A key characteristic of Meng Haoran’s poetry is his attention to the nuances of natural landscapes together with his concrete images of the animals, plants, and people and buildings inhabiting these geographic regions. Critics have praised Meng for the variety of terms he uses for specific mountain features and his detailed descriptions of flora and fauna. His mountain poems are never generic but tied to very specific scenes.
Scholars have noted that Meng’s poetry describes nature as perceived by the specific consciousness of the poet, thereby adding an individual vigor to his poems that distinguishes them. Meng’s poems balance successfully the evocation of the persona’s feelings, such as longing for home and friends or celebrating friendship, with the natural setting in which they take place. There is a social context to Meng’s poems even when set in remote places.
Religion and spirituality enter Meng’s poems whenever their setting encompasses a temple, shrine, or monastery. When this is a Buddhist place, Meng’s poems show a keen perception of Buddhist teachings and history and successfully allude to them, tying a concrete location to a spiritual theme. When Meng’s poems address Daoist themes, they tend to become less concrete. This more general reflection corresponds to Daoism’s concern with the transcendent, extraterrestrial aspects of human consciousness.
A reader of Meng’s poems in English translation should remember that, as with any translation, particularly of poetry, the translator has had to make difficult decisions as to how to render Meng’s verse in accessible English. In the original Chinese, 254 of Meng’s poems have only five characters (and therefore five syllables) per line. This means that any English translation cannot be both literal and poetic because English requires more than five syllables to capture the meaning that Meng’s five syllables per line created for a Chinese reader. This means that translations of Meng’s poems will vary depending on the translator.
In his accessible 1981 book-length study of Meng’s poetry, Paul Kroll offers his translations of many of Meng’s most important poems. Kroll’s translation uses a traditional, elevated diction to render the mood evoked by Meng’s original Chinese syllables into poetic lines in English. As a result, Meng’s poems sound somewhat like late nineteenth century English poetry, yet Kroll still manages to capture the central themes and concerns of Meng’s poetry very well. For example, “I Pass the Night at My Teacher’s Mountain Dwelling, Expecting Lord Ting Who Does Not Arrive,” opens thus: “Evening’s sunglow has crossed the west ridge;/ The serried straths suddenly, now, are dark-cast.” Meng’s attention to the effects of the light of early...
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