Generally speaking, in both the ninth and eighteenth poems of this series, Tao Yuanming mentioned that people brought him wine, though with conditions. One tried to convince Tao to alter his life of seclusion; but Tao refused. The other bearer of gifts wanted answers to some questions; Tao, responded, "I will do my best to satisfy your requests, but I will never say anything inappropriate." Thus, we know that the sources of Tao's wine were unusual and complex.
As Tao drank these spirits of conspicuous origins, how could he possibly not think about the "advice" and "questions" that accompanied these gratuities? Since most of the advice and questions for Tao concerned life's principles, these poems explore the meaning of life though Tao entitled this series of twenty poems,
Drinking. We have reached this conclusion by tracing and analyzing Tao's writing, starting with the line, "On occasion I acquire wines of repute."
Now, let's get back to the preface. Tao said, "On occasion I acquire wines of repute, but every eve I sip." -- I drink every night. While I drink, I look around and only see a shadow by my side; thus "Pondering my shadow I gulp alone." Next, "I soon become inebriated." "Soon" indicates "quickly." Some say that you are less likely to become drunk if you are drinking out of joy. "Having become drunk, I nonchalantly entertain myself with a few lines." Since I've become intoxicated, I carelessly toss out a few lines purely to please myself.
Day after day, "I have accumulated much paper and ink." I have already written many poems to save me from my boredom. These poems are "merely incoherent words." Since I wrote these lines after I became drunk, I simply wrote whatever was on my mind. Therefore, the word usage and composition are free-wheeling, lacking in selectivity and order. The twentieth poem of this Drinking series also supports this point. The last two lines of that sonnet say, "Resentful am I for o' so many errors, certainly the kind sir will forgive a drunkard." "Resentful am I"— I apologize to the readers; I am sorry. Tao said, "Please don't take my verses seriously. The majority of what I say is inaccurate. You have to forgive the words
of an intoxicated man." Tao explained his twenty poems as an accumulation of "much paper and ink, merely incoherent words." Since he has produced so much poetry, however, "I might as well ask others to make copies." He said, "I did not intend to save and collect these writings, but since I already have them, I might as well have an old friend copy them down," "only for fun"-to enjoy these pieces during hours of leisure. He meant, "Don't bother to look for profound meanings here. I was merely entertaining myself."
Having read the preface for this series of twenty poems, we now understand the background and context of Tao's Drinking. Next, we will examine the content of this series. Before we formally lecture on
Drinking, I believe I should briefly discuss how to appreciate Tao's poems, especially this collection,
Drinking. Tao's works are full of philosophical underpinnings; however, if he only formulated standards of ideals, would they be poetic? Would they be considered good poetry?
When we introduced Tao the author earlier, we mentioned Zhong Rong's
Levels of Poems. Zhong had said that if "principles exceed style," or if your ideas overpower the beauty of your words, your composition will be "tasteless." After all, we're supposed to feel the principles in these stanzas. Hence, at first glance it appears difficult to write principles as poems.
Here, let me clarify the point by sharing an illustration for comparison. In the early 60's, many young Americans liked poems by Han Shan (Cold Mountain), a Tang Dynasty monastic poet. Professor Birch, who taught Chinese Literature at University of California, compiled a collection of Chinese poems at that time, many of which were Han Shan's poems. From the perspective of Chinese scholars, Han Shan is not a great poet. Why did Westerners and even the Japanese appreciate Han Shan's writing—despite the lack of regard on the part of Chinese scholars and poets?
Typically, foreigners prefer to translate works that are easier to transpose. However, the feel of poems is difficult to translate. Thus, once poems considered preeminent by the Chinese are translated into other languages, the non-Chinese may not appreciate the work. So, from translation's standpoint, Han Shan's poems may be more easily understood by foreign readers; whereas the Chinese fail to recognize the value of his poems, whether for their philosophy, experience or intuitive feel. I maybe speaking too abstractly, let me give you an example for comparison.
To be continued