Once More, on the Empty Mountain

[green_message] And one last little flourish from the poet: the ?rst word in line two of the poem (ff) is not an ideograph, but a phonetic-signi?c, and a weak one at that. It means “but” or “only” and is pronounced “tan,” like its phonetic element, the character for “dawn” I cited in the language lesson.

But what do we see when we look as closely at the character as we have been directed by the poet to look at the lichen? We see a man standing beside a sun on the horizon—at dawn or at dusk, at the time when we are reminded of the cycles of nature, of ending and of beginning again, the time when the rays of the sun penetrate the grove to alight upon the moist plants on the ground. Then We look again and see a man speaking of the yang line, or of the One all mystics speak of. Fu and tan are, in Chinese, what are called “empty words”; they are the only purely grammatical words in the poem. Through the use of classical allusion and visual play, Wang Wei has managed to ?ll both of them.

Wang Wei was an aristocrat. He knew his classics by heart. In a waning age (high T’ang was about to take a terrible fall from which it would never recover), he was a patron of a new way of approaching the problem of suffering in the world of humankind. A follower of Zen, he speaks here not just to converts like himself, but also to con?rmed Confucians, men of his own class. It is a new light that enters, he says, but it is an old grove into which it comes. His poem says something we may have already known: it is time to begin again, anew, at the beginning. Always.

That this poem’s structure and imagery alone, without allusion and deep wordplay, are sufficient to carry its meaning to the modern world through the medium of sensitive and talented translators is only the most obvious of the miracles of Wang Wei’s art.

J.P. Seaton
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