Ezra Pound, “Taking Leave of a Friend”

Taking Leave of a Friend
Li Po (tr. Ezra Pound)

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance,
Our horses neigh to each other
as we are departing.

Comment:

It isn’t really appropriate to describe these ventures by Pound into Eastern poetry as “translations.” From Wikipedia, regarding the source of the poem above:

Of great importance too was his work on the papers of Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908), an American professor who had taught in Japan, and who had started translations of Japanese poetry and Noh plays, with which Pound became fascinated. Pound used Fenollosa’s work as a starting point for what he called the ideogrammic method. Fenollosa had studied Chinese poetry under a Japanese scholar, and in 1913 his widow, Mary McNeil Fenollosa, decided to give his unpublished notes to Pound after seeing his work; she said she was looking for someone who cared about the poetry, rather than the philology. Pound knew no Chinese himself, and was working from the posthumous notes of an American who had studied Chinese under a Japanese teacher.

In the spirit of things, we turn to the poem. The first stanza is marked by separation. The mountain is separate from the walls; the river separates either the walls or the mountains from something else, perhaps dead grass. Dead grass is separate from life, loading “here we must make separation” with even more significance than the uncertainty of not meeting again in this life.

“Walls” are the only man-made thing in the poem. Perhaps the first stanza contains a hypothesis: maybe we mimic nature in imposing separation on ourselves. The threats of war and pillaging force civilization to literally set an end for itself. But civilization is rife with division within. Two friends are parting, after all. There’s an even more blunt concern, too: Is nature just the “white river winding?” Do we just move through death?

The second stanza takes an entirely opposite approach. Nature isn’t just the landscape, it’s the sky. A “floating wide cloud” hovers over all. I think Pound intentionally goes to similes (“like”) to indicate the remoteness of what “mind” and “sunset” represent. The immediate and even long-term reality is the landscape of walls, dead grass, mountains, a river. Still, despite the distance of what is in the second stanza, we get a part of nature that images man. We can imagine two men bowing and forming a semi-circle of sorts. Not all aspects of civilization are impositions. The horses “neigh.” The only sound presented in the poem is primitive, but a harbinger of speech, that which probably helped create the friendship and will allow it to continue in some form.

3 Comments

  1. Ashok, the beauty of poetry is magnified through the lens of your commentary.

    Now, you’ve given me things to think about.

    The thousand miles of dead grass could be nighttime. The wall, although it is north and not west, could represent the horizon into which the sun sinks, leaving it friend, the earth (from our land-bound perspective.)

    I don’t know. I just see these things after reading your commentary :)

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  2. This poem is about the pain that accompanies life transitions. In stanza one the friends must part and each will have to walk through miles and miles of the dead grass of doubt and sorrow while waiting for the emergence of a new life to manifest itself.
    The final lines of stanza two tell of a good-by, painful beyond words. The poet only remembers that the horses neighed.

  3. poem taking leave of two friends. in my opinion the poem symbolize the separation of body and soul of old acquaintances . explanation…. here show blue mountains burden of life and the walls represent the barriers of life when the body and the soul are combine.in the mean time the second lines of the stanza ; white river; show nature who winding on body and soul but nature do strive to separate them. when death was happened soul exit from the body and its show thousand miles journey or distance between them. [dead grass symbolize death]in the mean time soul got liberty and peace and free from every evil deeds of the body and nature.and the separation of body and soul are like end of the of the day or end of life .[sunset means end of life].in that very time when soul and body were separated they were bow and also hand shaking and goodbye forever.but at the end of the poem the poet compered the separation of body and soul with horses neigh.when the rider separated the horses so the horses want again reunion but the rider become a barrier or wall between them.in the mean time body and soul want again reunion but death are separated them. the end…. (written by khatir khan 5th semester bs english deppt)

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