The outing to Great Goose Pagoda
All four poems together
In 752, at the height of the long reign of Emperor Xuanzong, five writers gathered to climb the tallest building in Chang’an. It was more than just a pleasure trip. It was an opportunity to exchange ideas and write poetry together. Gao Shi probably wrote first, as the oldest. Xue Ju wrote next, though his poem has not survived. Next came Du Fu, Cen Shen, and Chu Guangxi. Three of these are still much-read today, so this is is an amazing snapshot of literary life in Chang'an at the very height of the Tang Dynasty.
This post presents the four poems together, for ease of comparison.
Climbing the Tower at the Temple of Blessings with Friends Gao Shi The fragrant realm of incense teems With shrines and temples; yet none seems A match for the tower here. As breezes fan our high redoubt, A vision of Great Power spreads out Like trigrams for a seer. We joke we’ve joined the feathered race, And reached the elevated space Of empty atmosphere. Or I perhaps am now a king Of every seen and unseen thing: I’ve left the mortal sphere. Palaces hunker at the base And in the span these gables trace Mountains and rivers appear. Last night the wind blew autumn in; From east to west, the plain of Qin Seems measureless and clear. A hundred miles away are seen The royal tombs at Wuling, green Still lustrous yet austere. This golden age owes gratitude To Ruan’s brave men; I too have stood With a border sentry’s spear. In this good cause our thanks are sent: Today we climb this monument In perfect carefree cheer! ----------------------------------------------- Climbing the Tower with Friends at the Temple of Blessings Du Fu (Author's note: Gao Shi and Xue Ju had already produced poems) Its summit sits astride the grey, Where every hour of every day Powerful winds blow. My character does not possess That noble poise and airiness; Its height makes my fear grow. But the power of iconography Points men into mystery, So through the dark we go. We climb in beam and girder shade Round corkscrew turns a dragon made, Or else some serpent’s hole, And emerge to find the Plough pressed near, The Milky Way right by our ear— We hear its astral flow! Then Chu Guangxi exclaims, “Xihe!” Who drives the sun with whip and spur, And I, Shaoling, observe Shaohao Lay autumn on each bush and bough Across the land below. The Qin hills are a fractured sprawl— How different from the solid wall We always used to know; The muddy Jing and crystal Wei, So unalike! Now I can’t say Where does each river flow? Look down and nothing stands out clear: The royal precincts must be here, We cannot see them, though. (The first Tang leader (name taboo) Transferred his power, like Shun to Yu, So we call him that hero.) Turn south and call our founder, Shun, And high above his Cangwu tomb The gloomy storm clouds grow. (Our emperor’s parties reproduce The feats of Mu, who once seduced A goddess, long ago.) How sad, to feast at the Pool of Jade, And see the Kunlun Mountains fade In sunset’s dying glow. Now swans are streaming far away, Their every sad cry seems to say, What safe place can we go? Look! Autumn geese follow the sun. Self-preservation has made them run, Row on ragged row. --------------------------------------------- Climbing the Tower with Friends at the Temple of Blessings Chu Guangxi This golden shrine and sacred spire, Are reaching upwards, always higher, To where the dark clouds hang. The world was calm and I was free; We climbed it in that clarity The start of autumn brings, When Kunming Pool was a piece of jade, And riotous plants and flowers made A display fit for spring. The Milky Way’s so high, they say, But anyone wandering by this way Will find it shimmering. Here form and formless, hand in hand, Swirl taiji eddies on the land So streams and mountains ring. Now thunder crashes, rainclouds roil, Gods and ghosts writhe and coil In the dim of evening. In flickering skies of sudden change, Our eyes don’t have the speed or range To take in everything. Above our caps, Heaven’s gate Stands open; peering down, we gape At swan-geese on the wing. The palaces and hills and halls Are nothing but a low-rise sprawl, A scattered crumpling. From sky to earth, a single glance Takes in the world’s impermanence Inspires me to stay and find The universal truths of mind That monks below us sing. But spire! In your immensity, However long I stay, you’ll be No less than dizzying. ------------------------------------------- Climbing the Tower at the Temple of Blessings with Gao Shi and Xue Jue Cen Shen This tower welled up, erupted, surged, And a palace of the gods emerged: A spire unmatched in height. We left the earth behind at its base, And spiralling through empty space, We climbed flight after flight. The land is pinned by this sudden spike That rears as high as mountains, like The work of some strange sprite. Its seven stories scrape the sky, The flying eaves it’s crested by Could block the white sun’s flight. We point to soaring birds below, And stoop to listen to wind blow With terrifying might. We watch the undulating hills That seem to course like ocean swells Due east, towards the light, Great highways lined with leafy green Link halls and palaces that seem Exquisite, toylike, slight. From western mountains, cold creeps in, Until the river-plain of Qin Is dim with autumn’s blight, Though Wuling’s northern royal tombs, Remain a beacon in the gloom: An evergreen site. The way is open to the Pure Land Through karma, once we understand It comes from doing right, So I’ll drop my cap and gown, resign: In Buddhist study, one may find We gain the infinite.
For Chinese texts and notes, click through to the original posts.
A point of interest at the end of this series: one feature that I didn’t manage to bring out in my translations was the rhymes that each poet used. Every poem picks a single rhyme and maintains it through every couplet of the poem. The cumulative effect is very striking. (I reproduced that by having a repeated rhyme in the last line of each stanza.) It’s more than just the repetition, it’s the sounds that the poets picked.
Gao Shi chose the rhyme -ang (so far as we know, prounounced approximately the same in Tang-era Chinese). The feel of “ang” in Chinese is fairly similar to the how it feels in Chinese: clanging, proud, strong. Cen Shen followed Gao closely by choosing the rhyme -ong. Again, it sounds like the tolling of a bell, lound and sonorous. Du Fu, on the other hand, wrote a much more mournful poem, and chose the moaning sound -oh as his rhyme. It’s associated with the blowing of the wind, and coolness. (Chu Guangxi chose the relatively colourless -er/-ay rhyme, which doesn’t have any particular impact.) If I ever revisit these poems, my next goal will be to recreate them in English with similar kinds of rhymes, to match even more closely what the poets were doing.