Friday, November 8, 2019


I usually pay a visit to Chinese poetry in autumn.  Not necessarily in search of autumn-themed poems (although there is no shortage of those), but rather for the equanimity and serenity one so often finds in Chinese poetry.  Yet, it is autumn, after all, and I look forward to an encounter with wistful bittersweetness and bittersweet wistfulness as well.  The season is what it is.

                    Planting Bamboos

I am not suited for service in a country town;
At my closed door autumn grasses grow.
What could I do to ease a rustic heart?
I planted bamboos, more than a hundred shoots.
When I see their beauty, as they grow by the stream-side,
I feel again as though I lived in the hills,
And many a time when I have not much work
Round their railing I walk till night comes.
Do not say that their roots are still weak,
Do not say that their shade is still small;
Already I feel that both in courtyard and house
Day by day a fresher air moves.
But most I love, lying near the window-side,
To hear in their branches the sound of the autumn wind.

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (George Allen and Unwin 1946), page 124.

As I have noted before, my two favorite translators of Chinese poetry are Waley and Burton Watson.  Here is Watson's translation of the poem:

               Newly Planted Bamboo

Aide to a magistrate, not my sort of job;
I close my gate, let autumn grasses grow.
What delights a man with country tastes like mine?
Planting bamboo, over a hundred stalks!
Gazing at their colors by the terrace stairs,
I think I'm far off in the mountains.
Sometimes, free of public duties,
I wander all day by the railings.
Don't say the roots aren't firm yet,
don't say they make no shade --
already I can feel in house and garden
little by little their pervading coolness.
And most of all I love, lying close by the window,
the sound of autumn wind in the branches.

Po Chü-i (translated by Burton Watson), in Po Chü-i, Selected Poems (Columbia University Press 2000), page 5.

Waley was an Englishman who produced most of his translations of Chinese poetry in the first half of the 20th century (with the lion's share of them completed during, and just after, the First World War). Watson was an American who produced his translations in the second half of the 20th century and on into this century.  I do not find critical assessments using the word "best" to be very useful. Hence, although I am tempted to do so, I will refrain from saying that Waley and Watson are the "best" translators of traditional Chinese poetry.  However, I will say that, in my humble opinion, they have the finest poetic sensibilities of any translators I have come across. These sensibilities (one recognizably English and one recognizably American) are coupled with a fidelity to, and a respect for, the text, form, meaning, and feeling of the original poems.  Their work is a gift to us all.

James Humbert Craig (1877-1944), "Dunlewey, County Donegal"

I have said this before:  it seems to me that simple peace and quiet is what many of us are in search of.  How do we find it?  Plant bamboo. Listen to the sound of the autumn wind in the branches.  This has never been an arcane secret.  Over the centuries, in all places, poets and philosophers, and even a Roman emperor, have placed stepping stones for us.  Following them is another matter entirely, of course.

"They seek retirements in the country, on the sea-coasts, or mountains:  you too used to be fond of such things.  But this is all from ignorance.  A man may any hour he pleases retire into himself; and no where will he find a place of more quiet and leisure than in his own soul."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book IV, Section 3 (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

This observation goes hand-in-hand, I think, with one of the emperor's injunctions:

"Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 11 (translated by Jeremy Collier), in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

James Humbert Craig, "Windy Day, Donegal"

The present age (whenever one is alive) is always full of noise, distraction, and false gods.  Our "modern" world is no different, although moderns harbor the self-flattering notion that they are unique beings living in a unique time, the vanguard of "progress" and "enlightenment."  No.  The  particulars of the noise and the distraction may have altered over the millennia (due solely to technology, not to a change in human nature), but the false gods remain the same.  Better to let it all go.

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 (365-427) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 76.  The poem is untitled.

This is Burton Watson's translation of the same poem:

I built my hut in a place where people live,
and yet there's no clatter of carriage or horse.
You ask me how that could be?
With a mind remote, the region too grows distant.
I pick chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge,
see the southern mountain, calm and still.
The mountain air is beautiful at close of day,
birds on the wing coming home together.
In all this there's some principle of truth,
but try to define it and you forget the words.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 135.

James Humbert Craig, "Drumfresky, Cushendun"


Deb said...

