Li Bai: "The River Merchant's Wife: a Love Song" (From Chinese)

This poem or, at least, something ostensibly resembling this poem, has become quite famous in English under the title "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" done by the hand of Ezra Pound (to read it, click this link.) Li Bai's original poem, however, written in a style which suggests balladry, is about as different in tone, rhythm, sentiment and aim from Pound's transcreation as anything imaginable. I have, however, taken the first four words from Pound's poem and included them in the title of my translation.

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Love Song
By Li Bai
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

These locks scarce covered my brow that day  
 I played — picking flowers at our gate
Then you came riding your horse of bamboo 
 With a green plum whip round the wellside rail  
So we lived in Longgully I and you 
 Children without suspicion or hate
When I wed you Husband I was thirteen 
 Afraid and timid — I never smiled
Head downcast — facing the dark of the wall  
 Your thousand pleas couldn't turn my eyes
But I opened wide my smile at fourteen 
 Wished your ash to be one with mine
Steadfast, our trust — like a bridge's pillar1  
 Why climb a vigil tower to pine?
You boated away when I'd turned fifteen 
 Up Harrowbank Gorge2 by Crushrock Rise3 
Where eddies are death to cross come June 
 When the skies are full of gibbon-cries
At our front gate where you dragged your feet 
 Moss buries the tracks you left behind
The moss is too deep to sweep away 
 Autumn blows early — leaves fall today
September-yellow butterflies glide 
 Through the West Garden grass in pairs at play
I watch them wend — it hurts in my heart  
 My red cheeks fade as I worry to grey
When you do steer back through the Yangtze narrows 
 Send word to your wife but a while before
I do not say I'll go far to meet you 
 I'll go all the way to Longwind Shore4

1 "a bridge's pillar"- an allusion to the following passage of Zhuangzi:
"Wei Sheng made a date with a girl to meet her under the bridge. The girl didn't come. When the water began to rise, he didn't leave, but instead clasped a pillar of the bridge, remaining until he drowned and died"
2 Harrowbank Gorge- i.e. Qūtáng, through which the Yangtze passes in Sichuan. It is the shortest, narrowest and most dangerous gorge of the Yangtze to navigate.

3 Crushrock Rise- i.e. Yànyùduī, a pile of river rocks near the beginning of the in the middle of the Yangtze, rising over a hundred feet during the low-water seasons of winter but only eight feet or so in the summer, when the water runs high. Before being dynamited in the 20th century the Yànyùduī made prohibitively dangerous eddies at an especially narrow point in the Yangtze, and boatmen avoided it at all costs.

4- i.e. Chángfēng Shā, in what is today Anhui province, about 500 miles from the town that gives this poem its name.

The Original:

長干行
李白

妾髮初覆額,
折花門前劇;
郎騎竹馬來,
遶床弄青梅。
同居長干里,
兩小無嫌猜。
十四為君婦,
羞顏未嘗開;
低頭向暗壁,
千喚不一回,
十五始展眉,
願同塵與灰;
常存抱柱信,
豈上望夫臺?
十六君遠行,
瞿塘灩澦堆;
五月不可觸,
猿聲天上哀。
門前遲行跡,
一一生綠苔;
苔深不能掃,
落葉秋風早。
八月蝴蝶來,
雙飛西園草。
感此傷妾心,
坐愁紅顏老。
早晚下三巴,
預將書報家;
相迎不道遠,
直至長風沙。

2 comments:

  1. Freeburough? Now that would be unusual; Freeborough, surely? I look forward to your demolition of Cathay qua translation, though I would argue that, unlike you, Pound was not attempting translation per se.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I would argue that, if he wasn't attempting translation per se, he shouldn't have pretended otherwise.

    ReplyDelete

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