The Poetry of Po Chu-i

Chapter 11

The Lute Girl
The following is Po Chu-i's preface to his poem:

When, after ten years of regular service, I was wrongfully dismissed from the Prefecture of the Nine Rivers and the Mastership of the Horse, in the bright autumn of the year I was sent away to Ko-pen Creek's mouth. It was there that I heard, seated in my boat at midnight, the faint tones of a lute. It seemed as though I was listening to the tones of the gongs in the Palace of the Capital. On asking an old man, I learnt that it was the performance of a woman who for many years had cultivated the two talents of music and singing to good effect. In the course of time her beauty faded, she humbled her pride, and followed her fate by becoming a merchant's wife.

* * * *

The wine ran out and the songs ceased. My grief was such that I made a few short poems to set to music for singing.
* * * *

But now perturbed, engulfed, distressed, worn out, I move about the river and lake at my leisure. I have been out of office for two years, but the effect of this man's words is such as to produce a peaceful influence within me. This evening I feel that I have dismissed all the reproachful thoughts I harboured, and in consequence have made a long poem which I intend to present to the court.

By night, beside the river, underneath

The flower-like maple leaves that bloom alone

In autumn's silent revels of decay,

We said farewell. The host, dismounting, sped

The parting guest whose boat rocked under him,

And when the circling stirrup-cup went round,

No light guitar, no lute, was heard again;

But on the heart aglow with wine there fell

Beneath the cold bright moon the cold adieu

Of fading friends -- when suddenly beyond

The cradled waters stole the lullaby

Of some faint lute; then host forgot to go,

Guest lingered on: all, wondering at the spell,

Besought the dim enchantress to reveal

Her presence; but the music died and gave

No answer, dying. Then a boat shot forth

To bring the shy musician to the shore.

Cups were refilled and lanterns trimmed again,

And so the festival went on. At last,

Slow yielding to their prayers, the stranger came,

Hiding her burning face behind her lute;

And twice her hand essayed the strings, and twice

She faltered in her task; then tenderly,

As for an old sad tale of hopeless years,

With drooping head and fingers deft she poured

Her soul forth into melodies. Now slow

The plectrum led to prayer the cloistered chords,

Now loudly with the crash of falling rain,

Now soft as the leaf whispering of words,

Now loud and soft together as the long

Patter of pearls and seed-pearls on a dish

Of marble; liquid now as from the bush

Warbles the mango bird; meandering

Now as the streamlet seawards; voiceless now

As the wild torrent in the strangling arms

Of her ice-lover, lying motionless,

Lulled in a passion far too deep for sound.

Then as the water from the broken vase

Gushes, or on the mailed horseman falls

The anvil din of steel, as on the silk

The slash of rending, so upon the strings

Her plectrum fell. . . .

Then silence over us.

No sound broke the charmed air. The autumn moon

Swam silver o'er the tide, as with a sigh

The stranger stirred to go.

"I passed," said she,

"My childhood in the capital; my home

Was near the hills. A girl of twelve, I learnt

The magic of the lute, the passionate

Blending of lute and voice that drew the souls

Of the great masters to acknowledgment;

And lovely women, envious of my face,

Bowed at the shrine in secret. The young lords

Vied for a look's approval. One brief song

Brought many costly bales. Gold ornaments

And silver pins were smashed and trodden down,

And blood-red silken skirts were stained with wine

In oft-times echoing applause. And so

I laughed my life away from year to year

While the spring breezes and the autumn moon

Caressed my careless head. Then on a day

My brother sought the battles in Kansuh;

My mother died: nights passed and mornings came,

And with them waned my beauty. Now no more

My doors were thronged; few were the cavaliers

That lingered by my side; so I became

A trader's wife, the chattel of a slave

Whose lord was gold, who, parting, little recked

Of separation and the unhonoured bride.

Since the tenth moon was full my husband went

To where the tea-fields ripen. I remained,

To wander in my little lonely boat

Over the cold bright wave o' nights, and dream

Of the dead days, the haze of happy days,

And see them set again in dreams and tears."

* * * *

Already the sweet sorrows of her lute

Had moved my soul to pity; now these words

Pierced me the heart. "O lady fair," I cried,

"We are the vagrants of the world, and need

No ceremony to be friends. Last year

I left the Imperial City, banished far

To this plague-stricken spot, where desolation

Broods on from year to heavy year, nor lute

Nor love's guitar is heard. By marshy bank

Girt with tall yellow reeds and dwarf bamboos

I dwell. Night long and day no stir, no sound,

Only the lurking cuckoo's blood-stained note,

The gibbon's mournful wail. Hill songs I have,

And village pipes with their discordant twang.

But now I listen to thy lute methinks

The gods were parents to thy music. Sit

And sing to us again, while I engrave

Thy story on my tablets!" Gratefully

(For long she had been standing) the lute girl

Sat down and passed into another song,

Sad and so soft, a dream, unlike the song

Of now ago. Then all her hearers wept

In sorrow unrestrained; and I the more,

Weeping until the pale chrysanthemums

Upon my darkened robe were starred with dew.

From A Lute of Jade, Translated by Mr. Cranmer-Byng, 1909.

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