Tao Yuanming empathized with the pine trees and chrysanthemums. Thus, while "plucking chrysanthemums at the east wall," he may have thought about worldly people pursuing external glamour, wealth and fame, but he himself was quite different from those people.
Living in a remote area without any worldly clamor, standing at the eastern wall, facing those beautifully blossoming chrysanthemums, he was overwhelmed with the feeling of
"virtuous and elegant in disposition, they are heroes in the frost." What is more, he
"beheld South Mountain at leisure," merging himself with the profound meanings conveyed by the scenes of nature.
'At leisure' can be interpreted as 'from afar' and as 'in rel-axation.' South Mountain is far away. If you are always in a rush, you miss the beauty of this mountain. You can appreciate it only when you calm down. That line is not referring to physical leisure. Some people are physically idle, but their minds are incredibly busy, generating a jumble of confused thoughts all day long; they are far from relaxed. The 'leisure' here indicates true inner peace and calm. In such a relaxed mood, one looks up and sees South Mountain in the distance. Not only did Tao gaze peacefully at South Mountain from afar, he also noted,
"How fine the sunset reflected in the mountain mist!" The mountain mist describes the clouds shrouding the peaks and the fog in the valleys. The sunset interwoven with its reflections in the mist among the peaks create a scene of soft beauty.
Tao was saying, "While plucking chrysanthemums, I noticed how extraordinarily beautiful the mist around South Mountain looked in the sunset." The fog-like haze reflecting the rays of the setting sun, was bright yet obscure, like a dream or illusion. In addition, mountains often remind people of something else.
The Analects of Confucius say: "Wise people enjoy water; humane people enjoy mountains." "Wise people are active; humane people are still." (Yong Ye,
Confucius believed that people have different personalities and dispositions. Smart, witty people with quick reflexes tend to like water, whereas individuals who are kind and down-to-earth have a great liking for mountains. Water gives one the feeling of waves constantly rising and falling. A gust of wind creates many ripples. Mountains are perceived as still and dependable, especially those huge mountains that stand—firm, solid, and reliable. Thus we say that wise people prefer the dynamic nature of water, which adapts its shape and form according to conditions, while humane people enjoy mountains, which stand still and calm.
With that understanding, we may comprehend Tao's state of mind when he described plucking chrysanthemums and gazing at South Mountain. The next line,
"Birds are flying home in groups," is even more important.
Birds build their nests in the trees that blanket the mountains. They fly home to rest in the evenings. In Tao Yuanming's "Return," he said,
"Tired of flying, birds are going home." The calm forest is a safe haven where they can rest and take shelter. In the evenings, not only one bird, but flocks of birds fly back to their nests. In describing this scene of nature, Tao was alluding to his own feelings.
When he decided to quit his official post, he wrote in the poem "Return":
Tired of flying, birds are going home. He also wrote this line in "Retreating to Farming Life":
A restrained bird is missing its old woods. The bird in both poems is a metaphor for his own mind. The experience of the bird conjured from Tao's mind is described in the fourth poem in "Drinking":
In the evening he soars alone, aimlessly roaming. His tone grows sad in the night; his high-pitched calls echo far and wide. Flying back and forth, where can he settle down? Coming upon a tall, solitary pine, he gathers his wings to land from afar. None of the more luxuriant trees survive the constant harsh wind; this one alone stands tough. Having found a safe refuge, he won't desert it for a thousand years." Later I will explain that poem in detail. Now I only want to illustrate how Tao Yuanming blended his own passionate feelings with every scene in nature.
While plucking chrysanthemums, gazing at South Mountain and watching the birds flying home in groups, Tao was overwhelmed with a plethora of feelings, so he uttered:
"No words can express the profound meanings within these scenes." The "profound meanings" denote various feelings and impressions in his life experience, rather than "truth" in the Western sense. Those aesthetic feelings naturally arose when he experienced the scenery. He was saying, "I really don't know how to describe these profound meanings. I would like to, but I simply can't find the right words."
To be continued