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Lyrics from the Chinese

Category: Books sutras and myths

'Love'

Lyrics from the Chinese is a compendium of Chinese poems dating from 2000- 3000 years ago.  In other words poems written well before Jesus appeared.  There are poems dated 718 BC, 769 BC and 826 BC, for example, in this collection.  They are all simple and supremely beautiful, and the simplicity of the English translations in the compendium is largely owed to the work of Helen Waddell. 

Helen discovered ‘two stout volumes’ called The Chinese Classics that contained the original Chinese text and a translation by Dr Legge, a missionary in China and a late professor of Chinese at Oxford.  He had printed the book himself in Hong Kong.  He in turn had also used the work of a Jesuit Father in the eighteenth century, Pere Lacharme, who had been so captivated by the poems he had recorded them – but in Latin.  The resulting book, as Helen relates was ‘not popular’, as a consequence.  Dr Legge’s translations had the original Chinese text first, then a prose translation ‘of unflinching accuracy’ and footnotes that in fact proved remarkably helpful – more helpful than the translations.

 

They “unravelled all things, from the habits of a sinister plant called tribulus… to the wickedness of the Duke Seuen in his palace of Wei”.  As Helen goes on to recount
It is the footnotes that create so gracious a sense of security, an atmosphere in which even the Duke Seuen loses half his terrors; the kindly precision of a scholar without guile”.

And here we have also an explanation as to why Helen decided to do her own translation.  Dr Legge was a scholar, but he was no poet, his translation was precise, accurate in its own way, but captured nothing of the beauty or intent of the original poet.  The poems are actually extremely subtle, and like all truly superb poetry they can be read more than one way.  Many of them appear to be love poems, but this was a time of great spiritual understanding, and they can also be read as the longing of the soul for the spirit.  There is also extensive use of symbolism – Universal symbolism – in the poems as well as culture specific [and probably personal] symbolism.  So any translation was going to be a difficult task.

Helen discovered the poems in 1912, as she sat in the library of Queen's University, Belfast.  But it was just a few lines that “suddenly captured the moment, blotted out past and future into an eternal Now, raised her to the vision splendid and changed the course of her life”[Dame Felicitas Corrigan].

 

Do you remember the old shelf of 'Chinese Classics' by James Legge D.D., Trubner & Co., London and Hong Kong... Well, it happened on Tuesday. I had sickened my very soul over Jean de Meung and yearned for anything, by way of dry disinfectant. And I reached out to the familiar shelf, and something guided my hand to one of the volumes I had never opened before. It opened itself at
'The gourd has still its bitter leaves'
…and I found that I was reading the prose translation of odes that were "sung at the court of Loo in the 29th year of the Duke Seang" in the sixth century before Christ, when Confucius was eight years old.
My breath came thick, my head swam round – for I know buried treasure when I see it, and not even the Reverend James Legge's awful and literal prose could hide the freshness of it. And in ten minutes I had written my translation. …..

 

The poem took ten minutes to write with not a word to alter.  Within twelve hours, Helen had recast seven more commonplace prose passages into lyrical poems, within a week she had added another twenty, in a short time increased the number to thirty-six, prefaced the collection with an introduction, submitted her work to the publishing house of Constable, and before 1913 was out Helen saw her first book issued to the public.

It became the talk of Dublin.  It deserves to remain so.

Preface – Dame Felicitas Corrigan

When Helen Waddell chanced upon the book that presaged her destiny, she had been tracing the development of man's conception of human love, with special relationship to Woman as a dramatic asset in pre-Shakespearian drama. Enmeshed in the thought of Western poets and their attitudes over a period of no more than two or three hundred years, she was suddenly faced with poems of the first rank, whose makers had lived twelve centuries before Christ. There is a Chinese proverb:
'The peach and the plum tree do not speak, yet around them are to be seen the footprints of men.'
Against their background of morning-glory, flowering rushes, blue iris, peach blossom and green willow, almost all the poems are variants of the one story which, from then until now, the world has been telling itself since the evening and morning of the sixth day, when God took a rib from Adam as he lay asleep, built the rib into a woman, and gave him a companion like unto himself.

 

References

Not all Helen’s 36 translations are on the site, I have chosen a selection to give you a flavour of their beauty.  They are not the ‘best’ since ‘best’ is entirely subjective, just a sample that somehow appealed to me, to my heart.

The pictures I have chosen to accompany the poems have not been chosen for their ‘authenticity’ to the era or even their nationality, but for their beauty and the seeming match with the theme of the poem itself.  Some are Chinese, some Japanese and some from the artist Edmund Dulac, who is on this site with other examples of his work.

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