Su Tung-P’o — lyrics for the tune of “Immortal by the River”

lyrics for the tune of “Immortal by the River”

Su Tung-P’o

1037-1101 CE
(translated by William P. Coleman)

I drank all evening at East Slope and woke again drunk,
coming back at maybe the third watch.

I can hear my houseboy’s snores already thundering
and so — with no response to my knocks —
lean on my staff and listen to the river.

Admitted, my body’s not a possession;
so, when can I forget being busy?

The night now deep, the wind quiet, the waves smooth,
a small boat drifting from shore,
to the river, the sea, I trust my remaining life.

Note: The larger imagery in this poem — despite a wide cross-cultural gap — resembles the imagery I discussed in the entry Emily Dickinson — I could not stop for death.

Like Dickinson, Su overlaps and links together several only partially compatable applications of the journey metaphor. There is the journey back from the East Slope to his house, there is the boat’s journey on the river, there is the journey of the narrator’s whole life, there is the journey he will take from now until his life ends, and there is the journey he will take in death.

A Chinese poem with similar imagery is Wang Wei — Living in the Mountains, Autumn Darkness.

For me, one of the most beautiful images in Su’s poem comes from the indeterminacies in the last stanza. Does the narrator get on the boat and entrust his life to the river and the sea? Or does he stand on shore and watch the boat’s journey, now that he himself has become willing to trust whatever will come in the rest of his life?

I must say that, although the T’ang Dynasty poets are more famous, I find the Sung Dynasty poet Su Tung-P’o somehow intimately close. He expresses secret and subtle things for me personally.


I found the Chinese text and an English translation of this poem — along with the word-by-word literal translation I used to create this one — on pp. 320-1 of Wai-Lim Yip’s book Chinese Poetry: an Anthology of Major Modes and Genres, Duke University Press, 1997; ISBN 0-8223-1946-2.

The grammar of Chinese allows poets to leave interpretive choices open, and it’s an unattainable ideal of translating to bring out possibilities without closing others. I try to use my sense of English to at least intrigue you. If I’ve succeeded, it’s best — even if you don’t know Chinese, which I don’t either — to follow up at the source I cite above and see the original word-by-word translation from which I worked. It’ll be richer than what I’ve given you. To understand the poem best, try to construct your own translation.

See the FAQ and the external links at Chinese Poems, a beautiful resource with many poems.

more Chinese poetry translations in this blog More Chinese poetry translations in this blog.
more Chinese poetry translations in this blog Home page for Su Tung P’o translations.

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