Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How To Live, Part Twenty-Three: Idleness

Most of the pre-modern Chinese poets were civil servants.  Thus, their lives are generally similar in outline.  First came the rigorous civil service examination, which required extensive knowledge of the Chinese poetic tradition, including its strict rules of prosody.  (The next time you are pondering whether humanity has "progressed" over the past few millennia, consider whether the civil servants of the country in which you live are required to demonstrate knowledge of poetry as a condition of employment.)

Next came a career of shifting bureaucratic postings, often to far-flung provinces of the kingdom.  This accounts for the numerous poems of departure, and of longing for home, that appear in Chinese poetry, as well as for the many laments for family members and friends who will never be seen again. These careers were often marked by periods of exile for running afoul of higher authorities, followed by reinstatement, and assignment to yet another remote district.

Finally, if a poet was fortunate, came retirement, often to the countryside. This was seldom a prosperous retirement:  poets might earn some degree of fame, but they were hardly ever wealthy.

I am very fond of the poetry of T'ao Ch'ien (also known as T'ao Yuan-ming) (365-427), whose life followed this course, with a difference that is crucial to his poetry:  he left the civil service after only 13 years, and moved to the country to become a farmer.

A long time ago
I went on a journey,
Right to the corner
Of the Eastern Ocean.
The road there
Was long and winding,
And stormy waves
Barred my path.
What made me
Go this way?
Hunger drove me
Into the World.
I tried hard
To fill my belly,
And even a little
Seemed a lot.
But this was clearly
A bad bargain,
So I went home
And lived in idleness.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).  The poem is untitled.

Roger Fry (1866-1934), "La Salle des Caryatides in the Louvre"

In his translation of the previous poem, Arthur Waley uses the word "idleness" to describe T'ao Ch'ien's life upon his return home to the countryside.  But we should be careful not to take the word in its sometimes pejorative sense.  I, for one, find idleness to be a positive state of being, allied with repose and serenity.  In this, I follow Robert Louis Stevenson:

"Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity."

Robert Louis Stevenson, "An Apology for Idlers," in William Lyon Phelps (editor), Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson (1906), page 27 (italics in the original).  I realize that there is an element of playfulness in Stevenson's essay, but I wholly agree with the sentiment expressed above.

Further, when it comes to traditional Chinese culture, it is essential to consider "idleness" in the context of Taoism and Buddhism, both of which place great emphasis upon a detached, contemplative life.

The following untitled poem by T'ao Ch'ien is the first in a series of four poems in a sequence titled "Returning to My Home in the Country."

In youth I couldn't sing to the common tune;
it was my nature to love the mountains and hills.
By mistake I got caught in that dusty snare,
went away once and stayed thirteen years.
The winging bird longs for its old woods,
the fish in the pond thinks of the deeps it once knew.
I've opened up some waste land by the southern fields;
stupid as ever, I've come home to the country.
My house plot measures ten mou or more,
a grass roof covering eight or nine spans.
Elm and willow shade the back eaves,
peach and damson ranged in front of the hall.
Dim dim, a village of distant neighbors;
drifting drifting, the smoke from settlements.
A dog barks in the deep lanes,
chickens call from the tops of mulberry trees.
Around my door and courtyard, no dust or clutter;
in my empty rooms, leisure enough to spare.
After so long in that cage of mine,
I've come back to things as they are.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

Watson provides this note to lines 9 and 10:  "The mou, a land measure, differed at different times and places; T'ao's plot was probably about one and a half acres.  A span is the distance between two pillars in a Chinese style house."  Ibid, page 129.  Repetitions of the sort that appear in line 13 ("dim dim") and line 14 ("drifting drifting") are a common feature of Chinese poetry from its earliest days.

Roger Fry, "The Cloister" (1924)

The active "idleness" of a contemplative life of repose is embodied in this untitled poem.

