NIGHT, COLD, AND AGE

Here is a seasonal poem by the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963).

This is a very simple poem, but deep in its simplicity.  I will separate it into segments for ease of discussion.

The main and only figure in it is an old man — apparently a a bachelor or a widower — who lives alone in an old farmhouse.

AN OLD MAN’S WINTER NIGHT

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.

The old man — lantern in hand, has walked into one of the rooms in the house.  He holds an old kerosene lamp, and by its light he can peer at the windows — all dark, but he can see on the window panes the thin frost that has crystallized here and there — almost like separate stars.  What “looks in” from outside is darkness, but he cannot look back at it because of the lamp he is holding tilted in his hands near the pane — the light reflects off the panes, forming a barrier to the outside in his sight.  So all he sees is the frost and the flat darkness of the panes.

He has come to this room, which apparently contains nothing but some old barrels, but he stands there, having forgotten why he came.  That is the forgetfulness that often comes with old age, and it is age that keeps him from remembering.  So he just pauses there a moment, waiting to remember — but he does not.  It apparently is a seldom used room, and because its door is usually closed, the heat from the stove has not entered the room to prevent frost forming on the window.

And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.

He had made a hollow noise with his heavy shoes as he had clomped heavily across the boards of the house floor and into the room.  It is hollow because he is walking the floor over the cellar beneath.  The poet says the clomping “scared the cellar under him,” but of course that is a kind of lighthearted way of saying that though there was a hollow sound made in the cellar, no one was there to hear it — the only thing in the house that his clomping about could have scared would have been the cellar — in other words, no one at all.  So he made that hollow sound with his walking to the room, and again with his walking back from it.

He also — the poet says — “scared the outer night” with his heavy steps — a way of showing how loud his hollow-sounding steps sounded in the stillness of the house.  The outside had its own winter sounds, like wind in the trees, or the cracking of branches — but nothing like the hollow sound of the old man’s clomping on the floor over the cellar — a sound like someone slowly beating on a wooden box.

Then he sat there in the room by the stove, with his dim kerosene lamp burning on the table.  It was a light only for him in his aloneness, and he was a light only to himself — he had no one else to commune with in the night.  So sitting there, feeling himself as he was, and “concerned with he knew what” — he experienced the feeling of his body on the chair, the simplicity of his own few thoughts, like a faint, quiet light — “and then not even that,” as he senses the weariness of the night and of his age, and decides to go to bed and extinguish his lamp.

He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.

 

The old man, on going to his bed, leaves the snow on the roof and the icicles along the outer wall of the house in charge of  the late-rising moon in one of its phases — it is a “broken,” or partial moon, not a full moon.   It is “better than the sun” for this matter, because the coolness of the moon is in keeping with the cold and the night.  That just means he is leaving the thoughts of the day — which are simple thoughts of the snow and the ice and the farmhouse — behind him as he goes to bed.

He sleeps, his bed in the same room as the stove.  A log in the fire shifts and falls as it burns, making a noise loud enough to disturb the old man momentarily in his sleep, but not enough to wake him.  He only changes his position in the bed, and his breathing becomes slower and more relaxed — and he sleeps on.

The poet now concludes:

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

 

One aged old man — one man alone, the poet tells us — cannot fill a house.  He cannot fill a farm, or a countryside.  One needs family, or friends and neighbors for that, and this old man is all alone in his old age.  But then the the poet continues, revising his view somewhat:  if an old man can fill a house, or farm, or countryside, then this is how he does it — in his simple and lonesome and solitary and aged way.

If we look at this poem from the perspective of hokku aesthetics, we can feel a strong harmony between the night, the chill and depth of winter, and the age of the old man.  We can also feel a harmony between the single lamp light he holds in his hand, and his solitary life.  Though he is old, his life continues to dimly “burn” like a single lamp flame.

Robert Frost had the most amazing gift of writing as though he were a rural New England farmer, in spite of his having been a college English teacher later in his life.  His poems — at least those like this one –often give us in words somewhat the same feeling we get from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.

OLD CHRISTMAS MORNING

Today’s poem is one often encountered by high school English students in the United States, though it may be less frequently seen in other English-speaking countries.

It is by the poet, novelist and teacher Roy Helton (1886-1977), who was born in Washington, D.C., but resided mainly in Pennsylvania.

