Sinological Profiles
Arthur Waley
19 Aug 1889 (Tunbridge Wells) - 27 June 1966 (Highgate, London)

Arthur Waley at a Writers' Luncheon

Waley was the great transmitter of the high literary cultures of China and Japan to the English-reading general public; the ambassador from East to West in the first half of the 20th century. He was self-taught, but reached remarkable levels of fluency, even erudition, in both languages. It was a unique achievement, possible (as he himself later noted) only in that time, and unlikely to be repeated.

Following the Franco-German war of 1870-1871, which it was feared had permanently estranged these great powers, and thus would hamper international cooperation on Jewish matters (which had previously been coordinated by the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris), a number of prominent English Jews met on 2 July 1871 to form the Anglo-Jewish Association, which from the beginning included Jews from the entire British Empire. It worked in harmony with AIU, but it had also the option of independent action. The Association was particularly concerned with the disabilities of Jews in Russia, Rumania, and Turkey. The first president of the Association was Jacob Waley, MA, a Professor of Political Economy at University College London, and the only academic person among the founders. His household at 20 Wimpole Street, Marylebone, was a prosperous one. The census of 1881, taken after his death, lists his widow Matilda née Solomons (occupation: annuitant); two older children, Arthur (a musician, who later left for America and mysteriously vanished), and Montefiore (on the London Stock Exchange), both unmarried; spinster Marianna Gates, who was the governess of the three younger children, John Felix (18), Rachel Sophia (16), and Charlotte (14); and a total of six other domestic servants. Jacob's third child, Julia, had married Nathaniel Cohen in 1873, and had her own household at 3 Devonshire Place, Marylebone. As of 1881, Nathaniel's household included four children, a nurse (but no governess, the oldest child then being six), and six other domestic servants.

In 1886 Jacob's older daughter Rachel married David Frederick Schloss (son of Sigismund Schloss), whose 1885 article on the Jews of Rumania shows him to have been much in sympathy with the views and interests of Rachel's late father. David's later writings concern labor and production; following two articles on profit sharing in 1894, there appeared his most notable work: Methods of Industrial Remuneration (1898). David's oldest son, Sigismund David, who was born in 1887, later rose to be the second secretary of the Treasury, and was eventually knighted for his services to the British Empire.

Rachel Waley

So far so good. Matters then took a different turn. A second son, Arthur David, presciently named for his musical and unconventional uncle Arthur, was born into the Schloss family in 1889. A third son, Hubert, followed in 1891. These two were the aesthetes of the family, and in this inclination their mother Rachel seems to have encouraged them. Hubert recalls one emblematic moment:

"My earliest recollections of Arthur depict him against the background of Hill House, Wimbledon, after we had left London in 1896. . . I recall that on our arrival at Wimbledon, before our unpacking was complete, our nurse organised tea in the nursery and could find no spoons. Arthur saved the situation by producing a pencil from his pocket and suggesting we might stir our tea with it. Our nurse exclaimed, Why, Master Arthur carries a pencil everywhere - I expect he'll be a great author some day!"

Arthur was then seven. Whatever undertone of nanny disapproval one may wish to detect in this, the prediction proved correct. Arthur's eye for art also showed itself early, and in a characteristically austere form. Hubert again, speaking of the two brothers' early expeditions in brass-rubbing:

"The stark simplicity of the earlier brasses appealed to him and I remember bringing down some ridicule on my head by looking at an over-elaborate shallow-cut 17th century brass memorial tablet. I am inclined to think that scorn for the over-ornate was the key to Arthur's preferences at that time and perhaps long after."