I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

Line 4 is lovely, but Waley's phrase "a heart that is distant" might be subject to misinterpretation.  I do not think it is intended to suggest coldness or a lack of emotion.  Burton Watson translates the line in this fashion:  "With a mind remote, the region too grows distant."  Waley and Watson are the two best translators of Chinese poetry into English, so their different versions of the line suggest that T'ao Ch'ien's words are subtle. My best guess is that the concept here is one of detachment from worldly affairs:  the "noise" of the World, with which we are all familiar.

Roger Fry, "Market in a Disused Church in France" (1928)


Fred said...


Are you familiar with Kenko's _Essays in Idleness_? Your theme of idleness reminded me of him.

He was a minor court official and respected as a poet during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. At one point, he retired from court life for about two years.

During this period, as he puts it in the brief intro to this work,"What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head."

I had noticed the predominance of poems of homesickness and longing for absent family and friends, but I never really connected it to their profession.

I guess I'm idle right now. I've been retired for over a decade now and some friends and relatives seem disappointed with what I do. What I do is catch up on my reading, watch DVDs with films and documentaries, meet friends, and ramble a bit on my blog. I really haven't done anything worthy of note, at least in their minds anyway.

John Ashton said...

Another wonderful post Mr Pentz.
I wholly agree with Stevenson's observations on idleness and though there is an element of playfulness as you point out, it does not take away from the truth of the observation.
You may be interested in the following short passage written by Thomas Merton which I came across a while back;

"The fact that our being necessarily demands to be expressed in action should not lead us to believe that as soon as we stop acting we cease to exist. We do not live merely to “do something” - no matter what. We do not live more fully merely by doing something more, seeing more, tasting more and experiencing more than we ever have before. Everything depends on the quality of our acts and experiences. A multitude of badly performed actions and experiences only half-lived exhausts and depletes our being. By doing things badly we make ourselves less real. This growing unreality cannot help but make us unhappy and fill us with a sense of guilt. There are times then when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all, we simply have to sit back awhile and do nothing. And for a man who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all. We must first recover the possession of our own being before we can act or taste or experience reality."

You asked recently if I might be going on any more excursions. Sadly there won't be anything now until next year, apart from a few relatively local walks in the North Downs of Surrey.Soon after Christmas when I shall have a few days away from work some walks on the South Downs, near Steep and Selborne in Edward Thomas country. It's been a busy term, so I'm looking forward to it very much.
Thank you once more for posting poems completely new to me.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you for the quotation from Kenko. It reminds me of how Chinese poets often ridicule themselves for their obsession with writing poetry.

I recall reading about Kenko in some posts you have made to your blog, and you've mentioned him in some comments here as well. It has been my intention to get around to reading him, but, alas, I haven't done so yet. I see that Donald Keene, one of the best translators from Japanese, has translated Essays in Idleness. I will track a copy down.

As for your retirement: it sounds exactly like what retirement should be! And I strongly disagree that you "really haven't done anything worthy of note." You are doing exactly what you want to, which is eminently worthy.

It's always good to hear from you. Happy Thanksgiving.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you for the wonderful quote from Thomas Merton, which perfectly complements what Stevenson said. The whole passage is wonderful, but the final two sentences are particularly fine. (By the way -- and as you probably know -- Merton translated (somewhat eccentrically) Chuang-tzu's works, so he was very knowledgeable about Taoism. And about Buddhism as well -- again, as you probably already know.)

And thank you for the update on your excursions. Coincidentally, just this morning I saw a wonderful photo feature in The Telegraph titled "The Best English Villages." I am wary of "best of" lists (particularly when it comes to the riches of English villages), but the beautiful photos have made me long for a return visit to England.

I suspect that you have been to more than a few of the villages in the list. As I've indicated before, I've never been to East Anglia, and I hope to do so on my next visit. The list includes some towns in the area: Blakeney, Orford, and Burnham Market. But I'm sure there are dozens of others worth a visit.

I'm pleased to have introduced T'ao Ch'ien's poems to you. If you can, have a look at the Waley or Watson volumes, which contain a number of other fine poems by him.

As ever, thank you very much for your comments, and for stopping by.

Fred said...


