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Song of the Bowmen of Shu 采薇

詩經·小雅·鹿鳴之什·采薇
Song of the Bowmen of Shu,  translated by Ezra Pound

The first poem in Pound’s 1915 collection Cathay. It translates an old Chinese poem, but also responds to the suffering of the soldiers fighting in the contemporaneous First World War.

The original was by King Wen of Zhou (Shū Bun'ō), from Japanese pronunciation Ezra Pound translate the title “the bowmen of Shu”.

采薇采薇,薇亦作止。
曰歸曰歸,歲亦莫止。
靡室靡家,玁狁之故;
不遑啟居,玁狁之故。
Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots
And saying: When shall we get back to our country?
Here we are because we have the Ken-nin for our foemen,
We have no comfort because of these Mongols.

采薇采薇,薇亦柔止。
曰歸曰歸,心亦憂止。
憂心烈烈,載饑載渴。
我戍未定,靡使歸聘。
We grub the soft fern-shoots,
When anyone says “Return,” the others are full of sorrow.
Sorrowful minds, sorrow is strong, we are hungry and thirsty.
Our defence is not yet made sure, no one can let his friend return.

采薇采薇,薇亦剛止。
曰歸曰歸,歲亦陽止。
王事靡盬,不遑啟處。
憂心孔疚,我行不來。
We grub the old fern-stalks.
We say: Will we be let to go back in October?
There is no ease in royal affairs, we have no comfort.
Our sorrow is bitter, but we would not return to our country.

彼爾維何?維常之華。
彼路斯何?君子之車。
戎車既駕,四牡業業。
豈敢定居,一月三捷。
What flower has come into blossom?
Whose chariot? The General's.
Horses, his horses even, are tired. They were strong.
We have no rest, three battles a month.

駕彼四牡,四牡騤騤。
君子所依,小人所腓。
四牡翼翼,象弭魚服。
豈不日戒?玁狁孔棘。
By heaven, his horses are tired.
The generals are on them, the soldiers are by them.
The horses are well trained, the generals have ivory arrows and quivers ornamented with fish-skin.
The enemy is swift, we must be careful.

昔我往矣,楊柳依依。
今我來思,雨雪霏霏。
行道遲遲,載渴載饑。
我心傷悲,莫知我哀!
When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring,
We come back in the snow,
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty,
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know of our grief?

By Bunno, reportedly 1100 B.C.

[1] ‘Ken-nin’ is a version of the Japanese ‘Ken-in’, from the Chinese ‘Hsien-Yün’ 玁狁, which means something like ‘wild tribes’.
[2] ‘Foemen’ is an uncommon word, but it condenses the phonems in the preceding ‘for our’ beautifully, sharpening the end of the line.
[3] This poem makes extensive use of minimal variation in patterns of repetition. We get a passage of time by changing the “first fern-shoots” to “soft” then to “old fern-stalks”. Likewise, ‘Sorrow’ is threaded through these lines, and we observe it on a macro scale (‘Sorrowful minds’) then on a micro one (‘sorrow is strong’), before the two are fused in the final line: ‘Our mind is full of sorrow’.
[4] Pound omits the line in which this is specified to be a cherry blossoms.
[5] The word Fenollosa used was actually ‘tied’. Pound probably added the ‘r’ for dramatic effect.
[6] In 1915, as it became increasingly evident that what would become the First World War would not be the ‘home by Christmas’ excursion it’d been billed as, Pound was acutely aware of the suffering brought about by war (two of his artistic friends, T.E. Hulme, and Henri Gaudier-Brzska, would die in the conflict), and Cathay is reflects this concern, albeit through the prism of Chinese poetry.
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