Thursday, April 30, 2015

How To Live, Part Twenty-Five: Senescence

When it comes to aging, we can learn a thing or two from the ancient Chinese poets.  Yes, their poems do occasionally evince a sense of regret for, and a stoic resignation to, the passing of time, the loss of youthful vigor, and the approach of death.  But there is none of that "do not go gentle into that good night" business.  Too histrionic.  Instead, the overall message is that the best way to live out one's closing years is with equanimity, propriety, and serenity.

     In Answer to Vice-Magistrate Zhang

Late in my life I only care for quiet.
A million pressing tasks, I let them go.
I look at myself; I have no long range plans.
To go back to the forest is all I know.
Pine breeze:  I ease my belt.  Hill moon:  I strum
My lute.  You ask -- but I can say no more
About success or failure than the song
The fisherman sings, which comes to the deep shore.

Wang Wei (701-761) (translated by Vikram Seth), in Vikram Seth, Three Chinese Poets (Faber and Faber 1992).

Here is another translation of the same poem.

          An Answer to Assistant Magistrate Zhang

In the sunset years of my life, all I desire is quietude;
The ten thousand affairs of this world no longer involve my heart.
As to my future?  I have no better plan
Than to retreat to my old forest.
There the pine wind will loosen my girdle
And the mountain moon will smile on me as I pluck my lute.
Sir, do you ask the principle behind success and failure?
Listen to the fisherman's song drifting up from the deep river estuary.

Wang Wei (translated by Chang Yin-nan and Lewis Walmsley), in Chang Yin-nan and Lewis Walmsley, Poems by Wang Wei (Charles E. Tuttle Company 1958).

This version sounds more formal and quaint than Seth's version, but I think it is lovely.  I particularly like:  "The ten thousand affairs of this world no longer involve my heart."  (A side-note:  "ten thousand," not "million" (as used by Seth), is the correct literal translation.  It makes sense that Wang Wei would use "ten thousand":  he was a devout Buddhist, and "the ten thousand things" is a phrase that is used in Buddhist thought to describe the distractions of the world.)

John Lawson, "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)

English translations of Chinese poetry often end up sounding fairly relaxed and colloquial.  However, it is important to remember that traditional Chinese poetry was governed by strict rules of prosody relating to the number of lines, the number of characters per line, end-rhyme, and verbal and tonal parallelism within and across lines.  Wang Wei's poem is in the form known as "regulated verse":  an eight-line poem containing five characters in each line, with a single rhyme appearing at the end of the even-numbered lines.  In addition, verbal parallelism is required in the second and third couplets.

Bearing all of this in mind, consider a third translation of the poem.

     In Response to Vice-Magistrate Zhang

In late years I care for tranquility alone --
A myriad affairs do not concern my heart.
A glance at myself:  there are no long-range plans.
I only know to return to the old forest.
Pine winds blow, loosening my belt;
The mountain moon shines as I pluck my zither.
You ask about reasons for success and failure:
A fisherman's song enters the shore's deeps.

Wang Wei (translated by Pauline Yu), in Pauline Yu, The Poetry of Wang Wei (Indiana University Press 1980).

Yu's use of end-stopped lines of a similar length has the virtue of reproducing the image-by-image and thought-by-thought flow of the original text, and thus to some extent echoes the formal structure of the original.  When it comes to form, perhaps this is the best one can hope to achieve in translation, since the other prosodic features (five characters per line, end-rhyme, and tonal parallelism) are impossible to replicate in English.

James Paterson, "Moniaive" (1885)

As I was writing this post, the following poem by W. B. Yeats came to mind.

   The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water

I heard the old, old men say,
"Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away."
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
"All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters."

W. B. Yeats, In the Seven Woods (Macmillan 1903).

It is wonderful how one can read a poem in one's youth, have it lodge in one's mind, and then have it reappear when one least expects it.  I'm not saying that it came back to me in whole:  first the title floated up, then the phrase "their knees/Were twisted like the old thorn-trees."

Alas, I am not capable of drawing a brilliant parallel between Yeats's poem and Wang Wei's poem to Vice-Magistrate Zhang.  I'll have to simply leave the two of them side-by-side.  Which is perfectly fine.  This morning I looked out over the deep-blue waters of Puget Sound as row after row of brilliant white cumulus clouds moved slowly across a sky-blue sky.  This afternoon, I noticed that the lilacs -- creamy white and soft purple -- have come into bloom.

Sidney Vincent North (1873-1930), "White Houses"

As I have noted in the past, during the Edo Period in Japan (1603-1867) a tradition developed of writing poems in Chinese.  These poems are known as kanshi.  The poets who composed kanshi were steeped in Chinese poetry, and they strictly followed the requirements of Chinese prosody.  Not surprisingly, therefore, the best kanshi often sound like poems written centuries earlier in China.  Yet there is still a Japanese sensibility present, an underlying hint, say, of the unique concreteness and implication of waka and haiku.

The following poem was written by Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672), who is generally regarded as the finest of the kanshi poets.  It is his last recorded poem.

          Leaning on a Cane, Singing

Leaning on a cane by the wooded village,
trees rising thick all around:
a dog barks in the wake of a beggar;
in front of the farmer, the ox plowing.
A whole lifetime of cold stream waters,
in age and sickness, the evening sun sky --
I have tasted every pleasure of mist and sunset
in these ten-years-short-of-a-hundred.

Ishikawa Jozan (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

The poem is, coincidentally, written in the same "regulated verse" form as Wang Wei's poem to Vice-Magistrate Zhang:  eight lines, with five characters in each line.  More importantly, the mood of the poem is, I think, quite reminiscent of Wang Wei's poem:  equanimity, propriety, and serenity.

Robert McGown Coventry, "The Haven" (1908)


Jennifer said...

Thank you for this post and indeed the whole blog, newly discovered by me via the clerk of Oxford. I am slowly working my way through the earlier and missed posts. I am losing a much loved elderly father and this post bought peace and comfort.

John Ashton said...

I think I would agree with you Mr Pentz in having a preference for the second translation of Wang Wei's poem. I like the phrase "ten thousand affairs". The magnitude of the number captures perfectly the too many things that can occupy us to the exclusion of those which really matter.
To try to live one's life with "equanimity, propriety, and serenity", should be something of an aspiration for the whole of our lives, not just our closing years in my humble opinion.
Thank you for another wonderful post. I always look forward to reading them.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your posting. Senescence has become my middle-name in recent years. And I now have two perfect bookends for my thoughts about aging: Your offering of the Yeats poem (exquisite and tranquil) and my enduring favorite (which you mention), Dylan Thomas' villanelle (an expression of my defiance). Again, thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jennifer: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I'm sorry to hear about your father. If the poems in the post have helped you in some small way, I am grateful.

I'm pleased that you found your way here, and I hope you will return. Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: The second translation appeals to me for some reason as well. I suspect that phrases such as "the sunset years of my life" and "the mountain moon will smile on me" embellish a bit on the original text. But I like the translation's tone and movement.

Yes, I agree that equanimity, propriety, and serenity are things that we ought to be cultivating at any age. But they are difficult to achieve. I think the words came to mind because I have been reading Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius recently.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Davis: You're welcome. I'm pleased you liked the selection of poems.

As for "senescence" being your "middle-name," I suppose we are all in different stages of senescence from the day we are born, some parts of it being within our control, others not. Your suggestion that some combination of tranquility and defiance is required is a good one.

Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for sharing your thoughts. I always appreciate hearing from you.