Song of the Lute Player
By the Xunyang River a guest is seen off one night;
Chill the autumn, red the maple leaves and in flower the reeds;
The host alights from his horse, the guest is aboard,
They raise their cups to drink but have no music.
Drunk without joy, in sadness they must part;
At the time of parting the river seems steeped in moonlight;
Suddenly out on the water a lute is heard;
The host forgets to turn back, the guest delays going.
Seeking the sound in the dark, we ask who is the player.
The lute is silent, hesitant the reply.
Rowing closer, we ask if we may meet the musician,
Call for more wine, trim the lamp and resume our feast;
Only after a thousand entreaties does she appear,
Her face half-hidden behind the lute in her arms.
She tunes up and plucks the strings a few times,
Touching our hearts before even the tune is played;
Each chord strikes a pensive note
As if voicing the disillusion of a lifetime;
Her head is bent, her fingers stray over the strings
Pouring out the infinite sorrows of her heart.
Lightly she pinches in the strings, slowly she strums and plucks them;
First The Rainbow Garments, then The Six Minor Notes.
The high notes wail like pelting rain,
The low notes whisper like soft confidences;
Wailing and whispering interweave
Like pearls large and small cascading on a plate of jade,
Like a warbling oriole gliding below the blossom,
Like a mountain brook purling down a bank,
Till the brook turns to ice, the strings seem about snap,
About to snap, and for one instant all is still
Only an undertone of quiet grief
Is more poignant in the silence than any sound;
Then a silver bottle is smashed, out gushes the water,
Armoured riders charge, their swords and lances clang!
When the tune ends, she draws her pick full across
And the four strings give a sound like the tearing of silk.
Right and left of the boat all is silence —
We see only the autumn moon, silver in midstream.
Pensively she puts the pick between the strings,
Straightens her clothes, rises and composes herself.
She is, she says, a girl from the capital
Whose family once lived at the foot of Toad Hill.
At thirteen she learned to play the lute
And ranked first among the musicians;
Her playing was admired by the old masters,
Her looks were the envy of other courtesans;
Youths from wealthy districts vied in their gifts to engage her,
A single song brought her countless rolls of red silk;
Men smashed jeweled and silver trinkets to mark the beat;
Silk skirts as red as blood were stained by spilt wine.
Pleasure and laughter from one year to the next.
While the autumn moon and spring breeze passed unheeded.
Then her brother joined the army, her aunt died,
The days and nights slipped by and her beauty fades,
No more carriages and horsemen thronged her gate,
And growing old she became a merchant’s wife.
The merchant thought only of profit: to seek it he leaves her.
Two months ago he went to Fuliang to buy tea,
Leaving her alone in the boat at the mouth of the river;
All around the moonlight is bright, the river is cold,
And late at night, dreaming of her girlhood,
She cries in her sleep, staining her rouged cheeks with tears.
The music of her lute has made me sign,
And now she tells this plaintive tale of sorrow;
We are both ill-starred, drifting on the face of the earth;
No matter if we were strangers before this encounter.
Last year I bade the imperial city farewell;
A demoted official, I lay ill in Xunyang;
Xunyang is a paltry place without any music,
For one year I heard no wind instruments, no strings.
Now I live on the low, damp flat by the River Pen,
Round my house yellow reeds and bitter bamboos grow rife;
From dawn till dusk I hear no other sounds
But the wailing of night-jars and the moaning of apes.
On a day of spring blossoms by the river or moonlit night in autumn
I often call for wine and drink alone;
Of course, there are rustic songs and village pipes,
But their shrill discordant notes grate on my ears;
Tonight listening to your lute playing
Was like hearing fairy music; it gladdened my ears.
Don’t refuse, but sit down and play another tune,
And I’ll write a Song of the Lute Player for you.
Touched by my words, she stands there for some time,
Then goes back to her seat and played with quickened tempo
Music sadder far than the first melody,
And at the sound not a man of us has dry eyes.
The assistant prefect of Jiangzhou is so moved
That his blue coat is wet with tears.