my hand.

Ten years later and I waken from a dream of Yangzhou,

among the corteseans, I was capricious.

 

Yangzhou

Yangzhou (扬 州), which lies on the north side of the Yangtze, was one of the wealthiest cities in China, famous for its merchants, poets, beautiful women, and scholars. During the An Lushan Rebellion, it was the scene of a massacre of foreign merchants.

Dispelling Sorrow

遣怀

These two characters are usually translated as “dispelling sorrow”. Literally, the letters translate as waking up. Other translations include, My lament and My confession. I suppose any of them work. The author is after all a Rip Van Winkle character, awaking from a dream with only a memory and a sorry reputation. So, with that in mind I give it the title, Life’s Illusion.

Courtesans in China

I refer to a Chinese house of prostitution as a “blue” house. 青 is the Chinese character and may mean blue or green, or bluish green. 青楼 is a greenish-blue house. I suspect, without certainty, that Du Mu is referencing “nature’s color” along with “youth” and “passion”.

“Prostitute” is not an accurate translation, “courtesan” is closer to the mark.

One should be mindful that a Tang prostitute was often held in high regard.  This is not a brothel as we understand it.  Living quarters contained spacious halls with exquisite furnishings, and grounds with artificial hills and ponds.  Therefore, a young man might consider himself as being in paradise.

Why, there were even Tang poets who were courtesans.

it is easier to find the rarest treasure
than to love for our own pleasure
by day, we weep our secret tears
among the flowers, we hide our breaking hearts
and if we can have great poets for friends
should we also long for handsome lovers?
Yu Xuan Ji

Note. I will come back to this poem a month from now. The meaning will in all likelihood be entirely different. This is not a comment on the finality of poetry, but rather its ephemeral nature, and beauty.

Garden of the Golden Valley of Shi Chong

 

 

The Golden Valley near Lyoung, was where Emperor Wu’s wealthy offical, Shi Chong had his luxurious villa in the midst of “clear springs and verdant woods”. Life is impermanent, and political disaster descended upon Shi Chong’s paradise. Green Pearl, his favorite concubine, threw herself from a tower.

Du Mu wrote this quatrain 500 years later.

 

winding-river

金谷园
The Garden of the Golden Valley

杜牧
Du Mu

繁华事散逐香尘,
流水无情草自春

日暮东风怨啼鸟,
落花犹似坠楼人

A. C. Graham has given us the sense of Du Mu’s poem set in paradise – a tragic death, love lost, time passing, and beauty fading into dust. I repeat his words here with a few changes:

Scattered pomp has turned to scented dust
Streaming waters know no care, grass spreads and claims spring as its own
At sunset, an East Wind carries the sound of crying birds
Petals on the ground are her likeness still, beneath the tower where she fell

Original translation by A. C. Graham

Others have given different interpretations, suggesting that it is glory that fades, or prosperity that does not last, or sweet love too soon turned to dust.

The Chinese characters 繁华 suggest a sense of bustling prosperity and Shi Chong was certainly one of the most prosperous men of his time who took pleasure in displaying his wealth to others. This in time is scattered 散 like fragrant dust, 香尘. Metaphors make for powerful images. The character 香 may be translated as a joss stick, and 尘 as dust. So we have the image of something sweet and beautiful now become perfumed ashes.

Life continues on.

The rivers flow to the sea, the grasses reclaim what was once a garden. At twilight 日暮 an East Wind 东风 blows. The symbolism of the East Wind is not lost on Du Mu. It is the harbinger of spring, but it is also the idea of something that is perfect in all aspects but for one thing. Du Mu’s perfect garden was lost because of his political association and the enemies he made along the way.

On his way to execution, Shi Chong remarked that it was his wealth others sought, not his love of Green Pearl. He was then asked, if knowing this, why had he not given away his wealth?

The most powerful metaphor remains, the beautiful Green Pearl lying beneath the tower wall, like the fallen petals of a flower 落花.