Kings College Chapel

Arthur left Rugby a year early, in 1906, after a solid classical grounding. He won the Latin Prize and had earned a classical fellowship at Kings College. At Kings in 1907 he encountered the Cambridge Apostle G E Moore, with his philosophy of the pleasures of human relationships, and a generally homoerotic atmosphere. In 1908 Waley delivered a paper to a group including John Maynard Keynes on "the passionate love of comrades," which Keynes found repulsive. Another important influence was Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, author of the polemic Letters from John Chinaman in 1901, who first introduced Waley to China. Politically, Waley was an enthusiastic member of the leftist Fabian Society. He spent seven weeks in the summer of 1908 at a Fabian summer school in Wales, presided over by Beatrice Webb (who regarded "Schloss," as he then still was, as not particularly outstanding among the seven Cambridge men enrolled; she also thought little of Lytton Strachey, another of the seven). This connection continued in later years: Waley's publication record in the Fabian journal New Statesman, founded by the Webbs in 1913, is equaled only by his tally in the Bulletin of the School and Oriental Studies: nineteen each. Leonard Woolf was the Statesman's leading political columnist and reviewer, and besides Waley there were frequent contributions from other Bloomsbury members: Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, and Lytton Strachey. Waley's personal and political tone had been established, and would endure for the rest of his life.

Waley spent a year in residence in Germany and France, learning the languages and gaining reading access to the literatures. In 1910, while still deliberating over taking a fourth year at Kings, he developed a cornea condition which cost him the sight of his left eye. He traveled on the Continent while recuperating, first to Norway, where he and Hubert did some skiing, and later to Seville to learn Spanish, there being some thought in the family that he should enter the export firm of his uncle Montefiore, whose business was chiefly with South America. The export business did not attract him, but from an acquaintance in Spain he obtained an introduction to Oswald Sickert at the Encyclopedia Britannia. Sickert passed him on to Lawrence Binyon at the British Museum. At the Museum, as it turned out, there was a vacancy in the Print Room. Arthur later recalled it this way:

"I asked my father if I might try for the post. He told me he did not think I had any chance. There was a very stiff examination (Sickert had dismissed it as a mere formality) and he also told me that the cleverest young man he knew, Laurie Magnus, had recently sat for it and failed. However there seemed to be no harm in trying, and I passed quite easily."

This must have been one of Arthur's last conversations with his father, who died in 1912. Arthur began his job in the Print Room less than auspiciously, by counting German bookplates under Campbell Dodgson's direction. They stuck together. The export business, thought Arthur, would have been infinitely preferable. A crux had been reached. But presently the Print Room was split into European and Oriental subdepartments, with Binyon in charge of the latter. Arthur applied to be Binyon's assistant, was accepted, and entered on those duties in June 1913. In 1914, in response to the feeling against all things German which was evoked by World War One, Arthur's widowed mother reverted from Schloss to her maiden name, and for the first time this profile may accurately speak of "Arthur Waley."

His new duties at the Oriental subdepartment required a knowledge of Chinese and Japanese. These he proceeded to learn. Simultaneously, and with Chinese poems inscribed on paintings as his first textbook. His poetic instincts were aroused, and he rummaged in the newly founded and still disorganized library of the School of Oriental Studies in London, for poems

"that I thought would go well in English, not at all with a view to publication, but because I wanted my friends to share in the pleasure that I was getting from reading Chinese poetry."

Among those friends was T S Eliot, who had come to England in 1914, and whose first friend in the new setting was Waley (the two dined together regularly for some years). Another friend was Roger Fry of the Bloomsbury group, who became interested in printing some of Waley's poems with "undulations" corresponding to the rhythms. Roger's Omega Workshop colleagues, including Saxon Turner of the Treasury, were consulted as to how many copies of such translations (irrespective of "undulations") it would be possible to sell. Turner thought none. The highest estimate was twenty. Since two hundred would be the minimum required to cover Roger's costs, the idea was abandoned. Rarely can outside readers' reports have been further off. Arthur himself, his curiosity aroused, persisted:

"For a few pounds I had about forty short poems printed in the normal way by an ordinary printer, bound the sheets [with Hubert's help] in some spare wall-paper, and sent the resulting booklet to a number of friends, as a sort of Christmas card."

