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White Egrets

Forty years and not yet completely in decline,
Nothing more to worry about than a few fine white hairs.
Why then, at the river side, does a pair of white egrets
Worry not, when they have nothing more than a dangling thread on their heads?

Bai Juyi

Bai Juyi seems to have made it through life without too many worries. In addition to his many Imperial postings, he was a prolific poet with more than 2,800 poems to his credit. Bai Juyi copied and distributed his poems widely, and did not hesitate to rewrite a poem if it came to his attention that a servant found the writing confusing.

If as Bai Juy writes, he was 40 years of age when he wrote this poem, he was slightly precipitous in his “what me worry” attitude. Or spot on, if one assumes he had a foreshadowing of trouble. Beginning in 815, Bai Juyi was exiled for a period of three years, after he criticized the greed of some court officials. He returned and completed a long successful career.

In 832, Bai Juyi suffered a paralytic attack and lost the use of his left leg. He partially recovered and spent the remaining 14 years of his life collecting his poetic works at the Xiangshan Monastery, near Luoyang.

The last line of Bai Juyi’s poem is of some interest. 无 (No) 愁 (worry) 头 (head) 上 (on) 亦 (also) 垂 (drooping) 丝 (silk thread). One has to picture the dangling white feathery threads on the head of an egret to get the metaphor for an aging poet.



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