mjj (flemmings) wrote,

Arthur Waley, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems

Have been rereading Waley's One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems- or possibly reading it for the first time, because I don't think I made it to the Po Chu'i (Bai Juyi) section last time. Nor do I have any idea when last time was, but I note that this book cost me $2.60 new, so it was a long way back.

Used as I am to more concise translations, Waley reads oddly prosaic to me now:
The good time will never come back again:
In a moment,-- our parting will be over.
Anxiously-- we halt at the road-side,
Hesitating-- we embrace where the fields begin.
The clouds above are floating across the sky:
Swiftly, swiftly passing: or blending together.
The waves in the wind lose their fixed place
And are rolled away each to a corner of Heaven.
From now onwards-- long must be our parting
So let us stop again for a little while.
I wish I could ride the wings of the morning wind
And go with you right to your journey's end.
I don't have the Chinese text to compare and probably couldn't make much of it if I did. Obviously Waley expands: not excessively, not for poetic 'effect', just enough to give grammatical and rational meaning to concise verse. But it's more than I'm used to, which may be why this doesn't read like 'poetry' to me. And what I have no way of knowing is whether a Chinese poem reads as logically as this to a Chinese reader.

Whatever, Waley gives me a new appreciation of Bai Juyi, whom I had dismissed as the guy the Heian courtiers liked to weep over. But his preface is what makes *me* weep. Those were indeed the days, my friend.
I took Classics at Cambridge and would like to have become a Don. But in the tripos I only got a 1.3 and my chance of getting a Fellowship very remote. I had an uncle who exported things (chiefly pianos, I think) to South America. It was decided that I had better go into his firm and for that purpose it was essential that I should learn Spanish. I was sent to Seville where for a time I lived in a room looking out on to the Giralda. The view was one several times painted by Matisse, who once occupied the same room. I got to know the french painter Bréal... To him I confided that I did not like the idea of the export business. He said there were other much more civilized forms of business; for example his friend Oswald Sickert, the brother of the famous painter, had recently (with nothing to recommend him save a few stories in the Yellow Book and an unpublished novel) become director of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and would certainly be delighted to give me a job. After a year in Spain I returned to England armed with a letter to Sickert. He was extremely kind and welcoming; but it turned out he was not a 'director' at all. He had secured, not without difficulty, a very minor post, and was far from being in a position to hand out jobs to other people. He asked if I had ever thought of going into the British Museum. ... Sickert said there was certainly a vacancy in the Print Room at the Museum. His friend, the poet Laurence Binyon, who was on the staff had just told him so. I asked my father if I might try for the post. He told me he did not think I had any chance. There was a very stiff examination (Sickert had dismissed it as a mere formality) and he also told me that the cleverest young man he knew, Laurie Magnus, had recently sat for it and failed. (J note: we shall stop here and contemplate this nice young Jewish Englishman obtaining his father's permission before applying for a job. Edwardian England was perhaps closer to Confucian China than it is to us.) However there seemed no harm in trying, and I passed quite easily.
Waley then spent a miserable time sorting modern German bookplates.
Shortly afterwards I heard that the Print Room was to be split up into European and Oriental sub-departments. Binyon was to be head of the Oriental part and I asked (simply to escape from German bookplates) if I might become his assistant. ... At that time, apart from a mild interest in Japanese prints, I knew nothing about Oriental art or languages.
Yeah, right. 'I'm kinda interested in manga, I'll apply for that librarian's position cataloguing books in the Oriental Institute's Japanese library.' Background in oriental art? None. Training in print conservation? Non-existent. Knowledge of Asian languages? Nil. One sighs in envy for a time when anything was possible for someone with a few connections and a good classical education.

Possible indeed. If Waley's lack of formal training was a problem, why, he simply set out to remedy it.
I soon found that it was very difficult to do the work I was now supposed to do without some knowledge of both Chinese and Japanese. (J note: no shit.) ... So I set to work to learn both languages simultaneously.
No prob. Don't know Chinese and Japanese? Why, just sit down and learn them. Piece of cake. (Current fangirls, take note.) I fancy, as petronia says somewhere, that once you've been thrown at a tender age, all unprepared, into a couple of foreign languages (Latin and Greek in Waley's case) and expected to make your way in them sink or swim, all other languages become- well, just another language, no sweat.

And in short order you'll be reading poems and looking for more at the Oriental Institute- which in those days has no catalogue. The boundless self-confidence of the Edwardians, or just of Waley himself, added to what looks a hundred years later as an utterly slapdash approach to scholarship, leaves me quite speechless; and more than a little envious.
Tags: chinese, reading_07, translation, verse

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