04 February 2022

顧況 Gu Kuang: 宮詞 五首 其二 Palace Poem, II of Five

Today, I am posting a quatrain by the Mid Tang dynasty poet 顧況 Gu Kuang --- No. 2 of his "Five Palace Poems" 宮詞 五首 其二 which is his only quatrain selected for the anthology "300 Tang Poems".  It is obviously a plaint about life in the palace, a joyous party upstairs and the persona of the poem all alone, sleepless and engulfed by the shadows cast by the moon.  Yet, no word of complaint nor of sadness is found in the poem, truly, a masterpiece of restraint and subtlety.  I do hope you will enjoy it.


Gu Kuang (725-814): Palace Poem, II of Five


1            From the grand tower halfway up the sky, came songs and music gay

2            With the chattery laughter of palace ladies, by the wind, all carried, my way.

3            Now shadows cast by the moon extended, the water-clock’s drip-drops heard;

4            My crystalline blind, O up I roll, to be close to the stars of the Milky Way.  


Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)     譯者: 黃宏發

14 January 2022 (revised 17.1.2022; 21.1.2022; 24.1.2022; 26.1.2022; 4.2.2022)

Translated from the original - 顧況: 宮詞 五首 其二


1            玉樓天半起笙歌

2            風送宮嬪笑語

3            月殿影開聞夜漏

4            水精簾捲近秋河




*Form, Metre, and Rhyme:  The original is a 7-character quatrain 七言絕句 with a caesura after the fourth character.  This English rendition is in heptameter (7 feet of beats) with a caesura after the fourth beat.  The rhyme scheme in English is AAxA, as in the original. .


*Line 1:  玉樓 (jade or beautiful; tall building) is rendered descriptively as “the grand tower”, rather than as a building named “Jade Tower”, with “grand” to translate (in the sense of beautiful).  天半 (sky; half) is literally translated as “halfway up the sky”, which I have taken to qualify the building and not the music and songs.  起笙歌 (rise; pipe; song) is rendered as “came songs and music gay”, with “came” to render (rise), “music” to translate (the pipe, a woodwind musical instrument) which is taken to be a synecdoche using one musical instrument to stand for music, and with “gay” added for the “-ay” rhyme and for heightening the joy of those at the party to hint at the grief of the persona of the poem.


*Line 2:  The first 2 characters 風送 (wind; send or carry) which begin the line in Chinese, are rendered as “by the wind, all carried, my way” to end the line in the English rendition, with “all” and “my way” added to include the din of both the songs and music (line 1) and the chatter and laughter (line 2) and to indicate that the din of the party is being carried by the wind to the persona of the poem (= “my way”) who is not at the party.  The next 4 characters in the middle of the line 宮嬪笑語 (palace; ladies or concubines; laughter; chatter) are rendered as “the chattery laughter of palace ladies”, with “chattery laughter” to literally translate 笑語 (laughing and chattering).  The last character (not the conjunction ‘and’, but the verb ‘to follow or echo or respond or reply or mingle or mix or blend’) which ends the line in Chinese, is moved to begin the line in English and rendered as the preposition “With”, which, in my view, sufficiently suggests and covers, if not literally translates, the mingling of the chattery laughter (line 2) with the songs and music (line 1).  The whole line風送宮嬪笑語和 is, therefore, rendered as “With the chattery laughter of palace ladies, by the wind, all carried, my way”.  Alternatively, the line can be rendered as “With the ladies’ mingling (or echoing or blending) chattery laughter, by the wind, all carried, my way”.  This puts the verb “Mingling” in place, but at the expense of the word “palace” (to qualify the “ladies”) which should not be omitted.


*Line 3:  月殿 (moon; palace or court) is taken to refer to the moon or moonlight, not the legendary Moon Palace on the moon, and is rendered here as “the moon”.  (shadow) in 影開 is interpreted to mean shadows on the ground made by moonlight, and not the shadowy parts on the moon’s surface, and  (open or bloom) is rendered as “extended” which aptly describes the lengthening of the shadows as the moon moves west, slanting.  月殿影開 is, therefore, rendered as “Now shadows cast by the moon extended”, with “cast by” added to make my interpretation of shadows as “shadows on the ground” unambiguous, and with “Now” added to alert the reader to my framing lines 1 and 2 in the past tense (earlier: in the evening or night) and lines 3 and 4 in the present tense (later: deep in the night).  Please note line 3 is in the present tense as “extended” is a contraction of “have (‘ve) extended”, and “heard”, of “are (‘re) heard”.  聞夜漏 is rendered as “the water-clock’s drip-drops heard”, with “heard” to translate (hear), and “the water-clock’s drip-drops” to translate 夜漏 (night; leak or drip) which refers to the chronometric instrument 更漏 (water-clock or clepsydra) whose drippings are audible deep in the night.  Instead of drippings, I have chosen to use “drip-drops” to produce the alliteration of “dr-” in “drip-drops” and the assonance of “-clock’s” and “-drops”.  I suggest reading “-clock’s” unstressed to contain in one beat the 3 syllables in “water-clock’s”, and to keep the hemistich (half line) “the water-clock’s drip-drops heard” within 3 beats.


*Line 4:  秋河 (autumn; river) is one of the many names in Chinese of the “Milky Way”, and is rendered as such.  (Other names in Chinese include 銀河, 天河, 星河, 天漢, 銀漢, 河漢, the first of which being commonly used while the others are often found in literary writings, particularly poems.)  (adjective ‘near’, or verb ‘to approach’) is rendered as “to be close to”.  The question arises whether the poet wishes to be close to the (by definition, starry) Milky Way as a whole? or to specific but un-named stars of the Milky Way?  I have chosen the latter for its ambiguity.  近秋河 is, therefore, rendered as “to be close to the stars of the Milky Way”.  水精簾捲 (water; crystal; blinds; roll) is rendered as “My crystalline blind, O up I roll”.  I suggest reading the last word “Way” unstressed to contain in one beat the 3 syllables in “Milky Way”, and to keep the hemistich “to be close to the stars of the Milky Way” within 3 beats.


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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