Allusions to Classical Chinese Poetry in Pink Floyd

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Li Shangyin

Two swallows in the rafters hear the long sigh

A. C. Graham's translation 'Untitled Poem (vii)' appears to be the source of the line 'Under the eaves the swallow is resting' in 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'.

Although called 'Untitled Poem (vii)' by Graham, this was actually the fourth in a series of four untitled poems. The second, translated as 'Untitled Poem (ii)', and the third, translated as 'Untitled Poem (iii)', were both quoted by Roger Waters in 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'.

It is curious that Waters has used this image of a swallow under the eaves as a symbol of the pre-dawn stillness. Once the source of the line is known, the quietly resting swallow is revealed as a witness to distress at the lady's growing old without a husband. The quiet of dawn is pregnant with the desperation of the coming day.

Who was Li Shangyin?

UNTITLED POEM (vii)

Where is it, the sad lyre which follows the quick flute?
Down endless lanes where the cherries flower, on a bank where the willows droop.
The lady of the East house grows old without a husband,
The white sun at high noon, the last spring month half over.
Princess Li-yang is fourteen,
In the cool of the day, after the Rain Feast, with him behind the fence, look.
... Come home, toss and turn till the fifth watch.
Two swallows in the rafters hear the long sigh.

 

UNTITLED POEM (vii) 無題 其三
wú tí qí sān
no title no. 3
Where is it, the sad lyre which follows the quick flute? 何處哀箏隨急管,
hé chù āi zhēng suí jí guǎn

what place sad/moving zither follow quick flute
Down endless lanes where the cherries flower, on a bank where the willows droop. 櫻花永巷垂楊岸。
yīng huā yǒng xiàng chuí yáng àn
cherry flower long lane hang willow bank
The lady of the East house grows old without a husband, 東家老女嫁不售,
dōng jiā lǎo nǚ jià bú shòu
east house old lady marry-out not sell (=cannot marry)
The white sun at high noon, the last spring month half over. 白日當天三月半。
bái rì dāng tiān sānyuè bàn
white sun reach sky three month half
Princess Li-yang is fourteen, 溧陽公主年十四,
Lì yáng gōngzhǔ nián shí sì
Li-yang princess year 14
In the cool of the day, after the Rain Feast, with him behind the fence, look. 清明暖後同牆看。
qīngmíng nuǎn hòu tóng qiáng kàn
bright clear warm after (=after warm) same wall look
... Come home, toss and turn till the fifth watch. 歸來展轉到五更,
guī lái zhǎn zhuàn dào wǔ gēng
return come toss turn till five watch
Two swallows in the rafters hear the long sigh. 梁間燕子聞長歎。
liáng jiān yànzǐ wén cháng tàn
rafter between (=between rafters) swallow hear long sigh

 

The poem presents a contrast between the beautiful lady of the East house, who has been left on the shelf, and young Princess Li Yang, daughter of Emperor Jianwen (503-551) of the Liang dynasty. Li Yang was a noted beauty who married the powerful general Hou Jing.

The line that runs 'with him behind the fence, look' in Graham's translation tends to suggest some kind of hanky-panky. The Chinese does not have this salacious implication. In fact, it appears to refer to a story that Emperor Jianwen went out hunting one day, and came back to find his daughter and General Hou Jing trying out the imperial throne, a presage of the General's rebellion against the throne in later years.

The final lines refer to swallows in the rafters as witnesses to the loneliness of the lady in the East House. Pairs of swallows often build their nests inside people's homes and are a symbol of marital devotion and happy married life. The swallows in the rafters here form a cruel contrast to the lonely unwed lady in the room below.

Chinese commentators suggest that the poem is actually an allegory. The lady in the East House, who is beautiful but lacks powerful political connections, is the poet. The poet laments that, like the lady, he is being neglected by his political master. In contrast, the trusted General Hou Jing who married the Emperor's daughter ultimately turned out to be treacherous.

Note: The Qingming (Clear Bright) Festival, translated by Graham as the 'Rain Festival', takes place in Spring. In modern China, it generally falls on about 5 April. It is an occasion when Chinese visit their ancestors' graves in order to tidy them up and lay flowers.

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