Monday, July 14, 2014

Sonnet on a Poem by Ch'iu Wei

To this place, at the mountaintop,
have I climbed, in search of you and of truth;
my knock at the door echoes without stop.
Table and hearth are revealed in the booth,
but your presence is lacking, forsooth;
perhaps you fish the pools of the river.
In vain have I called on you, so uncouth
my need to know, guised to deliver
greeting. Instead, visited by shiver
of fresh rain on grass and murmuring pines,
thus I breathe in peace, sliver on sliver,
‘til purified, cleansed, emptied of designs.
Descending your mountain, light on my feet,
I know I’ve been met, and now am replete.

© 2014 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

A note to readers:

This sonnet is the result of an experiment. A hyperactive reader, I far too often (for the sake of my pocketbook) find myself in bookstores. I particularly like secondhand shops, as there are treasures to be found that are no longer in print; many of these are unlikely to ever be reprinted. One such treasure, a recent find, is a Chinese/English printing, entitled (in Chinese and English) “Three Hundred Poems of the Tong Dynasty.” It is a trade paper, sewn edition. Because I cannot read Chinese, neither do know the publication information or year, or the name of the translator(s). The only clue I have as to the book’s origin is the book seller’s stamp in the back of the volume: Hansan Trading Company, 28 Pell Street, New York, NY 10013; This business no longer exists.  

While waiting for my dental appointment to begin, I opened the book and started reading. One poem, not very far in, struck my eye. Thematically, the poem represents so much of what I feel life is like and about, for me and for many others: A trip through the wilderness, in search of answers.

This is the poem, as translated (by Witter Bynner, I later discover) in the Hansan Trading Company book:

After Missing the Recluse on the Western Mountain

To your hermitage here on the top of the mountain
I have climbed, without stopping, these ten miles,
I have knocked at your door, and no one answered;
I have peeped into your room, at your seat beside the table.
Perhaps you are out riding in your canopied chair,
Or fishing, more likely, in some autumn pool.
Sorry though I am to be missing you,
You have become my meditation—
The beauty of your grasses, fresh with rain,
And close beside your window the music of your pines.
I take into my being all that I see and hear,
Soothing my senses, quieting my heart;
And though there be neither host nor guest,
Have I not reasoned a visit complete?
After enough, I have gone down the mountain.
Why should I wait for you any longer?

Digging around on the internet, I found this translation by Mike O’Connor (at

On Failing to Meet the Recluse of West Peak

On the mountain top: 

one thatched hut,

thirty li
from nowhere.

Knock on the door: 

no servant to answer.

Look in: 

only a table for tea.

The firewood cart 

is covered;

have you gone fishing 

in the autumn stream?

I looked among the pools, 

but missed you;

wanting to pay my respects,

they must go unexpressed.

Grass shines 

in the fresh rain;

pines murmur 

at evening windows.

Here, at this moment, 

a harmony deep and unrivaled;

the self completely cleansed, 

the heart, the ear.

Although there is no 

guest and host precisely,

I'm able to intuit 

your pure thought.

Purpose fulfilled, 

I head back down the mountain;

what need now 

to wait for you?

Looking further into the matter, I find out that this book is an iteration of the classic collection of poems from the Tang Dynasty (618–907), first compiled in the Qing Dynasty by the scholar Sun Zhu, around the year 1763. Ch’iu Wei or Qiu Wei or 邱為 lived from 694 to around 789, and his work is represented in this anthology by this single poem. The poem was written in a form known as five character old style or Gushi. I will leave you to investigate the form on your own.

While I was having my teeth cleaned, I was rolling this poem around in my mind, and I wondered if I could take this material, which had been translated into free verse, and work it into at least somewhat of a metrical setting. I don’t know why I selected the sonnet form—perhaps because the way the poem is presented in Chinese is in groupings of five characters.

As to the success or failure of my experiment, that is up to you.

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