Two Tang Poems

An illustration for: Nine Maxims On Translation
E Bruce Brooks / University of Massachusetts / 5 Dec 2002

It is not enough to get the poem right, there are also the poem's relations with other poems. Here are two Tang poems which together make that point.

These two poems are both on the theme of a visit to the Imperial tombs of an earlier dynasty. Both are standard anthology pieces. Both are heptameter quatrains, both are set in the autumn season, and both express the poignancy of the fading of past great achievements. Neither, read by itself, is hard to understand. But the second poem (by Du Mu) is not wholly understood unless the reader is aware that it is one-upping the first poem (by Shvn Chywaen-chi), and that such competitive revisiting of old themes is part of the poetic personality of Du Mu. The tombs in the first poem are those of the Latter Han, in the hills around the Latter Han capital at Lwo-yang; the tombs in the second poem are those of the Han proper, outside of their northwestern capital Chang-an. There is no question of more accurate description of the same scene. It is merely a matter of going beyond the already moving pathos of the wind in the pine and cypress trees that were customarily planted by graves. An extra turn of the screw.

Shvn Chywaen-chi (c650-c713)

The methodological point is that it is hard to translate the second poem in isolation. Somehow, by an effort of annotation, or a device of juxtaposition, or, as above, by both, you need to get into the picture both the first poem and the second poet's pleasure in surpassing the first poem.


From Other Mountains, Copyright © 1995 by E Bruce Brooks.

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