In spite of his urban upbringing and residence, he also spent much time in the Appalachian regions of South Carolina and Kentucky — places settled in early days by immigrants from the British Isles.

The Education Manual (EM 131) — put out by the United States Armed Forces Institute — says of him in its Volume 1, which deals with “Modern American and British Poetry”:

Roy (Addison) Helton was born at Washington, D. C., in 1886 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1908.  He studied art — and found he was color-blind.  He spent two years at inventions — and found he had no business sense.  After a few more experiments he became a schoolmaster in West Philadelphia and at the Penn Charter School in Germantown …

…Helton became intimately connected with primitive backgrounds, spending a great part of his time in the mountains of South Carolina and Kentucky.

Of today’s poem, it says:

Old Christmas Morning” is a Kentucky Mountain dialogue in which Helton has introduced an element rare in modern verse.  Told with the directness of an old ballad, this drama of the night twelve days after the universally celebrated Christmas unfolds a ghost story in which the surprise is heightened by the skillful suspensions.

Appropriately, Helton wrote the poem in Kentucky dialect.  Though it may be over-explaining for some readers,  I will nonetheless thoroughly define the dialect words for those who may know English only as their second language.

Before we begin, you should know that due to use of a different calendar, Christmas used to be celebrated in early British colonial America on January 6th.  In 1752 the Gregorian Calendar was adopted by Britain and its colonies — including America — which meant that the date of Christmas shifted earlier to December 25th.  In spite of the change, many people kept the memory of the original date of celebration as “Old Christmas,” as opposed to the new December 25th celebration.  Given the conservative nature of the hill people of the southeastern United States, it is not surprising that the memory of the old date was retained, along with some of its traditional beliefs and superstitions.  Some considered “Old Christmas” the true Christmas, and even continued to celebrate on the old date as late as the 20th century.

The poem is a dialogue between two  hill women in the Appalachian mountains of the state of Kentucky.  As usual, I will take it stanza by stanza.  We begin when one woman finds another at her door in the dark hours early on the morning of “Old Christmas” — January 6th.

OLD CHRISTMAS MORNING

“Where are you coming from, Lomey Carter,
So airly over the snow?
And what’s them pretties you got in your hand,
And where you aiming to go?

The housewife asks the other woman where she is coming from so early in the snow.  And she asks her “what’s them pretties you got in your hand…?

In Kentucky mountain dialect, a “pretty” or “purty” is a word with several meanings, but in general it is something that is pretty, like flowers, or little ornamental objects or decorations, etc.  In the form “play-pretty,” it means a child’s toy.  Here I like to think that in spite of the winter snow, Lomey Carter is carrying something that looks like flowers.

She also asks Lomey, “…where you aiming to go?”  — meaning “Where are you intending to go?”

“Step in, Honey: Old Christmas morning
I ain’t got nothing much;
Maybe a bite of sweetness and corn bread,
A little ham meat and such,

She invites the woman at her door to step inside the house, using the term of endearment “Honey.”  She politely and apologetically adds that, though it is Old Christmas morning, she does not have much to offer her guest to eat in hospitality — perhaps a little of something sweet and some corn bread, and a little ham and such things.

“But come in, Honey! Sally Anne Barton’s
Hungering after your face.
Wait till I light my candle up:
Set down! There’s your old place.

In spite of her simple food offerings, she urges Lomey to come inside the house.  She adds that “Sally Anne Barton” — meaning herself — is hungering after Lomey’s face.  By that she means she has missed seeing her face and having her company and conversation.  Sally asks her to wait a moment while she lights a candle, because it is still very early and the house is dark inside.  And as she attempts to light the candle, she tells her guest, “Set down!  There’s your old place.”  By “set down” she means “sit down.”  And in saying “There’s your old place,” she lets the reader know that these two women used to be close friends, so close that Lomey had her own accustomed place to sit in when she came visiting at Sally’s house.

Now where you been so airly this morning?”
Graveyard, Sally Anne.
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadows
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

Sally asks Lomey where she has been so airly/early in the morning.  Lomey replies that she has been to the graveyard, up by the trace/footpath in the salt lick meadows.  A salt lick is a place where mineral salts are found in the ground or near a spring.  They were important because animals — both wild and domestic — need salt, and will seek out a salt lick — so called because there the animals lick up the salt.  Many salt licks exist in Kentucky, and there is even a town called Salt Lick.  So Lomey is speaking of meadows where a salt lick is found.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning . . .
I can’t scratch up a light:
Dampness gets on the heads of the matches;
But I’ll blow up the embers bright.”

