This poet is an inspiration for me. T'ao Ch'ien came from a respectable, connected family. He received a good education in the classics. He entered government service as he was expected- to serve his emperor, his country, his family. He even served on the staffs of two generals. He had it made.
Then one day he simply walked out on it all. He walked deep into the countryside and became a recluse and a farmer. He did this because he couldn't stand to serve overbearing and arrogant superiors. But mostly, he couldn't stand being distracted from a life of inner peace centered around the flow of nature. It also cut down on his drinking time.
T-ao Ch'ien didn't retire to become a gentleman farmer. He howed his own crops- and the rice jar was often empty. He seemed to have lived a life close to Thoreau's ideal, except that he kept it up for over 40 years until his death- a death that he did not fear.
Don't think that this was an idyllic period in Chinese history. The empire had been driven from the north. Rebellion raged in both the east and west. The empire was disintegrating. The poet talks about how few neighbors he had because the countryside was depopulated. Yet, nowhere will you find poetry that speaks more truthfully about the quiet, harmonious life lived close to the earth. There is no striving here. T'ao Ch'ien had already reached enlightenment before he ever put pen to paper. For a poet that never actually mentions the great Tao, it is obvious that his every moment was spent in its embrace.
The poet makes it clear that he doubts the existance of heaven and of the immortals. He would live his life no differently if they did; he would regard inevitable death no differently. One can not but hope that he was in error here, for if any being deserved a place at the table of the immortals it was T'ao Ch'ien- with an ever flowing wine jar.