After the Chinese


IN 1923 there was published in London, and no doubt on your side also, a book entitled The Works of Li-Po, the Chinese Poet, ‘done into English verse by Shigeyoshi Obata.’ It is an interesting, even a delightful book, but it has this peculiarity, that it is not in English verse, as stated on the title-page, but in English prose. It must appear strange that an intelligent Japanese scholar, with a remarkable knowledge of the English language, should write prose under the impression that he was writing poetry.

The United States is not altogether without responsibility in this matter, for Shigeyoshi Obata, as he tells us in his preface, graduated at the University of Wisconsin. Can it be, then, that at an American university they do not teach their students the difference between prose and verse?

If it be objected that America cannot hold herself responsible for the mistake of a foreign student, there is another case which comes nearer home: FirFlower Tablets, ‘poems translated from the Chinese by Florence Ayscough, English versions by Amy Lowell.’ Here, again, there is the same confusion. Both Mrs. Ayscough and Miss Lowell labored in the belief that the latter was writing verse, whereas these charming line-for-line translations are, like Shigeyoshi’s, in prose.

The book, it need hardly be explained, is a collaboration. Mrs. Ayscough translated Chinese poems into English; Miss Amy Lowell’s task was to fashion them into English poetry.

Mrs. Ayscough — to illustrate their ideas on this subject — mentions as ‘a curious fact’ that ‘there has lately sprung up in America and England a type of poetry which is so closely allied to the Chinese in method and intention as to be very striking.’ And she quotes, as typical of this school, ‘a little poem’ by Miss Amy Lowell. Here it is: —


‘ Through pleasures and palaces ’ —
Through hotels, and Pullman cars, and steamships . . .
Pink and white camellias
floating in a crystal bowl,
The sharp smell of firewood,
The scrape and rustle of a dog stretching himself on a hardwood floor,
And your voice, reading — reading — to the slow ticking of an old brass clock.
‘Tickets please!’
And I watch the man in front of me
Fumbling in fourteen pockets,
While the conductor balances his ticket punch
Between his fingers.

Now it is not necessary to be insensible to the charm of this little piece to see that, were it printed as prose, it would never be mistaken for verse. Thus, for example: —

‘Tickets please!’ And I watch the man in front of me fumbling in fourteen pockets, while the conductor balances his ticket punch between his fingers.

If, then, this is a poem, the difference between poetry and prose would depend upon the printer, which, as Euclid would say, is absurd.

Is Chinese poetry really like this? If it is, then the Chinese poets are all Oriental Walt Whitmans, and write not only without rhyme but without metre, as we of the West write prose. But there is a notable contradiction here, for Mrs. Ayscough, in her introductory essay on Chinese poetry, observes:

One of the chief differences between poetry and prose is that poetry must have a more evident pattern. The pattern of Chinese poetry is formed out of three elements: line, rhyme, and tone. . . . The Chinese line pattern, then, is one of counted words, and these counted words are never less than three, nor more than seven, in regular verse; irregular is a different matter, as I shall explain shortly. . . . Rhyme is used exactly as we use it, at the ends of lines. Internal rhyming is common. Tone is . . . woven into a pattern of its own which again is in a more or less loose relation to rhyme.

If this be true, then the ‘method’ of the Chinese poet is something altogether different from the ‘method’ of ‘Nostalgia.’ The Chinese poet employs rhyme, and he uses ‘pattern,’ commonly called metre, or regular rhythm. His lines have the same number of words, corresponding, no doubt, to our metrical feet. Since the Chinese language is monosyllabic, alternations of tone are employed, which correspond to our alternations of short and long syllables. There is, in fact, a metrical system, a strict prosody. There is no sanction, then, in Chinese literature for that prosodic anarchy which confuses poetry with prose.

