A great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translations; or follows it.
The translation and appropriation of Chinese poetry by some English and American writers in the early decades of this century form the subject of this book. I shall be concerned as much with English translation of Chinese poetry per se
as with the relationship between this body of translation from the Chinese and the developing poetics and practices of what is usually referred to as “Imagism,” as much with the question of historical influence or ascription as with certain interpretive and critical aspects of this correlative relationship.1
Critics and commentators have often emphasized the direct influence of Chinese poetry upon the theory and practice of Imagism, attributing to Imagist poets in general and Ezra Pound in particular the perception in Chinese poetry of the essential qualities and principles for rejuvenating English poetry in the early decades of the century. In his informative and valuable “Introduction” (1968) to his Poems of the Late T’ang
, for example, the noted scholar A.C. Graham observes, “The art of translating Chinese poetry is a by-product of the Imagist movement, first exhibited in Ezra Pound’s Cathay
(1915), Arthur Waley’s One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems
(1918), and Amy Lowell’s Fir Flower Tablets
Graham thus echoes T.S. Eliot’s judgment in 1928 that “Chinese poetry, as we know it to-day, is something invented by Ezra Pound.”3
In the process of poetic translation and assimilation it is possible now, retrospectively, to recognize how these Anglo-American writers had construed and appropriated certain aspects of classical Chinese poetry according to their own preconceptions and creative needs. Yet when the results of such translation or adaptation are successful English poems
in their own right, it is often tempting to assume that they are in fact closely and directly derived from their Chinese models. In this book, such assumptions and their poetic and critical consequences will be closely examined and tested against the evidence. For creative
misreading, or “misprision,” for that matter, can be very successful and influential, so that historically a corpus of translations or adaptations from the Chinese can itself become an invisible tradition and establish for the Western reader a particular mode of poetic perception and canon of composition. Writing in 1965, Donald Davie offered a salutary warning that “there is a sort of illusion (a very happy one, of course) which explains why Chinese poetry so often reads well in English dress”: “The quality of Chinese poetry is exactly that quality which our poetry, in the present century, has adapted itself specifically to secure. In particular, one of the 20th-century English poetic styles, imagist vers libre
, might have been (and in fact it partly was) devised deliberately to give the translator from the Chinese just what he wants and needs to perform intelligently.”4
Ezra Pound, Arthur Waley, and Amy Lowell were all influential in shaping this perception, and because Pound himself influenced Waley and Lowell and was by far the more original poetic intelligence, it is upon his early development and practice that this book will concentrate. This introductory chapter, in particular, will provide a closely demonstrated chronology in order to show up the various distinct stages, which often tend to be blurred, of the Imagist movement in relation to the work of Chinese translations.
In the immediately preceding historical context of Western literary culture, Chinese poetry was first invoked by some of the French symbolist poets during the second half of the nineteenth century. Théophile Gautier, for example, composed a number of poems in which he expounded a new poetic of “hardness”—a quality he perceived to be inherent in Chinese poetry—as opposed to the prevailing didacticism in French poetry of the time. Emaux et Camées
(1851), his poems embodying such new poetic principles, were later to be recommended by Pound as the model to emulate.5
His daughter, Judith Gautier, produced highly influential French adaptations and imitations of Chinese poems published as Le Livre de Jade
(1867), but Gautier’s French versions had only a tenuous relation to their supposed Chinese originals.6
By the end of the nineteenth century there already existed a fairly large corpus of English translations from classical Chinese poetry. These were largely done by professional sinologists, chief among whom were James Legge and Herbert Giles.7
Neither of these two sinologists entertained any serious literary pretensions, yet they did not translate exclusively for fellow sinologists, for they also aimed at a much larger, non-professional readership. The forms of poetic expression which
Legge and Giles adopted in their Chinese translations were invariably appropriated and transferred, often in a much diluted form, from mainstream Victorian “poetic” treatment. As such their versions were a typical product, and often a second-hand rehashing, of the reassuringly familiar and conventional “poetic” staple of the Victorian era. Thus the Chinese poems translated seemed well within normative English poeticism, with recognizably familiar features of meter, rhyme, and poetic diction, and whatever strangeness and otherness that might have existed in the original Chinese all but vanished, except in the immediately detectable exoticism in names of persons and places and in a certain kind of landscape imagery. As J.M. Cohen says, “the Victorians conferred on all works alike the brown varnish of antiquarianism.”8
The beginning of this century saw the first burgeoning of Anglo-American interest in classical Chinese poetry, and there followed numerous volumes of English translations from the Chinese. There appeared Helen Waddell’s Lyrics from the Chinese (1913
), a volume of adaptations mostly based on the English versions of Legge and the Latin of Père Lacharme. Waddell remarked of certain Chinese poems adapted therein that they were “surely snatches of some Chinese ‘Rubaiyat.’” The following, for example:
The world is weary, hasting on its road;
Is it worth while to add its cares to thine?