Again, the response was generally icy; some recipients were even insulted. But the new Bulletin of the also pretty new School of Oriental Studies was making its debut, and to its first two numbers, concurrently with his first published article "A Chinese Picture" in the Burlington Magazine for 1917, Arthur contributed several hundred of his Tang and pre-Tang poem translations. Ezra Pound, a great friend of the head of the School, brought out some of these translations in the Little Review in 1917, and the original BSOS issues received a rave review from Clutton-Brock in the Times Literary Supplement on 15 November of that year. On the strength of these indications of literary receptivity, Constable in 1918 brought out A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, consisting of the BSOS material plus further additions. The Introduction to this book portrayed China very much as the rational society which contemporary taste was prepared to accept. In particular, it emphasized the importance of friendship over more grossly physical relations of affection. This was certainly Waley's own scale of values, and also that of many of the coming aesthetic generation of English artists and writers. Of the popular appeal of this book, Waley later had this to say:

"I think one of the reasons that it remained in fairly steady demand for forty years is that it appeals to people who do not ordinarily read poetry. When in 1940 I was working in a Government office a number of young girl typists and clerks brought me copies of the Hundred and Seventy to sign. Several of them said they did not ordinarily read poetry and had, before coming across my book, always supposed that it was something special and difficult."

Well, some Chinese poetry is special and difficult. Such poems, on the whole, Waley avoided. He preferred to pick his spots, and the spots he picked are those which leave little to be explained to the foreign reader, and which do not depend on purely musical effects. His audience from first to last remained the general public, not a specialized scholarly audience, nor yet an esoteric "poetic" one.

On the conventional side of the family, Waley's older brother Sigismund David married his cousin Ruth Ellen Waley on 19 November 1918 at West London Synagogue. Arthur, returning serve from the Bohemian end of the court, in that same year took up with Beryl de Zoete, ten years his senior. She was a Dalcroze student (and only another Dalcroze student will know what discipline of mind and motion goes with that label), a dance critic, and the veteran of three failed Platonic and vegetarian liaisons, one of them a marriage to Basil de Selincourt in 1902. With Beryl Arthur was to live, with interludes for her travels to Bali, India, Sri Lanka, and Brazil, until her death in 1962.

His literary opening had been found; his personal household was established. He moved ahead rapidly. The year 1919 saw the appearance of "More Translations From the Chinese," and in 1920 Waley published his little bilingual manual, Japanese Poetry: The 'Uta.' A line in the preface to this work notes that, since classical Japanese has a limited vocabulary and a simple grammar, "a few months should suffice for the mastering of it."

Here, it may at first seem, is the difference between the Waleys and the rest of us. Impelled only by his own talent and curiosity, Waley did indeed get very far with classical Japanese in a few months. But in 1940, when the British government suddenly discovered that it needed Japanese code clerks, it found that they could be produced in large numbers, from scratch, by an inefficient government course lasting six months. Subtract the misguided instructional system - subtract, in fact, the teachers - and three months would have sufficed. Waley, for all his more classical purpose, was exactly right. The difference between the Waleys and the rest of us is that the rest of us do not concentrate. Waley concentrated.

Arnold Bennett as portrayed by Vanity Fair in 1913

The postwar Twenties quickly developed into the age of Joyce, Eliot, and Pound; of T E Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, and Lytton Strachey; of the Bloomsbury group. It was equally the age of Arnold Bennett and Somerset Maugham. At all its levels, the British literary scene thus included a substantial element of reaching toward the exotic, of going beyond the classical West to the classical East. Waley was already acquainted with many of the English literary figures, and in this milieu, he himself became a literary personality: the man who, without leaving home, had nevertheless penetrated to the mysteries of the East, and could bring back with him something exotic, and yet intelligible to the interested and literate Englander. Literarily and socially, he expanded into this role.

Following the same path of gradual expansion which he had taken with Chinese, Waley edged from short Japanese poems into the longer poetry and more consecutive literary ambience of The No Plays of Japan (1921); it is conspicuous to the knowing that Waley's choice of plays heavily favors those whose heroes are handsome, even androgynous, young men.

