She lingered by the marble stair
till it was full night
and the dew had soaked her stockings
Waiting for what?
As it turned out,
only to sit at her window later
watching the moon go down.
Is this the most famous Chinese poem in English? Ezra Pound, famously “the inventor of Chinese poetry in the English language”, famously translated it, so:
The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
(Ezra Pound, 1915). And–not to let his learning go unnoted–Pound included a gloss with his translation:
Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.
With respect, I think there are a few things wrong with this undisputed classic of translation. For one thing, something odd happens between the first two lines and the next two, and it feels like a mistake. At first, the narrator is out of doors, on the jade steps–or near enough that the same dew that whitens the steps has also soaked her stockings. But then comes line three, and she lets down the crystal curtain, and…. wait–where did the curtain come from? Is the curtain outside, by the steps? Maybe she’s been waiting in an alcove or something? That seems unlikely. Or has she been indoors the whole time, just keeping an eye on the stairs in case whoever-it-is should show up? But if so, then why are her stockings wet? Were Chinese palaces so damp, without heat or carpets, that dew would soak a lady’s stockings even in her rooms? What the hell, I guess, is my question.
And then, what’s that apostrophe doing in your title, Mr. Pound? “The Jeweled Stairs’ Grievance”–what do the stairs have to complain about? It’s the woman’s grievance, if it’s anyone’s; since she’s the speaker of the poem, can we not assume she’s the speaker of the title as well? Or at any rate, surely the stairs aren’t. And another thing: however you slice it, the title of the poem, at least, is surely a direct reproach to whoever is to blame for this sorry state of affairs. So if the poem is “especially prized” (which I have no reason to believe it’s not), I would submit that its passive-aggressive delicacy is likely not the basis.
Anyway. Li Po wrote these four allusive five-word lines, and somebody (perhaps himself) gave it the three-word title that, in my opinion, rather spoils the allusiveness:
(jade + steps + reproach/hate
jade + steps + grow + white + dew
night/dusk + await + gradually advance + gauze + hose
then/withdraw/turn back + underneath + [(water(s) + glittering) | crystal] + curtain | tavern flag
bright/(tinkling of jade) + gaze into the distance + autumn moon)
Here is the word-by-word from chinese-poems.com, which styles the poem “Marble Steps Complaint”:
Jade steps grow white dew
Night long encroach gauze stocking
But fall crystal curtain
Exquisite view autumn moon
And another translation, from shigeku.org (and note, please, line 3’s time-shift):
Her jade-white staircase is cold with dew;
Her silk soles are wet, she lingered there so long….
Behind her closed casement, why is she still waiting,
Watching through its crystal pane the glow of the autumn moon?
Image: Staircase by Jannis Andrija Schnitzer, published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.