CONTEXT The sirens of tyranny sing seductively to the desperations of tired men. Tyranny and nihilism go hand in hand Nothing is of inherent worth for tyranny, beyond the perpetuation and expression of its own will to power. If there is no resource of worth beyond will to power, this too comes to nothing. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 188.
Wang Wei (701-761) enjoyed a long career in government. He was famous as a landscape painter and the paintings expressed Zenist ideas of emptiness and epiphany (to use Milosz’s word). His poems were short but carefully composed to communicate the narrative we find in lyric everywhere.
What strikes me about “A Farewell” is the dialogue. The situation is a common one. It opens with the imagery of friendship, intimacy of wine and renewal. That solid image —dismounting the horse indicating distances come—dissolves into a question, the neatly realized objectivity fading into the equivocal, the friend’s instability in the universal impermanence contrasting with elements from the imagery of arrival. It takes Wang Wei to move from realist imagery to to dialectic in its most social form, dialogue.
The answer is reported, not quoted, but with image-bearing specificity; Wang Wei’s retreat (think Alexander Pope at Twickenham) was in the Whole-South Mountains. Though the poet himself is secure in his job, and family wealth buffers him from vicissitudes of power (see the CONTEXT), he enters into his friend’s fate. A dialogue does not create equality.
The emergence of a composite image signals the climax of lyric. The imagery of oblivion—absence, emptiness—is suffused with compassion. Friend’s face the unsentimental truth together: “Once you’re gone no one one will ask about you.”
The poet’s voice blends with impersonal common sense. Perhaps “it is what it is” in the Zenist sense.
Milosz’s note on the symbolism of clouds does not quite capture the complexity of feeling at the end of the poem. The lyric narrative is now complete. We have gone through the fourfold pattern—from objective situation through equivocity and dialectic to the abyss and beyond. The porosity of the between shines in that last line. The finesse of great art leaves us speechless.