I had read this Chinese poem by Bai juyi (白居易) many years ago, but it hit me hard when I stumbled upon it returning from a trip visiting my aging parents. How many thoughts and emotions are packed in these few lines!
My literal translation:
Abounding with grass is the meadow.
Per annum it ever withers and flourishes.
Fire of the wild cannot utterly consume,
Wind of Spring again breathes life therein.
Distant flowers encroach on the ancient road,
Sunny emerald borders on the desolate city.
Once more I see off a noble offspring,
Teeming with emotions of parting.
The first half of the poem is a contemplation of Nature. The perennial grass is the symbol of Plotinian immortality. Though the fire may destroy its matter, yet its form and life persists.
The poem is structured in symmetry, pairing the two stanzas in the middle. Both the sentence structure and the meaning of the words are symmetrical.
The second half not only juxtaposes space and time, but also contrasts nature and society. The ancient road was traveled by many generations that lived before, and the desolate city was once inhabited and thrived in times past. Who is to say that the power which preserves and regenerates nature shall not revive the human society and make those desolate roads and cities thrive again?
The last stanza is the focal point of the poem: Genuine friendship shall prevail through the vicissitudes of fortune.
William Wordsworth seems to echo the same sentiments in the following:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
- Bai juyi’s “Ode to Grass as a parting poem”
- William Wordsworth’s “Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”