Sally tells Lomey that “Taulbe ain’t to home this morning“, or in standard English, “Taulbe is not at home this morning.”  Taulbe — pronouncedTall-bee and usually spelled Taulbee — is a surname found in Kentucky and elsewhere in the Appalachians, but it can also be used  — like here — as a first name.

Sally adds that she is having trouble trying to “scratch up a light,” that is,  trying to get a match to light so that she may light the candle with it.  She explains that the dampness in the air gets into the heads of the matches, which makes them hard to ignite by scratching them on a rough surface.  So not being able to light a candle, she says, “I’ll blow up the embers bright.”  She will blow on the hot coals remaining in the fireplace, to get a little light from them to illuminate the dark room.

Needn’t trouble. I won’t be stopping:
Going a long ways still.
“You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter,
Up on the graveyard hill?”

Lomey tells Sally she need not bother trying to blow up the embers, because Lomey will not be stopping/staying.  She adds that she still has a long way to go.  We shall see the significance of this “long way to go” later.

Sally asks, “You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter, up on the graveyard hill?”  By that she is really asking, “Did you see anything at the graveyard up on the hill?”

What should I see there, Sally Anne Barton?”
“Well, sperits do walk last night.”
There were an elder bush a-blooming
While the moon still give some light.

Lomey replies by asking, “What should I see there?”, and Sally tells her that “sperits do walk last night.”  She is repeating the belief that on the night before Old Christmas, ghosts and spirits walk about.

Lomey replies that “there were/was an elder bush a-blooming while the moon still give/gave some light.”  Traditionally the elder is considered a bush with supernatural qualities, and for it to bloom on Old Christmas in the midst of winter cold, is a supernatural event — heightened here by its being seen in moonlight.  That flowers might bloom at midnight on Old Christmas was a traditional folk belief.  And we may consider that these blooms relate to the “pretties” Lomey carries.

“Yes, elder bushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in their straw.
Anything else up in the graveyard?
One thing more I saw:

Sally agrees that such an unusual thing can happen at the time of Old Christmas, and she also repeats the folk belief that at midnight, the critters /creatures in the barn will kneel in the straw, which originally was believed to happen in honor the birth of Jesus.  Sally asks Lomey if she noticed anything else in the graveyard, and Lomey replies that she saw one more thing:

I saw my man with his head all bleeding
Where Taulbe’s shot went through.
“What did he say?”
He stooped and kissed me.
“What did he say to you?”

This stanza tells us that Lomey’s man — her husband — had earlier been murdered by Sally’s husband Taulbe.  Now we know why Sally told her earlier in the poem that Taulbe was not at home:  it would be safe for Lomey to come in while he was away.  Lomey says that she saw her husband — meaning the ghost of her husband — in the graveyard, with his head still bleeding from the bullet wound Taulbe had given him.

Sally asks what the ghost said, and Lomey replies, “He stooped and kissed me,” but does not answer Sally’s question, so Sally repeats it.  Lomey then answers:

Said, Lord Jesus forguv your Taulbe;
But he told me another word;
He said it soft when he stooped and kissed me.
That were the last I heard.

Lomey tells Salley that the ghost said, “Lord Jesus forguv/forgave your Taulbe,” but he also said “another word” — something else, very softly, when he kissed her.  And that was the last thing she heard him say.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning.”
I know that, Sally Anne,
For I kilt him, coming down through the meadow
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

Sally repeats what she told Lomey earlier — that Taulbe ain’t/is not to/at home this morning.  Lomey responds by saying she knows that, because she kilt/killed him coming down through the meadow where Taulbe kilt/killed her man/husband.  She explains:

I met him upon the meadow trace
When the moon were fainting fast,
And I had my dead man’s rifle gun

And kilt him as he come past.

Lomey met Taulbe on the meadow trace/footpath when the moon were/was fainting fast, that is, close to fading or setting.  She had the rifle of her dead husband, and she shot and killed Taulbe as he passed by her.

Sally responds, and Lomey answers:

“But I heard two shots.” “‘Twas his was second:
He shot me ‘fore be died:
You’ll find us at daybreak, Sally Anne Barton:
I’m laying there dead at his side.

