On Being Sixty

A poem by Po Chü-i

  • Addressed to Liu Mēng-tē
  • Between thirty and forty, one is distracted by the Five Lusts;
  • Between seventy and eighty, one is a prey to a hundred diseases.
  • But from fifty to sixty one is free from all ills;
  • Calm and still — the heart enjoys rest.
  • I have put behind the Love and Greed; I have done with Profit and Fame;
  • I am still short of illness and decay and far from decrepit age.
  • Strength of limb I still possess to seek the rivers and hills;
  • Still my heart has spirit enough to listen to flutes and strings.
  • At leisure I open new wine and taste several cups;
  • Drunken I recall old poems and sing a whole volume.
  • Mēng-tē has asked for a poem and herewith I exhort him
  • Not to complain of three-score, “the time of obedient ears.”
  • — translated by Arthur Waley

Arthur Waley (1889–1966), one of the great translators of Chinese poetry, explains in a note to this poem that Liu Mēng-tē, who was the same age as Po Chü-i, had asked Po to write him a poem. Waley also explains in another note that “Confucius said that it was not till sixty that his ears obeyed him.” This age was therefore called “the time of obedient ears.” The great T’ang dynasty poet Po Chü-i (772–846) is said to have tried out all his new poems on an elderly peasant woman of his acquaintance to make sure that she could understand them, because he wanted to be sure that all his work was entirely clear. He became mayor of Lo-yang, the eastern capital of China, was a popular poet in his own time, and has remained an immensely popular poet in China throughout the centuries. Many editions of Waley’s translations of Po Chü-i and other notable Chinese poets remain in print.

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