Jing Ting Mountain

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Up and with my painters painting my dining room all day long till night, not stirring out at all. Only in the morning my Lady Batten did send to speak with me, and told me very civilly that she did not desire, nor hoped I did, that anything should pass between us but what was civill, though there was not the neighbourliness between her and my wife that was fit to be, and so complained of my maid’s mocking of her; when she called “Nan” to her maid within her own house, my maid Jane in the garden overheard her, and mocked her, and some other such like things she told me, and of my wife’s speaking unhandsomely of her; to all which I did give her a very respectfull answer, such as did please her, and am sorry indeed that this should be, though I do not desire there should be any acquaintance between my wife and her. But I promised to avoid such words and passages for the future. So home, and by and by Sir W. Pen did send for me to his bedside; and tell me how highly Sir J. Minnes did resolve to have one of my rooms, and that he was very angry and hot, and said he would speak to the Duke. To which, knowing that all this was but to scare me, and to get him to put off his resolution of making up the entry, I did tell him plainly how I did not value his anger more, than he did mine, and that I should be willing to do what the Duke commanded, and I was sure to have justice of him, and that was all I did say to him about it, though I was much vexed, and after a little stay went home; and there telling my wife she did put me into heart, and resolve to offer him to change lodgings, and believe that that will one way or other bring us to some end in this dispute.
At night I called up my maids, and schooled Jane, who did answer me so humbly and drolly about it, that though I seemed angry, I was much pleased with her and [my] wife also. So at night to bed.

painting the peak like a peak
some sage for the bedside

how to have that peak
now making up the plain

I will tell my heart
to change lodgings

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 5 November 1662. For Jing Ting Mountain, see the Wikipedia.

Drinking alone beneath the moon

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

by Li Bai
(a.k.a. Li Po, 701-762)

Yi hu jiu


In the middle of the flowering grove, one jug of beer.
Drinking alone – no friends or family near –
I raise my cup, invite the moon to join me.
Counting my shadow, we’re a party of three.

But moon’s a lightweight, doesn’t know how to drink,
And shadow simply matches me cup for cup.
For now, though, they’ll do just fine, I think.
Spring is here, my friends! Let’s live it up.

I start to sing; the moon sways to and fro.
I get up and dance – shadow reels in disarray.
Sober, we crave the company of some jolly fellow;
Drunk, each goes his separate way.

Freed of all ties, yet bound forever more,
Let’s get back together on the galaxy’s far shore.


Come April, and the village of Xianyang lies deep in fallen blossoms. Who can bear to be alone with sorrow in the spring? Who can gaze on such sights as these and stay sober? The unseen Maker rolls his dice: for you, wealth and a long life; poverty for you, and a life cut short. But one mug of beer can balance life and death, even out a thousand things that confound the intellect. Drunk, I lose track of heaven and earth, sitting alone on my mat, unmoving, unmovable. I end by forgetting that I ever existed at all: pure joy, then, for the no-one left behind!


If Heaven above be not besotted with beer,
why should a Beer Star appear in heaven?

If Earth, too, be not a tippler,
why do we find a Beer Springs on earth?

With beer thus beloved above and below,
drinking beer can hardly be against nature.

I’ve heard a clear brew likened to a sage,
while the slang term for a cloudy beer is saint.

Since I’ve drunk deep of saints and sages,
what need have I to search for spirit guides?

Three cups, and the Great Way lies open;
a gallon, and everything resolves into Suchness.

Simply strive for beer and find contentment.
Don’t speak of these arcana to the sober ones.

This translates three of the four sections of the original poem. The first section best imitates the rhyme and meter of the original.

“Sage” and “Saint” were code words for strained and unstrained beer during a period of prohibition in the early Tang Dynasty.

For other translations of ancient Chinese beer-drinking poems at Via Negativa, see The guest (Du Fu) and Night drinking at the western pavilion of the Flower of the Dharma Temple (Liu Zongyuan).

Mysterious mountains

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

(Cue up Alan Hovhaness)

The search for universal themes in human psychology and culture tends to focus either on the most basic elements (sex, security) or the most abstract (hero-worship, fear of death). But I wonder if we wouldn’t do better to look at how humans relate to the landscape? Seeing how people of different times and places have related to forests or to mountains, for example, seems to reveal more similarities than differences. But even if this were not the case, the exercise strikes me as much more worthwhile than cross-cultural comparisons that focus on purely human realities. Hell, the latter approach probably does violence to most indigenous ways of understanding, according to which humans are far from the only sentient beings.

All this is simply by way of introducing a couple of translations from the classical Chinese. Poems celebrating cosmic mountains aren’t hard to find in the Chinese tradition. Both Li Bo and Du Fu – revered as the two greatest Chinese poets of all time – wrote poems in which mountains teach us how to see. In Du Fu’s poem, the first four lines of the second stanza of my translation (lines 5 and 6 in the original) have given scholars headaches for centuries. A totally unprecedented expression is, in the Chinese tradition, a very rare thing. Surely the poet couldn’t have meant what he wrote?

Gazing at Tai Shan
by Du Fu (712-770 CE)

This mountain of mountains – how
to put it in words?
Throughout Qi and Lu, a blue
that never fades. The Maker fills it
with power, unearthly beauty.
North face, south face divide
the dark from the dawn.

Heaving lungs
give birth to layered clouds,
straining eyes join the birds
returning to the peak.
Someday I swear I’ll climb
clear to the summit,
watch all other mountains
shrink into
a single


Jing Ting Mountain, Sitting Alone
by Li Bo (701-762)

Flocks of birds climb out of sight.

The single cloud journeys on alone.

Absorbed in each other’s gaze, never tiring,

now there’s nothing left but Jing Ting Mountain!