Sunday, March 30, 2014

Arthur Waley

Today I want to focus on Arthur Waley. He translated a book of Chinese poems [here], much like Ezra Pound did. This book was famously the first poetry volume bought by Paul Bowles, a famous expatriate American who lived in Morocco. Bowles wrote fiction, composed music alongside friend Aaron Copland and recorded traditional Moroccan music for the Library of Congress.

These poems are fascinating, both for their brilliance, their anonymous writers and their source in ancient times. The poem "The old harp" is a really interesting look at music, even though you must keep in mind that Chinese music evolved on its own path. Thinking about how it's similar to ancient Greek music is interesting, though--because both differ a lot from classical music [ie. baroque, classical, romantic, modern]. It reads:

Of cord and cassia-wood is the harp compounded:Within it lie ancient melodies.Ancient melodies—weak and savourless,Not appealing to present men’s taste.Light and colour are faded from the jade stops:Dust has covered the rose-red strings.Decay and ruin came to it long ago,But the sound that is left is still cold and clear.I do not refuse to play it, if you want me to:But even if I play, people will not listen.How did it come to be neglected so?Because of the Ch’iang flute and the Ch’in flageolet. --footnoted with this piece of information: [these are barbarous modern instruments]

An incredible moment from anonymous poem "Fighting south of the castle" from around 124 b.c.brings home the horror of war and death--even just the fear we all bear of death and suffering: 

Crows, how can our bodies escape you?
The waters flowed deepAnd the rushes in the pool were dark.The riders fought and were slain:Their horses wander  [...]

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