Poem of the week: Old Poem by Anonymous, translated by Arthur Waley

The bare scene that greets an old soldier returning from long service is understated but deeply affecting

Old Poem

At fifteen I went with the army,
At fourscore I came home.
On the way I met a man from the village,
I asked him who there was at home.
“That over there is your house,
All covered over with trees and bushes.”
Rabbits had run in at the dog-hole,
Pheasants flew down from the beams of the roof.
In the courtyard was growing some wild grain;
And by the well, some wild mallows.
I’ll boil the grain and make porridge,
I’ll pluck the mallows and make soup.
Soup and porridge are both cooked,
But there is no-one to eat them with.
I went out and looked towards the east,
While tears fell and wetted my clothes.

“I have aimed at literal translation,” Arthur Waley wrote in his introductory notes to One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918). “Above all, considering imagery to be the soul of poetry, I have avoided either adding images of my own or suppressing those of the original.” On the subject of rhythm, he added: “In a few instances where the English (line) insisted on being shorter than the Chinese, I have preferred to vary the metre of my version, rather than pad out the line with unnecessary verbiage.” These comments emphasise Waley’s fundamental aim: fidelity. Nothing added, nothing padded.

Returning to Waley’s translations this week, once again I’m reminded of Ezra Pound’s marvellously evergreen Rihaku/Li Po translation, The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.

Fifteen is the significant age for both protagonists. The river merchant’s wife “stopped scowling” then and began to love her husband. The speaker in Old Poem went into military service. Although, for a contemporary Chinese reader, 15 might not have been considered the tender age it is in western societies now, it was still young enough, and the reference underlines the pathos of the situations.

Waley’s narrative style seems casual: comma-splices and word repetitions may suggest Old Poem had oral origins. The story is simple and affecting. The narrator “went with” the army at 15: when demobbed at the age of 80, he’d been in military service for an astonishing 65 years. His encounter with the neighbour is beautifully understated. Asked “who there was at home”, the neighbour doesn’t answer, but tactfully points to the near-derelict house.

The narrator’s tone remains optimistic. Rabbits and pheasants are harmless interlopers. (Is that “dog-hole” a kind of early cat-flap?).The weeds include wild grain and mallow, an edible plant. The resourceful old man knows what to do.

There are rapid, easy tense-shifts, from the past of the first 10 lines, to future and present in lines 11 and 12: “I’ll pluck the mallows … Soup and porridge are both cooked.” The narrative ordering makes psychological sense. It’s only when the old man sits down with his dishes that he realises, in the inescapable present, “there is no-one to eat them with”. The tense reverts to the past after that, as it must, leaving unsaid regrets to echo round the time-gap. The melancholy is less pervasive than in Pound’s Letter but hits harder when it arrives.

The old soldier went out, probably leaving the meal unfinished. Gazing east, he recalled more hopeful times. But this small-print interpretation of mine is reader-padding: the poet-speaker merely “went out and looked towards the east”. Pound would have approved.

The last line, however, is explicit and perhaps exaggerated in a manner that Pound might have avoided. Tears sufficient to wet a man’s clothes would need to be torrential, after all. A dampened collar or shirt-front would have been convincing, but “wetted … clothes” suggests, less than credibly for us, that his entire outfit was drenched.

Waley, unlike Pound, has chosen not to “cross the border of textual translation into cultural translation”, writes Wai-lim Yip, revealingly quoting extracts from their different renderings of the Letter. The Waley seems heavier-handed. It strikes the modern imagination less precisely.

The last line of Old Poem is painfully moving, but it leaves me with the sense of reading across a chasm. Because I trust Waley’s literal fidelity, I wonder if the poet was exaggerating. If so, was it because he or she wanted to register a protest against militarism? Pound, as we know, published his Cathay translations in a similar spirit. They were a non-combatant’s covert protest against the first world war. Perhaps Anonymous wanted readers or listeners not simply to mourn a possibly wasted life and a desolate old age, but to see, beyond the page, the image of “the ultimate sacrifice” – a soldier’s battle-dress soaked with blood?


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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