THE LATE AFTERNOON OF ONE’S LIFE

Los Angeles, 10 April 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend at a concert being given at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece we heard was das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth, by Gustav Mahler. As its name suggests, the piece is composed of six songs. The word “songs” risks to simplify the nature of what we heard. Perhaps musical meditations might describe it better. Mahler built his music around the texts of several Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty. He wove the music and words together to tell us a story of ineffable sadness, of regret of things not done, of memories of youth, of premonitions of one’s mortality, all things which I, at the age of 64, occasionally suffer from; who doesn’t, in the late afternoon of their lives? Aged 48 when he wrote it, Mahler was younger than I am today, but had recently suffered grievous blows: his eldest daughter had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, he had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal congenital heart defect, and he was being forced out of his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera by the antisemitic element in Viennese society.

I cite here an English translation of the first and last of these songs, the two which spoke to me most.

The drinking song of earth’s sorrow

The wine beckons in golden goblets
but drink not yet; I’ll sing you first a song.
The song of sorrow shall ring laughing in your soul.
When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul, wither and perish joy and singing.
Dark is life, dark is death!

Master of this house,
your cellar o’erflows with golden wine!
Here, this lute I call mine.
A lute to strike and glasses to drain,
these things go well together.
A full glass of wine at the right time is worth more than all the realms of this earth.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The heavens are ever blue and the Earth
shall stand sure, and blossom in the spring.
But you O man, how long your life?
Not one hundred years may you delight
in all the rotten baubles of this earth.
See down there! In the moonlight, on the graves squats a wild ghostly shape;
an ape it is! Hear you his howl go out
in the sweet fragrance of life.
Now! Drink the wine! Now ‘tis time, friends.
Drain your golden goblets to the last.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The farewell

The sun drops down behind the mountains.
In every valley evening descends,
Bringing its shadows, full of coolness.
Look! like a silver bark
The moon floats in heaven’s blue lake.
I sense a delicate breeze stirring
Behind the dark fir trees.

The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep;
All desire now turns to dreaming.
Weary folk turn homewards,
So that, in sleep, they may learn anew
Forgotten joy and youth.
The birds huddle silent on their branches.
The world falls asleep.

A cool breeze blows in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him to take a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side,
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I wander to and fro with my lute
On pathways which billow with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal-love-and-life-intoxicated world!

He dismounted and I handed him the drink of farewell.
I asked him where he was going,
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
‘Ah! my friend – Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going? I will wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I journey to the homeland, to my resting place;
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!’

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!

Forever . . . forever . . .

As I bathed in the music and the words, another poem about the consciousness of time passing and of regret at things not done floated into my mind, A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright.

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

I only recently learnt of this poem, through Morse, that most intellectual of police chief inspectors on British television, who cites the last stanza in the very last episode of the series. He speaks it as the sun goes down over the Meadows at Oxford and as he faces the bleakness of his imminent retirement, little knowing that death awaits him the next day.

Housman’s metaphor of the sun rising and setting is echoed in a poem by Sara Teasdale, which I quoted in an earlier post, The River

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

My discovery of this poem several years ago resulted from a student giving me a modern Chinese poem, a poem on departures, in this case from Cambridge. Funny that. In that roundabout way so typical of life, Tang Dynasty poems a thousand years old have been connected by way of Vienna, Los Angeles, and two ancient English university towns back to a modern Chinese poem.

Come on, old man, time to have another glass of wine.

RIVER POEMS

Beijing, 17 January 2013

There are only a few weeks to go to the Chinese New Year and the Chinese newspapers are full of articles on people’s plans for the festive period and on the country’s transportation infrastructure bracing itself for the onslaught of Chinese who will be travelling home or – more frequently now as they get richer and move into the middle classes – travelling abroad for package tour holidays. As I read, I was reminded of a wonderful piece in the New Yorker written by the magazine’s Man in Beijing, Evan Osnos. Two Chinese New Years ago, Osnos decided to join one of these package tours, the “Classic European,” a bus tour visiting five countries in ten days.  It’s a sympathetically amusing article and I would urge any of my readers with an interest in social trends in China to read it. It can be accessed at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/18/110418fa_fact_osnos. Here is a photo from the article.

chinese tourists-8

Osnos’s piece reminded me rather of a 1969 film, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, a romantic comedy about a group of American tourists doing a bus tour of nine European countries in 18 days.

