Three Hundred Tang Poems translated and edited by Peter Harris

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Three Hundred Tang Poems
Translated and edited by Peter Harris
Everyman’s Library, March 2009
ISBN: 9781841597829

This volume contains fresh and vibrant translations of all three hundred poems in Sun Zhu’s celebrated eighteenth century anthology.

Within these pages, you will find about seventy five poets who wrote during the Tang dynasty (618-907), among them poets of the stature of Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu, Li Qi and Wei Yingwu.

The poems convey a diverse range of moods and themes: love and longing, celebrations of nature and music and drinking ale, sorrow and melancholy, mysticism. One common subject is the sadness of saying goodbye to friend whom you may never meet; another subject, less common, is the joy of meeting a long-lost friend or a family member on the desolate road or in a companionable inn. We can get a sense here of the vastness of China, an immense country where it would have been easy to lose touch with people. And easy, hermit-like, to lose yourself in.

Of the three hundred poems here, I ve selected three short ones that I especially like. Call it a small sampler, if you like. First, a poem by Wang Jian about a newly-wed bride which I love for its recognisable quotidian detail and its familiar portrait of family life:

After three days I went down to the kitchen, Washed my hands and cooked a well-stocked soup.

I didn t know my mother-in-law s tastes in food, So I got my little sister-in-law to try it first.

Next, two rather melancholy poems. Li Shangyin’s The Pleasure Gardens is a poem that I read in Rexroth s translation several years ago. It captured my attention then. Here is Peter Harris’ equally fine version:

It’s evening and I am feeling out of sorts, So I drive my carriage up to the old plateau.

The sun at dusk is immeasurably fine

Or it would be, but for the coming twilight.

And here is a curiously haunting poem that was new to me, Climbing Youzhou Tower – a song by Chen Ziang. It is like hearing a voice from beyond the grave, but in the present moment. An anguished voice, addressing those whom he cannot see, though we can hear him:

Looking back we cannot see the people of the past; Ahead of us we cannot see those who are yet to come.

I muse on heaven and earth, immense and enduring, And lonely, engulfed by sorrow, my tears fall.

These are wonderful poems all, and wonderful translations.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com

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