About ninety-five years ago, the American poet Erza Pound, then living in London, received the manuscript of an essay called “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” He was immediately and lastingly fascinated, and for most of the rest of his life would think of Chinese writing as the perfect union of word and image, and would think of the essay as “a study of the fundamentals of all aesthetics.”
The essay was written by Ernest Fenollosa, an American scholar who had taught most of his career in Japan and who had recently died — Pound got the manuscript from his widow. Pound would edit and publish Fenollosa’s essay a few years later, but would also devote a great deal of energy over the next few decades to translating Chinese poetry according to Fenollosa’s aesthetic and linguistic principles. (A few manuscript images from Pound and Fenollosa may be seen here.)
However, it seems that Fenollosa didn’t understand Chinese very well, and by following him Pound was led into all sorts of errors. He also came to share Fenollosa’s curiously Japan-centered view of China — for instance, he always referred to that prince of poets Li Bai as Rihaku, which was the name by which the Japanese knew him. None of his translations are accurate in any meaningful sense, but it must nevertheless be said that simply as English poems they are exceptionally beautiful, as beautiful as anything as Pound ever wrote. The most famous of them, justly so, is this one:
The River-Merchant’s Wife: a Letter
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.