Seek for some grassy place to pour the wine,
And find an idle hour to sing an ode.9
Other volumes of Chinese translations in this period include those by Charles Budd, Launcelot A. Cranmer-Byng, and W.J.B. Fletcher.10
These translations invariably continued the Victorian tradition of “poetic” treatment established by Legge and Giles, and the debased Tennysonian and Pre-Raphaelite line of archaic diction and exoticism.
But the whole situation changed radically when classical Chinese poetry began to exert considerable influence upon the development of modern English and American poetic composition in the second decade of this century: classical Chinese poetry was enlisted into the avant-garde movement of poetic innovation, specifically the program of Imagism as advocated chiefly by its central figure Ezra Pound, who published his Cathay
translations in 1915, and to a lesser extent also by Amy Lowell, who a little later put out a volume entitled Fir-FlowerTablets
(1921), done in collaboration with Florence Ayscough. There also appeared at about the same time a large body of translations from Chinese poetry by the English scholar and translator Arthur Waley, in various volumes, starting with the privately printed Chinese Poems
of 1916 and including One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems
(1918), More Translations from the Chinese
(1919), and The Temple and Other Poems
(1923). Waley’s Chinese translations were no doubt meant to meet the challenge represented by Pound’s Cathay.
Though initially he also translated a number of poems by Li Po,11
Waley soon proceeded to produce a far greater number of poems by Po Chü-i,12
and eventually completed a fairly representative sample of traditional Chinese poetry as evidenced in his 1946 selection Chinese Poems.
Waley tacitly criticized and challenged Pound’s taste in translating almost solely from Li Po by disputing Li Po’s own standing in the Chinese poetic tradition: “I venture to surmise that if a dozen representative English poets could read Chinese poetry in the original, they would none of them give either the first or second place to Li Po.”13
Waley preferred Po Chü-i’s more prosaic and colloquial poems and praised Po’s simpler style, his freedom from archaisms and literary allusions.14
But even with Po Chü-i, Waley only selected the simpler samples. Po Chü-i’s long poems, “The Lute-Girl’s Song” (P’i-p’a-hsing
) and “The Ballad of Everlasting Remorse” (Ch’ang-heng-ko
), for example, are conspicuously absent in Waley’s various collections of Chinese translations.
Lytton Strachey, reviewing Giles’s Chinese Poetry in English Verse
in 1908, found the Chinese poems there to be specimens of “impressionism” as compared with “the most exquisite of the lyrics in the Greek Anthology” which are fundamentally “epigrams.” In contrast, the Chinese lyric is “the very converse of the epigram; it aims at producing an impression which, so far from being final, must be merely the prelude to a long series of visions and of feelings.” “Between these evanescent poems and the lyrics of Europe there is the same kind of relation as that between a scent and a taste. Our slightest songs are solid flesh-and-blood things compared with the hinting verses of the Chinese poets, which yet possess, like odours, for all their intangibility, the strange compelling powers of suggested reminiscence and romance. Whatever their subject, they remain ethereal.” Strachey concluded that “perhaps the Western writer whose manner they suggest most constantly is Verlaine.”15
Among the Imagist poets, the American John Gould Fletcher claimed that “if French Symbolism be taken for the
father of Imagism, Chinese poetry was its foster-father,”16
and that his Visions of the Evening
, first published in 1913, was influenced by classical Chinese poetry, though he did not have any knowledge of Chinese at the time. “What had happened was that I had somehow, as a poet, guessed at the way the Orientals had constructed their poems. The parallelism of construction, casting back and forth from the observer to thing observed, is surely manifest: and the self-same quality is omnipresent in Ezra Pound’s Cathay.
Yet initially this was not so, for the models Fletcher adopted for most of his poems of this period were the Japanese tanka
form, as was evident in his Goblins and Pagodas
(1916) and Japanese Prints
(1918). But Fletcher came to see the limitations of Japanese forms like tanka
: “We who are aware of the immense cultural debt long since owed by Japanese literature and art to the Chinese, are also aware of how little effect these Japanese forms … can have had upon developing the Imagist group in the direction of a bette...