Since my youth I have loved books and have had a predilection for quiet

From The Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien (translator Hightower, Oxford 1970 – though good luck finding a copy). For some reason while I mostly ignore the biographical traditions of the western classics, I’m always genuinely charmed by the sketches of eastern authors. First here is the autobiographical piece translated as The Gentleman of the Five Willow Trees:



I don’t know where this gentleman was born and I am not sure of his name, but beside his house were five willow trees, from which he took his nickname. He was of a placid disposition and rarely spoke. He had no envy of fame or fortune. He was fond of reading, without puzzling greatly over difficult passages. When he came across something to his liking he would be so delighted he would forget his meals. By nature he like wine, but being poor could not always come by it. Knowing the circumstances, his friends and relatives would invite him over when they had wine. He could not drink without emptying his cup, and always ended up drunk, after which he would retire, unconcerned about what might come. He lived alone in a bare little hut which gave no adequate shelter against rain and sun. His short coat was torn and patched, how cooking pots were frequently empty, but he was unperturbed. He used to write poems for his own amusement, and in them can be seen something of what he thought. He had no concern for worldly success, and so he ended his days.


And from his Testament to his sons:


Since my youth I have loved books and have had a predilection for quiet. When I opened a scroll and found something to my liking, I would be so delighted I would forget mealtime; and when I watched the trees weaving their shade and heard the birds changing their song with the season, I was filled with joy. Lying under the north window in the fifth or sixth month with an intermittent cool breeze coming through, it seemed to me that I was living in the time of the sage Emperor Fu-hsi.


From the preface to poem 62, here titled The Return:


Because of my poverty an uncle offered me a job in a small town, but he region was still unquiet and I trembled at the thought of going away from homme. However, P’eng-tse was only thirty miles from my native place, and the yield of the fields assigned the magistrate was sufficient to keep me in wine, so I applied for the office. Before many days had passed, I longed to give it up and go back home. Why, you may ask. Because my instinct is all for freedom, and will not brook discipline or restraint. Hunger and cold may be sharp, but this going against myself really sickens me. Whenever I have been involved in official life I was mortgaging myself to my mouth and belly, and the realization of this greatly upset me. I was deeply ashamed that I had so compromised my principles, but I was still going to wait out the year, after which I might pack up my clothes and slip away at night.

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