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"

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