Saturday, 19 March 2016

An old battle-field - Li Hua

Vast, vast—an endless wilderness of sand;
A stream crawls through its tawny banks; the hills
Encompass it; where in the dismal dusk
Moan the last sighs of sunset. Shrubs are gone,
Withered the grass; all chill as the white rime
Of early morn. The birds go soaring past,
The beasts avoid it; for the legend runs—
Told by the crook’d custodian of the place—
Of some old battle-field. ‘Here many a time,’
He quavered, ‘armies have been overwhelmed,
And the faint voices of the unresting dead
Often upon the darkness of the night
Go wailing by.’
                                O sorrow! O ye Ch‘ins!
Ye Hans! ye dynasties for ever flown!
Ye empires of the dust! for I have heard
How, when the Ch‘is and Weis embattled rose
Along the frontier, when the Chings and Hans
Gathered their multitudes, a myriad leagues
Of utter weariness they trod. By day
Grazing their jaded steeds, by night they ford
The hostile stream. The endless earth below,
The boundless sky above, they know no day
Of their return. Their breasts are ever bated
To the pitiless steel and all the wounds of war
                            Methinks I see them now,
Dust-mantled in the bitter wind, a host
Of Tartar warriors in ambuscade.
Our leader scorns the foe. He would give battle
Upon the threshold of the camp. The stream
Besets a grim array where order reigns,
Though many hearts may beat, where discipline
Is all, and life of no account.
                                                 The spear
Now works its iron will, the startled sand
Blinding the combatants together locked
In the death-grip; while hill and vale and stream
Glow with the flash and crash of arms. Then cold
The shades of night o’erwhelm them; to the knee
In snow, beards stiff with ioe. The carrion bird
Hath sought its nest. The war-horse in its strength
Is broken. Clothes avail not. Hands are dead,
Flesh to the frost succumbs. Nature herself
Doth aid the Tartar with a deadly blast
Following the wild onslaught. Wagons block
The way. Our men, beset with flank attacks,
Surrender with their officers. Their chief
Is slain. The river to its topmost banks
Swollen with death; the dykes of the Great Wall
Brimming with blood. Nation and rank are lost
ln that vast-heaped cormption.
                                                   Faintly now,
And fainter beats the drum; for strength is sham,
And arrows spent, and bow-strings snapped, and swords
Shattered. The legions fall on one another
In the last surge of life and death. To yield
Is to become a slave; to fight is but
To mingle with the desert sands.
.       .       .       .       .       .            No sound
Of bird now flutters from the hushed hillside;
All, all is still, save for the wind that wails
And whistles through the long night where the ghosts
Hither and thither in the gloom go by,
And spirits from the nether world arise
Under the ominous clouds. The sunlight pales
Athwart the trampled grass; the fading moon
Still twinkles on the frost-flakes scattered round.

Li Hua (c. 850) China
Translated by J.L. Cranmer-Byng

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