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Translators David Young and Jiann I. Lin on Du Mu

“Poems for Parting”

Two poems, each four seven-character lines.

Title: Zeng bie

Two more of this poet’s best-known poems. One recalls an encounter with a very young courtesan; the other may have been written for a favorite courtesan before his departure from Yangzhou for the capital, Changan. Cardamom flowers, brilliant red, sometimes symbolized young virgins. Spring winds imply the flourishing entertainment establishments that characterized Yangzhou, a center of wealth and commerce. Bead curtains were characteristic of brothels.

Written in 835 in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province.

Du Mu, his world, and his poetry

Du Mu’s world, in the first half of the ninth century, was characterized mostly by uncertainty and decline. The great Tang Dynasty (618-907) was still in power, but its deterioration, entering its third and final century, was marked by the disintegration of central power through uprisings, court factions, warlordism, and official corruption. For any thoughtful onlooker, pessimism about the political future was impossible to avoid.

In a matching fashion, Du Mu’s own family, once wealthy and powerful, had come upon hard times as he was growing up. With diminished wealth came diminished possibilities and expectations. The poet himself, while greatly gifted and widely admired, nevertheless had an official career that seems to have followed a downward arc; increasingly out of favor at court, he was posted to a series of government assignments in evermore outlying areas, positions that decreased in importance as his life went on. My dimming career, he might have called it, in the dimming days of empire.

What’s remarkable, given all this decline, is how seldom his poems are characterized by a sense of futility or depression. A distinctly melancholy outlook on existence suffuses them, certainly, along with occasional bitterness at social injustice, sorrow over historical loss, and dismay in the face of cultural decline. But the heady fact is that Du Mu’s poems remain mostly positive in their overall tone and emphasis. Like many poets who have lived in difficult times, he seeks out saving graces and endangered beauties. Constantly and consistently he discovers things to admire in the world around him –- rivers, animals, birds, seasons, friends, ponds, paths, dawns, temples, caves, and of course poems. These delights help counter his sense of loss and decay, and it seems safe to conclude that he wrote poems to ward off the defeats of existence, to discover why life was not only bearable but delightful. “There is more joy in him,” writes A.C. Graham, in Poems of the Late T’ang, “than in any T’ang poet later than Li Po.” (121). Agreeing with that, we need to add that the joy occurs against a backdrop of sadness, a recognition that helps account for the rich emotional mix his poems achieve…

This poet carries with him, always, a strong personal interest in history. As he travels, he takes the time to look at Imperial tombs from the past, at ruined temples and sites of former palaces, at famous battlefields and the graves of his own friends. The power of time and change intrigues him. The tale of the past is mostly a story of losses, of people forgotten or at best dimly remembered. It illustrates the relative ephemerality of political power and military glory, but it carries as well the continuity of human existence, its daily routines and minor pleasures…

Du Mu and poetic forms  

The man who wrote these poems was a gifted craftsman who took immense pleasure in the exercise of his craft. He used many forms with evident skill, but he was most distinctive, perhaps, in his short poems. As Graham notes, “the chüeh-chü [or jue ju in pinyin], the New Style quatrain with an ABBA rhyme scheme” (121) was his own special accomplishment, the form he excelled at. Yet all his poems, quatrains or longer, have a similar air of concentration and implication… 

Indeed, all of his poems are glimpses, swift sketches or quick takes, as if their very forms had to reflect the ephemeral nature of beauty, its tendency to slip through our fingers even as we experience it, an aching pleasure, a kind of verbal smile and shrug, over almost before it has begun. 

Translating Du Mu

Our method of collaborative translation in producing this volume is the same one that we used in putting together The Clouds Float North: the Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji (Wesleyan, 1998). Jiann I. Lin has made the selection and has provided faithful, character-by-character translations and contextual information; David Young has then worked the poems up into poetic versions in English; together we have then decided on final format, and on matters of annotation. As in other translations by Young, the Chinese line is treated as a free verse stanza of two or sometimes three lines. Parallelism* is pursued, but not to the exclusion of other effects or so zealously as to stiffen the texts and textures. The order we have followed is that found in Fanchuan shi ji zhu / Du Mu (Beijing; Zhonghua shu ju, 1962).

As we finished our collaboration, late in 2003, we realized that it was the poet’s 1200th year. That poetry can retain its freshness and force over such a time-span, not to mention in the face of considerable cultural and geographical obstacles, feels little short of miraculous. It suggests that there is indeed something in poetry that lasts and matters, as few other things do. Our faith in that, along with our shared delight in this period, this poet, and the tradition he represents, has made our collaboration pleasurable and, we hope, productive. 

*”Parallelism” refers to the Chinese love of pairing, e.g., a line about the girl followed by a line with the cardamom branch; Chinese readers would understand the deliberate pairing or mirroring of the two. Spring winds blowing = bead curtains lifting is another example. Some translators enforce these parallels more emphatically by duplicating word order — David Young

Excerpt headings added by WWB Campus editors.