And now let us see how Miss Amy Lowell, herself, justified her method of translation: —

It has been necessary, of course [she wrote in her preface], to acquire some knowledge of the laws of Chinese versification. . . . It was totally impossible to follow either the rhythms or the rhyme schemes of the originals. All that could be done was to let the English words fall into their natural rhythm and not attempt to handicap the exact word by introducing rhyme at all. I hold it is more important to reproduce the perfume of a poem than its metrical form, and no translation can possibly reproduce both.

Now here is a perfectly simple position: it is impossible to translate a Chinese poem into English poetry. Let us, therefore, be content with a translation into English prose. But the question is nevertheless begged, since Miss Lowell assumed that what she calls the ‘perfume’ of a poem lies not in its metrical form but in its meaning.

Miss Lowell, alas, is no longer with us. Otherwise I should have proposed to her a testing experiment. Take one of the poems of her beloved Keats, — say, the ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ — by paraphrase strip it of rhyme and metre, and see how much of its ‘perfume’ remains. ‘Barbarous experiment!’ as Tennyson said in a similar case. As well take out the nightingale’s tongue and see if it can still sing!

Here let me say what should be obvious but is often forgotten, that there is no compulsion upon anyone to use metre and rhyme. The writer, if he so desires, can go without rhyme and write blank verse, or he can go without both rhyme and metre and write prose. He can do anything he likes, and what he does will be judged, not by its adherence to or departure from any ‘rule’ or ‘law,’ but by its effect. The ‘laws’ of poetry are merely the technique of an art, a traditional means of giving delight. If the poet can give this delight without the technique, he is welcome to try. Walt Whitman possibly mistook what are called the laws of poetry for a relic of English feudalism, and threw them overboard as the good people of Boston threw the East India Company’s tea into their harbor. But, as they lost something of ‘perfume’ in their tea, so Walt Whitman lost something of perfume in his poetry. As a matter of fact, alt hough he eschewed rhyme, his best work is metrical. ‘Whitman,’ says Professor Saintsbury, ‘could and did write more or less regular metre, and his actual medium is often a plum-pudding stone or conglomerate of metrical fragments.’ When Whitman wrote metrically he was a poet, although he would probably have been a better poet if he had begun by learning his job. When he wrote unmetrically he wrote prose.

I say this yielding to no one in my admiration of Whitman at his best: that best makes a thin volume, but contains some superlative things. But I cannot see, either in commerce or in literature, the rhyme or reason of wrong labels. Unfermented grape juice may be a very nice drink, but nothing is gained by calling it Chateau Margaux.


The Chinese poets, then, attempted something altogether different from the prosodic anarchy of some of our moderns. They laid themselves under the yoke of their prosody, not because it came down from ancient times, but because it gave to them and their readers the maximum of poetical delight. It expressed a certain rhythmic harmony which is strong and deep in human nature; and so, as their potters followed tradition in the firing and glazing of their porcelains, for the perfect works of art they could thereby achieve, the Chinese poets practised rhythm and rhyme to produce the perfect poem. There is, after all, no other defense of prosody worth making.

How, then, are we to translate the Chinese poem? If we leave out metre and rhyme we turn it, not into English poetry, but into English prose. We preserve something, the sense or the theme of the poem; but that, after all, is no more than the poet’s raw material, the kaolin out of which he makes his beautiful porcelain. Let the reader experiment again by reducing any of our finest lyrical poems to its meaning in prose. What remains is usually a commonplace, a mere truism, a bird plucked of its feathers, a violin with broken strings. The ‘perfume,’ the beauty of the poem, as we find, lies not in the meaning, nor even in the words, if they are put out of their order, but in that subtle union of rhythm and feeling, of sense and form, which is the complete poem as the poet fashioned it.

