This is the first but the less popular of the 2 quatrains written by the late Tang dynasty poet Li Shen 李紳 on the plight of the farming peasants. The first two lines of the poem make up a statement that a grain planted will produce many grains, hinting at an abundant harvest. The turning point of the 起(begin)承(follow)轉(turn)結/合(conclude) is line 3 which, in the original, is simply written as another statement that there are no idle fields in the land, which may lead to a happy ending, yet here, ironically leads to grim death In the poem, Li Shen has not made plain why peasants were still starving to death. He does not have to. One can well imagine: greedy, oppressive landlords, exorbitant taxes, and the fact that there can be no food before harvest.
Although my English rendition is largely iambic (daDUM) and anapestic (dadaDUM), I have rendered the 4th line trochaic (DUMda) to add weight to the grim conclusion. The addition of "While" (not in the original) to line 3 makes reading easier and makes the turning point more discernible. What do you say? Enjoy the poem!
Li Shen (772-846): Pity the Peasants/Ancient Air, 1 of 2
1 Each grain of millet sown in spring
2 Will by autumn harvest a myriad bring.
3 (While across the land no field lie vacant,)
Across the land no fields lie vacant,
4 Peasants still found----starving, dying.
Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 譯者: 黃宏發
Translated from the original - 李紳: 憫農/古風 2首 其1
* This English rendition is in tetrameter (4 metrical feet) while the original is in 5-character lines. Though the rhyme scheme of the original is XAXA, I have changed it to the more demanding AAXA.
* Line 1: I had considered “One grain” and “A grain” but have decided for “Each grain”.
* Line 2: I had considered “Will, by autumn, ten thousand bring” but have decided for keeping “harvest” and for using “a myriad” instead of “ten thousand”.
* Lines 1 and 2: In other words, “Each grain … will … a myriad (grains) bring (/yield)”.
* Line 3: 四海, meaning 四海之内 “(land) within the four seas”, is not translated literally as such, but as “across the land”. I have taken 閑 to mean “inactive/unused” hence, “vacant/idle” and have adopted “vacant” as the most appropriate translation. I have considered but rejected “fallow” which original and stronger sense is not land unused, but land ploughed but left unseeded for a growing season or more for weeding and fertility purposes.
* Line 4: I had considered “peasants still found, in hunger, dying” but have decided for “peasants still found -- starving, dying”.
* Lines 3 and 4: I had originally penned the 2 lines as “Across the land no fields lie vacant, /Yet peasants still found – starving, dying.” but have now decided for “While across the land no fields lie vacant, /Peasants still found – starving, dying.”