Arthur Waley and his Chinese poems | Daily News

Arthur Waley and his Chinese poems

Introducing the English translations of poems from Chinese sources titled as Chinese poems published by Unwin Publishers as far back as 1961, as translated by the scholar Arthur David Waley (1889 – 1966) an English scholar paid the following tribute: ‘A taste for Chinese poetry is not hard to acquire. It is as easy to enjoy as chop-suey and has indeed something of the same quality, being many flavoured and subtle, yet full of honest nourishment.”

I felt the same on rereading the English translations of Chinese poems running to more than 200 pieces on varied subjects as compiled into a single volume. Waley the hardworking scholar who had been tutored under gurus like Ezra Pound at the Cambridge University was known widely by the term English Orientalist.

Six volumes

Having learned Chinese and Japanese, Waley had utilised time to bring out 20 books during his lifetime. To his credit, he had brought out six volumes of Chinese poems initially in 1818, and a collection of Japanese Noh plays in 1921. Though highly inspired by various types of English poems over the years he had the knack to be sensitively closer to Chinese religious sources too. As a result of this, he brought out a work titled as Analects of Confucius in 1938 and the well known Chinese narrative of the 16th century titled as Monkey in 1942.

This narrative is now known as a great phenomenon work translated into more than 20 oriental and occidental languages. The Sinhala translation by the well-known scholar A P Gunarante was first serialised as a radio episodic drama, that followed the printed publication. Reading the various types of Chinese poems as translated in the present work titled as Chinese poems, I feel that Waley is trying his best to take the reader down the centuries of creative writing in China.

The period of commencement is marked as 900 BC. The poem is titled as Origin-Legend of the Chou tree. The poem may be of both anthropologic and historic values sandwiched in the versified narrative pattern. It is also a poetic narrative on the first ever paternal and maternal lineages in China. Flowing down the centuries, the reader comes across a number of short folk poems on varying subjects.

Handsome gentleman

In the section termed as Songs of Courtship as culled from 7th Century BC a female persona says:

“A very handsome gentleman waited for me in the lane,

I am sorry, I did not go with him.

A very splendid gentleman

Waited for me in the hall;

I am sorry I did not keep company with him

I am wearing my unlined coat

My coat all of brocade

I am wearing my unlined skirt

My skirt all of brocade

Oh sir, oh my lord

Take me with you in our coach.”

In the narrative time as feeling via the translation, a reader may feel the sense of expression closer to some of the oriental folk poems. Arthur Waley in his translations has taken special interest on the poet named Li Po (AD 701 – 762) while enveloping some of the poems in translation in the present volume, he had taken pains to bring out a work titled as Poetry and Career of Li Po in 1951.

The poems of Li Po are quite brief and come closer to a kind of visionary expressions. One example titled as In the Mountains on a Summer Day goes as follows:

“Gently I stir a while feather fan

With open shirt sitting in a green wood

I take off my cap and hang it on

A wind from the pine trees trickles on my bare head.”

Some of the poems of Li Po resemble the Japanese Haiku verses. One example is the poem titled self-abandonment. The lines go as follows:

“I sat drinking and id not notice the dusk

Till falling petals filled

The folds of my dress

Drunken I rose and walked to the moonlit stream

The birds were gone

And men also few.”

As Arthur Waley himself says he had never visited either China or Japan. It may have been due to the pressure of time and work involved as a full-time scholar. But he seems to have no regret over those taking the existence as a rapid flow of time, taking everything in the most relaxed manner in the best sense of spiritualism. Waley considers himself as a self-taught and self-inspired. Of the poems in the collection, even those on traditional themes, love and sorrow, this changing patterns and pleasures of life are grounded in awry awareness while others surprise the reader in nuances of humour and introspection. No poetic work is hard to understand as they convey some meanings related to human existence. During his writing career attached to the Oriental Section of the British Museum, he had the opportunity to meet a dancer cum like-minded orientalist named Beryl de Zoete who later became his wife.

It is said that she too had been an inspirer of Waley who towards the end of his life jotted down the poems when he dictated them one by one. The poem titled ‘The Pedlar of Spells’ from the Chinese poet Lu Yu (AD 1125 – 1210) is one such example. I had the chance of reading the poem as included in the collection under discussion. I wish to share the intuitive vision embedded in it that goes as follows.

“An old man selling charms,

In a cranny of the town wall;

He writes out spells to bless

The silkworms and spells to protect the corn.

With the money he gets each day he only buys wine;

But he does not worry

When his legs get wobbly

For he has a boy to lean on.”

Arthur Waley’s bulk of work still remains to be assessed in its correct perspective. I feel that the poems in the collection ought to be utilised as teaching material for two main purposes. Firstly as source material for creative communication teaching and secondly as source material for the teaching of translation methods.



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