When we first talked about this poem, I said that it has two levels of meaning. One is that if your mind is not disturbed by external events, you won't sense the external clamor and anxiety, and will thus naturally feel calm. This is entirely a psychological perception. At another level of meaning, Tao Yuanming said that he lived in a "deeply isolated, shabby alley," that is, a run-down alley far removed from the major avenues. The meaning between the lines is, "I don't pursue the fame and wealth, and I don't care much for the vanity and glamour, so I choose a remote and quiet place to reside."
You can see that Tao Yuanming's poems talk about his real life experience. He does not idly moralize the way a parent might with children: "You have to concentrate on your studies; don't be distracted by other matters." He doesn't give lectures or theories, but writes down his true feelings and real life experience. Therefore, we can truly get a feel for his poetry when we read it.
Tao Yuanming then said:
Plucking chrysanthemums by the east wall,
I behold South Mountain at leisure.
How fine the sunset reflected in mountain mist!
Birds are flying home in groups.
This represented his life experience. He tells us, "While picking chrysanthemums at the fence on east side, I gazed idly at the South Mountain." These two lines are not easy to explain. He associated himself with the scenery and images of nature. When he plucked chrysanthemums and saw the mountains, they naturally evoked a kind of feeling in him.
Tao Yuanming's poems seem simple, yet are not easy to explain, because his mental and conscious activities completely follow the flow of his feelings. Chrysanthemums frequently appear in his poems, for his two favorite plants were the chrysanthemum and the pine tree.
Here, I should further explain how to appreciate the poems of a good poet, and how to differentiate a great poet from an ordinary one. An ordinary poet may write beautiful verses, for example describing the beauty of the flowers, grasses and trees; or he may occasionally write a few very fine verses. A great poet, however, does not merely use well-structured verses and words to convey his true feelings. A genuinely great Chinese poet pours his whole life into his poetry, using his entire life to actualize his verses. This is a very important characteristic of Chinese poetry.
Westerners, however, have difficulty accepting this concept. They consider the composition of verses to be the most important aspect in a work, not the author's character and virtue. Chinese poems definitely are not evaluated that way. Beginning with the
Book of Odes, the tradition was established that, "An inspiration occurs, and takes its form in words." You must truly be touched before you can write a poem to express your feeling.
Therefore, you should not expect to understand a great poet and appreciate his greatness after reading only one of his poems. You have to read all his works, because the poems are all interrelated. We have to look into his whole life experience and all of his works so as to understand what he really wants to say
Tao Yuanming was fond of writing about pine trees and chrysanthemums. In fact, he wrote several verses mentioning these. For example, one of the two poems in "Two Poems in Response to Secretary Kuo" reads:
Fragrant mums brilliantly blossom in the woods;
Verdant pine trees neatly line the mountains.
Bearing this virtuous and elegant nature,
They are heroes in the frost.
The fragrant chrysanthemum blossoms look resplendent in the woods. Chrysanthemums are usually of light colors—mostly yellow—and appear brilliant and gorgeous. Rows of green pine trees cover the mountain, making it look as if the mountain is wearing layers of hats. The neat rows of pine trees look very energetic.
Bearing this virtuous and elegant nature: "Bearing" indicates that the charm of the chrysanthemum and pine tree comes from within, not from the yellow and green colors of their exterior. "Virtuous" refers to an eternal inner quality. When we speak of resolute purity and persistent virtue, we mean the everlasting inner quality of virtue. In late autumn and early winter, when other flowers wither and other trees lose their leaves, chrysanthemums blossom and pines remain evergreen, showing their virtuous strength and beautiful disposition. The more they withstand the onslaught of the icy cold, the more outstanding and extraordinary they prove themselves to be!
To be continued