Dismounting, I offer my friend a cup of wine,
I ask what place he is headed to.
He says he has not achieved his aims,
Is retiring to the southern hills.
Now go, and ask me nothing more,
White clouds will drift on for all time.
—Wang Wei (??), The Farewell (ca. 750 CE)
This poem, one of the best known works of the Tang dynasty poet and civil servant Wang Wei, is selected as a tribute to Phil Carter, who has just stepped down from the most thankless posting in the administration–as deputy assistant secretary for detainee affairs in the Department of Defense. He acquitted himself admirably in that position, demonstrating something that few government servants can–the ability to listen patiently and attentively to those who have differing views, always showing a spirit of good will and a desire to understand, combining the ethos of the citizen soldier and the public servant in an almost effortless way. As in the case of Wang Wei’s departing friend, he is a devoted servant of the state now moving on to “achieve other aims.”
Wang Wei was simultaneously an accomplished painter, and many of his poems appear linked to paintings, only a few of which survive (usually as copies). It’s possible that this poem is intended to accompany a landscape, probably of hills within a cloud bank like the work of Gao Kogong set above the poem.
Listen to Dame Janet Baker sing Gustav Mahler’s setting of Wang Wei’s Farewell from Das Lied von der Erde (1909) in a 1970 performance with Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The poem can of course be understood in different ways, but by tradition it has been seen as tied to a literal scene of leave-taking. The poet bids farewell and offers a parting drink to his friend, another civil servant or warrior, who is traveling south into retirement. In Mahler’s modification, the poet is puzzled about the reasons for the sudden parting, pressing his friend for an explanation. He replies with a suggestion of dissatisfaction with his life as a civil servant, a want of fulfillment. The poem sounds a note of momento mori, a sense of need to get on with life and to more fully taste its possibilities–being conscious of the limited time available to each of us. But against this the poet sets the image of eternity, shown in white clouds drifting in the hills–a promise of transcendence through artistic vision. Mahler adapts the text heavily to stress this final element of the eternal. The singer repeatedly intones the word “ewig” (“forever”), six paired repetitions, descending in tonality as the reality of the world appears to fade away and a post-temporal space is bid to emerge (in Ernest Bloch’s memorable formulation, “it melts with an unresolved suspension into an immeasurable forever.”) It is one of Mahler’s greatest accomplishments involving orchestra and the human voice, aggressively challenging the sonic possibilities of the voice and orchestra with the underlying themes of the poem.