"Returning to My Fields and Gardens," "Reply to Prefect Liu," and "Lament," by T’ao Ch’ien, copyright © 2000 by Sam Hamill. Reprinted from Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated and introduced by Sam Hamill.

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Feature on Hamill's translations.
T’ao Ch’ien (365-427)


Returning to My Fields and Gardens

When I was young, my world was disharmonious.
At root, fields and mountains were my nature.

Nevertheless, I lived in the dust of the world
for more than thirty years,

a caged bird longing for remembered groves,
a pond fish dreaming of deep seas.

Clearing brush along a southern trail:
living simply returns me to gardens and fields.

My three small acres hold
just a thatch-roofed hut

with willow and elm behind for eaves,
and peach and plum besides.

The memory of village life grows dim,
passing like smoke on gentle winds.

A dog barks down the road.
A cock crows in a mulberry tree.

I’ve swept the dust from my dooryard.
My empty room is a pleasure.

Thirty years locked in a cage,
but now I return to my own true nature.


Reply to Prefect Liu

You called me from lakes and hills,
but something made me waver:

good friends and family couldn’t bear
to see me living elsewhere.

My heart recalled the good old days,
my home was a shack in the west.

The trail was overgrown; no one came.
There were a few old homes in ruins.

I repaired my roof with thatch
and prepared my fields for planting.

Fall winds turn this valley cold,
but spring wines remedy my hunger.

My daughter’s not a son-and-heir,
but she provides my comfort.

Through months and years the busy world
grows more and more far distant.

Planting and weaving satisfy my needs.
What more should I require?

As the years of life march by,
all flesh and fame pass on together.


Lament

The ways of heaven are mysterious,
the spirits pose a problem.

Since childhood, I struggled to do right—
forty-four years of struggle.

Things went bad when I was twenty.
At thirty, I lost my wife.

Fires burned my houses down
and weevils ate my grain.

Winds and rain ruined everything:
I couldn’t fill a mouth.

In summer, we went hungry;
in winter we all slept cold.

Evenings, we longed for the cock crow;
at dawn, we chased away the crows.

It’s my own poor karma, not heaven,
that leaves me troubled and bitter.

A name unearned, left for all the ages,
means no more to me than mist.