Looking in the Mirror
and Writing What My Heart Finds There

Li Po

J.P. Seaton

覽鏡書懷

得道無古今

失道還衰老

自笑鏡中人

白髮如霜草

捫心空嘆息

問影何枯槁

桃李竟何言

終成南山皓

title

 鏡   古
word-for-word look at mirror  write deeply felt
     Englishized Writing about what I feel deeply when I look in the mirror

 

line 1

word-for-word get Tao there is no
ancient modern
Englishized Get the Tao and there is no “then” and “now”
read
If one attains the Tao, one may recover or accomplish a Golden Age, (there will be no difference between then and now), recovering an ancient Paradise like the Eden of the “religions of the book”. In this particular poem, it also seems likely that Li Po, who in early life was interested in the possibility of achieving physical immortality through Taoist alchemical practices, is already laughing at himself for that delusion, which he abandoned in later life. As for the “meaning” of the term Tao itself, we’d best leave it “untranslated” since Lao Tzu, the legendary author of Taoism’s first and most revered scripture, The Tao Te Ching warns his followers, over and over again, against attempting to express its meaning in words. As a word in common speech, and this may be very helpful, the word Tao means to go, a road or a way of getting from one place to another, or, perhaps strangely, to speak (which is, metaphorically at least, a crutch to support one way of limping from one place in life to another). The effort to define the central terms of this school of thought is something you can play at very productively without knowing Chinese. Simply gather up four or five of the best known English translations and pay particular attention both to where they agree and where they don’t. You’ll at least go a long way toward convincing yourself why both Li Po and his Emperor felt it worth while and even necessary, to study with a trained Master, and take a supervised examination over the content of the five thousand word, 81 passage “booklet”.

But to get back to the poem… “understand the Way and there is no ancient or modern.” It doesn’t mean that you are capable of time travel, but it does mean that one aware of the way the “world” works knows that the reins of power, or the ultimate authority over one’s own life, is in one’s own hands. Note that the Tao Te Ching is not a book of “philosophy” in modern terms, but a “wisdom book”, and if you understand its message, you’ll find it wise. A terror for all serious translators is the fear of perhaps misleading his or her readers. But we have a poem to deal with here, not the wisdom book itself, and beginning with the next line, it’s all Li Po.

line 2

word-for-word lose Tao return wither (get) old
Englishized Lose the Tao and there’s still withering old age.
read
In line one we found that getting the Tao was to get all we needed. If, on the other hand, you fail to find the Way to function effectively in life, or even to deal with your own feelings of  failure, or your fear of death, still, still coming at you is that which you wished to control, that which you feared. The first time you read this line you may feel you’ve found a Li Po you haven’t seen elsewhere, a rough man, even a bully. But if he is speaking to himself, and only letting us listen in, he becomes less of a bully, more like a guide. And if we remember (as I’ve argued in the books little introduction) that one issue for him had been the pursuit of physical immortality through “Taoist” alchemy. Alchemy was not originally “Taoist”. It’s not directly mentioned by Lao Tzu or his most important “disciple” Chuang Tzu, but it had become tightly linked to Taoism well before Li Po’s time. It seems possible, or even likely, that Li Po is mocking his own gullibility.  Lao Tzu does not offer “escape” from nature, which includes “old age”. If you lose the Tao you gain concern for (or fear of ) your own death.

Line 3

word-for-word self (I, me) smile, laugh mirror in, middle
(post position)
person
Englishized I               laugh                 mirror                      in                      man
read
For the rest of  the poem Li Po, like a good Taoist, shuts up about the “Tao” (the book says he who speaks ((about it)) does not know) and speaks only about himself, something which, knowing Tao, he may know, I think. He laughs to greet the process of aging because it’s one of his oldest acquaintances. He laughs because he is aware of the inevitable reality.  The fourth character in the line is one you may recognize as a part of the name of China, the Middle Kingdom. Here it is a grammatical word only, a “post position” (like a “pre-position”, but coming after the word it “locates” rather than, as in English, before it) indicating that the person is “in” the mirror.

line 4

word-for-word white hair like frost grass
Englishized (my) white hair like frosted grass (Po’s hair is white like frosty grass. )
read
Here what I call a “trick”, what literary folks call “poetic technique” is shown in the artistic creation of ambiguity. White is the “color” of frost, but the character is also the Po of Li Po’s personal name. The Po in Li Po’s name also means white. Li Po himself grows white as frost. The mirror “reflects” in more than one way! And it’s only the first time Po will work his way into the text of his own poem.

