Appreciating Arthur Waley

for my multilingual friends and lovers of literature

Notes on Ivan Morris, ed., Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley

Related Books
Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading; Anne-Marie Schimmel, A Life of Learning; Susan Sontag, At the Same Time; Eliot Weinberger, Written Reaction;

See Also
Annping Chin, The Authentic Confucius; Simon Winchester, The Man Who Loved China;

I read this book at the same time I was reading Winchester’s take on Jojo Needham and Chin’s Schweitzer-esque quest for the historical Confucius.  Waley sounds like a  mensch (I found out he was Jewish): polyglot, intellectually ablaze, taciturn, practitioner of the Sufi-three-gate rule (my imagination anyway), and an indefatigable, assiduous, and laser-like scholar.

What I wish to note below are three areas: (1) About Waley himself; (2) some brief cullings and fave poems from his works; and (3) books of his I want to (re)read at some point in the next few years.


Share with Matt Miller:  For him a great work of literature was not, as it seems to be for many later specialists, an entrenched fortress bristling with ‘problems’ and challenges that must be grimly attacked with a battery of jargon and scholarly weapons, but an endless source of joy. 9

He showed me up another flight of stairs to his study, a wonderful room with books covering the wall. 22

He was never too busy to help with books and advice, to console in depression, to write letters of recommendation for scholarships, which with uncanny frequency produced the goods. 24

As an interpreter of Chinese and Japanese civilization he displays an exact and clear scholarship. 35

On his application form he claimed that he could already read easily Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, French, German, Spanish, and speak the last three fluently. He had some Hebrew and Sanskrit, as well as Greek and Latin… 39

He learnt [Chinese and Japanese] by reading in the best literary texts on which he could lay his hands, and this accounts for the flow of translations from both languages and from very works which he began to publish from 1916 onwards. 39

He was capable of unlimited enthusiasm for any artistic work of excellence, to such a degree that he would undertake to learn a new and difficult language like Ainu solely for the pleasure of reading the literature and communicating his pleasure in matchless translations. 56

His refusal to engage in flattery  60

His sharpest criticism was reserved not for the mistakes of the young and inexperienced, but for the tediousness of the old and distinguished. 60

Every utterance appeared fine, essential, selected to the least syllable. 64

The two had much in common: beauty, a sense of grief traveled through, and an esoteric knowledge of music that made their exchanges far above the heads of most other listeners. 65

‘Waley was forever enjoying himself in the rich garden of Chinese and Japanese culture.’ 69

Waley’s interest in the Far East was focused on its classical cultures, and knowledge of the modern spoken languages seemed largely irrelevant. 70

Combined with Arthur Waley’s talents as a scholar, a linguist and a writer was a devotion and commitment to literature  that inspired his vast enterprises. 75

When he was at work, all else was eliminated. 77

More at home in T’ang China and Heian Japan

Though unworldly and uncynical, he was a keen observer of human foibles and could be wonderfully witty, delighting in bizarre observations and outrageous comments which he would utter in a clear, high-pitched voice. 82

Waley was totally unconcerned with creating any impression. 85

He never accepted a regular university post, and he eschewed committees, commonroom meetings, and all the time-consuming functions of academe.  85

By refusing to distract himself from the main task, by jealously guarding his energies for what really mattered, Waley was able to produce his vast corpus of work. 86

Nor did he parade his erudition.  91

He would ask a friend of ours to come to tea ‘and bring a book,’ and they would sit through the summer afternoon in the garden of Gordon Square without speaking a word. 106

The importance of friends, the rather rarefied standards, the delicate perception, the predominantly literary taste of the Chinese amateur, were all very much part of Waley himself. He had, in many ways, a very Chinese mind. 112

“I am sure that is apocryphal.”  117

Wonder never deserted him.

“I hope there is nothing I can do to help!”  128


What matters is that a translator should have been excited by the work he translates, should be haunted day and night by the feeling that he must put it into his own language, and should be in a state of restlessness and fret till he has done so. 163

Sailing Homeward by Chan Fang-Sheng
Four Poems by Han-shan, 190-191

Li Po, Self-Abandonment
Li Po, Exile’s Letter

The Old Man with the Broken Arm by Po Chu-i

On Board Ship: Reading Yuan Chen’s Poems by Po Chu-i
Dreaming that I Went with Lu and Yu to Visit Yuan Chen by Po Chu-i
Madly Singing in the Mountains by Po Chu-i
On Being Sixty by Po Chu-i
A Mad Poem Addressed to my Nephews and Nieces by Po Chu-i
Old Age by Po Chu-i
On Hearing Someone Sing a Poem by Yuan Chen
Lao Tzu by Po Chu-i

Immeasurable Pain by Lu Hou-chu
Love Poem by Feng Meng-lung
The Little Cart by Ch’en Tzu-lung

Chuang Tzu in Death

The Dancing Horses by Cheng Ch’u-hui
The Two Lunatics by Tuan Ch’eng-shih

Myself by Atukagawa Ryunosuke

Many readers have agreed with me in feeling that such episodes as the death of Yugao, the clash of the coaches at the Kamo festivals, the visit of Genji to the mountains, the death of Aoi, become, after one reading, a permanent accession to the world as one knows it, are things which have ‘happened’ has much as the most vivid piece of personal experience. 329

It consists in the device of mentioning certain characters in the story long before they actually appear, of making them as it were looming in the distance. 331

A civilization is a mosaic. 334


A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems
More Translations from the Chinese
The Life and Times of Po Chu-i
The Poetry and Career of Li Po
Yuan Mei: Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet
The Opium War through Chinese Eyes
The Tale of Genji
Pillow Book
No plays

The Way and Its Power
The Book of Songs
Analects of Confucius
Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China

The Real Tripitaka


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