Endless War

Li Po

(Translated by John R. Guthrie)

Last year we fought by the head-stream of the Sang-kan,
This year south of the wall on the Tsung-ho road.
Our armor’s been washed by the warm waves of the distant sea,
Our horses have grazed Mount Tien-shan's snowy slopes.

This endless war goes on, though our three armies,
ten  thousand  miles from  home, are weary and worn
and the Hun sews the wasteland with our bones.

The emperor Chim built the Great Wall against the Tartars.
The signal fires upon it burn even yet.
But now it’s the Han that tend the beacons there 
yet still the war goes on.

On the fields of battle men struggle, kill and die.
Then ravens and kites draw forth their guts
and drape them as grim remembrance on the limbs
of lifeless trees. The empty husks of men
are scattered and smeared over the desert grass,
the horses of the fallen look skyward, screaming from their wounds,
and though the generals have accomplished nothing
still they are planning the next battle.

Wise men seldom invoke war, for what is victory
When it differs so little from defeat?


Li Po (701-762) was a bon vivant, soldier and poet and periodically an officer of the court.  He is generally considered to be the greatest Chinese pre-modern poet.



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Harvard Square Commentary, December 4, 2006