It has been some time since I have written anything here, bar a couple of more or less off-topic posts (though everything is grist to the mill, really). In the spirit of letting my readers and myself know what to expect, I would like to set the aim of two posts a week. It’s possible the focus of this blog will shift, but I hope its centre of gravity will remain literary and aesthetic. I add the latter term because just as I have written about some recondite topics in a way I hope will make sense to readers even less well acquainted with them than I am myself, I can imagine posting about technical matters that may seem to fall entirely outside the scope of these ruminations, but also in a way intended to convey something of their feeling and interest. The gap between the humanities and the sciences is as lamentable as that between the present and the past, if we do not try and bridge it, and an excuse for different philistinisms on each side. I suppose there’s a feeling that the technocrats have the upper hand, but that’s all the more reason to make peace and foster understanding, in the spirit of the conquest of Rome by Greece.
A friend suggested to me that it is the coherence of the text that allows us access to its feeling at such a remove. Rather than starting from the tone and building on that, the reader — at least, the reader who is obliged by cultural distance to read philologically — works down through the internal logic of the poem to its foundations in actual sound and sensation, whether of lived experience or living language. A shopping list would be much harder to read in this way. I am reminded of a post I wrote some time ago about “getting the jokes” in ancient tongues chiselled or wedged in cuneiform: continue immersion until you do. One can’t help feeling that some of those ancient near eastern peoples (or at least, those individuals in a position to employ scribes) were lacking in sense of humour, but perhaps that was just the impression they wanted to create; so we should look for the Spitting Image of the pyramids, the Monty Python of the Assyrians.
Wang Wei’s poem is as fresh as a daisy after almost thirteen centuries, while raising interesting questions about how feeling and tone are transmitted from so far off. First of all:
The following interpretation draws on Hugh Stimson’s Fifty-five T’ang Poems. First, a crude translation:
Amidst the windy autumn rain
A low waterfall flows over a stone
Jumping waves collide with a splash
A white egret startles and again alights
Here are a few things this crib fails to capture; it is an open question by what means they might be poetically rendered in English, but they would certainly be other means than Wang Wei’s, which is the point I mean to explore here — how we can nonetheless have some sense of what those effects are, even given severely limited knowledge of the language of the period.
Chinese uses reduplication to mollify, to convey repetition or intensity, and for onomatopoeia, amongst other things, effects associated in some European languages with the diminutive; two examples can be seen at the start of the first two lines. In tandem, these lines show parallelism, where the similar grammatical function of the characters at the respective positions in each line draws attention to contrast, repetition, or development. Thus characters three and four in each line are “autumn rain” and “waterfall” (literally, “stone — water current”. If the beginning of line one represents the soughing of the wind, this is implicitly softened by the structural parallel with the diminutive expressing the small scale of the waterfall.
A similar process is seen in the second couplet, where the spontaneous effervescence of the little waves is repeated in the avian acrobatics they provoke. Character three in line three, “of themselves”, partners the verb “startle” in the last line, so that the extra animation of the water is transferred to the bird or birds (singular or plural, though I opted for the former because of the small scale of the scene). That reading of 3.3 (taking it as making a point of its own, rather than subsumed in the “each other” of the following character) is also supported by the structure of line four, where the break in sense falls before the penultimate character.
Considering the shape of the poem as a whole, the first parallel supports the second, in a way the point of the poem, between water and heron. There is also a movement towards greater liveliness, from what could be the movement-in-stasis of rainfall and water flowing over a rock to the startlingly playful waves that bring out a similar quality in the nature of the bird. The text positively splishes and sploshes with zest — this even though current knowledge of the actual sounds, the pronunciation of the characters at the time of composition, is incomplete; it may be worth mentioning that lines two and four rhyme, sealing the sense of coherence. I am not sure whether the species of bird can be precisely identified, but if so, that might add the recognition through the prism of the poem of something characteristic of their actual habits.
I hope these few details obviate the need for a discursive examination of how, in my view, this quatrain triumphantly bridges the gap of the centuries, preserving at least enough of its original feeling to justify the sense of a continuity of understanding.