Thomas Schall - Lauten

The Lute Girl

The following is Po Chu-i's own 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 http://emotional-literacy-education.com/classic-books-online-c/ljade10.htm)