Old Cypresses

Stamp Commemorating the Chinese Poet Tu Fu

1983 Stamp Commemorating the Chinese Poet Tu Fu

It’s been a long time since I posted a blog about poetry. Today’s poem goes back over thirteen hundred years, from A.D. 766 to be exact. China’s Tang dynasty gave us two of the greatest poets who ever lived, Li Po and Tu Fu. The following is from the latter. It is called “Ballad of the Ancient Cypresses.”

Before Kongming’s shrine stands an ancient cypress,
Its branches are like green bronze, its roots just like stone.
The frosted bark, slippery with rain, is forty spans around,
Its blackness blends into the sky two thousand feet above.
Master and servant have each already reached their time’s end,
The tree, however, still remains, receiving men’s devotion.
Clouds come and bring the air of Wuxia gorge’s vastness,
The moon comes out, along with the cold of snowy mountain whiteness.

I think back to the winding road, east of Brocade Pavilion,
Where the military master and his lord of old share a hidden temple.
Towering that trunk, those branches, on the ancient plain,
Hidden paintings, red and black, doors and windows empty.
Spreading wide, coiling down, though it holds the earth,
In the dim and distant heights are many violent winds.
That which gives it its support must be heaven’s strength,
The reason for its uprightness, the creator’s skill.

If a great hall should teeter, wanting rafters and beams,
Ten thousand oxen would turn their heads towards its mountain’s weight.
Its potential unrevealed, the world’s already amazed,
Nothing would stop it being felled, but what man could handle it?
Its bitter heart cannot avoid the entry of the ants,
Its fragrant leaves have always given shelter to the phoenix.
Ambitious scholars, reclusive hermits—neither needs to sigh;
Always it’s the greatest timber that’s hardest to put to use.

Kongming (Zhuge Liang) was the chief minister of Liu Bei, one of the imperial claimants in the Three Kingdoms period. The poem shifts between the tree at the shrine to Kongming near Wuxia gorge (one of the Three Gorges); another tree at the shrine to Kongming and Liu Bei in Chengdu; and the allegorical equation of timber and talent – 材 and 才 (cái) – etymologically the same word. The Brocade Pavilion was built by Tu Fu near his house in Chengdu.

Ancient Chinese Cypress

Ancient Chinese Cypress

In talking about old trees, the poet is also talking about old age. I love the line “Its bitter heart cannot avoid the entry of the ants.”