top of page

If your heart was like mine: poems to read on mountains.

ESSAY | by John Frew

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.

In summer, ice doesn’t melt

The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.

How did I make it?

My heart’s not the same as yours.

If your heart was like mine

You’d get it and be right here.

Han Shan - date unknown, possibly 7th century

A poem turns a single experience into a universal idea. ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And Heaven in a Wild Flower’: the mysticism of poetry allows one moment to represent the whole of human life, one tiny object to stand for the whole cosmos. Gary Snyder, the American poet, essayist and environmentalist whose translation of Han Shan’s poem is quoted above, defined poetry as a way of embodying ‘rare and powerful states of mind that are in immediate origin personal to the singer, but at deep levels common to all who listen.’

One of the ways poetry does this is to blur the lines between persons. It’s certainly not the only art form that invites the audience to identify with the artist, but it may be the one where this effect is most complete. When the ‘I’ of a love poem addresses the beloved ‘you’ or ‘thee’, it’s usually the ‘I’ that the reader relates to more closely. Poets invite us to share their hearts, to look upon the world with their eyes; this fusion of selves, this powerful sympathy that can reach out across continents and centuries, is one of the things that turns a mere document into a work of art.

But we shouldn’t get carried away. I might identify with the poet, and I might learn something in that moment of connection: but I am still myself, and I still have my own life to live. So there’s a refreshing bluntness about a poem that won’t let us get away with wallowing about in a soup of indistinct persons. ‘I, you, him, her, them, whatever…’: Han Shan is having none of it.

My heart’s not the same as yours.

If your heart was like mine

You’d get it and be right here.

My heart—mine—is not the same as yours. Take a good look at me, Han Shan tells the reader, and then take a look at yourself. You’ve got a long way to go.


I was thinking about Han Shan recently in the course of a few days’ walking in Wales. A legendary figure whose dates and identity remain shrouded in mystery, Han Shan (‘Cold Mountain’—the name he shared with the place he made his home) was a poet and hermit living in southeastern China in probably either the Sui or early Tang Dynasty. Over 300 short poems survive in a collection said to have been assembled from verses he had left written on bamboo, wood, stones, cliffs, and the walls of people’s houses. They tell of blissful seclusion, of hardship cheerfully endured, a simple life in the harsh wilderness; of indifference to the mockery of his fellow men, and the cares of wealth and worldly status long renounced.

‘There are old people who knew him,’ says an introduction to an early anthology of his poems: ‘they say he was a poor man, a crazy character.’ He would turn up occasionally at the nearest monastery to collect food pilfered for him by a friend who worked in the kitchens; then he marched off shouting and laughing to himself. When the monks caught him and beat him or insulted him, he clapped his hands and laughed uproariously, then walked away. When an important official tried to send him presents, he saw the messenger approaching and yelled, ‘Thief! Thief!’ and retreated into his cave. A final shout: ‘I tell you man, strive hard!’ and the cave seals itself behind him; with those words, echoing the last words of the Buddha himself, Han Shan disappears altogether.

He’s a good poet to go walking with. Another of Gary Snyder’s translations:

In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place—

Bird-paths, but no trails for men.

What’s beyond the yard?

White clouds clinging to vague rocks.

Now I’ve lived here—how many years—

Again and again, spring and winter pass.