Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review of The Complete Works of Tao Yuanming

If Li Bai and Du Fu are the fathers of Chinese poetry, than Tao Yuanming is the cosmos in which their writing took shape.  Writing verse of such personal, spiritual, and mythic depth, it’s difficult to read the poet without an ache in your heart, a longing for something you know not what, and an eye for the horizon—perhaps more behind than ahead.  Possessing every ounce of the bittersweet beauty that makes life part lament and joy, Hunan People’s Publishing House’s Library of Chinese Classics’ collection of all the master’s works in a single volume is a welcome addition to any poetry reader’s library.  (Interestingly, though this book was published in China, it is available online in the US.)

A Daoist at heart, much of Tao Yuanming’s poetry echoes distant gongs of the philosophy.  Acutely observing the passage of life—an eye to the simple joys all the while, his children, his garden, and his wine (an undoubted influence on Li Bai), Tao is the ultimate hermit aesthete.  And his verse reflects this.  From changes in the weather ("The Pending Clouds"), the coming gray in his hair ("Admonishing My Sons"), the bliss in solitude ("Drinking Alone in Rainy Days"), the delight in time with friends ("To Magistrate Liu of Chaisang"), and the sorrow of time away from them ("Parting with Secretary Yin of Jin'an"), Tao touches upon everything that makes us human, individually and spiritually.  Not possessing the social conscience of Du Fu or the dominance of mystic wonder of Li Bai, Tao’s verse is mostly focused on domestic life and the mortal realm.  

Regarding the actual text itself, the left page contains two Chinese versions of Tao’s writings (contemporary, i.e. simplified characters, and ancient, i.e. traditional characters), while the right hand page is the English translation.  Having been edited and published entirely in China, there are numerous typos that must be dealt with.  That the collection is the only of its kind available in English, however, is a boon that helps the reader overlook the shoddy proofreading.  (Anyone who spends any amount of time reading books published in China in English readily get used to this fact of life.)

In style, a choice was made in the translation that I do not entirely agree with: verse is made to rhyme.  Chinese poetry notoriously difficult to translate to begin with, sculpting words to fit English tonal patterns potentially drags meaning further away from the original.  I much prefer a rough translation that adheres closer to source material than any text overly manipulated to fit another language’s syntax.  I’m aware, however, there are those who prefer such regulated presentation.  If so, the collection will be more welcome.

Tao Yuanming’s oeuvre unavailable in English in a single volume (to my knowledge), only a selection here, a poem there, it’s difficult to quibble much with the collection’s presentation or typos.  Perhaps in time a free verse translation will come available, but for the moment this is the only opportunity the English speaking world has to experience the subtle power of one of the greatest poets the world has known.  If it’s possible to get your hands on such a collection, I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunity.  It may not come along again.

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