江雪 (柳宗元)

Title: River Snow
Author: Liu ZongYuan

Poetic Form: júejù 绝句

1. ( + ) + ( + ( + ))
    (1000 + mountain) + (birds + (fly + vanish))
    gloss: Birds fly away from a thousand mountains

2. ( + ) + (( + ) + )
    (10,000 + trails) + ((people + footprint) + go out)
    gloss: Footprints fade on ten thousand trails

3. ( + ) + ( + + )
    (alone + boat) + (raincoat + hat + old man)
     gloss: A lone boat with an old man in a
     raincoat and hat

4. ( + ) + ( + + )
    (alone + fish) + (winter + river + snow)
    gloss: Fishes alone winter river snow


River Snow
translation by Jessica Alexander ©

One thousand mountains: birds flit away;
Ten thousand pathways: footsteps fade.
One boat - solitary - its raincoated fisherman
Fishes alone winter river snow.


Liu ZongYuan wrote this poem after being banished from public office, now torn between mourning for his old life and an appreciation for the peacefulness of his new one: the ‘thousand mountains’ (line 1) and ‘ten thousand paths’ (line 2) wrapped around a quiet river (line 3), all enshrouded in snow (line 4).  The first half of the poem, a description of the surrounding environment (which is contrasted with the description of the fisherman in the second half) tries to portray a peaceful environment, but this peace keeps slipping and becoming disturbed (the birds ‘vanish’, the footprints are ‘extinguished’).  In the second half of the poem, we have the fisherman who is able to hold himself aloof from the world, forget the cold and the snow and everything else, much as Liu ZongYuan wishes he could do himself (fishing is symbolic in Chinese culture of a return to nature and escape from "civilized" life).  This utopia, however, is an illusion: snow does not sit on water, it melts into it.  The character for snow caps off the poem as a finishing touch and yet it  permeates every aspect of the painting Liu ZongYuan has drawn for us.
As a modern reader, I’m struck by the first character of each line, 千万孤独: ‘all alone.’  I assume this had the same meaning during the Tang Dynasty, but a better expert would have to verify that.  Also of note: the last characters of lines 1, 2, and 4 rhyme obliquely.


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