Having heard the previous lectures, we are now better prepared to look at the "Drinking" series. Let's start with the first poem:
Decline and prosperity are not fixed;
To each other they give rise.
Mr. Shao in the melon patch
Bears no resemblance to the Marquis of Dongling.
Winter and summer come and go;
So it is with worldly affairs.
Wise men understand these conditions,
Harboring no doubts whatsoever.
Unexpectedly presented with a vessel of wine,
I enjoyed it day and night.
Tao Yuanming entitled this series of poems "Drinking", and he mentions drink in the very first poem:
Unexpectedly presented with a vessel of wine. He says, "I obtained a vessel of wine by chance." Tao Yuanming did not talk about drink in many of these twenty poems, but he did in this one.
You should know that in Chinese poetry, the order in a series of poems is not necessarily fixed. Some of them follow an apparent sequence, but others can be read randomly. For example, the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu wrote a series of poems, entitled "Eight Poems of Delightful Autumn." These eight poems are arranged in a definite, unalterable sequence.
As for Tao Yuanming's twenty poems, I think that some of them follow a certain order, and others don't. In the first one, he proclaims: "Now, I've got wine, so I can drink!" That should certainly be the first poem. And in the last poem of the series, he says: "Please forgive a drunk." Never mind the drunken words spoken by a drunk man. Based on this, we can determine which poem comes first and which comes last.
As for the other poems, I think the first five are to be read in order, but the rest do not really follow a sequence. What is the sequence of the first five? In these five poems, he considers some of the major issues of life and reflects deeply upon the meaning, value, and purpose of life.
As I said before, the wine Tao Yuanming drank came from a very special source. The wine was not given without strings attached. People usually came with requests: they either advised him–"Most people work for the government; you alone stay in the field"–or expected him to give his opinion on attacking other countries and so on. In general, they wanted him to go with the flow or to support their ideas. How would Tao Yuanming handle that? He would politely refuse their requests, but keep the wine they brought to him.
Afterwards, as Tao Yuanming drank the wine in solitude, he naturally pondered the advice and requests that had accompanied the wine. In Tao's mind, those issues were related to important life choices. He drank and reflected, and then wrote down this series of poems. I said that the first five poems are sequential, because their contents correspond to Tao Yuanming's reflections, as,
"Unexpectedly presented with a vessel of wine, I enjoyed it day and night."
We discussed before a question posed by Su Dongpo:
"I don't know how Sir Tao, after drinking so much, can possibly remember so many things." We mentioned before that Tao Yuanming's manner of drinking differs from that of drunkards who pass out on the street. Prince Zhaoming of Liang Dyansty, Xiao Tong, commented in his Preface to the
Collected Poems of Tao Yuanming: "People wonder that all of Tao Yuanming's poems are related to drink. I observe that his intent was not on wine; he simply used drink as a cue." Although the topic of drink occurs frequently in Tao Yuanming's poems, Tao's mind was not preoccupied with drink; he merely used drink as a cue to contemplation.
Most people drink in their leisure time. When Tao Yuanming said,
"Idle and joyless, I drink with my own shadow," thousands of emotions and life experiences arose inside him and flowed to his brush-tip. He knew that many of his thoughts and feelings were beyond others' understanding. For example, on the issue of working for the government, he could have worked for the government and provided a more comfortable life for his wife and children.
In Tao Yuanming's articles and poems, he mentioned that his family occasionally had no food. He wrote the poems "Begging" and "To My Son Yan" to tell his children that since he abhorred dealing with corrupt government officials, his children had to suffer starvation and cold from such a young age.
When most people pursue material comforts and seek a better life, why did Tao Yuanming choose to endure starvation and cold? Most people could not comprehend the thoughts and feelings that led him to make that decision. Not to mention other people, even his own wife could not understand it.
To be continued