It is instructive to make these experiments. To cite, if I may be allowed, a personal experience, I have turned first into English prose and then into English verse the Chinese poems translated into French by Saint Denys (Poesies dc l’époque des T’ang). They are thus at three removes, yet, whereas the prose translation is like a piece of dried seaweed, the poems seem to revive in the medium of English metre and rhyme, as the seaweed rises and sways and resumes its life when the tide returns to it. But take, for example, one of the most popular of Chinese poems, ‘Drinking Alone in the Moonlight’ by Li Tai-po, greatest of the Chinese poets. The sense differs in various translations; but here is Miss Lowell’s version: —

A pot of wine among flowers.
I alone drinking without a companion.
I lift the cup and invite the bright moon.
My shadow opposite certainly makes us three.
But the moon cannot drink,
And my shadow follows the motions of my
body in vain. . . .

And here is Shigeyoshi’s: —

With a jar of wine I sit by the flowering trees.
I drink alone, and where are my friends?
Ah, the moon alone looks down on me;
I call and lift my cup to its brightness
And see there goes my shadow before me.
Hoo! We ’re a party of three, I say, —
Though the poor moon can’t drink,
And my shadow but dances around me,
We’re all friends to-night,
The drinker, the moon, and the shadow. . . .

Now let us see how metre and rhyme restore at least something of the poetical life which, we feel, has departed from this piece: —

Alone, with my wine, ’mid the flowers, we are three,
The moon and myself and the shadow of me.
As I sing and I dance I am happy to think
That neither the moon nor my shadow can drink.
When I dance with my shadow it never goes wrong,
When I sing the moon silently bows to my song.
No parting to quench my abundance of laughter,
The moon lights me home and my shadow comes after.

Obviously, at least in this case, verse is the better medium for the translation of verse. And there is another point which makes the case stronger. The Chinese poets wrote their poems to be sung. Saint Denys tells us, in that admirable introduction which remains to this day the standard work on Chinese poetry: —

From all time versification and music were two inseparable sisters in the eyes of the poets of China. . . . Thou-fou and Li Tai-po sang their verses. The same custom reigns to-day among the modern poets; certain national airs, consecrated by usage to the expression of such and such an order of sentiments and ideas, are transmitted, generation to generation, from antiquity. . . . From this indispensable accord has resulted this curious fact, that certain popular airs have become both prosodic and musical rhythms, in such sort that the careful analysis of the structure of an ancient poem is sometimes sufficient to enable us to recognize its origin or the air to which it can be sung.

If, then, we strip Chinese poetry of metrical effect, we take away something which the Chinese, at all events, looked on as essential. A poem to them was an exercise in the metrical art — or nothing. It is true that we cannot use the same metres as the Chinese; but neither can we use the same words. There is excellent reason for saying that a poem cannot be translated at all; but there is no logic in the contention that one part — the words — should be translated and the other part — the metre — ignored.


The reader, of course, has been asking himself all this time why Mrs. Ayscough, who knows that, the Chinese poet uses metre and rhyme, should have compared Chinese poetry to a piece which had neither. The answer, doubtless, is that there are other qualities in poetry besides rhythm. One is the loading of a word or phrase with a significance which kindles trains of poet ical thought in the reader, or, as a poet puts it, ‘vibrates in the memory.’ A poetical line may be so charged with this significance that it reverberates like a gong which has been struck in the mind, sending out tones deep or delicate, flashing out mental pictures, awakening associations long asleep. We find this quality in ‘Nostalgia’; to make this appeal is the whole purpose of the piece. And, as Mr. Ezra Pound points out in his Cathay, this subtle quality seems to be highly developed in Chinese poetry. To preserve it in translation is obviously difficult and may be impossible. The classical references, the hints of other and older poems, the thousand and one appeals to legend or scene familiar to the Chinese mind but unknown to the West — how are we to get such subtleties ‘across’ in translation? We must lose a great deal; we can only attempt to convey the feeling that more is intended than is said. Here, for example, is a poem of Tsin-Tsan’s, which depends for its significance on the Chinese belief that the spirit actually leaves the body in dreams: —

Last night to my chamber came spring
And my spirit took wing
To the Yangtse-Kiang where she dwells,
The Weaver of Spells.
Ah, my dream of the springtime how brief!
It passes belief
That although there are five-score ‘ li ’
Between her and me,
One moment I knew I was there
By the musk in her hair
And the next I was back in the gloom
Of my room.

