Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Sorrow of the Shepherd Boy

Here is my first rough attempt to work a translation of a lyric by Matteo Ricci into poetry in English (a time-honored activity, and excellent poetic practice):

A shepherd boy in sorrow stood,
Halting on a high, green hill,
And, seeing in a vision far
A fair and distant hill of flowers,
He thought to go there, to wipe away
The weeping of his saddened soul.
As he traveled he drew more near,
But to his gaze it seemed less good.
O shepherd boy, what journey's toil
Can transform what is in your thought?
Can travel leave yourself behind,
And bring to bear what only sprouts
Within the heart, sweet joy and sorrow?
Peace of heart is in every place,
Turmoil turns all work to toil;
And if a mote, minute, brings pain,
Such deep discomfort and dis-ease,
Can anyone avoid the driving awl
That makes his heart to ache?
In yearning for things outside yourself,
The sought slips by the seeker,
But an ordered heart holds well within
The peace of every hillside.
Sundry sages, old and new, have said
It is vain, so restless to roam;
Hold your heart within and rest;
This, alone, gives glorious gain.

As I said, rough. Here, for those of you who are interested, is Spence's translation (Memory Palace, pp. 198-199):

A shepherd boy fell sad one day,
Hating the hillside on which he stood;
He thought a distant hill he saw
More beautiful by far,
And that going there would wipe away his sorrows.

So he set off to that distant hill,
But as he drew near to it
It looked less good than it had from afar.

O shepherd boy, shepherd boy,
How can you expect to transform yourself
By changing your dwelling place?

If you move away can you leave yourself behind?
Sorrow and joy sprout in the heart.
If the heart is peaceful, you'll be happy everywhere,
If the heart is in turmoil, every place brings sorrow.
A grain of dust in your eye
Brings discomfort speedily;
How can you then ignore this sharp awl
That pierces your heart?

If you yearn for things outside yourself
You will never obtain what you are seeking.
Why not put your own heart in order
And find peace on your own hillside?

Old and new writers alike give this advice:
There's no advantage to roaming outside,
Keep the heart inside, for
That brings the profit.

This was the second song of his eight-song cycle, which was played by the Emperor's eunuchs for the Emperor himself. My reworking needs to allow a little more poetic license than I have so far, in order to do better at the meter and alliteration than it currently does. One tricky thing is that the original song has several plays on words, so a good reworking, I think, should try to do the same, even if the figures were different. Spence notes (pp. 199-200) that the last two lines could also be translated:

Living inside the court, there's Li

'Li' means profit; it is also Ricci's name in Chinese: Li Madou. Ricci, of course, was not allowed to come before the Emperor himself in the inner court where his songs would be sung. Spence suggests, though, that knowing this line was sung in the inner court may have given Ricci a certain satisfaction.

I already recommended Spence's book, whose full title is The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci; but it won't hurt to plug it again, because I really enjoyed it. In a sense it's only an introduction to the field it discusses, but it's profoundly informative, and, what is more, informative in a delightful and imaginative way. This relates to a post at Cliopatria now, by Oscar Chamberlain, asking about historians with a poet's touch. Jonathan Dresner mentions Spence as an example in the comments, and just judging from this one book, I'd wholeheartedly agree. Spence has several other works on late Imperial China, and they certainly going on my reading list.

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