A little geography lesson
As Gao Shi says goodbye
高适 送李少府贬峡中王少府贬长沙 嗟君此别意何如，驻马衔杯问谪居。 巫峡啼猿数行泪，衡阳归雁几封书。 青枫江上秋帆远，白帝城边古木疏。 圣代即今多雨露，暂时分手莫踌躇。
The identities of Li and Wang are unknown.
The Gorges is modern-day Chongqing, including the Three Gorges. The gibbons of that area, and their mournful cries, appear in many Tang poems.
White Emperor Town was a fortified city with white walls on a high bluff overlooking the river.
Geese do not in fact winter in Hengyang; they migrate much further south. But Hengyang was the name conventionally given for the place that geese migrate to, and it’s in the vicinity of Changsha.
Green Maple River is a river in Changsha.
It’s hard to overstate how much I like this poem, because it does something really, really clever with one of the basic tools of Chinese-language poetry.
If you think of English poetry, two of the most fundamental tools we use are rhythm (meter) and rhyme. Using one or both of these tools is really what makes a piece of writing poetry. In Classical Chinese, the equivalent tools, the things that make poetry poetry, are parallelism and rhyme.
Parallelism works like this: you have two lines, and in the corresponding positions in the two lines, you place words of the same type. So if your first line starts with a place, your second line should start with a place. If your first line ends with an emotion, your second line should end with an emotion.
For example, here’s the second couplet of this poem:
Place: Wu Gorge/ Animal action: wailing gibbons/ Number: many/ Object: tears
Place: Hengyang/ Animal action: returning geese/ Number: how many/ Object: letters
Every single item along each line is perfectly paired. That makes the lines parallel, and that makes them poetry.
You never have to justify writing parallel couplets in Chinese - it’s just what you do. It’s how you make poems. Just as you don’t have to give a reason for rhyming in English, it’s just a natural way of making a poetic phrase come together. In fact, it’d be kinda weird to ask, 'Why does this poem rhyme?' or 'Why is this couplet parallel?'
And yet, in this poem, Gao creates a justification for his paralellism. He is saying goodbye to two people at the same time, and the perfect balance between the lines becomes a poetic symbol for the equality of his feeling towards these two men. The fact that he is addressing two people means that each first line has a second line not just because poetic form demands it, but because there is a second person to speak to. As I’m writing this, it sounds kinda minor, but this creation of meaning where before there was none seems miraculous to me, the very stuff of which poetry is made.
I tried to recreate this effect by weaving the rhymes in and out of the two middle verses. I hope it conveys something of the effect.
The visual placement on the map is just to quickly and efficiently fill in information that modern readers won’t have about the relative positions of these places.