He made an impressive gesture in the direction of the Museum catalogue which he did not want to write (most of the paintings, as he himself candidly noted, were second-rate) with his Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting (1923). This made notable use of Chinese art criticism. In the same year, Waley returned to Chinese literature with The Temple and Other Poems (1923), which included some longer specimens. The latter work would later draw an admiring comment from the frequently censorious von Zach. In a February 1927 review, he noted Waley's rare combination of the philology and the poetry:

Arthur Waley ist ein Schatzgräber, der aus den tiefen Schächten ostasiatischer Kultur und Kunst schon so manches Kleinod zu Tage gefördert hat. Er verbindet in glücklicher Kombination philologische Begabung mit dicterischer Inspiration und versteht es, wie kaum ein zweiter unter der jetzt lebenden Sinologen, fremde Werte zu erkennen and sie poetisch umzugestalten.

The only point that moved von Zach to anything resembling a correction was Waley's comment, about Szma Syang-ru, "I do not think that anyone who has read Hsiang-ju's poems will blame me for not attempting to translate them. Such a glittering torrent of words has never since poured from the pen of any writer in the world. He sports with language as a dolphin sports with the sea. Such eloquence cannot be described, much less translated." Nothing daunted, and with the remark "Hier meine version," von Zach proceeded to give 24 lines of Szma Syang-ru in German, employing including alliteration and near-rhyme, venturing a little further into the standard devices of poetry than Waley normally cared to do.

Meanwhile, in 1923, Waley had embarked on the monumental enterprise of translating The Tale of Genji. The first volume (of six) appeared in 1925. His brother Hubert, not to be wholly outdone, published his one book, The Return of Aesthetics, with the Bloomsbury circle's Hogarth Press in 1926.

Arnold Bennett's diary entry for Wednesday 27 October 1926 includes this line:

"We had André Maurois, Ethel Sands, Jeanne de Casalis, Ruby Lindsay, Alfie Mason, and Arthur Waley to dinner, and it was a very good party. Maurois showed extraordinary charm. He spoke once more about doing a French very free adaptation of Milestones [a 1912 Bennett collaboration with Edward Knoblock]. I encouraged him."

The entry for Saturday, 27 November 1926, in full, reads as follows:

"Two good days' work. Dorothy and I dined at home. Afterwards came in Eric Kennington and Mrs ditto, Arthur Waley, and Alec Shepeler. Eric K is very shy, but he is a delightful man. Eric brought Lawrence's £30 book The Seven Pillars to show me. It is not very good book-making; very fine illustrations in it, many of them coloured, and lots of lovely drawings by Roberts. But most of the illustrations are thoroughly out of place in the book and spoil the look of it. It seems that Lawrence has kept Kennington and Roberts, not to mention Wadsworth, pretty busy on it for several years. Arthur Waley has great knowledge and great charm. He went home on his bicycle - no overcoat, and a dank, chill night."

These were the high literary-political circles, the writers who were in touch with, and were sometimes themselves, the movers of events. Waley moved competently in these surroundings, but he cut more of a figure in the Bloomsbury group, where the famous abruptness of his high reedy speech, and his shattering unhelpfulness with mere social dialogue, were a more formidable weapon. With Bennett he had to be charming, if still eccentric. With Strachey or the Sitwells, it sufficed him to be formidable. Georgia Sitwell thus describes a gathering at Edith Sitwell's house, where the guests were William Walton, Lord Berners, Arthur Waley, and herself:

"On this occasion I was not quite 19 and alarmed though fascinated by the company. I had been brought up to try and be a social asset so, when Willie Walton said the only way for a musician to make money would be to write a musical comedy, and as Dr Waley seemed to be left out of the conversation I turned to him and said, 'Don't you think this could be fun?' He looked away and just said 'No' in that remote tone I learned to love as well as to respect."

