Wednesday, 26 December 2012

If I start on the Classics I shall never get to History

Philip Harvey

This is the eighth in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.

A Poem by Yüan Mei (1716–1797)

Everything else in life is easy to break with;
Only my books are hard to leave behind.
I want to go through them all again,
But the days hurry by, and there is not time.
If I start on the Classics I shall never get to history;
If I read philosophy, literature goes by the board.
I look back at the time when I purchased them—
Thousands of dollars, I never worried about the price.
If passages were missing, the pains I took to supply them,
And to fill out sets that were incomplete!
Of the finest texts many are copied by hand;
The toil of which fell to my office clerks.
Day and night I lived with them in intimacy.
I numbered their volumes and marked them with yellow and red.
How many branches of wax-candle light,
How many drops of weary heart’s blood!
My sons and grandsons know nothing of this;
Perhaps the book-worms could tell their own tale.
Today I have had a great tidy-up,
And feel I have done everything I was born to do….
It is good to know that the people in the books
Are waiting lined up in the Land of the Dead.
In a little while I shall meet them face to face
And never again need to look at what they wrote!

The translator of this Chinese poem is Arthur Waley (1889-1966), the Englishman who did more to bring Chinese and Japanese literature into English than anyone else in the 20th century. The lucid logic of the poem speaks for itself. Commentary is superfluous.

One student of Arthur Waley later in his life was the Japanese scholar Carmen Blacker, who wrote of Waley’s domestic situation in 1962: “To add to his anxieties he had been told that by the following year he must leave the flat where he had lived for forty years because London University intended to appropriate that entire side of Gordon Square. In face of the difficulties of moving his library and of the almost certain prospect that his right hand would never write again, he had decided to give up Oriental studies altogether.”

This picture of Arthur Waley at the end of his life has about it details of weight and import that belong in one of the great Chinese works he spent his life translating into English. We ponder the painful move from familiar surroundings that comes at an age when life should be more settled. We are presented with his health conditions, in particular the hand that produced such books as the first English versions of Monkey, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, The Secret History of the Mongols and who knows what else, a hand now incapacitated. And our eye alights upon the word ‘library’. In this one word we are left to imagine what kind of library, what kind of books, constituted the private reading world of a scholar like Arthur Waley.

Waley’s book on Zen Buddhism was published in 1922, five years before Dr D. T. Suzuki’s first books in English, so maybe the earliest treatment of Zen in any Western language. Zen is such a basic component of contemporary religious language, we forget that it is a 20th century concept to the English-speaking world. Arthur Waley has been described as representing “a junior, exotic branch of the now historical Bloomsbury group.” (David Hawkes) He worked many years in the Oriental Department of the British Museum, then around 1930 seems to have decided that his life would be spent most productively in dedicated translation of Asian classical works. So determined was he on this path, and on rejection of an academic existence, that later in life he refused many honours, including the Chair in Chinese at Cambridge University, remarking of that prospect, “I would rather be dead.” Life, for Arthur Waley, was to be found elsewhere.

The editor of the Penguin Classic series mid-century, J. M. Cohen, called Waley a re-creative rather than an imitative poet. An imitative translator tries to get the exact meter and rhyme of the original, while a re-creative translator in an “interpretive artist”, something we see whether in Waley’s versions of the Japanese Noh Plays, Chinese Tao poems, or the Buddhist Tripitaka. Waley is praised for catching the right tone of the work in hand. For him, free translation is necessary for transmitting the poetic quality of a work. We see this, for example, in his translation of the voluminous medieval novel The Tale of Genji, where the main value is literary, not literal, “where any pedantically ‘accurate’ translation will vitiate their character in a far more damaging way – by making them unreadable.” (Ivan Morris) Waley is one of the main people responsible in the last century for turning the literatures of China and Japan from “the preserve of specialists and of dabblers in quaint exotica”, into “part of the main stream of intelligent reading in the West.” (Ivan Morris again)

Strangely, he never visited Asia, despite many invitations; theories for this include “he did not choose to destroy his visionary images of Japan and China.” (Peter Quennell) When we stand back from Arthur Waley’s achievement we see that it is the result of an exceptional ability to live imaginatively in places not his own and remote in time. We see too that this could only happen within a world of books. I am talking not about a nostalgic belief in books and their contents, not about a collector’s enclave of special editions and market prices, but about a vital, practical use of books for ends that widen everyone’s perceptions and knowledge, that connect West with East, that go down to the roots of language where one nation may recognise another nation. His library provided the poet-translator with the means whereby one person may meet another across continents, borders, and centuries. Like the books in the poem of Yüan Mei, the library of Arthur Waley mentioned by Carmen Blacker is a working collection, a slowly accumulated memory bank there to serve the solid working years of a real scholar. And like Yüan Mei’s collection, we wonder where all those extraordinary books went upon the death of their owner.

