T’ao Ch’ien (365–427 A.D.), equally well-known by his given name, T’ao Yüan-ming, stands at the head of the great Chinese poetic tradition like a revered grandfather: profoundly wise, self-possessed, quiet, comforting. T’ao was the first writer to make a poetry of his natural voice and immediate experience, thereby creating the personal lyricism which all major Chinese poets inherited and made their own.
The outlines of T’ao Ch’ien’s life – his struggle to free himself from the constraints of official life and his eventual commitment to the life of a recluse-farmer, despite poverty and hardship – became one of the central, organizing myths in the Chinese tradition. By 405, the T’ao family was apparently destitute. That spring, desperate for a means of supporting his family, T’ao took a job on the staff of Liu Yü, although the circumstances are unclear. Then in the fall, he took a position as magistrate in P’eng-tse, thirty miles northeast of his home. He resigned from this post after only eighty days citing his inner urge to return to village. This time he left public life for good, even though he had no means of support other than farm work, which had proven painfully unreliable. Although he received several requests to serve in the government, T’ao farmed in the Ch’ai-sang/Hsün-yang area until his death twenty-two years later.
He is regarded as the foremost representative of what we now know as Fields and Gardens poetry. T’ao Ch’ien found inspiration in the beauty and serenity of the natural world close at hand.
Here is the lovely poem he wrote after his final return to home sweet home.
Back Home Again
By T’ao Ch’ien
Translated by David Hinton
Back home –
with fields and gardens all weeds back home,
how can I stay here, my heart a slave to the body?
Why live this dismal life, this lonely grief?
You can’t argue with what’s been done, I know,
but the future’s there to be made. Not too far
gone down this road of delusion, I can see
where I’m right today, yesterday I was wrong.
Far from home, the boat rocking on gentle
swells, my robe snaps in billowing winds.
Asking travelers how the road ahead is,
I wonder how morning light can be so dim,
but seeing our house, suddenly
happy, I break into a run.
Servants greet me gleefully,
and my kids there at the gate.
Our three paths are grown over,
but pines and chrysanthemums
survived. And taking everyone
inside, I find wine waiting.
Pouring a cup from the winejar, I smile, happy
to see these courtyard trees. At the window
my presumptions drift away south. How easily
content I am in this cramped little place.
Here, garden strolls bring joy day after day:
our gate always closed, propped on my old-folk’s
walking-stick, I go a little ways, then rest,
and turning my head, look far away. Clouds
leaving mountain peaks drift without a thought,
and tired of flight, birds think of return.
At sunset, light fading slowly away, I linger
fondly over a lone pine, nowhere I’d rather be.
Back home again —
O let me keep to myself, my wandering ended.
Let the world and I give each other up.
If I left again, what would I go looking for?
It’s loving family voices that make me happy,
koto and books that keep worried grief away.
And farmers here tell me spring has arrived. Soon,
there’ll be work out in the western fields.
Sometimes in a covered cart,
sometimes rowing a lone boat –
I’ll search out sheltered streams and quiet pools,
follow mountain paths up through the hills.
Trees revel in the joy of their lavish blossoms,
and murmuring springs flow again. In these
ten thousand things, each following its season
away perfectly, I touch that repose in which
life ends, done and gone.
This form I am in the world can’t last much longer.
Why not let things carry my heart away with them?
What good is it, agonizing over the way things are going?
Getting rich isn’t what I want. And who
expects to end in some celestial village?
My dream is to walk out all alone into a lovely
morning – maybe stop to pull weeds in the garden,
maybe climb East Ridge and chant, settling into
my breath, or sit writing poems beside a clear
stream. I’ll ride change back to my final home,
rejoicing in heaven’s way. How can it ever fail me?
Note : Koto is an ancient stringed instrument which Chinese poets used as an accompaniment to chant of their poems.