I have the Keene translation. I find it eminently readable.

Happy Thanksgiving

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I was curious as to whether Keene was still alive, so I checked the Internet. He is. He is now 92. After retiring from Columbia in 2011, he moved to Japan and became a Japanese citizen. According to a NY Times article that is linked to on Wikipedia, Keene did so as a show of support and affection for Japan after the earthquake of that year. He is quite a celebrity over there. Wonderful.

Thanks for the follow-up comment, and enjoy the holiday.

Kevin Dwyer said...

Thanksgiving Day

Seems an appropriate day to say thanks for your endeavors. Thanks.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I hope you don't mind me adding one more reponse. I am so pleased that you appreciated the Thomas Merton passage.
I very much liked this line
" There are times then when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all, we simply have to sit back awhile and do nothing"

If you do have an opportunity to visit England again, and particularly East Anglia I would personally recommend a few places to visit; the village of Thornham on the north Norfolk coast which has a very fine coastal walk as well as Castle Acre with its amazing ruined medieval priory, there are also some beautiful walks in the surrounding countryside and finally the church of St Mary at Houghton on the Hill, which has an astonishing story and is definitely well worth a visit if you get the chance.

Both Blakeney and Burnham Market have become a little too tourist orientated and trendy in recent years in my humble opinion, but there are a wealth of other less well known villages, countryside and coast to be explored

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Dwyer: Thank you very much for the thoughtful and kind words, which I greatly appreciate.

And I in turn owe thanks to you and to all the other readers of this blog. I am continually grateful for you presence, and I am humbled that this proverbial labor of love is able to reach people.

Thank you again. Happy Thanksgiving!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Of course I am pleased to hear your recommendations! St Mary's Church in Houghton on the Hill looks wonderful. As you might expect, I immediately thought of J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country when I saw the images of the wall paintings on the website for the Church. And Thornham looks lovely as well -- as you know, I am quite fond of seaside towns, so it is right up my alley.

As for the towns in The Telegraph: I suspected that many of them are not "undiscovered treasures." (For instance, having been to the Cotswolds before, I know that Upper and Lower Slaughter are very well known.) And now that the towns have been featured in The Telegraph, they are no longer "undiscovered"!

In any event, my experience of England (and Scotland and Wales) has taught me that happenstance leads to the most memorable places. Some (if not most) of my fondest memories are of places that I stumbled upon by chance.

Thank you very much for your thoughts, which I have added to my file folder of places to see on my next visit.

Anonymous said...

Hello Stephen

Having been caught up in busyness to the extent of not having head and heart space to give your lovely blog the time and reading attention it deserves, I preferred to stay away rather than give a superficial skim. Your theme today seems a perfect one to evoke gratitude for my chance to return, even if only temporarily, and it has also given me to reflect on this word 'idleness' and the meanings we attach to it.

As I dig into its etymological past, I find a split occurred sometime back - perhaps in the days of High German (eitel) or earlier? - between the notion of idle as empty, which is associated with pure and undefiled, and idle as empty, to which is attributed the pejorative sense of worthlessness. Reflecting on this split, it occurs to me that "To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled."

I find it hard to believe that T'ao Ch'ien could have ever been idle, in the sense of worthless, since even a one and a half acres need active tending...

You offer another opportunity for me to give thanks, Stephen, by alerting me to the Telegraph's Best Village list. The Telegraph and I have disagreed over the years on a wide variety of subjects, and this list is no different, but like you, 'best lists' are not my natural optic for viewing the world. I can nonetheless feel grateful for being able to sit and enjoy the prospect of a sunny 84 degree Thanksgiving here in California, while indulging in the lovely photos of so many villages I have known and loved, and the memories attached to them. I now feel moved to spend the freedom of some leisure hours today (since someone else is cooking the turkey!) to reflect on my personal Favorite English Village list. So many places to choose from in this jewel of a land, which I have learned to appreciate from afar.

Thank you, Stephen, for continuing to be here to come home to and enjoy some hours of pure idleness. Wishing you a lovely and richly deserved Thanksgiving,


Stephen Pentz said...