Love these poems and sentiments.

We live on a road which has become very busy over the years, and it loops around us and our neighbours, so that no matter where we go in the garden we can hear some traffic sounds. Or the local eatery will be blaring out some awful music! But I find some days I don't register the noise at all, whereas on others I feel positively out of my mind with frustration about it. Still, being out in the garden, with the breeze in the trees, getting closer to nature - is so peace inducing.

But this is perfect, worthy of dwelling on in those times of frustration -

 "They seek retirements in the country, on the sea-coasts, or mountains:  you too used to be fond of such things.  But this is all from ignorance.  A man may any hour he pleases retire into himself; and no where will he find a place of more quiet and leisure than in his own soul."

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: I'm pleased you liked the post. I think your experience parallels not only Marcus Aurelius's observation, but an oft-recurring theme in Chinese poetry: finding beauty and tranquility in a small, intimate, familiar place -- a garden, a courtyard, a pond. The poems by Po Chü-i and T'ao Ch'ien that appear in the post are but two of many examples of this. Something we can all learn from.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Herbert Knapp said...

Hi, Stephan. (I know it’s the custom these days to address everyone by their first names, but it still feels presumptuous.) I discovered your blog two months ago and have been visiting it every day., catching up on past posts, and occasionally reading again one that I’ve already read. I think your blog is a work of art—a new genre that blends a personal anthology of paintings and poems with commentary and diary. all held together by a temperament that is unique

Stephen Pentz said...

Herbert: Thank you very much -- that's quite nice of you to say. However, I fear you give me too much credit! I am merely a messenger: my intention is simply to share things that move me, in the hope that they may resonate with others as well. This is something we all do, in one way or another.

I'm happy you found your way here, and I hope you will return. Again, thank you for your kind words.

Deb said...

Stephen, this morning I found peace and tranquillity in a recent purchase, The Collected Poems of Richard Church. I was awake before anyone else, so the house was quiet, and there was only the occasional sound of a car driving past, early on this lovely Spring morning :-)

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: I apologize for the delay in responding to your comment. That's a hard-to-find and wonderful book. I stumbled across a copy back in the pre-internet days, and was pleased at my good fortune. Your thoughts have prompted me to take it down from the shelf, and I can't resist recommending a few of my favorites (which you may have already discovered): "Be Frugal" (which is how I first came to know of Church, when I encountered it in Larkin's Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse), "The Guides," "Solace," "The Valley by Moonlight," "Reading." But there are many more, as you know. Happy reading! (You are probably already aware of it, but, if you aren't, I recommend his The Inheritors: Poems 1948-1955. Start with "Parting from a Cat" and "Small Promises.")

Ah, yes, it is Spring in your part of the world. A November Spring, Church's poems, and a quiet house (I think of Wallace Stevens' poem: "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm") -- I can understand how you found peace and tranquillity. As ever, thank you for stopping by.

Nikki said...

When I moved into the first (and only) house I've owned later in life than most people buy houses, one of the main things I wanted was a little grove of bamboo in the back yard, the result of reading Chinese poetry all my life. I planted a few trees and now have a very tiny suburban "grove." It brings me so much quiet joy. As so these posts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: That sounds lovely (and is a wonderful idea). Yes, bamboo is a constant (and beautiful) presence in Chinese poetry, isn't it? As I'm sure you know, the same is true of Japanese poetry as well. Your comment brought to mind some poems I read a few months ago by the Japanese monk-poet (or poet-monk) Gensei (1623-1668). He wrote a ten-poem sequence titled "Bamboo Leaf Hut." Here are two of the poems (they are kanshi; i.e., poems written in Chinese).

In front of the roof, bamboo leaves dangling;
behind the roof, bamboo leaves beyond;
above the roof, bamboo leaves sheltering;
in the middle, a journeyer in love with bamboo.

Body light as bamboo leaves,
bamboo leaves like little boats
drifting through the great emptiness,
following the wind, floating free.

The translations are by Burton Watson, from his book Grass Hill: Poems and Prose by the Japanese Monk Gensei (Columbia University Press 1983), page 30.

Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. It's a pleasure to hear from you again. I wish you a wonderful holiday season.