Selected Poems

10 Poems of Tao Yuanming Everyone Should Read

Last Updated: January 21, 2023
tao yuanming statue

Tao Yuanming is a renowned poet of the Tang Dynasty who is known for his simple and unpretentious style of writing. His poems are full of insight into life and nature and offer a refreshing perspective on the world.

In this article, we’re going to look at the life of Tao Yuanming as well as his literary legacy. And if you haven’t read any of Tao Yuanming’s poetry yet, here are 10 great poems that will give you a taste of his work.

The Life of Tao Yuanming

Tao Yuanming, also called Tao Qian, is one of the greatest poets of Chinese literature.

He is most known for his poetry in praise of rural life with simple pleasures. There is not much information about the poet’s younger years, but it’s safe to say that his life was difficult.

Early in his career, Tao Yuanming took a minor official post to support his aged parents. During his time working there, he was repelled by the widespread corruption of official life.

After about a decade of working, Tao decided to retire and live in a farming village with his family.

For more than twenty years of retirement, Tao lived a simple and reclusive life, rejecting society’s Confucian ideals. Even though a farmer’s life is far from easy with frequent food shortages, he was contented.

Tao Yuanming’s Literary Legacy

Some people called Tao Yuanming the “Poet of the Fields” since most of his poems portray a peaceful life of farming and drinking homemade wine.

He also demonstrates a feeling of obligation in his poetry like providing for his family. Tao’s writing style is just as simple as his lifestyle, with very plain and basic expressions.

About 130 of his writings have been preserved to this day, most of them are poetry or essays. His legacy also includes the impact he had on succeeding poets and writers, like Yi Hwang, a Korean poet from the 16th century, and Xin Qiji, a poet from the Song dynasty. Later, Tao Yuanming’s poetry would have a significant impact on Beat poetry developments and the poetry of the 1960s in the US and Europe.

Read more: Neal Cassady: Life, The Beat Generation and Poetry

10 Poems of Tao Yuanming Everyone Should Read

1. Returning To Live In The Country

Young, I was always free of common feeling.
It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains.
Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap.
Waking up, thirty years had gone.
The caged bird wants the old trees and air.
Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.
I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor.
Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden.
My place is hardly more than a few fields.
My house has eight or nine small rooms.
Elm-trees and Willows shade the back.
Plum-trees and Peach-trees reach the door.
Misted, misted the distant village.
Drifting, the soft swirls of smoke.
Somewhere a dog barks deep in the winding lanes.
A cockerel crows from the top of the mulberry tree.
No heat and dust behind my closed doors.
My bare rooms are filled with space and silence.
Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage,
Now I can get back again to Nature.

2. Drinking Wine

I made my home amidst this human bustle,
Yet I hear no clamour from the carts and horses.
My friend, you ask me how this can be so?
A distant heart will tend towards like places.
From the eastern hedge, I pluck chrysanthemum flowers,
And idly look towards the southern hills.
The mountain air is beautiful day and night,
The birds fly back to roost with one another.
I know that this must have some deeper meaning,
I try to explain, but cannot find the words.

3. Idle Living

Though life is brief, feeling is everlasting;
That is why man wants to live long.
The sun and moon follow the stars.
The whole world loves this name.
The dew is cold, and the warm wind drops;
The air is penetrating, the day bright.
The departing swallow leaves no shadow;
The returning wild goose brings a lingering cry.
Wine can wash away a hundred woes,
And chrysanthemums set a pattern for old age.
Why should I, a hermit,
Gaze vacantly at the change of seasons?
The ministers are ashamed of their empty grain jars.
The autumn chrysanthemums are alone in their beauty.
I alone sing while fastening my garments.
A feeling of melancholy stirs deep within me.
It is true that there is much amusement in living,
But in idling is there no accomplishment?

4. Begging For Food

The pangs of hunger drove me from my home;
with no idea of where to go
I travelled on for miles
until I reached a village,
knocked on the nearest door,
blurted out some clumsy words.

The owner understood my need
his warmth dispelled my shame
that I’d come empty-handed.

We played and sang till sunset,
the wine-cups often tilted,
with the pleasure of new-found friends
we chanted and composed verses.

