Flowers are not flowers, fog is not fog
When they come at night and leave at first light.
This Dream, this Spring, that often comes to me
And, as the clouds, leaves not a trace.
When flowers are not flowers, Bai Juyi
花 非 花，雾 非 雾
夜 半 来，天 明 去
来 知 春 梦 几 多 时
去 似 朝 云 无 觅 处
花 非 花
Hua fei hua, wu fei wu
Ye ban lai, tian ming qu.
Lai ru chun meng ji duo shi
Qu si zhao yun wu mi chu.
Hua Fei, Hua, Bai Juyi
This poem by the Tang poet Bai Juyi is written in the Yefu style, meaning it was capable of being sung. And the pinyin spelling reveals its rhyme and meter. Flowers (Hua, 花), fog, and clouds, provide the imagery. Lai, 来 and Qù, 去 — coming and leaving is repeated for effect.
The overall thought is both Buddhist and Tao. Its theme — the temporal nature of beauty, the passing of life, like a cloud, without a trace.
When and Where
The when and where of this poem are not known, as Bai Juyi wrote some 3,000 poems in his lifetime.
One could date this poem to any of several periods in Bai Juyi’s life. As governor of three different provinces (Zhongzhou in 818, Hangzhou in 822, and Suzhou in 825, as well as mayor of Luoyang in 829), he had much time for observation and reflection. Suffering from ill health, he retired to the Buddhist monastery at Longmen, near Luoyang.
Bai Juyi’s poetry affected later poets including 17th century haiku master, Matsuo Basho. Though there is nothing to indicate that Emily Dickinson read his poetry, the subject matter is similar. And, this poem gives us a clue.
Emily would write the poem and about her visit to Boston — “I have been to Mount Auburn, to the Chinese Museum, to Bunker Hill.”
When Roses Cease to Bloom, Dear
When roses cease to bloom, dear,
And violets are done,
When bumble-bees in solemn flight
Have passed beyond the sun,
The hand that paused to gather
Upon this summer’s day
Will idle lie, in Auburn, —
Then take my flower, pray!