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This article is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

Unstated Empson
Looking for Traces of the Chinese Poetic Tradition
Diana Bridge

‘twittering ghosts’

Months ago, reading a review of William Empson’s The Face of the Buddha in the pages of this magazine (PNR 232), my eye was caught by an excerpt from the book that should have been Empson’s third but was eventually published seventy years after it was completed. Empson wrote of a ceramic luohan (saint or sage in the Buddhist pantheon) observed at the Royal Academy in 1935, that the figure ‘seemed…so much alive that it turned the people looking at it in the London Exhibition into twittering ghosts’. In his review, Mark Thompson suggested that Eliot’s ‘twittering world’ stood behind Empson’s response and connected it to the language and ambience of Burnt Norton. Empson’s China background brings up a possible additional source.

Empson used the arresting phrase when revising the manuscript of his book in the 1940s, after his return from China. He had spent the years 1937-1939 teaching English literature at National Peking University, when the war with Japan had necessitated the university’s relocation to Changsha and Kunming. Empson had taught in gruelling conditions and mostly from memory. It was his prodigious memory that made me wonder whether the combination of ghosts and twittering might have had a relationship, direct or subterranean, with the last two lines of the Tang poet Du Fu’s famous poem, ‘Ballad of the Army Carts’. In the prose translation by Empson’s friend David Hawkes, these lines read: ‘The new ghosts complain and the old ghosts weep, and under the grey and dripping sky the air is full of their baleful twitterings’ (A Little Primer of Tu Fu, OUP 1967).

It was, and still is, common Chinese practice to recite poems from memory. Empson’s own Chinese was less than slight but there must have been times when he heard famous Chinese poems recited and translated for his benefit by the English speakers among his colleagues.1 In the situation in which the university was placed, in retreat from the advancing Japanese, ‘Ballad of the Army Carts’ would not have been an improbable choice of poem.

Du Fu’s ballad depicts the personal and social costs that arose from conscripting the peasantry into military service. It culminates in the conscripted men’s bones being left to lie in the desert wastes beyond their homeland. Hawkes’s addition of ‘baleful’ to ‘twitterings’ reflects the extremity of such a fate. Whether Empson heard the poem spoken aloud and translated in this way we don’t know; nor, if he did, can we be sure of how the last lines were rendered. Nonetheless, there is not a lot of scope for translating gui, ghost. The reduplicated character jiu jiu, twittering, can also mean chirping but, in this context, chirping can be firmly ruled out.


These thoughts were overtaken by the arrival of the following lines from Matthew Arnold’s narrative poem ‘Balder Dead’:2
And from the dark flock’d up the shadowy tribes:
And as the swallows crowd the bulrush-beds   
Of some clear river, issuing from a lake,
On autumn days, before they cross the sea;
And to each bulrush-crest a swallow hangs
Swinging, and others skim the river streams,
And their quick twittering fills the banks and shores –
So around Hermod swarm’d the twittering ghosts.

Along with the linguistic concurrence, the telling antithesis implanted in Empson’s description would seem to follow Arnold. I cannot shake off the possibility that Du Fu’s translated poem came Empson’s way, fused in his mind with Arnold’s eerie Homeric simile and returned to invigorate his criticism. It seems significant that when he employed the description it was in the context of an exhibition of Chinese art:

‘Most wrecked and longest of all histories’

For an idea of the way in which Empson’s mind synthesised material, looked at through the prism of his Chinese subject matter, I turned to his three ‘China poems’. The first two were written during his initial stint in the country and the third in 1951, when he was again teaching at Peking University under the auspices of the British Council. ‘China’, written in early 1938, draws on standard versions of Chinese mythology, history and culture. The life of the poem lies in the fusion of these gleanings with Empson’s vivid on the ground observations – most strikingly, ‘the paddy-fields are wings of bees’; and its boldness from the way in which they are subordinated to two conceits. ‘The dragon hatched a cockatrice’, drawn from Isaiah, works from the observation that many features of Japanese culture were absorbed from Tang dynasty China. China is of course the dragon.