A bystander may ask, Why, if he was bored and irked by the conversation, did he accept the invitation in the first place? A possible answer is that he liked the company of people he could dominate in this way, who gave him full credit for his attainments, and accepted his eccentricities as a badge of a justly earned authority, an authority which, except for its effect on them, lay beyond their powers of judgement.

In 1928, in the midst of the Genji translation, and perhaps as a relief from it, there appeared what for some of us (and for Waley himself, if a remark to Donald Keene is to be credited) is Waley's most perfect work: the Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon. In this, he interweaves extracts of Shônagon with his own running commentary to produce a highly annotated yet utterly unfootnoted translation, conveying in a single seamless process both what the lady said and what we need to know in order to make sense of what she said. It is a genuine tour de force, all the more so for its seeming effortlessness. Shônagon was the perfect match for Waley: witty rather than pretty, acerbic, of impeccable taste and displaying formidable disapproval of the peccable taste of others, not least the taste of Lady Murasaki herself. She was a miniaturist where Murasaki was a panoramist, quick rather than cumulative. Sacheverell Sitwell later imagined Waley meeting Murasaki. I prefer to take his words as applying to a possible Shônagon encounter:

"It is of course doubtful if he would have been allowed to see her. They might have talked from behind a screen. Certainly, had she been allowed to see him, the good looks and intellectual features of this prince among literati would have appealed to her. But she would have been disappointed by his handwriting, and this could have impeded their friendship."

Waley left the British Museum at the end of 1929, ostensibly to avoid doing the Museum painting catalogue, but chiefly to devote himself to his studies. He apparently felt that the Saxon Turner forecast of 1916 had been sufficiently refuted, and that he could reasonably expect to support himself with the income from his books. In the spring of 1929 he also met Alison Robinson, who was then under the spell of his Chinese poetry translations, and who took her place alongside Beryl de Zoete as the woman in Waley's life; the one whom, at the very end, he was to marry.

Arthus Waley

This new domestic situation coincided with the beginning of work of a more scholarly character on the Chinese classics. It marked the end of Waley as primarily a translator. From here on, he would be a transmitter, not merely of literature, but more precisely of culture as embedded in literature. Thus began the Waley of the Second Period: the Sinological Waley.

His companion Beryl de Zoete at this period took up translation too, by championing in English the work of Ettore Schmitz, a Trieste Jew of German origin, who wrote under the pen name of Italo Svevo ("the Italian from Swabia"). Svevo had attracted the interest of James Joyce in 1907, and his fiction, though not highly regarded in Italy, attracted critical acclaim when republished in Paris. Svevo had died in 1928; de Zoete's translations of two of his three novels appeared in 1930 and 1932. They are still regarded as classic versions, and are praised in much the same terms as Waley's Chinese translations: felicitous re-creations on whose local accuracy later efforts have sometimes improved, but whose overall convincement remains unmatched.

Though holding administratively aloof from the London School after his first venture in their new journal, Waley had been keeping up with current scholarship. He was aware of archaeological results. He had taken in the Gu Shr Byen movement's discussions as they appeared from 1924 on. He read the sociologically oriented work of Granet, and like many others was impressed by it. All this and more, plus his now well-honed literary sensibilities, exercised on a wide acquaintance with the writings of the period, suggested to him fresh ways of looking at the much looked-at classical texts. In 1933 he made a first foray into strictly scholarly publishing, with an article on The Book of Changes in Karlgren's territory: the still young Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. His view, not uninfluenced by Granet, was that the cryptic Yi text contained survivals of folk oracles, to which parallels could still be found in England, Europe, Africa, and of course in China and Japan. His study of the Dau/Dv Jing, with its important long introduction placing the work in the thought context of its time (a time which, without great trouble, he correctly identified), appeared shortly afterward, in 1934. With this work, Waley took his place as a major figure in the study of the Chinese classical period.