line 5

  嘆
word-for-word hold heart/mind in vain /
empty
    sigh          (2-
syllable word)
Englishized (I) hold the door to (my) heart and vainly sigh.
read
The character for “hold” consists of a hand, on the left, holding a door or gate, on the right. It is possible that a T’ang reader, used to reading characters as pictograms, ideographs, and phonetic compounds, because they were reading the characters as classical Chinese and not as representatives of the spoken language as modern Chinese do today, might have seen another character in play here, an invisible character, available from the memory as it were. A strong word for the concept of melancholy, a feeling we might expect here, is, 悶 clearly a compound of 門 gate and 心 heart-and-mind. The Chinese traditionally didn’t separate the organ of feeling and knowing as we do, so the character for heart stands for an organ that does both, and I often translate it “heart-and-mind”. Here Li Po holds the door of his heart-and-mind open on the “emptiness” (expressed with the same character as “vanity” in Chinese) and the issues of existence and non-existence that he must address (and get over also?) if he is to begin exploration of another “way”. When he opens the gate of melancholy, he frees his heart and his mind (his heart –mind gets out the gate that his hand opened) to contemplation of a “Tao” beyond the very limited Way that alchemical Taoism offers. A remaining bit of artistry in this line lies in the last two characters. The fourth character, part of the two syllable compound word for sighing, is a phonetic containing, on the right the word Han, the Chinese name for themselves, and for a manly man. The last character, also a part of the compound word sigh, consists of the character for self over the character for heart/mind… so Li Po has neatly claimed that it is manly to sigh so, and he reminds us that it is his own heart-and-mind that insists this.

line 6

word-for-word (I) ask shadow (reflection) how withered     (2- syllable word)
Englishized I ask  shadow how I got like withered wood.
read
Line 6 as it’s “Englished” here is only a little better than a “word for word” of the original. It is often necessary to add pronouns to get real English from real Classical Chinese as you’ve seen, but, in addition, there is an intentional ambiguity about the object of the mirror viewing, the person who is being looked at in the mirror. Does Li Po look at himself reflected from the mirror, or does he see a shadow there? The poet suddenly suggests that he may be appealing to his favorite “spiritual guide”, T’ao Ch’ien, ( 365-427) drinker, philosopher, and at least a peripheral figure, historically, in the Buddhist translator/missionary Hui Yen’s White Lotus Society. This particular shadow may well be a figure in a famous poem (Body, Shadow, Spirit) by T’ao Ch’ien. It’s a poem about mortality, and how to approach it… Finding a shadow in the mirror rather than a reflection of the poet may seem far fetched, but in fact it is just the announcement of the entry of T’ao Ch’ien, via allusions, into the poem. In the final three lines of the Li Po’s poem, there are many more allusions, and shared language from T’ao Ch’ien’s poetry is interwoven in the poem, making it impossible to move forward in translation from line seven on without resorting to something beyond “paraphrase”. But classical Chinese, with its characters both visual and phonetic, can, as you’ve seen by now and will see multiplied in the following lines, simply carry more meaning per syllable than our language, great as our language, the language of Shakespeare and William Carlos Williams, great as this language is it is. So I’ll try, to stay as close to the original as I can, and give the reader a chance to see the sort of problems a translator sometimes (certainly not always) faces in making an honest rendering of the Chinese poet’s work as poetry in English.