Empson next employs the metaphor of a liver fluke merging so completely with its host that it becomes one with it to comment zanily on the idea that China has been able to absorb and sinicize all her invaders.3 Living through it, he believes that eventually she will do the same with the Japanese. It matters not at all that he has got the host and the type of liver fluke wrong. It is the pertinent analogy for seamless assimilation that counts. The summary in the poem’s final line, ‘Most wrecked and longest of all histories’, holds a challenging ironic balance worthy of Empson:
‘what / In God’s name are you doing here?’

‘China’ might be the outcome of early encounter but it is wide-ranging, confident and at home with its Chinese material. The long poem ‘Autumn on Nan-Yuëh’, written in 1938–39 when the military situation was looking less positive and the ‘temporary university’ on the brink of relocating to Kunming, reads quite differently. Deftly applied cultural stereotype gives way to a personal and in places painfully reflective, verse. The tone, though, is light, that of rueful raconteur.

The epigraph to the poem is telescoped Yeats, taken from ‘The Phases of the Moon’. Empson finds a bizarre correlative for Yeats’ visionary repertoire in the hideously disabled pilgrims he saw being helped or winched up Nan Yue, a mountain sacred to Taoism and itself traditionally regarded as sacred. The poem is structured by a Yeatsian vocabulary of ‘flight’, ‘cradle’, ‘deformed’ and ‘dream’ as a deeply assimilated poem from his own tradition provides the architecture for one of Empson’s own.

‘Autumn on Nan-Yűeh’ mingles topical political with cultural observation. Allusions range from the Bible to Freud, Woolf to Alice. But those who ‘can use Chinese’, as Empson put it in Seven Types of Ambiguity, bring another awareness to bear. The English poet’s role as scholar-literatus, his immediate predicament, and his response to it, which is to write, are features that might place him in the long ribbon of Chinese poets despatched on service, or banished, from the centre. The response of those poets was to describe their exotic rural surroundings and to interrogate their own situation. I am unable to find in the poem, or its notes, a pointer to any Chinese poem or poet, and yet its concerns chime with those that preoccupy the Chinese scholar-poet, separation, exile or escape, questioning the value of the path that one has chosen, loneliness and loss.4

Could the similarity be intended or are we looking at a common human response to dislocation and privation? On the side of the first interpretation is the fact that Empson had reviewed Arthur Waley’s Poems from the Chinese (Benn, 1927), a selection from Waley’s three previous books of translations, for the Cambridge magazine The Granta (November 4, 1927). It is not fanciful to think of his reading Waley’s other seminal translations from the Chinese which, together, provide an idea of the Chinese poet’s themes over a millennium. Nor does it seem far-fetched to conceive of Empson allowing one of his own poems that closely connects to those concerns to run alongside the Chinese tradition in sprightly foreign parallel.

In his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, written several years before he went to China, Empson had drawn on Waley’s translation of a poem by Tao Qian (365-427CE): ‘Swiftly the years, beyond recall./Solemn the stillness of this spring morning.’5 Using the lines as an example, he offered a radiantly expressed and sure summing up of the use of contrasted time-scales and, in the process, revealed an understanding of the thinking that underlies the structuring of many an early Chinese poem. ‘Both these time-scales and their contrasts are included by these two lines in a single act of apprehension, because of the words swift and still. Being contradictory as they stand, they demand to be conceived in different ways; we are enabled, therefore, to meet the open skies with an answering stability of self-knowledge; to meet the brevity of human life with an ironical sense that it is morning and spring time, that there is a whole summer before winter, a whole day before night.’