In 1937 came his folklorically inspired version of the Book of Songs, very much under the influence of Granet. It was followed in 1938 by the Analects of Confucius, a work begun earlier and only now completed. It shows him fully aware of contemporary Chinese researches; on p53 he cites the opinion of a young Chinese scholar, Hv Ding-shvng, about the different degree of plausibility of the canonical Shu texts, an article of almost book length that had been published in 1928. Waley was conscious of the shift toward scholarship in his stance as a writer, and was concerned about its effect on his audience, which continued to be the great public, reached not by learned journals but through standard commercial channels. To that public, he appealed in his Analects preface:

"The present book is somewhat dry and technical in character. But I would not have it supposed that I have definitely abandoned literature for learning, or forgotten the claims of the ordinary reader. My next book, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, will be wholly devoid of technicalities and indeed in most ways a contrast to this work on the Analects."

Three Ways duly appeared in 1939. (There were actually Four, but Waley scorned to give the Micians room in his title). True to his Analects promise, this book largely eschews technical detail. It is essentially a series of translated excerpts, sometimes with running commentary à la Shônagon. One senses Waley's effort to be charming. As with the Shônagon book, a decade earlier, the effect is again masterly. It is also exceedingly frustrating. By this time, Waley, who like Joseph Needham had been benefiting from the presence of Haloun at Cambridge, knew by contact a great deal about the classical writings. His gifts of inscenation, operating on this wide knowledge, unlocked for him a fairly accurate picture of what was going on in the mental world of those centuries. From this inner picture he delivers occasional pronouncements, but without development, which would make that view fully evident; and without references, from which a serious reader might try to construct it for himself. There are only cryptic hints. Waley, in short, here treats the serious reader as he had treated the 19-year-old Georgia Sitwell, and the serious reader can sometimes find it in him not to be amused. The 1939 matter had outgrown the 1929 manner, but the 1929 manner nevertheless persisted.

Three Ways brought Waley, and everybody else, to the verge of WW2. Waley was fully sensitive to the ominous parallels. Of the prescriptions of the Legalist philosophers (for whom he preferred the label Realist), he had this to say to the reader of Three Ways:

"Realism, as expounded by Han Fei Tzu, finds so close a parallel in modern Totalitarianism that the reader, so far from being puzzled by anything remote or unfamiliar, will wonder whether these pretended extracts from a book of the third century BC are not in reality cuttings from a current newspaper (p12)."

What Waley accomplished here was not the presentation of a poetic moment, or even of of a world of ideas, but of something more complex: the interaction and competition of several simultaneous worlds of ideas. As he said of Mencius in the same paragraph:

"The appeal of Mencius is to the moral feelings; the book is meaningless unless we realize that it was written at a time when morality (as opposed to Law) was at stake. Hitherto Mencius has not much interested modern readers because it has been studied by itself, without relation to other ways of thought that challenged its ideals."

It was at this point that he got out beyond the conventional view of the Chinese classical period, and acquired (and within the limits of his gnomic no-footnote style, conveyed) a new understanding of the way different parts of the early Chinese intellectual landscape related to each other.

St Paul's During the London Blitz

There now insistently followed the European world's Realist interlude, 1939-1945. Rachel Waley died in 1940. Arthur, one of the few people in England who could read Japanese, was called to work as a censor for the British Ministry of Information. In this role, Shônagon-like, he would sometimes chide the Japanese businessmen, whose cables he reviewed, for their bad handwriting, and sometimes for their awkward grammar. What of military consequence may have slipped past his gaze, concealed behind the awkward grammar, is something that historians of the Pacific War have so far not told us.

1943 came and went, and the war began to be won. The young Carmen Blacker, another early student of Japanese who had been tapped for war work, became disillusioned about the relevance of her job indexing decoded Japanese messages at Bletchley Park:

"By January 1945 I was utterly bored with the work, which seemed to contribute nothing to the war effort, and my morale began to weaken. On one of my leave days in London I met Arthur Waley, who said, "Why don't you learn Chinese in your spare time?" Why not indeed, and when, after three or four hours plugging away at the Japan Nickel Review, flesh and blood could stand it no longer, I used to substitute another book, which no one else in the office could distinguish from the first, in which the poems of Li T'ai Po or the magic stories in the Liao Chai Chih I were set out with Japanese translation and commentary."