The translator can only make his shot at it, hit or miss, but there is a still more subtle beauty of the Chinese poem which might cause him to despair. It depends upon a system of writing which conveys not merely the sound of the word, as with us, but, directly to the eye, the thing or the idea itself. The Chinese ideograph, which began as the simple picture of an object, became, so to speak, a rebus, a symbol or combination of symbols, representing not merely things but ideas. These characters are beautiful in themselves, and are used by the poet to bring to the mind through the eye a train of picturesque and literary associations.

The poet, in fact, uses a double language, of the eye and of the ear. ‘The physiognomy of the character,’ says Saint Denys, ‘has an altogether different value from the pronunciation of the word.’ The characters paint the theme and make it visible. ’It is,’ continues Saint Denys, ‘the peculiar quality of Chinese prosody that it appropriates at the same time two kinds of beauty which proceed from these two languages — the music which charms the ear and the painting which strikes the eye.’ The calligraphy, the beauty of the character, plays so large a part in Chinese poetry that in China poems are hung on the wall as we hang pictures. The poetical appeal invades the mind through two senses. Moreover, these characters are divided into two classes, the one signifying an idea, the other a thing, and from this division springs a system of opposition and parallelisms, which might be described as a pictorial rhythm. We have the visual rhythm of the character as well as the verbal rhythm of the tone or sound of the word. Here, certainly, is something to reduce the translator to despair.

The Chinese writing being ideographic, what we call parts of speech are unrepresented. There are not only no prepositions and conjunctions, but no verbs, adverbs, or adjectives. There are simply pictures of ideas and things, and, according to their place in the line, so are they substantive, verb, or adjective. This gives a strong but to some extent a fallacious appearance of laconism to the Chinese poem. So much may be enclosed in each character that a great deal may be expressed in few words — if indeed we can call words what are more than words, what are also symbols and images. Yet there is this quality of briefness, which we may call laconism, in the Chinese poem. The poet with a few dexterous strokes of his brush paints a picture — and leaves it at that.

Let me attempt to convey to the reader, by one example, this quality of laconism. It is Li Tai-po’s ‘Descent from the Mountain’: —

I came down at the end of day
From Mount Tchong-nan, the blue, the gray;
The moon came with me all the way.
I turned me in the failing light,
And gazing backward at the height,
I lost it in the shades of night.
But shining at my journey’s end,
A homelier welcome to extend,
I saw the cottage of my friend.
You held my hand; your son in haste
Opened the fence of interlaced
Branches across the pathway placed.
And as we passed beneath your eaves,
The overhanging bamboo leaves
Rustled against our silken sleeves.
Then kindled by your glorious wine,
I sang — I sang that song divine
Which the wind singeth to the pine.
The Milky Way had left the sky
Ere through our gladness you and I
Felt the day breaking like a sigh.

I may say that the version used here is from Saint Denys. The poem will also be found in Fir-Flower Tablets, and the several differences between the two versions suggest another difficulty of the translator. As he must translate not a word merely but a picture, so he may take much or little, one thing or another, from the symbol. Here are two lines, the one from Saint Denys, the other from Mrs. Ayscough and Miss Lowell: —

Son regard se perd dans
Les vapeurs de la nuit.
Green, green the sky; the horizontal, kingfisher
green line of the hills is fading.

Obviously, what has happened here is that the one translator has analyzed the characters more closely for their pictorial qualities than the other. And here, no doubt, is what Saint Denys means when he quotes a phrase used by another French scholar, Père Cibot. Translating a Chinese poem is ‘a little like copying a miniature in charcoal.’ The only way really to enjoy Chinese poetry would be by mastering Chinese and Chinese characters. That is said to be a life study; but it might be worth while. There would seem to be there a world of beauty almost unknown to the West — a very fair garden behind a very high wall.