Friday, July 11, 2014

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

The Soldier
— Anonymous

I climbed the barren mountain,
And my gaze swept far and wide
For the red-lit eaves of my father's home,
And I fancied that he sighed:
My son has gone for a soldier,
For a soldier night and day;
But my son is wise, and may yet return,
When the drums have died away.

I climbed the grass-clad mountain,
And my gaze swept far and wide
For the rosy lights of a little room,
Where I thought my mother sighed:
My boy has gone for a soldier,
He sleeps not day and night;
But my boy is wise, and may yet return,
Though the dead lie far from sight.

I climbed the topmost summit,
And my gaze swept far and wide
For the garden roof where my brother stood,
And I fancied that he sighed:
My brother serves as a soldier
With his comrades night and day;
But my brother is wise and may yet return,
Though the dead lie far away.

From odes collected by Confucius about 500BC,  translated by L. Cranmer-Byng in A Lute of Jade. London, John Murray, 1909. (Wisdom of the East series.)

My father passed this little treasure of a book on to me in 1964, from his own library, along with its companion volume, A Feast of Lanterns, knowing I had loved them when I was growing up. 

In his introduction to A Lute of Jade, L. Cranmer-Byng explains that the odes collected by Confucius (one section of the book) were the folk poems of the common people of the era 1765-585 BC. 

I think it's easy to understand this as the thoughts of any soldier remembering home, and any family thinking of the one who is away soldiering. In those times, in feudal China, I imagine there wasn't much choice about joining the army if there was a war to be fought.

There are places in the world where there is not much choice about it even now.  And even when it is a chosen occupation, that doesn't take away the soldier's home-sickness or the family's concern. It's easy to relate to this deceptively simple little ditty.

The song-like repetitions effectively illustrate the return of the soldier's thoughts to his home and family, and also make the different individual details in each verse more striking by comparison. From just those few details, I get a strong image of the home he remembers.

I wonder if climbing the mountain is a metaphor for dying and looking down from Heaven — but I prefer to take it literally, and that's poignant enough. 

So long ago and far away, I hope he came home safe in the end, as we hope they all do.


  1. I'm sure I used to have a copy of Lute of Jade but cannot now find it. However, thanks for jogging my memory, I've just found a copy for £5 on Amazon.
    Love that 'The Soldier' poem. That's true poetry where a poem over 2,600 years old can still speak to us, and as an old soldier still speak to us of our own experiences, xxxx

    1. Res, what a find! I hadn't looked at mine for a long time; it's nice to revisit the poems.

  2. Rosemary what a beautiful poem of love loss and memory ... Left me teary.... Thank you for sharing.... Love...

  3. Beautiful and moving. The three mountains--or one mountain in its changes--suggest a journey further than the war zone--the metaphor you mentioned.

  4. Very poignant, Rosemary. Thanks for bringing us this poem which we might not otherwise have read. As relevant today as ever. Too bad we havent phased war out of existence yet.

  5. Rosemary, this is a very poignant poem. Having just visited World War I cemeteries, it is even more meaningful. We all hope that our sons and brothers and husbands return home when the drums die away! Thank you for this. And it was interesting to learn about the book your father gave you!

  6. In this region where many WWI battles were fought, people started commemorating it a few months ago and will do so until 2018 so WWI and its horrors feel very present. I did not realize until I read what you had explained that the poem was quite ancient. To me it could have been written very recently in the West. This just shows, I think, that some feelings are both eternal and universal. Thanks for sharing this moving piece!

    1. I agree. It reads as if it could have been written now, or in any era.

  7. Absolutely beautiful with such sadness and hope woven together.

  8. enjoyed the note at the end...soldiers so far from home...
    i guess that never really is a quite moving piece

  9. Feels as written today...and longing for return...brings me to eternity...peace and wars to defence it...~ Thanks, Rosemary for sharing this ancient piece.

  10. In feudal China, wars seem to be going on about everywhere. Every kingdom/fiefdom is bent on making a meal of their neighbour.
    I agree that this poem could have been written today, or in any era. I won't have known that it is so old, if I haven't read the notes, because the feelings and emotions it expresses are still as relevant today as it was then.

    Thanks for sharing, Rosemary. Another wonderfully written piece of work. :)


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