Moments of Solitude: Hao-jan’s “Night on the Great River”

Night on the Great River

Image by Crystal Hurd
Image by Crystal Hurd

We anchor the boat alongside a hazy island.

As the sun sets I am overwhelmed with nostalgia.

The plain stretches away without limit.

The sky is just above the tree tops.

The river flows quietly by.

The moon comes down amongst men.

~ Meng Hao-jan

[Translated by Kenneth Roxrath]


Moments of Solitude: Hao-jan’s “Night on the Great River”

By Crystal Hurd

C.S. Lewis once wrote that, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and friendship”. There is no question that we inhabit a fast-paced planet. We often spend our days completing a long inventory of tasks with break-neck swiftness. And surprisingly, we strive to become more productive. As if what we accomplish is not sufficient, unless it is efficient.  As if, in some strange way, we and the sacrifice we bring to the altar of our life’s work are frequently not enough.

But then again, there are moments where all is right with us.  The world finally gets quiet, the squeaky hamster wheel slows to a stop, and there is a delicious silence. Perhaps this is what Hao-jan is describing in his “Night on the Great River”.  In the translation I selected, notice that the poem begins with a plural pronoun – We.  He and his companion – his lover or his friend perhaps – float through the misty evening, past an island. He is not alone as he crawls peacefully across the river, watching the sunset illuminate the contours of the landscape.  As the day comes to a close, he reflects.  Other translations interpret this mournfully, as though the poet is approaching a symbolic death.  But in Roxrath’s translation, I see joy, an unabashed surrender to the night as ecstasy. There is a great expectancy of what is to come, as the plain “stretches away without limit”.  The sky creeps closer, the moon “comes down”.  Suddenly the lofty radiance of Heaven stoops nearer. For a brief moment, the poet transcends himself.  For once, he is not steering with fierce determination, he is floating, letting the current carry him.  For me, Roxrath’s translation of Hao-jan reminds us to cherish the pause, to appreciate the times of life where we stand still, where we relinquish control. Yesterday I recall with fondness, tomorrow I anticipate with hope, but tonight I am still and filled with wonder.

I experienced this very emotion two years ago during my first trip to Europe (although, I regret to say, it didn’t happen near a river).  My mother had recently beaten breast cancer.  The day I flew out, all of my students had passed their standardized tests with great success.  Also, I completed the final assignment for the final course in my doctoral program.  Flying was appropriate because I felt lighter than air, liberated from the burdens of personal and professional stress. Once we landed, I was in a continual state of awe.  In Wales, we visited a castle belonging to my husband’s ancestor.  Several yards in front of the castle stood a Celtic cross carefully carved 1,000 years ago.  I ran my hands down the eroded stone and felt the vibrations of history and human significance. The sacred texture arrested me; I am one who, like the stone mason, stands in reverence of the cross, the sacrifice and solemnity it represents. Suddenly I was comfortably outside myself.  This glance backward, provided by the trained hands of a craftsman long dead, paradoxically gave me great clarity about the future.  The plains are stretching out now, the stars are nearer.  I am finally at peace.



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