Song Of The Guitar. Poem by Bai Juyi

Song Of The Guitar.

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In the tenth year of Yuanhe I was banished and demoted to be assistant official in Jiujiang. In the summer of the next year I was seeing a friend leave Penpu and heard in the midnight from a neighbouring boat a guitar played in the manner of the capital. Upon inquiry, I found that the player had formerly been a dancing-girl there and in her maturity had been married to a merchant. I invited her to my boat to have her play for us. She told me her story, heyday and then unhappiness. Since my departure from the capital I had not felt sad; but that night, after I left her, I began to realize my banishment. And I wrote this long poem -- six hundred and twelve characters.

I was bidding a guest farewell, at night on the Xunyang River,
Where maple-leaves and full-grown rushes rustled in the autumn.
I, the host, had dismounted, my guest had boarded his boat,
And we raised our cups and wished to drink-but, alas, there was no music.
For all we had drunk we felt no joy and were parting from each other,
When the river widened mysteriously toward the full moon --
We had heard a sudden sound, a guitar across the water.
Host forgot to turn back home, and guest to go his way.
We followed where the melody led and asked the player's name.
The sound broke off...then reluctantly she answered.
We moved our boat near hers, invited her to join us,
Summoned more wine and lanterns to recommence our banquet.
Yet we called and urged a thousand times before she started toward us,
Still hiding half her face from us behind her guitar.
...She turned the tuning-pegs and tested several strings;
We could feel what she was feeling, even before she played:
Each string a meditation, each note a deep thought,
As if she were telling us the ache of her whole life.
She knit her brows, flexed her fingers, then began her music,
Little by little letting her heart share everything with ours.
She brushed the strings, twisted them slow, swept them, plucked them --
First the air of The Rainbow Skirt, then The Six Little Ones.
The large strings hummed like rain,
The small strings whispered like a secret,
Hummed, whispered-and then were intermingled
Like a pouring of large and small pearls into a plate of jade.
We heard an oriole, liquid, hidden among flowers.
We heard a brook bitterly sob along a bank of sand...
By the checking of its cold touch, the very string seemed broken
As though it could not pass; and the notes, dying away
Into a depth of sorrow and concealment of lament,
Told even more in silence than they had told in sound....
A silver vase abruptly broke with a gush of water,
And out leapt armored horses and weapons that clashed and smote --
And, before she laid her pick down, she ended with one stroke,
And all four strings made one sound, as of rending silk
There was quiet in the east boat and quiet in the west,
And we saw the white autumnal moon enter the river's heart.
...When she had slowly placed the pick back among the strings,
She rose and smoothed her clothing and, formal, courteous,
Told us how she had spent her girlhood at the capital,
Living in her parents' house under the Mount of Toads,
And had mastered the guitar at the age of thirteen,
With her name recorded first in the class-roll of musicians,
Her art the admiration even of experts,
Her beauty the envy of all the leading dancers,
How noble youths of Wuling had lavishly competed
And numberless red rolls of silk been given for one song,
And silver combs with shell inlay been snapped by her rhythms,
And skirts the colour of blood been spoiled with stains of wine....
Season after season, joy had followed joy,
Autumn moons and spring winds had passed without her heeding,
Till first her brother left for the war, and then her aunt died,
And evenings went and evenings came, and her beauty faded --
With ever fewer chariots and horses at her door;
So that finally she gave herself as wife to a merchant
Who, prizing money first, careless how he left her,
Had gone, a month before, to Fuliang to buy tea.
And she had been tending an empty boat at the river's mouth,
No company but the bright moon and the cold water.
And sometimes in the deep of night she would dream of her triumphs
And be wakened from her dreams by the scalding of her tears.
Her very first guitar-note had started me sighing;
Now, having heard her story, I was sadder still.
"We are both unhappy -- to the sky's end.
We meet. We understand. What does acquaintance matter?
I came, a year ago, away from the capital
And am now a sick exile here in Jiujiang --
And so remote is Jiujiang that I have heard no music,
Neither string nor bamboo, for a whole year.
My quarters, near the River Town, are low and damp,
With bitter reeds and yellowed rushes all about the house.
And what is to be heard here, morning and evening? --
The bleeding cry of cuckoos, the whimpering of apes.
On flowery spring mornings and moonlit autumn nights
I have often taken wine up and drunk it all alone,
Of course there are the mountain songs and the village pipes,
But they are crude and-strident, and grate on my ears.
And tonight, when I heard you playing your guitar,
I felt as if my hearing were bright with fairy-music.
Do not leave us. Come, sit down. Play for us again.
And I will write a long song concerning a guitar."
...Moved by what I said, she stood there for a moment,
Then sat again to her strings-and they sounded even sadder,
Although the tunes were different from those she had played before....
The feasters, all listening, covered their faces.
But who of them all was crying the most?
This Jiujiang official. My blue sleeve was wet.