For a moment I indulge the thought that Tao Qian, who both accommodates a pedigree of allusion in his poems and is acclaimed for his genius for plain expression, is the Chinese poet closest to Empson. A further link would be hard to pass over. In A hundred and seventy Chinese Poems (Constable, 1918), a contributor volume to Poems, I count in the twelve poems by Tao ten mentions of the joys of drinking wine, these lines among them: ‘Idly I drink at the eastern window. / Longingly – I think of my friends.’ Empson is likely to have felt an affinity with that recurring topos. Without doubt he would have heard his colleagues talk about the link between drinking and poetic composition. Is it incidental that he devotes a whole stanza of ‘Autumn’ to a better-than-expected ‘Tiger Bone’ beer, used by ‘The chaps… for getting near’?

‘it is true I flew, I fled’

The theme of flight pervades the stanzas of ‘Autumn’. The Japanese planes preparing to strafe the railway lines of the nearby town are just its most up-to-date and literal embodiment. As an aspiration to escape a difficult earthbound life, flight is present from early times in Chinese lyric poetry. Often it is expressed as the wish to become a bird. The concluding couplet of the fifth ‘Old Poem’, composed around the second century CE and itself drawing on an old song, concludes, ‘She wants to become those two wild geese / That with beating wings rise high aloft’ (A hundred and seventy Chinese Poems, 13). In his escape from ‘They / Who sat on pedestals and fussed’, Empson had become a wild goose. Now he ‘who said [he] wouldn’t fly again / For quite a bit’ was in the process of fleeing once more.

High Traditions

In a note to ‘China’, Empson speaks, not for the only time, of ‘the separation of the beauty of the coolie life (the reference here is to singing) from the official arts’. This is followed by the observation: ‘The paddy fields in hill country… seem never to have been treated by all the long and great tradition of Far Eastern landscape painters.’ Sentiments like these might at least partly explain why he did not engage directly with that ‘official art’, the classical poetry tradition. It was a different matter a few years later when it came to art inspired by Communist ideals and objectives, and to the last of Empson’s ‘China’ poems.

‘So your flesh shall be part of mine And part of mine be yours.

Empson’s unwavering feeling for China and its people, his own ideological orientation and his lived experience come together in ‘Chinese Ballad’. Composed in 1951, this is a translation of a section of a long narrative poem by Li Ji, a political instructor in the People’s Liberation Army who, in the course of his duties, gathered Shanxi folksongs, using one as the basis for a long work of his own. Empson had been made aware, probably by David Hawkes, of the existence of a pedigree for the passage. In his notes he attributes the original lines to the calligrapher and painter Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), one of the Four Great Masters of the Yuan Dynasty, whom he refers to as a ‘poet’.

For something closer to the full story we need to jump to a review of Empson’s poem by David Hawkes.6 Hawkes relates an anecdote about Zhao who, late in a happy marriage, advised his wife, Guan Daosheng, that he was about to take a concubine. Lady Guan, herself a talented painter, calligrapher and poet, provided a sophisticated remonstrance in the form of this poem.7 It seems that she won the day. Hawkes’s research into the linguistic background reveals that the language of this portion of Li Ji’s ballad ties it to the area from which the couple came. This was also the region where the clay figures to which the ballad alludes were widely produced, which seems to clinch the attribution. The twists and turns of Hawkes’s narrative, as he relays it in the article, and as he believed he might have conveyed it in part to Empson in Peking, provides fascinating context. But the detail does not make much difference to Empson’s version.  

Empson relates that he was told the meaning of the Chinese characters and that he translated word for word, with one exception – he introduced children alongside the word for doll, on the grounds that the term specifically means ‘dolls for children’. 8 The apparent ease with which the Chinese folk song, with its repetitions, rhyme and simple poignant language, is converted into the world of the English ballad, and the way in which that world is underpinned by Empson’s robust blend of English ballad rhythms, almost convinces you that there is such a thing as ‘world ballad style’.9

John Donne was one of Empson’s favourite poets and the translation also exudes echoes of ‘The Good-Morrow’ and ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. These refined echoes recall the Chinese ballad’s sophisticated genesis. They offer indirect support to Empson’s comment that ‘it is very fine metaphysical poetry at the end, when the clumsy little doll is to wait, through all eternity, just for a few days’.
Now he has seen the girl Hsiang-Hsiang,
     Now back to the guerrilla band;
And she goes with him down the vale
     And pauses at the strand.

