POEM: VISITING A HERMIT AND NOT FINDING HIM

by contemplativeinquiry

 

Where the dogs bark

By roaring waters,

Whose spray darkens

The petals’ colours,

Deep in the woods

Deer at times are seen;

 

The valley noon:

One can hear no bell.

But wild bamboos

Cut across bright clouds,

Flying cascades

Hang from jasper peaks;

 

No one here knows

Which way you have gone:

Two, now three pines

I have lent against.

 

Li Po (701-62)

 

‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’ is a common theme in Chinese poetry. The full title for the particular poem above is: ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. Li Po is regarded as one of China’s greatest poets and wrote it between the ages of 17 and 19.

According to translator Arthur Cooper, such a poem is more than a ‘nature poem’ but “relates in its thought to the ‘spirit journeys’ of which Li Po himself was particularly fond and which are to be found in early Chinese poetry”.  In such poems the wise hermit ‘teaches without telling’, by letting the poet wait and not even meet him. Awakening to the landscape (external or internal) carries more spiritual meaning than speculation about the whereabouts of the hermit.

Another approach to the same theme is offered in a famous poem by Chia Tao (777-841):

 

Under a pine,

I asked his pupil

Who said, “Master’s

Gone gathering balm

 

Only somewhere

About the mountain:

The cloud’s so thick

That I don’t know where.

 

Li Po and Tu Fu Poems Selected and translated with an introduction and notes by Arthur Cooper. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973