Treasure Island

Bai Juyi

(772–846 / Taiyuan, Shanxi)

Song of the Guitar.


In the tenth year of Yuanhe I was banished and demoted to be assistant official in Jiujiang. In the summer of the next year I was seeing a friend leave Penpu and heard in the midnight from a neighbouring boat a guitar played in the manner of the capital. Upon inquiry, I found that the player had formerly been a dancing-girl there and in her maturity had been married to a merchant. I invited her to my boat to have her play for us. She told me her story, heyday and then unhappiness. Since my departure from the capital I had not felt sad; but that night, after I left her, I began to realize my banishment. And I wrote this long poem -- six hundred and twelve characters.

I was bidding a guest farewell, at night on the Xunyang River,
Where maple-leaves and full-grown rushes rustled in the autumn.
I, the host, had dismounted, my guest had boarded his boat,
And we raised our cups and wished to drink-but, alas, there was no music.
For all we had drunk we felt no joy and were parting from each other,
When the river widened mysteriously toward the full moon --
We had heard a sudden sound, a guitar across the water.
Host forgot to turn back home, and guest to go his way.
We followed where the melody led and asked the player's name.
The sound broke off...then reluctantly she answered.
We moved our boat near hers, invited her to join us,
Summoned more wine and lanterns to recommence our banquet.
Yet we called and urged a thousand times before she started toward us,
Still hiding half her face from us behind her guitar.
...She turned the tuning-pegs and tested several strings;
We could feel what she was feeling, even before she played:
Each string a meditation, each note a deep thought,
As if she were telling us the ache of her whole life.
She knit her brows, flexed her fingers, then began her music,
Little by little letting her heart share everything with ours.
She brushed the strings, twisted them slow, swept them, plucked them --
First the air of The Rainbow Skirt, then The Six Little Ones.
The large strings hummed like rain,
The small strings whispered like a secret,
Hummed, whispered-and then were intermingled
Like a pouring of large and small pearls into a plate of jade.
We heard an oriole, liquid, hidden among flowers.
We heard a brook bitterly sob along a bank of sand...
By the checking of its cold touch, the very string seemed broken
As though it could not pass; and the notes, dying away
Into a depth of sorrow and concealment of lament,
Told even more in silence than they had told in sound....
A silver vase abruptly broke with a gush of water,
And out leapt armored horses and weapons that clashed and smote --
And, before she laid her pick down, she ended with one stroke,
And all four strings made one sound, as of rending silk
There was quiet in the east boat and quiet in the west,
And we saw the white autumnal moon enter the river's heart.
...When she had slowly placed the pick back among the strings,
She rose and smoothed her clothing and, formal, courteous,
Told us how she had spent her girlhood at the capital,
Living in her parents' house under the Mount of Toads,
And had mastered the guitar at the age of thirteen,
With her name recorded first in the class-roll of musicians,
Her art the admiration even of experts,
Her beauty the envy of all the leading dancers,
How noble youths of Wuling had lavishly competed
And numberless red rolls of silk been given for one song,
And silver combs with shell inlay been snapped by her rhythms,
And skirts the colour of blood been spoiled with stains of wine....
Season after season, joy had followed joy,
Autumn moons and spring winds had passed without her heeding,
Till first her brother left for the war, and then her aunt died,
And evenings went and evenings came, and her beauty faded --
With ever fewer chariots and horses at her door;
So that finally she gave herself as wife to a merchant
Who, prizing money first, careless how he left her,
Had gone, a month before, to Fuliang to buy tea.
And she had been tending an empty boat at the river's mouth,
No company but the bright moon and the cold water.
And sometimes in the deep of night she would dream of her triumphs
And be wakened from her dreams by the scalding of her tears.
Her very first guitar-note had started me sighing;
Now, having heard her story, I was sadder still.
"We are both unhappy -- to the sky's end.
We meet. We understand. What does acquaintance matter?
I came, a year ago, away from the capital
And am now a sick exile here in Jiujiang --
And so remote is Jiujiang that I have heard no music,
Neither string nor bamboo, for a whole year.
My quarters, near the River Town, are low and damp,
With bitter reeds and yellowed rushes all about the house.
And what is to be heard here, morning and evening? --
The bleeding cry of cuckoos, the whimpering of apes.
On flowery spring mornings and moonlit autumn nights
I have often taken wine up and drunk it all alone,
Of course there are the mountain songs and the village pipes,
But they are crude and-strident, and grate on my ears.
And tonight, when I heard you playing your guitar,
I felt as if my hearing were bright with fairy-music.
Do not leave us. Come, sit down. Play for us again.
And I will write a long song concerning a guitar."
...Moved by what I said, she stood there for a moment,
Then sat again to her strings-and they sounded even sadder,
Although the tunes were different from those she had played before....
The feasters, all listening, covered their faces.
But who of them all was crying the most?
This Jiujiang official. My blue sleeve was wet.

Submitted: Thursday, January 01, 2004

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  • Milica Franchi De Luri (7/11/2010 1:21:00 AM)

    The poem is long but i loved it. Chu-i- Po is a wonderful storyteller, writing with captivating and adoring poetic lines......... (Report) Reply

  • Pha Thanh Gian (4/28/2005 2:44:00 PM)

    Such sadness can only be comprehended by those who have faced similar sorrow.
    I am beginning to wonder if it is actually sadness (rather than love) that makes the poetry world a uniquely applealing medium? Or I may go as far as saying that human's sorrow has actually given birth to the medium which we now call 'poetry'?
    Any answer? (Report) Reply

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