Pha Thanh Gian 28 April 2005

Such sadness can only be comprehended by those who have faced similar sorrow. I am beginning to wonder if it is actually sadness (rather than love) that makes the poetry world a uniquely applealing medium? Or I may go as far as saying that human's sorrow has actually given birth to the medium which we now call 'poetry'? Any answer?

2 0 Reply
Milica Franchi De Luri 11 July 2010

The poem is long but i loved it. Chu-i- Po is a wonderful storyteller, writing with captivating and adoring poetic lines.........

2 0 Reply
Ian Watts 18 July 2020

This traditional musical instrument is a pipa. It is more akin to a lute. It has a softer more plaintive sound than a guitar. Gentlewomen, formerly, learned to play it. Why westernize a lovely poem?

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Ross Curtin 26 April 2019

despite the translation - I love it!

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Jovano Jovanke 06 September 2018

I had an LP of Chinese classical music and this poem was reproduced in the foldout. I loved it then and I love it now. One of the most poignant verses I have ever read. My blue sleeve is wet.

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Xing Hua 16 January 2016

元和十年,余左迁九江郡司马。   明年秋,送客湓浦口,   闻舟中夜弹琵琶者。   听其音,铮铮然有京都声。   问其人,本长安倡女,   尝学琶琵于穆曹二善才。   年长色衰,委身为贾人妇。   遂令酒使快弹数曲。   曲罢悯然,自叙少小时   欢乐事,今漂沦憔悴,   转徒于江湖间余出官二年,   恬然自安,   感斯人言,   是夕始觉有迁谪意。   因为长句歌以赠之,   凡六百一十六言。   命曰《琵琶行》。    浔阳江头夜送客,枫叶荻花秋瑟瑟。   主人下马客在船,举酒欲饮无管弦。   醉不成欢惨将别,别时茫茫江浸月。   忽闻水上琵琶声,主人忘归客不发。   寻声暗问弹者谁,琵琶声停欲语迟。   移船相近邀相见,添酒回灯重开宴。   千呼万唤始出来,犹抱琵琶半遮面。   转轴拨弦三两声,未成曲调先有情。   弦弦掩抑声声思,似诉平生不得志。   低眉信手续续弹,说尽心中无限事。   轻拢慢捻抹复挑,初为霓裳后六幺。   大弦嘈嘈如急雨,小弦切切如私语。   嘈嘈切切错杂弹,大珠小珠落玉盘。   间关莺语花底滑,幽咽泉流水下滩。   水泉冷涩弦凝绝,凝绝不通声渐歇。   别有幽愁暗恨生,此时无声胜有声。   银瓶乍破水浆迸,铁骑突出刀枪鸣。   曲终收拨当心画,四弦一声如裂帛。   东船西舫悄无言,唯见江心秋月白。   沉吟放拨插弦中,整顿衣裳起敛容。   自言本是京城女,家在虾蟆陵下住。   十三学得琵琶成,名属教坊第一部。   曲罢常教善才服,妆成每被秋娘炉。   五陵年少争缠头,一曲红消不知数。   钿头银篦击节碎,血色罗裙翻酒污。   今年欢笑复明年,秋月春风等闲度。   弟走从军阿姨死,暮去朝来颜色故。   门前冷落车马稀,老大嫁作商人妇。   商人重利轻别离,前月浮梁买茶去。   去来江口守空船,绕舱明月江水寒。   夜深忽梦少年事,梦啼妆泪红阑干。   我闻琵琶已叹息,又闻此语重唧唧。   同是天涯沦落人,相逢何必曾相识。   我从去年辞帝京,谪居卧病浔阳城。   浔阳地僻无音乐,终岁不闻丝竹声。   住近湓江地低湿,黄芦苦竹绕宅生。   其间旦暮闻何物,杜鹃啼血猿哀鸣。   春江花朝秋月夜,往往取酒还独倾。   岂无山歌与姑笛,呕哑嘲哳难为听。   今夜闻君琵琶语,如听仙乐耳暂明。   莫辞更坐弹一曲,为君翻作琵琶行。   感我此言良久立,却坐促弦弦转急。   凄凄不似向前声,满座重闻皆掩泣。   座中泣下谁最多,江州司马清衫湿。

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Susan Williams 16 January 2016

What a beautifully done short story in verse form. The story flows along but every so often the poet sprinkles a trail of jewels along the plot to give us place and time and a feeling that we are there. Absolutely terrific and the crown jewel is his compassion for the woman and her tale.

25 0 Reply
Bai Juyi

Bai Juyi

Taiyuan, Shanxi
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