The mud is yellow, deep, and thick,
     And their feet stick, where the stream turns.
‘Make me two models out of this,
     That clutches as it yearns.

‘Make one of me and one of you,
     And both shall be alive.
Were there no magic in the dolls
     The children could not thrive.

‘When you have made them smash them back:
     They yet shall live again.
Again make dolls of you and me
     But mix them grain by grain.

‘So your flesh shall be part of mine
     And part of mine be yours.
Brother and sister we shall be
     Whose unity endures.

‘Always the sister doll will cry,
     Made in these careful ways,
Cry on and on, Come back to me,
     Come back in a few days.’

Empson loved this poem. Its subject coalesces with ‘the mud theme’ flowing through his own work but here the magical qualities attributed to the mud lift it into a new dimension.10 If ‘Chinese Ballad’ becomes the theme’s apotheosis, it also comprises the most transparently human variation on a topic that first made its way to the surface in one of Empson’s earliest poems with a description of the fertility of a land enriched by the practice of warping.

Taken together, the China-based poems inscribe a process of growing closeness between Empson and a culture that attracted him as a student and kept its hold on him as he experienced in person some of the most turbulent times in its history. The three poems replicate that process in terms of a poetic progress. Starting with a double conceit that lassoes interpretations of Chinese culture and history and presses them into service, following up with a personal account the themes of which parallel those of much Chinese poetry, it concludes with a response that is strong enough to leap the boundaries of language and allow the outsider to speak in the voice of a Chinese. The poems are like steps in a process of assimilation.

  1. ‘My colleagues habitually talked to each other in a jumble of three or four languages… using rather more English if they remembered I was listening; and of course a thorough understanding of Chinese literature would be taken for granted.’ William Empson The Complete Poems, Penguin Classics 2001, p.387.
  2. The lines, from ‘An Episode. II. Journey to The Dead’, were sent to me by Vincent O’Sullivan.  
  3. Later, when the military situation worsened and, by the middle of 1938, provoked a strong response from the desperate and beleaguered Chinese, Empson resiled from the passivity implicit in the metaphor.
  4. I refer to excerpts from Empson’s letters and introductions to his readings that appear as notes in the Collected Poems.
  5. Empson has ‘spring’ for Waley’s ‘fair’; see ‘New Corn’ in Poems from the Chinese, 17.  
  6. Times Literary Supplement, 13 February, 2009, pp.13–15.
  7. Hawkes advises that it was written in ‘a racy contemporary vernacular with a trace of Jiangsu dialect in it’ rather than the ‘classical style’, as Empson believed. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, delivered in 1961, Hawkes discussed this section of the ballad, which possessed a complicated history of colloquial text interwoven with classical explication. His aim was to impress on his audience the importance of offering both colloquial and classical Chinese to those who were to become his students. See Classical, Modern and Humane: Essays in Chinese Literature, ed. John Minford and Siu-kit Wong, The Chinese University Press, 1989, pp.13–14.
  8. As Hawkes points out, the word niren used in the poem means doll in the sense of ‘clay figure’. There is another term, niwawa, or niwa, that means clay dolls for children, and perhaps Empson’s translator, whoever he was, drew on it when explaining the nuances of the poem. The Chinese and Empson’s version are not identical. For a translation closer to the original, see Hawkes ibid.  
  9. In a ‘Note by translator’ above the poem as first published, Empson wrote that ‘it seemed to me to fall into English ballad style as world ballad style’.
  10. See also Mark Thompson’s ‘Mud & Blood’ (PNR 235).

This article is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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