A shaft of Autumn water, and a round moon

In a job I used to have, Chinese New Year always meant writing a speech, and, in that job, that meant finding a poem. I loved the glimpses I caught then of very old Chinese poetry (I posted one here) and so I was delighted to pick up at last weekend's book fair The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse - in English, which is all I'm capable of. It's a slim, aged volume, and the cover has red ink characters stamped on a dark background. It's quite beautiful, and full of brief, lyrical poems that suggest a world of elegance and quiet longing.

Here are two lovely things, both from the ninth century.

Going up to the capital on an autumn day

Red leaves rustle in the twilight;
In the long pavilion is one gourd of wine;
Fading clouds go home to the T’ai-hua mountain;
Light rain passes the Chung-t’iao hills.
The colours of the trees stretch from the frontier gate;
The sound of the river as it meets the sea is distant.
Tomorrow I will reach the Emperor’s domain,
But I still dream of fishing and wood-cutting.

(Hsu Hun)

Inviting a friend to spend the night

Silvered earth without dust, and the golden chrysanthemum in bloom,

Purple pears and red dates falling on the lichen moss;
A shaft of Autumn water, and a round moon -
On such a night, my old friend, are you not coming?


There's such a sweet blend here of courtesy and elegy, civil life and passionate nature. In the first poem, the speaker is torn between the two, but in the second, nature is the ground and grace of human friendship. There's a sense of course in which no poetry can exist in translation, but here, what's left is lovely, whatever might be lost.


Love is not love

For Valentine's Day, let these two Shakespeare sonnets - one witty, one wise - suffice to say what love is, and what it is not. In our Kardashian-shaped world, it's good to remember that love is not love which prizes false bodies over true minds, and won't last till next Tuesday, let alone doomsday. Instead, love is loyalty, and joy in another's whole being. Love lasts.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.



Harper Lee Ever After

Remember a few posts back how I was all like hey check out these new books from great writers? In what is possibly the book news of the century (so far), Harper Lee, author of the famously one-hit-wondrous classic To Kill a Mockingbird, is PUBLISHING A NEW NOVEL. This is big. Huge. It's the literary equivalent of finding a new planet in our solar system. Or finding out your grandmother is having a baby. 

It's fifty-five years since Mockingbird was published and it's hard to think of a more prodigious American novel. It's the book you read at school that you still reread. It's the book that taught you what justice means, or courage, or kindness. For two or three generations now it's been an iconic exposition of evil and good in their most human forms. So it's hard to imagine a sequel of the same magnitude. But this is not a sequel: it's a draft she wrote in the 1950s about Scout Finch as an adult, out of which the other novel grew. Of course it's doubtful whether Go Set A Watchman, due out in July, can possibly meet expectation, and given that she wrote it first it may suffer from some of the gaucherie miraculously missing from what we'd assumed was her first and only novel. Nevertheless its status as literary curiosity, a second wonder, will override any flaws. And maybe it will be just as wonderful as its predecessor. Either way, it feels like the kind of astronomical marvel that might happen only once in a century, if at all. I'm excited.


Poem for Epiphany

Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth,
We know all labyrinthine lore,
We are the three wise men of yore,
And we know all things but the truth.

We have gone round and round the hill
And lost the wood among the trees,
And learnt long names for every ill,
And served the mad gods, naming still
The furies the Eumenides.

The gods of violence took the veil
Of vision and philosophy,
The Serpent that brought all men bale,
He bites his own accursed tail,
And calls himself Eternity.

Go humbly…it has hailed and snowed…
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

The world grows terrible and white,
And blinding white the breaking day;
We walk bewildered in the light,
For something is too large for sight,
And something much too plain to say.

The Child that was ere worlds begun
(…We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone…)
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.

The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where trick of words are never said,
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone.

Go humbly, humble are the skies,
And low and large and fierce the Star;
So very near the Manger lies
That we may travel far.

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain.
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.

(GK Chesterton, "The Wise Men")


Poem for the New Year

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

(TS Eliot, from “Little Gidding”, Four Quartets)