line 7

word-for-word peach
2-syllable word =
  plum
youth
in the end how speak
Englishized Peaches and plums, (youth), in the end what can (you) say.
read
“Peaches and plums”, as a two syllable phrase is a conventional metaphors for youth in China, and the translator, given room and rhythmic possibilities, may and should slip in that information, unobtrusively in the English, since it is there in the Chinese. But peaches in blossom are also the marker for the entrance to the utopian fairyland created by T’ao Ch’ien in a famous prose piece known to every literate Chinese person of Li Po’s acquaintance, and most in our time as well. In addition to being emblems of youth the two fruits are also, markers of discipleship (the young follower of the elderly teacher, as T’ao Ch’ien is, three centuries later, Li Po’s teacher ). There is another artistic trick, also quite evidently hidden here though. The peach is pronounced T’ao, the same as the T’ao in T’ao Ch’ien, and the Plum just happens (pray remember that nothing ever “just happens” at word level in a great poet’s poem) the plum just happens to be the Li of Li Po, Mr.Plum is his name , translated directly into English, with his given name, Po, meaning white, as we’ve noted above. The “word-for-word” translator is left with a still-life with two little fruits: the literary translator has to pass on that information and all the rest, all the information, available to the original reader from the Chinese word-for-word, but not even hinted at to the English reader peach by peach, and plum by plum. As a final fillip, the character used here for “in the end” is the same character as that used for mirror above, with a single element removed. The element removed means “metal” which was the material from which mirrors were constructed (polished bronze most often) in T’ang, The fact that humans are not constructed of metal, and that we are, therefore, concerned about dying, is often mentioned in ancient Chinese poetry, in fact. And, almost of course, there is a pun connecting these two characters too, but (you may be prepared to say thank goodness) it’s a little too abstruse to permit interpretation here. But let’s away to the final line!

line 8

word-for-word in the end
become              South Mountain old, white
Englishized in the end, we (I)(everyone) become(s) white (bones,skulls?) on S, Mountain.
read
In the end, there are eight references for South Mountain in The Poetry Classic (Shih Ching/ Shi Jing) six of which deal with death, and two of which suggest the possibility of immortality of some kind. To top it off, T’ao Ch’ien refers to South Mountain in one of his most famous poems from the poet’s set, Drinking Wine, XX Verses, where the he also thinks about death and about the possibility of achieving physical immortality through Taoist alchemy. In a final similarity, he also contemplates South Mountain as his last resting place. T’ao Ch’ien was at the time he wrote his poem living as an actual farmer working among his laborers, and apparently looking forward to the honorable funeral due a farmer according to the ancient poems of the Shih Ching, but , like most educated Chinese, he was famously skeptical about all kinds of magic, anything “supernatural”. The drug alcohol and the Confucian version of the vita apostolica, seem to have been good enough for him. Yet he did, reportedly, more than once at least tentatively hold the door to his heart open to the great Buddhist translator/ teacher, Hui Yuan and his White Lotus Society.

Our poet, the “spirit of poetry incarnate”, and the god of wine, has one last little flourish for us; at first it may seem trivial and yet somehow it feels perfect. If you read Chinese, or look back at the poem’s lines, you’ll note the presence of the element Po (Bai, in the modern pronunciation), or white, as a part of the very last character in the poem…so Li Po has put his whole name , hidden in plain sight in the last two lines of the poem, His family name, Li, appears as a plum ripening in a utopian fairyland, and his given name closes the parenthesis of life as a piece of whitening skull on a hillside. When you encounter my paraphrase of this poem in Bright Moon, White Clouds, I hope you will understand, and maybe even appreciate, the homage intended there to the art of Li Po, and to the inspiration given him by his master, T’ao Ch’ien.

Strangely enough, primarily because Classical Chinese and colloquial American English are so similar in vocabulary and grammar, something like what we call “metaphrase” is actually very often nearly the same as word for word. You may have noticed that some of the above “Englished” lines are very close to word for word, but also are already well beyond being “metaphrases”. The similarity in vocabulary comes primarily from the presence of so many single syllable words in English from its Germanic roots, matched by the single syllable words in the classical, poetic version of Chinese, which intentionally does away with the primarily multi-syllabic words of spoken Chinese. (Yes, there are actually many more poly-syllabic words than monosyllabic ones in modern spoken Chinese, no matter what you’ve been told!) In terms of grammar, the similarities of the two languages come mainly from the fact that both classical Chinese and colloquial English are primarily Subject/verb/object languages (though there are many many exceptions). Thus, there are many lines and some complete poems that can be translated effectively with something that looks a lot like pretty pure metaphrase. Anyone who would like to see a set of poems intentionally rendered from Chinese so far as possible in metaphrase, or word for word, might enjoy a look at my translations attached to Francois Cheng’s truly wonderful Chinese Poetic Writing, Indiana University Press, Bloomington (1982) translated by Donald A. Riggs and J.P.Seaton. Generally speaking, though, paraphrase is an absolute necessity, as Dryden stated in the earliest essay ever written on English translation. As the master says, the trick is not to go beyond what is in the original, any more than you would intentionally leave something out. And that, for many translators, is just where the rub lies. You can’t know how hard the job is until you try it, but I’ve enjoyed it for nearly fifty years now.