If_It's_Tuesday

Osnos mentions in passing a sub-trend in Chinese tourism, that of Chinese lovers of poetry who go on a pilgrimage to Cambridge (the Cambridge in the UK) to gaze reverently at a clump of willow trees growing on the banks of the River Cam. The reason for all this is a poem which is wildly popular in China: 再别康桥 “Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again”. It was written by Xu Zhimo, a famous romantic poet of the early twentieth-century.

Xu Zhimo

Xu travelled in the West for a number of years. He spent a year in Cambridge in 1921 and on a second trip there in 1928 wrote the poem. He died a few years later in a plane crash in China.

I don’t read (or speak) Chinese, so I’m afraid the poem in its original form is closed to me. However, there is what seems to be a standard translation (every Chinese website that I looked at carried the same one) which is really quite pleasant on the ear. But before I quote it here, I am moved to first cite the poem in its pinyin form (without tonal marks, which I find confusing and quite unhelpful since I don’t hear the language’s tones), to give other Chinese-illiterate readers like myself a small taste of its rhythm and rhyme.

Qingqing de wo zou le, zhengru wo qingqing de lai;
wo qinqing de zhaoshou, zuobie xi tian de yuncai.

Na hepan de jin liu, shi xiyang zhong de xinniang;
boguang li de yan ying, zai wo de xintou dangyang.

Ruanni shang de qing xing, youyou de zai shuidi zhaoyao;
zai Kang he rou bo li, wo ganxin zuo yi tiao shuicao!

Na yu yin xia de yi tan, bus hi qingquan,
shi tianshang hong rousi zai fu zao jian, chendianzhe caihong shide meng.

Xunmeng? Cheng yi zhi chang gao, xiang qingcao gen qing chu man su,
manzai yi chuan xing hui, zai xing hui banlan li fangge.

Dan wo buneng fangge, qiaoqiao shi bieli de shengxiao;
xiachong ye wei wo chenmo, chenmo shi jinwan de Kangqiao.

Qiaqiao de wo zou le, zhengru wo qiaoqiao de lai;
wo hui yi hui yixiu, bu daizou yi pian yuncai.

And now for the translation:

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here
Quietly I wave good-bye
To the rosy clouds in the western sky

The golden willows by the riverside
Are young brides in the setting sun
Their reflections on the shimmering waves
Always linger in the depth of my heart

The floating heart growing in the sludge
Sways leisurely under the water
In the gentle waves of Cambridge
I would be a water plant!

That pool under the shade of elm trees
Holds not water but the rainbow from the sky
Shattered to pieces among the duckweeds
Is the sediment of a rainbow-like dream

To seek a dream? Just to pole a boat upstream
To where the green grass is more verdant
Or to have the boat fully loaded with starlight
And sing aloud in the splendour of starlight

But I cannot sing aloud
Quietness is my farewell music
Even summer insects keep silence for me
Silent is Cambridge tonight

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here
Gently I flick my sleeves
Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away

I can’t resist adding a few pictures here of the river Cam. It is a river that flows quietly through Cambridge, as quietly as the poem itself flows across the page.

Cam with willows

Henry VIII chapel and Cam

Cam-1

I came across the text of the poem for the first time through an English Lit class I held with a Chinese student (class is a big word; it was more a pleasant discussion around English literature every Saturday morning, over a cup of hot sweet soya milk). After we had gone through a few English poems he brought me this translation of  “Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again”. I was touched and wanted to give him in return an English poem with a river as its theme. But what?

I went on a search and came across the poem “The River” by Sara Teasdale.

sara-teasdale

Teasdale, an American poet, was more or less a contemporary of Xu. She died in 1933.

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

I had never heard of Teasdale, and a look at her other poems did not impress me, but this poem, at this time in my life, spoke to me. Who doesn’t reach my age and sometimes wish he could slough off the pessimism which comes with the passing years and be young again, fresh and optimistic?

____________________________

Chinese tourists: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/assets_c/2011/04/110418_osnoschinese01_p465-thumb-465×310-68686.jpg
Film poster: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/9f/If_It%27s_Tuesday.jpeg
Xu Zhimo: http://cfile25.uf.tistory.com/image/1768563E4F8F1F6C23B5BE
Cam with willows: http://www.baihuisoft.com/Uploads/201179154340875.jpg
Henry VIII chapel and Cam: http://ts1.mm.bing.net/th?id=H.4921582377371804&pid=1.9
Cam and Clare college: http://anyluckypeny.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/clare-college-bridge-university-of-cambridge.jpg?w=870
Sara Teasdale: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/uploads/authors/sara-teasdale/448x/sara-teasdale.jpg