The two lines 'Witness the man who raves at the wall / Making the shape of his questions to Heaven' are probably the most significant lines in 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'. Their source is Li He's 'Don't Go Out of the Door'.
While not one of Li He's greatest works, this poem does have the distinction of being described by Professor Graham as an eruption of 'paranoid fury'. Moreover, it encapsulates the very heart of Li He's gripe against the world. In it, he compares himself to virtuous men of Chinese antiquity who were essentially too good for the world and were taken away early by heaven -- an eerie foreshadowing of the poet's own early death. The man who raved at the wall was the great poet Qu Yuan, who lived over a thousand years before Li He.
The poem runs as follows in Graham's translation:
Who was Li He / Li Ho?
DON'T GO OUT OF THE DOOR
Heaven is inscrutable,
Earth keeps its secrets,
The nine-headed monster eats our souls,
Frosts and snows snap our bones.
Dogs are set on us, snarl and sniff around us,
And lick their paws, partial to the orchid-girdled,
Till the end of all afflictions, when God sends us his chariot,
And the sword starred with jewels and the yoke of yellow gold.
I straddle my horse but there is no way back,
On the lake which swamped Li-Yang the waves are huge as mountains,
Deadly dragons stare at me, jostle the rings on the bridle,
Lions and chimaeras spit from slavering mouths.
Pao Chiao slept all his life in the parted fens,
Yen Hui before thirty was flecked at the temples,
Not that Yen Hui had weak blood
Nor that Pao Chiao had offended Heaven:
Heaven dreaded the time when teeth would close and rend them,
For this and this cause only made it so.
Plain though it is, I fear that you still doubt me.
Witness the man who raved at the wall as he wrote his questions to Heaven.
The Chinese original, with pronunciation and English gloss (one English word to one Chinese character unless otherwise indicated), is as follows:
|DON'T GO OUT OF THE DOOR||公無出門
Gōng wú chū mén
Master don't go-out door
|Heaven is inscrutable,||天迷迷，
Tiān mí mí
Heaven confused confused
|Earth keeps its secrets,||地密密。
dì mì mì
Earth secret secret
|The nine-headed monster eats our souls,||熊虺食人魂，
xióng huí shí rén hún
bear snake eat person spirit
|Frosts and snows snap our bones.||雪霜斷人骨。
xuě shuāng duàn rén gǔ
snow frost break person bone
|Dogs are set on us, snarl and sniff around us,||嗾犬狺狺相索索，
sǒu quǎn yín yín xiàng suǒ suǒ
set dog 'yelp' 'yelp' inspect 'suo' 'suo' (rustling sound)
|And lick their paws, partial to the orchid-girdled,||舐掌偏宜佩蘭客。
shí zhǎng piān yí pèi lán kè
lick paw, inclined [to] like wearing orchid guest (=orchid-wearing guest)
|Till the end of all afflictions, when God sends us his chariot,||帝遣乘軒災自息，
dì qiǎn chéng xuān zāi zì xí
emperor/god send ride chariot, disaster self extinguish
|And the sword starred with jewels and the yoke of yellow gold.||玉星點劍黃金軛。
yù xīng diǎn jiàn huáng jīn è
jade star stud sword, yellow gold yoke
|I straddle my horse but there is no way back,||我雖跨馬不得還，
wǒ suī kuà mǎ bù dé huán
I although straddle horse not able turn
|On the lake which swamped Li-Yang the waves are huge as mountains,||歷陽湖波大如山。
Lìyáng hú bō dà rú shān
Liyang lake wave big like mountain
|Deadly dragons stare at me, jostle the rings on the bridle,||毒虯相視振金環，
dú qiú xiàng shì zhèn jīn huán
poison dragon/snake look see, shake gold ring
|Lions and chimaeras spit from slavering mouths.||狻猊猰貐吐饞涎。
suānní yàyǔ tǔ chán xián
lion, man-eater spit hungry saliva
|Pao Chiao slept all his life in the parted fens,||鮑焦一世披草眠，
Bào Jiāo yī shì pī cǎo mián
Bao Jiao one life (=whole life) cover grass sleep
|Yen Hui before thirty was flecked at the temples,||顏回廿九鬢毛斑。
Yán Huí niàn-jiǔ bìn máo bān
Yan Hui twenty nine temple hair spots
|Not that Yen Hui had weak blood||顏回非血衰，
Yán Huí fēi xuè shuāi
Yan Hui not blood weak
|Nor that Pao Chiao had offended Heaven:||鮑焦不違天；
Bào Jiāo bù wéi tiān
Bao Jiao not offend heaven
|Heaven dreaded the time when teeth would close and rend them,||天畏遭銜嚙，
tiān wèi zāo xián niè
heaven fear meet gulp rend
|For this and this cause only made it so.||所以致之然。
suǒyǐ zhì zhī rán
therefore cause them this-way
|Plain though it is, I fear that you still doubt me.||分明猶懼公不信，
fēnmíng yóu jù gōng bù xìn
clear still fear master not believe
|Witness the man who raved at the wall as he wrote his questions to Heaven.||公看呵壁書問天。
gōng kàn hē bì shū wèn tiān
master see [person who] berate wall write question heaven
A few notes are in order as Li He makes some references that are not immediately apparent to the modern Western reader.
- The title, with the Chinese word 'master', a term used from wife to husband, refers to an old work 'Don't Cross the River' which deals with sacrificing one's life for love.
- The 'bear snake', which can also mean 'male snake', is a poisonous
nine-headed snake referred to by the ancients. The snake was very quick moving
and liked to devour human souls. It occurs in the poem 'Heavenly
Questions' as well as another poem entitled 'Invoking Spirits' by Qu Yuan.
The line in 'Heavenly Questions' runs (according to the Yang-Yang translation):
Where do savage cobras stay,
With nine heads that dart and play?
- The 'orchid-girdled' refers to a line from Qu Yuan's 'Encountering
Sorrow' which goes:
I pluck an autumn orchid for my girdle.
Qu Yuan was a high-minded man of great integrity and principles, and the phrase 'the orchid girdled' conventionally refers to such a person. Li He clearly regarded himself as similar to Qu Yuan.
- The 'chariot' sent by god refers to a horse-drawn vehicle reserved for the use of high officials.
- Lake Liyang refers to a place located in modern Anhui Province. The place was supposedly drowned and transformed into a swamp overnight.
- The 狻猊 suānní and 猰貐 yàyǔ were ferocious creatures of the ancients. The first has been identified as a lion; the second is a huge mythical creature with the head of a dragon, the tail of a horse, and the claws of a tiger, fast running and man eating.
- Bao Jiao was a virtuous sage of ancient times who ate only what he grew himself and drank only water from his own well. He wore only clothes woven by his wife. One day, in hunger, he ate some jujube fruit in the mountains. Seeing this, people sneered at him and asked if he had grown the jujubes himself. Bao Jiao spat out the fruit and preferred to die of starvation.
- Yan Hui was Confucius's favourite disciple who died by the age of 30. Li He himself apparently went grey at 18.