Today’s poem is going up late because of a couple of problems I had with the translation. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that it’s apparently pretty a obscure poem: I happened upon it in my copy of 白居易集 The Collected Works of Bai Juyi, which has no explanatory annotations, and searches online and in annotated collections of Bai Juyi poems didn’t turn up anything at all, much less anything that’d answer the questions I had. So there are a couple of footnotes at the end in which I confess my befuddlement.
This is the first in the set 叹老三首 “Bemoaning My Old Age: Three Poems.” The other two may follow.
Bemoaning My Old Age: Three Poems
At dawn, I rise and check the silvered glass,
And find man and reflection both alone.
My youth has long-since gone away from me:
White hairs fall out with each stroke of my comb.
All transformations come so gradually,
So stealthily, that none see them take place.
I fear the mirror, fear its silvered face
Will show me older now than yesterday.
It’s few who reach a hundred years of age,
And anything that waxes must then wane.
He who unites his heart, Heaven, and Earth *
May gain long life like tortoises and cranes.
I heard a man who knew his medicine —
— The man, they said, could cure you of all ills. +
He said that any sickness could be cured —
Except old age; for that he had no pills.
* I’m just guessing at this line; I admit it. The difficulty arises in the function of 会, which in this context seems to be used to mean “unite, combine, reconcile.” In Modern Chinese, it usually means “to know (how),” but as far as I know, it didn’t have that meaning at the time of the poem’s composition.
At any rate, after asking around and looking for explanations of this line, I’ve gone ahead and fudged it. If anyone can explain it, please do.
+ The original line compares the doctor to Bian Que, a Chinese ur-doctor who lived in the fifth century B.C.E. I was tempted to use “Aesclepius” as an equivalent, but decided that it was too jarring, and so instead I’ve translated loosely in order to communicate the sense of the line and to rhyme with the final line.
I took a few other liberties: the line I translated as “anything that waxes must then wane” is really just “no joy can last forever,” or (as I translated it in an earlier draft) “all good things must come to an end.” Again, I’ve translated loosely to provide a rhyme for “…tortoises and cranes.”