Sally says she heard two shots, not one.  Lomey explains the second shot:  “‘Twas/it was his”.  Taulbe shot Lomey before he died.  Here we may assume that Lomey’s ghost husband’s last and soft “word” to her was essentially that though Jesus may have forgiven Taulbe, Lomey’s husband did not, and wanted him dead.  And finally Lomey reveals to Sally that she too is a ghost, and that Sally will find both Lomey’s body and that of Taulbe lying together dead when daybreak brings light to the scene.

 

So that’s it.  This poem is a ghost story based on one of the bitter grudges that sometimes turned into family feuds and killing in the Appalachian mountains.  It is very reminiscent of the Child Ballads, old songs of England and Scotland that were sometimes also passed down in the folk musical traditions of the Appalachian immigrants from those regions.  They are called the Child Ballads because they were collected in the latter half of the 19th century by Francis James Child.  They often dealt with love and death and murder.  In this similarity we see how cleverly Roy Helton formed his poem, and his use of a regional dialect — also found in the Child Ballads — adds to the effect, making the poem seem older than it is.

Now you will recall that early in the poem, Lomey Carter says she won’t be stopping, because she still has a long way to go.  That refers to an old belief that on death the soul must make its long journey into the afterlife.  There is a similar view in the old English poem in Yorkshire dialect titled “Lyke Wake Dirge.”

In explaining this poem, I mentioned a town in Kentucky named Salt Lick, and it is perhaps an interesting side note that according to local belief, the Polksville Cemetery at Salt Lick is one of the most haunted in the state.

For ease of reading, here is the whole poem at one go:

“Where you coming from, Lomey Carter,
So airly over the snow?
And what’s them pretties you got in your hand,
And where you aiming to go?

“Step in, Honey: Old Christmas morning
I ain’t got nothing much;
Maybe a bite of sweetness and corn bread,
A little ham meat and such,

“But come in, Honey! Sally Anne Barton’s
Hungering after your face.
Wait till I light my candle up:
Set down! There’s your old place.

Now where you been so airly this morning?”
“Graveyard, Sally Anne.
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadows
Where Taulbe kilt my man.”

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning . . .
I can’t scratch up a light:
Dampness gets on the heads of the matches;
But I’ll blow up the embers bright.”

“Needn’t trouble. I won’t be stopping:
Going a long ways still.”
“You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter,
Up on the graveyard hill?”

“What should I see there, Sally Anne Barton?”
“Well, sperits do walk last night.”
There were an elder bush a-blooming
While the moon still give some light.‘”

“Yes, elder bushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in their straw.
Anything else up in the graveyard?”
One thing more I saw:

I saw my man with his head all bleeding
Where Taulbe’s shot went through.
“What did he say?” “He stooped and kissed me.
“What did he say to you?”

Said, Lord Jesus forguv your Taulbe;
But he told me another word;
He said it soft when he stooped and kissed me.
That were the last I heard.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning.”
I know that, Sally Anne,
For I kilt him, coming down through the meadow
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

I met him upon the meadow trace
When the moon were fainting fast,
And I had my dead man’s rifle gun
And kilt him as he come past.

“But I heard two shots.” “‘Twas his was second:
He shot me ‘fore be died:
You’ll find us at daybreak, Sally Anne Barton:
I’m laying there dead at his side.

ACTIVITY AND REST: FROST’S “STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”

Today we will look at one of the best-known winter poems — Robert Frost’s

STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING

Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 

The poet is passing by a forest at evening.  He thinks he knows who the owner of the forest is, but it does not matter.  The presumed owner lives in the village, not out here in the country, so he will not see the poet stopping to watch the snow falling and covering the trees and ground.  No one will suddenly appear to ask him why he is there or what he is doing.

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year. 

The poet is there with a little horse, and he supposes the horse must think it strange that the man wants to stop without any farmhouse — the kind of place where he would usually stop — nearby.  Instead, the poet has paused between the snowy woods and a frozen lake, on this, the darkest evening of the year.  By “darkest evening of the year” the poet means it is the longest night of the year, which comes at the Winter Solstice.

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.  
 

The horse gives his head or body a sudden shake — which rings the many harness bells attached — to indicate that the creature feels there is something amiss; it must be a mistake to stop out in “nowhere.”  Other than that quick shake of the harness bells, the only other sound in that isolated location is that of the easy wind filled with light and fluffy snowflakes.