All quotes in this essay, including the poem itself, are found in Madly Singing in the Mountains : an Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley, edited with a preface by Ivan Morris. (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1970)  

1 comment:


    The Papers of Arthur David Waley
    Title The Papers of Arthur David Waley
    Reference GBR/0272/PP/ADW
    Creator Waley, Arthur David (1889-1966), translator and poet
    Covering Dates 1917–2001
    Extent and Medium 24 envelopes; paper and film
    Repository King's College Archive Centre, Cambridge

    Content and context
    Arthur David Waley was born Arthur David Schloss, son of the economist David Frederick Schloss. In 1914, he changed his name to Waley, his mother's family name. He attended Rugby School, and was admitted to King's College, Cambridge on 10 Oct. 1907. He studied Classics, and was awarded his B.A. in 1910.In 1913, he was appointed Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum. He left the museum in 1929 to devote himself to writing. He taught himself Japanese and Chinese, initially in order to catalogue the paintings in the Museum's collection. As his interest grew, he began translating poetry, and was the author of numerous works. These include '170 Chinese Poems' (1918), 'Japanese Poetry: The Uta' (1919), 'The No Plays of Japan' (1921), 'The Temple' (1923), 'Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting' (1923), 'The Tale of Genji' (published in 6 volumes from 1921-33), 'The Pillow-Book of Sei Shonagon' (1928) and 'Monkey' (1942). His last book, 'The Secret History of the Mongols' was published in 1963. In total, he produced 22 books of Chinese and Japanese translations and history.In 1918, he met Beryl de Zoete, who was a dance critic and writer. They lived together until her death in 1962. In 1966, Arthur Waley married Alison Robinson, whom he had first met in 1929. Arthur Waley was awarded many honours, including an Honorary Fellowship of King's College, Cambridge (1945), a C.B.E (1952), the Queen's Medal for Poetry (1953) and a Companion of Honour (1956).This collection contains documents written by Arthur Waley, and papers relating to him. It includes memoirs by members of his family, correspondence, photographs, off-prints both by and about him, and newspaper cuttings.This collection was given by Dr Daniel Waley, nephew of Arthur Waley, in six separate accessions between 1999 and 2001. Items reference number ADW 6/2 were given by Prof. A.M. Birrell in 1995.Recent envelopes used by Daniel Waley only for convenient storage have been removed. Cover letters from Daniel Waley to the King's College Librarian have been removed, and are held in the Archivist's Office.
    Access and Use
    Please contact the Archivist for information regarding copyright in the published and unpublished writings of Arthur David Waley.Please cite as King's College Archive Centre, Cambridge, The Papers of Arthur David Waley, ADW
    Further information
    The biographical information above was provided by A. and V. Palmer, 'Who's Who in Bloomsbury' (Brighton: Harvester, 1987), pp. 190-191. For further information, see 'The Annual Report of the Council, King's College, Cambridge'. (Nov. 1966), Francis A. Johns, 'A Bibliography of Arthur Waley' (London, 1968), and Alison Waley 'A Half of Two Lives' (London, 1982).A large collection of books, manuscripts and letters of Arthur Waley and Beryl de Zoete are held in the Special Collections of Rutgers University Library, New Jersey, USA.This catalogue, and the digital version of it, were completed in June 2003.
    King's/PP/ADW contains:
    1 Memoirs. Creator: Waley, Margaret and Waley, Daniel. 68 sheets in 6 envelopes; paper. 1968–2001
    2 Correspondence. Creator: Various. 79 items in 8 envelopes; paper. 1946–1996
    3 Photographs. Creator: Various. 1 envelope; paper. 1939
    4 Off-prints of articles by and about A.D. Waley. Creator: Various. 19 items in 7 envelopes; paper. 1917–1993
    5 Newspaper cuttings. Creator: Various. 1 envelope; paper. 1962–1982
    6 Posthumous biographical information. Creator: Various. 24 items in 2 envelopes; paper. 1966–1995