“Elegy (自祭文)” by Tao Yuanming (陶淵明)

I just discovered this beautiful poem written by the famous Chinese poet, Tao Yuanming.

He apparently wrote this as an autobiography that was meant to be carved on his own tombstone.

There are many points that resonated deeply in my heart as I read it. Never have I read poetry that had such a strong power and effect on me and my heart.

Here’s my favourite line from the poem, which I decided to practice my calligraphy with (using a Noodler’s Creapers Flex pen which I acquired recently):

"Men fear to waste their lives, concerned that they may fail to succeed. They cling to the days and lament passing time."  This line in particular resonated deeply with my heart.
“Men fear to waste their lives, concerned that they may fail to succeed. They cling to the days and lament passing time.”
This line, in particular, struck me the most! Indeed, haven’t we all been guilty of this?

Beautiful, isn’t it?

Here’s the full text (if you find the passage too long, you can just read the lines that I’ve mark in bold – it captures the essence of the entire passage):

Elegy

(trans. J. R. Hightower)

The year is ding-mao of the cycle, the season that of the tone wu-yi, when days are cold and the nights long, when the wind blows mournfully as the wild fowl migrate, and leaves turn yellow and fall. Master Tao is about to depart from this lodging house to return for all time to his own home. Old friends are grieved and mourn for him: this evening they give him a farewell banquet, offering a sacrificial food, pouring libations of clear wine. They look, and his face is dim; listening, they no longer hear the sound of his voice.

Alas, alas, this vast clod, earth, that illimitable high firmament, together produce all things, even me who am a man. But from the time I attained human estate, my lot has been poverty. Rice-bin and wine-gourd have often been empty, and I have faced winters in thin clothes. Still I have gone happily to draw water from the brook and have sung as I walked under a load of firewood, going about my daily affairs in the obscurity of my cottage. As springs gave way to autumn, I have busied myself in my garden hoeing, cultivating, planting or tending. I have rejoiced in my books and have been soothed by my zither. Winters I have warmed myself in the sun, summers I have bathed in the brook. There was little enough reward for my labour, but my mind enjoyed a constant leisure. Content with heaven and accepting my lot, I have lived out the years of my life.

Men fear to waste their lives, concerned that they may fail to succeed. They cling to the days and lament passing time. During their life they are honoured by the world, and after their death they still are mourned. But I have gone my own way, which is not their way. I take no glory in their esteem, nor do I feel defamed by their slander. I have lived alone in my poor house, drinking wine and writing poetry.

Aware of my destined end, of which one cannot be ignorant, I find no cause for regret in this present transformation. I have lived out my lifespan, and all my life I have desired quiet retirement. Now that I am dying, an old man, what have I left to wish for?

Hot and cold hasten on, one after the other. The dead have nothing in common with the survivors. Relatives come in the morning, friends arrive in the evening, to bury me in the meadow and give comfort to my soul. Dark is my journey, desolate the grave. It is shameful to be buried extravagantly as was Huan Tui (whose stone coffin was three years a-making), and ridiculous to be parsimonious like Yang Wangsun (who was buried naked), for after death there is nothing. Raise me no mound, plant me no grove; time will pass with the revolving sun and moon. I never cared for praise in my lifetime, and it matters not at all what eulogies are sung after my death. Man’s life is hard enough in truth; and death it not to be avoided.

 

Here’s the full text in classical Chinese:

《自祭文》

岁惟丁卯,律中无射。
天寒夜长,风气萧索,
鸿雁于征,草木黄落。
陶子将辞逆旅之馆,
永归于本宅。
故人凄其相悲,同祖行于今夕。
羞以嘉蔬,荐以清酌。
候颜已冥,聆音愈漠。
呜呼哀哉!

茫茫大块,悠悠高旻,
是生万物,余得为人。
自余为人,逢运之贫,
箪瓢屡罄,絺绤冬陈。
含欢谷汲,行歌负薪,
翳翳柴门,事我宵晨,
春秋代谢,有务中园,
载耘载籽,乃育乃繁。
欣以素牍,和以七弦。
冬曝其日,夏濯其泉。
勤靡余劳,心有常闲。
乐天委分,以至百年。

惟此百年,夫人爱之,
惧彼无成,愒日惜时。
存为世珍,殁亦见思。
嗟我独迈,曾是异兹。
宠非己荣,涅岂吾缁?
捽兀穷庐,酣饮赋诗。
识运知命,畴能罔眷。
余今斯化,可以无恨。
寿涉百龄,身慕肥遁,
从老得终,奚所复恋!
寒暑愈迈,亡既异存,
外姻晨来,良友宵奔,
葬之中野,以安其魂。

窅窅我行,萧萧墓门,
奢耻宋臣,俭笑王孙,
廓兮已灭,慨焉已遐,
不封不树,日月遂过。
匪贵前誉,孰重后歌?
人生实难,死如之何?
鸣呼哀哉!