From what has been said so far, we can see that the poet’s little horse has harness bells — sleigh bells, which were worn about the neck or around the body just behind the front legs, or in both places,  so the poet has come to these snowy woods in a sleigh pulled by one horse.  The bells were used on sleigh horses so that people in the path of a sleigh could hear it coming, and move accordingly.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

The poet thinks to himself that the woods are beautiful, they are dark, and they are deep; he would like to just remain there in the chill, dark silence — far from the noise and worry of the human world — but he cannot.  He has made promises.  He has places he must be, appointments he must keep.  He must continue on his way back into the everyday world of people, because he has much to do before he can rest that night — miles yet to go before his work is finished and he can sleep.

The repetition of the last line

And miles to go before I sleep

is for emphasis, as if one is saying, “I have a long way to go, yes, a long way to go.”

The charm of this poem lies partly in its simplicity — simple words and simple rhymes — and partly in the sensory experience it provides — the cold of the night and the snow, the sound of the flakes blowing in the easy wind and the metallic jingle of the harness bells, the dark depths in the forest.  But the charm is also in the lack of details.  That is important.  We do not know who the man is, or what promises he has made that he must continue on his way, or even where is is going.  That raises the unanswered questions in our mind that we find so often in old and modern hokku, and they give a similar effect — what we may call the “unanswered question” experience.

What we do know is that for him, this pause to watch the snow falling on the deep and dark woods is a respite, a brief relief, a moment of rest from all the cares of his life.  It gives the reader too an immense sense — for the moment — of peace and tranquility, before we are called back to our responsibilities.

Though there are many possible explanations of the who and why, it would have been a fitting poem for a country doctor in the old days — one who had his visit or visits to make among scattered farmhouses, but who stops for one brief moment of peace somewhere between, to watch the woods fill up with snow.  However, he has people or patients he must see, so cannot pause as long as would like — but must continue on his long way, knowing that he will have much to do before he can finally return home and sleep.  Perhaps you have your own interpretation of the man and his duties and his goal — or wish to apply them to someone you know or to yourself, in a metaphorical way.  But the best is not to interpret them at all — just accepting the poem as it is, with its unanswered questions.

We could say that this poem — aside from its beauty — is a contrast between what we must do as humans who have our duties and responsibilities, and what we would like to do.  In terms of Chinese philosophy, it is a contrast between the yang of activity and the yin of peace and stillness and rest.  And of course the poem is set in the cold winter — the most yin time of the year.

Many people apply this poem symbolically, and then the man’s journey through the night is his duty-filled daily life, and his brief pause by the dark, chill forest is the call of death and rest — but the man has responsibilities in life that he must fulfill before he can rest in death.  Yet Frost does not actually say or imply anything about death, and I do not think the poem is to be read in that way.  In my view, Frost’s poem is both simpler and deeper than that — the often overlooked depth of everyday things like snow and cold and darkness.  But it is just human nature to find meanings — to take something and see it as a symbol of something else — so people tend to give even simple poems meanings beyond what the poet intended.  We see the same in the interpretations people attach to Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” particularly the lines

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Yet Frost himself made clear that he had intended no profound philosophical meaning in those simple lines.

I think what people tend to miss in Frost is that the depth and profundity in life lie in ordinary, everyday simple things — not in the intellectual interpretations we attach to them.  That is also the message of the verse form known as hokku.

THE “ESSENTIAL WORDS” TECHNIQUE IN NIGHT MOORING AT MAPLE BRIDGE

My purpose is not to discuss Chinese poetry in any academic sense.  Instead, it is to show how certain characteristics of old Chinese Nature poetry may be used in writing English Nature poetry.

The most significant of these tools is, as I have written previously, the use of “essential words” in composing lines in couplet form that when joined together with more couplets enable us to create a poem either short or long.

To show how this is done, I sometimes use old Chinese poems as examples.  Do not let them in any way intimidate you.  I do not expect anyone reading here to learn Chinese, because my purpose, again, is the writing of poetry in English.  But in doing so, there are things to be learned from certain examples of old Chinese poetry.