I remember the story of the washerwoman. *
Ashamed that I lack the skills of general Han,
how can I show my gratitude?
I can only repay him in the world to come.

5. Drinking Alone In Continuous Rain

Destiny and life both have an ending;
From of old it has been so.
In this world there was a stately pine,
And where is it now?
An old friend gave me wine;
He said it would make me feel spritely.
I tried to drink it, and all my emotions soared.
I drank again to my heart’s content,
Forgetting suddenly that there is a heaven.
Is heaven not also here?
Relying on my inner self, I stand before the universe.
Only the cloud crane has strange wings,
Returning in a wink of time.
I, alone, embracing this self,
Have muddled through for more than forty years.
The body has undergone much change,
But the heart lives on. What more can I say?

6. Reading The Classic Of Hills And Seas

In the summer grass and trees have grown.
Over my roof the branches meet.
Birds settle in the leaves.
I enjoy my humble place.
Ploughing’s done, the ground is sown,
Time to sit and read my book.
The narrow deeply-rutted lane
Means my friends forget to call.
Content, I pour the new Spring wine,
Go out and gather food I’ve grown.
A light rain from the East,
Blows in on a pleasant breeze.
I read the story of King Mu,
See pictures of the Hills and Seas.
One glance finds all of heaven and earth.
What pleasures can compare with these?

7. Returning To The Old Homestead

My home was formerly at Shangching,
And six years ago I left it.
Only today I return,
And I am deeply moved and sad.
The roads are the same,
But the house has changed a little.
I walk around the old place.
Only a few neighbors are left.
Step by step I make out the old footpaths,
And there are places that make me linger.
In this life of wandering illusion,
With winter and summer pushing upon each other,
I have worried that at the end of all transformations
I shall be too feeble.
These thoughts I must banish
With a cup of wine.

8. Lament

The ways of heaven are mysterious,
the spirits pose a problem.

Since childhood, I struggled to do right—
forty-four years of struggle.

Things went bad when I was twenty.
At thirty, I lost my wife.

Fires burned my houses down
and weevils ate my grain.

Winds and rain ruined everything:
I couldn’t fill a mouth.

In summer, we went hungry;
in winter we all slept cold.

Evenings, we longed for the cock crow;
at dawn, we chased away the crows.

It’s my own poor karma, not heaven,
that leaves me troubled and bitter.

A name unearned, left for all the ages,
means no more to me than mist.

9. Lingering Clouds

How fair, the lingering clouds!
How misty, the seasonal rain!
Darkness fills the universe,
Blurring the level pathway.
I sit quietly in the eastern study,
Drinking spring wine alone.
My good friends are far away.
Scratching my head, I long for them.

How fair, the lingering clouds!
How misty, the seasonal rain!
Darkness fills the universe;
The land becomes a river.
I have wine! I have wine!
Leisurely I drink by the eastern window.
I yearn to speak to my friends,
But no boats or carts come.

The branches of the trees in the eastern garden
Are again burgeoning.
With their fresh beauty, they compete
To attract my love.
As the saying goes,
Time is short.
How can we find time to sit together
And talk of our lives?

Fluttering, the flying birds
Rest on the branches of my garden tree.
Scratching their feathers, they sit
And harmonize sweetly.
I have many friends
But I think most of you.
I want to talk with you, but you are not to be found.
How I resent it!

10. Ninth Day, Ninth Month

Slowly autumn comes to an end.
Painfully cold a dawn wind thicks the dew.
Grass round here will not be green again,
Trees and leaves are already suffering.
The clear air is drained and purified
And the high white sky’s a mystery.
Nothing’s left of the cicada’s sound.
Flying geese break the heavens’ silence.
The Myriad Creatures rise and return.
How can life and death not be hard?
From the beginning all things have to die.
Thinking of it can bruise the heart.
What can I do to lighten my thoughts?
Solace myself drinking the last of this wine.
Who understands the next thousand years?
Let’s just make this morning last forever.

Final thoughts

Tao Yuanming is one of the most renowned poets in Chinese history, and his life and work provide a unique perspective on Chinese society during the Six Dynasties period. His poems are still studied and appreciated today for their beauty and insight into the human experience. If you’re looking for some beautiful, timeless poems to read, Tao Yuanming’s work is an absolute must read.

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