Returning to My Cottage
A bell in the distance
the sound floats
down the valley
one by one
woodcutters and fisherman
stop work, start home
the mountains move off
alone, I turn home
as great clouds beckon
from the horizon
the wind stirs delicate vines
and water chestnut shoots
catkin fluff sails past
in the marsh to the east
vibrates with color
to walk in the house
and shut the door.
Wang Wei, trans. David Young
Written in the early T'ang Dynasty in China, Wang Wei's poem engages
with and transcends the landscape genre in which it begins; ultimately,
it leads its readers through its gorgeous metaphor for the difference
between being related to the world and being self-enclosed.
Wei first manages to be incredibly specific, conjuring a distinct
landscape using few and fewer words. It starts with a single bell's
tone. This leads us into a valley where workers are heading home.
Perhaps this specificity - the singluarity of the event - make it
simpler to conjure distinct images, or a single world, in which these
events are unfolding. Wang Wei establishes a sense of place, and love
for that place.
We can notice the active subjects and verbs Wei offers. In this
world, the sound floats, the mountains move, clouds beckon, wind stirs,
growth vibrates... Wei's landscape is a living world, one where immense
forces have a specific role, action, and effect. And since many of these
forces (mountains, clouds, wind, growth) are somewhat universal in
nature, they suggest a deeper set of forces moving through this world,
or perhaps what Baudelaire might call correspondences. Our landscapes correspond with this one, they play as if in harmony.
So the meeting of particular and universal sets us up for the rich
final stanza. Its events are simple. Our speaker is sad to leave this
world for the indoors. Blur your eyes, and it looks like he's sad for
leaving vast for the smaller - the larger world for a more closed one, a
higher order for lower... And we can ponder what it means to be
enclosed -- inside of a house with a shut door... To some extent
this evokes a world of dead, still air; blur your eyes again and imagine
enclosure within the self, where there are limits to what your breath
can mingle with and you might encounter. Being in the house is solitary,
Rilke calls the more open world a world of possibility, and in Wei's
expansive active landscape, it's the possibility and vastness of being
related to something higher than oneself, or many things, a whole moving
breathing landscape and world. What a sad one to leave when our minds
are wrapped in thoughts.
I'm leaving it a bit vague at the end... hoping you'll read the poem
several times and follow the trajectory and story Wei offers.
Until later, thanks for reading!