Here, for example, is the short poem Night Mooring at Maple Bridge, by Zhang Ji, who lived in the 8th century (you may also see his name transliterated as Chang Chi in older writings).  It might be helpful to see visually how these “essential words” manifest as Chinese characters in the original.  The poem is a seven-character example in four lines.  It is read from right to left, and from top to bottom.  The fifth line at far right gives first the name of the poem (the first four characters top to bottom) and below that are the two characters for the name of the writer, Zhang Ji:

In presenting this in its essential words in English, I will write it left to right, horizontally:

Moon set crow cry frost fill sky;
River maple fish lights to anxious sleep.
Gu Su wall outside Cold Mountain Temple;
Night middle bell sound reach visitor boat

That looks a bit cryptic in English, and quite honestly, Chinese poems are often somewhat cryptic even in Chinese, meaning that they are written in old literary Chinese, which is condensed compared to modern Chinese.  But that is precisely why they correspond to our “essential words” in English.  Readers familiar with Chinese verses in translation will already be aware that there are multiple ways of translating them because of their compressed and often ambiguous language.

Nonetheless, here is what we can do with it.  First of all, let’s put it into basic English, like this:

Moon set crow cry frost fill sky;
The moon is setting; a crow caws; frost fills the sky;

River maple fish lights to anxious sleep.
Among river maples fishing lights disturb sleep

Gu Su wall outside Cold Mountain Temple;
Outside Gu Su’s wall is Cold Mountain Temple;

Night middle bell sound reach visitor boat
At midnight the bell sound reaches the visitor’s boat.

That is still a bit awkward — not yet fitting well into our language.  So now let’s try to put it more comfortably into English:

The moon sets — a crow caws — the sky is filled with frost;
Fishing lights through river maples make sleeping hard.
Beyond the walls of Gu Su is Cold Mountain Temple;
At midnight its bell reaches this traveller’s boat.

That conveys the meaning, but it does not flow very smoothly.  It is a bit “jumpy” and awkward.  So let’s take it a third step and not be quite so literalistic; let’s make it fully an English poem.  In doing so, we will drop the name Gu Su (an old name for Suzhou):

The moon goes down — the caw of crows fills the frozen sky;
Sleep comes hard with fishing lights among the river trees.
Far beyond the city wall lies Cold Mountain Temple;
I hear its bell at midnight as I lie here in my boat.

That conveys, I think, the essentials of what Zhang Ji was trying to say.  But significantly, it is now no longer a “Chinese” poem.  It is an English-language poem written using the Chinese technique.  Nonetheless, beneath the flow of the English words one can still sense its seven-essential-words structure, which is as it should be, because that gives it its pattern.

One can write countless poems in this manner.  If you find the seven-word structure a bit too much at first, begin with a five-word structure.  Once you get the hang of it, writing Nature poetry in the old Chinese manner becomes very easy — but the result is throughly English (in the language sense, not the national).

Remember not to be too literalistic or rigid as you work with essential words.

As an added and non-essential note, remember that in writing such poems we are using only one aspect of old Chinese poetry, which differed in significant ways from how we write here.  The major difference — aside from language — is that old Chinese poetry rhymed.  And it had a rhythm that seems rather “sing-song” to English speakers.

To illustrate, here is a pinyin transliteration of Night Mooring at Maple Bridge:

Yuè luò wū tí shuāng mǎn tiān;
Jiāng fēng yú huǒ duì chóu mián.
Gū sū chéng wài hán shān sì;
Yè bàn zhōng shēng dào kè chuán.

If you are wondering what all the little marks above the letters mean, they indicate the tones in Mandarin, Chinese being (unlike English) a tonal language.

But the things to note are first, as already mentioned, that the verse uses rhyme in the Chinese original; and second, that it has precisely the sing-song rhythm of children’s verses in English — exactly the rhythm, in fact, of the old religious song:

Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong;
They are weak but he is strong.

That has four lines, like the poem of Zhang Ji, and it has the same rhythm as Night Mooring at Maple Bridge.  Now perhaps you can see why we do not customarily translate Chinese poems into English using rhyme.  In fact when I read Chinese poems in translation, I deliberately avoid those translated with rhyme, because inevitably they come off as childish and they stray too far from the original meaning.

That does not of course mean the poems are childish in the original.  It just means that in moving them from one culture to another, they take on characteristics that we customarily think of in English as childish, if they are translated using the rhythm and rhyme found in Chinese originals.  It is a matter of cultural and linguistic difference.  But again, all of that has nothing to do with my purpose here, which is not to duplicate Chinese poetry in English, but rather to take what is useful in old Chinese poetry and to apply it to the writing of new Nature poems in English.

David