The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan
With The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan, accomplished translator and poet David Hinton has made available in English a significant selection of the poems of the classical Chinese poet Meng Haoran. More than twelve hundred years after Meng composed them, his mountain poems still inspire a modern reader. This is accomplished by the poems’ clear vision of the cyclical character of all life. The seasons come and go in Meng's beautiful mountain landscape, and humans feel like guests participating in the endless cycle of birth, blossoming, ripening, death, and rebirth.
To introduce the reader to the thinking of Meng Haoran, David Hinton opens his selection of Meng's poems with his translation of “Autumn Begins.” Here, the advent of fall is shown as a gradual process, like many changes in life. For the untrained or distracted observer, the event may nearly be missed. “Nights slowly lengthen” during this transitory time, and only “little by little” is “summer's blaze giving way.” Yet to those who clear their minds, this process offers a revelation. As he turns his eyes down the stairs from his thatched mountain hut, the Persona suddenly sees how “lit dew shimmers” in the colder autumnal grass. Thus unexpected beauty is revealed in a harsh season.
As Hinton explains in his excellent introduction, which also includes a map of Meng's medieval China, Meng's poetry is celebrated for its fusion of concrete images and Daoist philosophy aided by Zen meditation. In this, Meng follows China's earliest poetic tradition. From its beginning in the late fourth century c.e., China's mountain and river (shan-shui) poetry sought to show how China's natural landscape could reveal the Daoist view of an empty cosmos suddenly filled with life. Yet life flourishes only briefly, to disappear again. However, after a momentary pause, there starts another cycle of birth, flowering, and death. Hinton calls this momentary state a “pregnant emptiness” that applies both to the universe ready to bring forth life again and Meng's mountain landscape when it is ready to emerge from the cold lifelessness of winter. At the core of many of Meng's poems, there is a desire to reveal exactly this transitory state of life and the shift from emptiness to fullness.
In “On Reaching the Ju River Dikes, Sent to My Friend Lu,” Meng evokes nature's capacity for renewal and reflects on the universe's power to create life out of apparent nothingness. Sitting on his exhausted horse overlooking a river landscape in the evening, the Persona notices that the traces of winter have disappeared. The “Lo River …free of snow” is lying before him. Beneath “empty skies” and over mountain peaks, “twilight clouds” show their “lit/ colors surging elemental and swelling.” They are seen as primal creatures ready to burst with new life. Awestruck, the Persona writes the poem for his friend, telling him how he observes this moment of imminent rebirth and “how it just keeps unfurling, unfurling.” The “pregnant emptiness” of winter (in Hinton's words) is about to deliver the force of spring.
Even though Meng's fame is founded on his image as a recluse, and mountain eremite, his poetry shows the reader that the mountain poet valued friendship and conversation with fellow humans. In “Lingering Out Farewell with Wang Wei,” Meng states that “nurturing isolate depths of quiet” is not everything his life is about. To the contrary, he longs for the company of “kindred spirits” like his friend Wang Wei, and others who are mentioned in his poems. Indeed, Meng's poems reveal that he lived an active social life. Ironically, it is as a result of his social contacts that Meng's poetry survived. Only the poems he sent to his friends such as Wang Wei still exist, as Meng destroyed all his other works as failures. In turn, it was Wang who would write an obituary poem for Meng and continue to work in his poetic tradition in the next generation of successful Tang poets.
With his friends, Meng also enjoyed drinking wine and playing the qin, a harplike instrument similar to the Japanese koto or a Western zither. In “Listening to Cheng Yin Play His Ch’in,” the Persona is elated as there is “a fresh tune for each cup of wine.” In “Inscribed on a Wall at Li's Farm, for Ch’i-wu Ch’ien,” the Persona joyfully describes as he is “Bringing out my ch’in, I came to sip wine …savoring idleness.” As Hinton points out in his Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (2002), mountain poets like Meng Haoran and his followers loved to drink wine to blur the...
(The entire section is 1897 words.)