Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Preface to Ancient Chinese Poetry by Arthur Waley
… And now a word about the subjects with which the poems deal. The most conspicuous feature of European poetry is its pre-occupation with love. This is apparent not only in actual “love-poems”, but in all poetry where the personality of the writer is in any way obtruded. The poet tends to exhibit himself in a romantic light; in fact, to recommend himself as a lover.
The Chinese poet has a tendency different but analogous. He recommends himself not as a lover, but as a friend. He poses as a person of infinite leisure (which we should most like our friends to possess) and free from worldly ambitions (which constitute the greatest bars to friendship). He would have us think of him as a boon companion, a great drinker of wine, who will not disgrace a social gathering by quitting it sober.
To the European poet the relation between man and woman is a thing of supreme importance and mystery. To the average Chinese poet it is something commonplace, obvious – a need of the body, not a satisfaction of the emotions. These he reserves entirely for friendship. I have been criticized for saying something like this; but the vast mass of classical Chinese poetry amply confirms my view. Accordingly we find that while our poets tend to lay stress on physical courage and other qualities normally admired by women, Po Chu-i is not ashamed to write such a poems as “Alarm at entering the Gorges.” Our classical poets imagine themselves very much as Art has portrayed them – bare-headed and wild-eyed, with shirts unbuttoned at the neck as though they feared that a seizure of emotion might at any minute suffocate them. The Chinese poet tends to introduce himself as a timid recluse, “Reading the Book of Changes at the Northern Window,” playing chess with a Taoist priest, or practicing calligraphy with an occasional visitor.
I do not mean to say that the gentle and reflective attitude traditional in Chinese poetry in any way gives us a key to the whole of Chinese life. Martial vigour, administrative ability, romantic love, all played their part; but in the whole bulk of classical poetry, say from the seventh to the fourteenth century, how minute a proportion for a moment touches any of these themes!