Published on February 18th, 2014 | by msalt


A Rhyming Tao Te Ching

It’s not cool to rhyme any more, even in poetry. (Songs still get an exemption for some reason.)

So it’s a little startling to see a rhyming translation of the Tao Te Ching. But the original was written in highly ordered language, a form of poetry that is lost in most English versions.

Here is a bit of the first chapter, rendered in the “Pinyin” transcription of Chinese. Even if you don’t understand a word, you can see the intense double-meanings involved. Tao, for example, is the verb, subject and object in the famous first line, which basically says “The Tao that can be Tao-ed is not the true Tao.”

“dao ke dao, fei chang dao.
ming ke ming, fei chang ming.
wu, ming tian di zhi shi.
you, ming wan wu zhi mu.”

In 1903, I. W. Heysinger published a verse translation. (Both of these come from the very helpful “Bureau of Public Secrets” website, which lists 175 versions of the Tao Te Ching.)

The way that can be overtrod is not the Eternal Way,
The name that can be named is not the Everlasting Name
Which Nameless brought forth Heaven and Earth, which Named, if name we may,
The Mother of all the myriad things of time and space became.
Thereby we sound eternally the mystery divine,
But only without desire to sound, for if desire abide
The portals of the issuing host our baffled sight confine,
And deep within the eternal veil the mystery shall hide.
These two, the Nameless and the Named, they differ but in name,
For in their vast progression from the deep they are the same,
The deep of deeps, from whose eternal gate all spirit came.

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About the Author

Mark Saltveit is a writer, standup comedian, skimboarder and dad based in Middlebury, Vermont. His improv show "Palindrome Fight!" will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Aug. 5-29th 2022 at the Kilderkin Pub, 67 Canongate, at 7:30pm each night except Tuesdays.

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