Midi: I'm very happy to hear from you again -- a wonderful Thanksgiving gift. Thank you very much for your kind words. As I stated in my earlier response to Mr. Dwyer's comment, it is I who owe thanks to you and to others for taking the time to visit here.

Thank you for the etymological history of "idle," which is new to me. I like the connection with "purity." And I agree that T'ao Ch'ien was likely never "idle" in our modern-day pejorative sense. When I read his poetry I get a strong sense of a person who was at peace with himself and with the world, despite contending with the ups and downs we all experience.

I'm pleased that The Telegraph list opened up an opportunity for remembrance for you. As I suggested in my response to Mr. Ashton, there are so many lovely towns in England (and Wales and Scotland) that a list such as this seems somewhat absurd. But it got me to thinking as well: of the places I have seen (far fewer than you, of course!) and the places I hope to eventually visit. And, as you say, the photographs are lovely.

Again, thank you very much for your thoughts, and for stopping by. I always look forward to hearing from you. Happy Thanksgiving!

David said...

Thank you so much for this piece, Stephen. Many years ago I came across T'ao Ch'ien in a book by Alan Watts, who quotes that lovely poem which ends:

'In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.'

For some reason those lines have stayed with me ever since, I think because I have never really understood the very western tradition of seeking meaning in propositional knowledge and ideas of purpose, from which naturally flows a striving to match and compare ones own life to some idealized narrative – a perfect recipe for alienation, not to mention undue busyness. I am reminded too of those words of Ryokan:

'If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.'

And Po Chu-i:

'While the hands are busy, the heart cannot understand.'

On Black Friday these words seem particularly apt.

B. Floyd said...

Dickinson is often cryptic, but I'd wager her question--"Was ever idleness like this?"--is rhetorical (see poem below). She, if my years of reading her have led to some kind of understanding of poetry (I don't claim to all that much), knows the difference between idleness and death.

True idleness to her is when "The Brain--is wider than the Sky," those moments of contemplation when the imagination fires, those images that came to her as she sat in her room and looked from her window.

I think Dickinson would agree with you: true idleness, the ability to have it, is a gift, serenity and anxiety for once coupling, forming an amalgam of deep knowledge and contentment.

Death is an eternal sleep, so she says, and the dead, in dreamless slumber, cannot even "look up--for Noon."

Idleness, true idleness, requires a keen and unstinting self-consciousness. We can say, if we wish to comfort ourselves, that the dead are idle. I think we know better in our heart of hearts.

A long -- long Sleep -- A famous -- Sleep --
That makes no show for Morn --
By Stretch of Limb -- or stir of Lid --
An independent One --

Was ever idleness like This?
Upon a Bank of Stone
To bask the Centuries away --
Nor once look up -- for Noon?

Stephen Pentz said...

David: Thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

I'm pleased you mentioned Ryokan. As you may have noticed from previous posts, I am very fond of him. And your quotation from him is very apt in this context (and is one of my favorites). Although virtually everything he wrote is apt in this context, isn't it?

Your comparison of the Western traditions with that of T'ao Ch'ien, Ryokan, and Po Chu-i (as well as other Chinese and Japanese poets and philosophers) is thought-provoking. I suspect that the distinction you make is one of the underlying reasons I have long been drawn to the poetry and philosophy of China and Japan. Of course, strands of the same tradition (from different sources) can be found in Western poetry and philosophy, but not to such a fundamental extent, I think.

Thank you again for stopping by, and for your observations.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: As ever, thank you for bringing Emily Dickinson to bear on the topic of the day. Your contributions of her poems always seem to take us into much deeper territory.

The poem you share today is wonderful. I particularly like: "A long -- long Sleep -- A famous -- Sleep" and "Upon a Bank of Stone/To bask the Centuries away." But the entire poem is lovely. It brings to mind the many poems by Christina Rossetti in which she speaks of death as sleep, and as a respite.

Thank you again. A belated Happy Thanksgiving!