Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Poem)

The historical dance drama with the same title staged in Huaqing Hotspring (Xi’an, China) is based on this poem by Po Chü-Yi (772-846AD)


China’s Emperor yearning, for beauty that shakes a kingdom,
Reigned for many years, searching but not finding,
Until a child of the Yang, hardly yet grown,
Raised in the inner chamber, unseen by anybody,
But with heavenly graces that could not be hidden,
Was chosen one day for the Imperial household.
If she turned her head and smiled she cast a deep spell,
Beauties of Six Palaces vanished into nothing.
Hair’s cloud, pale skin, shimmer of gold moving,
Flowered curtains protected on cool spring evenings.
Those nights were too short. That sun too quick in rising.
The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,
All his gifts were devoted to one person.
Li Palace rose high in the clouds.
The winds carried soft magic notes,
Songs and graceful dances, string and pipe music.  
He could never stop himself from gazing at her.
But the Earth reels. War drums fill East Pass,
Drown out  ‘The Feathered Coat and Rainbow Skirt’.
Great Swallow Pagoda and Hall of Light,
Are bathed in dust – the army fleeing Southwards.
Out there Imperial banners, wavering, pausing
Until by the river forty miles from West Gate,
The army stopped. No one would go forward,
Until horses’ hooves trampled willow eyebrows.
Flower on a hairpin. No one to save it.
Gold and jade phoenix. No one retrieved it.
Covering his face the Emperor rode on.
Turned to look back at that place of tears,
 Hidden by a yellow dust whirled by a cold wind.
As Shu waters flow green, Shu mountains show blue,
His majesty’s love remained, deeper than the new.
White moon of loneliness, cold moon of exile.
Bell-chimes in evening rain were bronze-edged heartbeats.
So when the dragon-car turned again northwards
The Emperor clung to Ma-Wei’s dust, never desiring
To leave that place of memories and heartbreak.
Where is the white jade in heaven and earth’s turning?
Lakes and gardens are still as they have been,
T’ai-yi’s hibiscus, Wei-yang’s willows.
A flower-petal was her face, a willow-leaf her eyebrow,
How could it not be grief just to see them?
Plum and pear blossoms blown on spring winds
Maple trees ruined in rains of autumn.
Palaces neglected, filled with weeds and grasses,
Mounds of red leaves spilled on unswept stairways.
Burning the midnight light he could not sleep,
Bells and drums tolled the dark hours,
The Ocean of Heaven bright before dawn,
The porcelain mandarin birds frosted white,
The chill covers of kingfisher blue,
Colder and emptier, year by year.
And the loved spirit never returning.
A Taoist priest of Ling-chun rode the paths of Heaven,
He with his powerful mind knew how to reach the Spirits.
 The Courtiers troubled by the Emperor’s grieving,
 Asked the Taoist priest if he might find her.
He opened the sky-routes, swept the air like lightning,
Looked everywhere, on earth and in heaven,
Scoured the Great Void, and the Yellow Fountains,
But failed in either to find the one he searched for.
Then he heard tales of a magic island
In the Eastern Seas, enchanted, eternal,
High towers and houses in air of five colours,
Perfect Immortals walking between them,
Among them one they called The Ever Faithful,
With her face, of flowers and of snow.
She left her dreams, rose from her pillow,
Opened mica blind and crystal screen,
Hastening, unfastened, clouded hair hanging,
Her light cap unpinned, ran along the pavement.
A breeze in her gauze, flowing with her movement,
As if she danced ‘Feathered Coat and Rainbow Skirt’.
So delicate her jade face, drowned with tears of sadness,
Like a spray of pear flowers, veiled with springtime rain.
  She asked him to thank her Love, her eyes gleaming,
He whose form and voice she lost at parting.
Her joy had ended in Courts of the Bright Sun,
Moons and dawns were long in Faerie Palace.
When she turned her face to look back earthwards
  And see Ch’ang-an – only mist and dust-clouds.
So she found the messenger her lover’s gifts
With deep feeling gave him lacquer box, gold hairpin,
Keeping one half of the box, one part of the hairpin,
Breaking the lacquer, splitting the gold.
 ‘Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.’
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
 ‘On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.’
   Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
 But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.

The Emperor is Hsüan Tsung, that is Ming Huang the Glorious Monarch. She is Yang Yü-huan, the Favourite Concubine Yang Kuei-fei.

The war drums are those of the An Lu-shan rebellion that destroyed the greatest period of the Tang Dynasty. The East Pass is the Tung Kuan, loss of which was disastrous to Ch’ang-an since it was the last defensible barrier to the east of the capital. The Da Yen Ta, the Great Swallow Pagoda, still stands on the site of Ch’ang-an, modern Xian. Ma-Wei is the posting station on the Wei River, west of the city, where Yang Kuei-fei was executed to satisfy the demands of the army.

Mandarin birds and kingfisher covers are symbols of conjugal affection. The Herdboy and the Weaver girl, in legend, are the stars Altair in the constellation Aquila (the Eagle) and Vega in the constellation Lyra (the Lyre). (Stars which with Deneb, in Cygnus the Swan, form the northern Summer Triangle). They are lovers separated by the Milky Way. She is allowed to visit him once a year on the seventh night of the seventh month, the first month of autumn, when she passes across the heavens as a meteor, or crosses to him on a bridge of birds.  On this night also The Lady of the West descended from the sky to teach the Emperor Wu the secret of immortality.

* Poem and notes © A.S. Kline 2000 shared with permission

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One comment on “Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Poem)
  1. […] moving romantic story of the emperor and his concubine at the very scene where the story happened. The poem, of the same title, written by Tang Dynasty poet, Bai Juyi tells the tragic love story of Xuanzong, […]


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