Du Fu

(712 - 770 / Henan Province / China)

Ballad Of The Old Cypress


In front of the temple of Chu-ko Liang there is an old cypress. Its branches
are like green bronze; its roots like rocks; around its great girth of forty
spans its rimy bark withstands the washing of the rain. Its jet-colored top
rises two thousand feet to greet the sky. Prince and statesman have long since
paid their debt to time; but the tree continues to be cherished among men. When
the clouds come, continuous vapors link it with the mists of the long Wu
Gorge; and when the moon appears, the cypress tree shares the chill of the
Snowy Mountains' whiteness.
I remember a year or so ago, where the road wound east round my Brocade
River pavilion, the First Ruler and Chu-ko Liang shared the same shrine. There,
too, were towering cypresses, on the ancient plain outside the city. The paint-
work of the temple's dark interior gleamed dully through derelict doors and
windows. But this cypress here, though it holds its ground well, clinging with
wide-encompassing, snake-like hold, yet, because of its lonely height rising
into the gloom of the sky, meets much of the wind's fierce blast. Nothing but
the power of Divine Providence could have kept it standing for so long; its
straightness must be the work of the Creator himself! If a great hall had
collapsed and beams for it were needed, ten thousand oxen might turn their
heads inquiringly to look at such a mountain of a load. But it is already
marvel enough to astonish the world, without any need to undergo a craftsman's
embellishing. It has never refused the axe: there is simply no one who could
carry it away if it were felled. Its bitter heart has not escaped the ants; but
there are always phoenixes roosting in its scented leaves. Men of ambition, and
you who dwell unseen, do not cry out in despair! From of old the really great
has never been found a use for.


Another Translation:

In front of K'ung-ming Shrine
stands an old cypress,
With branches like green bronze
and roots like granite;

Its hoary bark, far round,
glistens with raindrops,
And blueblack hues, high up,
blend in with Heaven's:
Long ago Statesman, King
kept Time's appointment,
But still this standing tree has men's devotion;

United with the mists
of ghostly gorges,
Through which the moon brings cold
from snowy mountains.

(I recall near my hut
on Brocade River
Another Shrine is shared by
King and Statesman

On civil, ancient plains
with stately cypress:
The paint there now is dim,
windows shutterless. . .)

Wide, wide though writhing roots
maintain its station,
Far, far in lonely heights,
many's the tempest

When its hold is the strength
of Divine Wisdom
And straightness by the work of the Creator. . .

Yet if a crumbling Hall
needed a rooftree, Yoked herds would, turning heads,
balk at this mountain:

By art still unexposed all have admired it;
But axe though not refused,
who could transport it?

How can its bitter core deny ants lodging,
All the while scented boughs
give Phoenix housing?

Oh, ambitious unknowns,
sigh no more sadly:
Using timber as big
was never easy!

Submitted: Thursday, April 08, 2010
Edited: Monday, May 09, 2011

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