One thinks of E M Forster's comment about how the poems of Eliot, "innocent of public-spiritedness," helped in an important way to "carry on the human heritage" in the inhuman climate of 1917. Waley in the Second War carried on the human heritage by translating (and condensing) the allegorical escape novel which he called Monkey. This appeared in 1942. Edith Sitwell's response on receiving a copy, though gushy, gets the contemporary resonances exactly right:

"Really, Arthur, more and more - if such a thing were possible - do I feel what a miraculous art you have. I do not know of any work which so abolishes the horrors of time and wretched material worries, than these works of yours. . . I don't really know Monkey yet, of course. But it has given me that sense of inevitability, of excitement with peace, that your work always does give me. One comes back to ordinary life (when one has to) feeling at peace . . . How strange it is to come back from Monkey and realize how hideous people are making the world."

At the level of government and finance, Waley's older brother Sigismund David, now called simply David, was sent by the Treasury in 1944 to advise liberated Greece on currency matters; in a telegram to Churchill, Anthony Eden reports that he will be staying on a few days to confer with Waley.

Arthur emerged from WW2 aged 54, a mature scholar in fact if not in certification. His scholarship was promptly recognized by an Honorary Fellowship at King's College (Cambridge, 1945) and an Honorary Lectureship in Chinese Poetry at the School of Oriental Studies (London, 1948).

Henri Maspero

What may be called Waley's Third Period began in 1949. A little known labor during the previous years was his checking of proof, and provision of additional annotations, for Maspero's arduously achieved translations and notes for the manuscripts of the third Aurel Stein expedition. The work had been begun by Maspero in 1920 and completed by him in 1936. Publication had been delayed by the war, and then by postwar stringencies. To its final preparation, Waley contributed a dozen additional notes, some of them showing considerable erudition. They stand as English punctuation in Maspero's French landscape, and show Waley as able from time to time to contribute an alternate, or superior, interpretation. Waley's notes were completed in 1949; the volume itself did not appear until 1953, eight years after Maspero's death at Buchenwald.

Also in 1949, Waley's scholarly notes on difficult passages in the Mencius, a sort of codicil to the Mencius section of Three Ways, were published in the first issue of the revived Asia Major, of whose editorial board he was a member. The notes amount to corrections of the standard translation of Legge, based on the standard commentary of Jyau Sywn, which Waley felt Legge had not sufficiently considered. He also mentioned points which Jyau Sywn himself had not sufficiently considered. He had passed from reading the text, and from reading the commentary, to commenting on the commentary. He had taken his place among the masters.

The third Waley event of 1949 was the appearance of The Life and Times of Po Chü-i. With this book, just conceivably inspired by the appearance of Lin Yutang's full-length study of Su Dungpwo two years earlier, Waley returned to his early territory of Tang poetry, but now with full command of the method of historical contexting which he had used on Chinese thought in Three Ways, and on Japanese poetry in his Shônagon volume. Waley was 60 in that year, and this is an old man's book, benefiting from an old hand's mastery (without great effort, and whether or not we thought we were interested, we learn something about eunuch politics at the Tang court in the course of reading the poems). It follows its obviously congenial subject through his early friendship with Ywaen Jvn (Waley's keynote was friendship), his mid-career avoidance of office (Waley studiously avoided all office), and the placid contentments and preoccupations of his last years. The flavor of the poems chosen to represent the poet can be conveyed without a too close attention to the form of the originals, a task for which Waley's slack translation style was unsuited. Everything fits.

Less fitting translations were irksome to Waley. From this academic period of his life comes a revealing moment at a conference of British Orientalists which was to be devoted to the theme of translation. Walter Simon remembers it this way:

. . . At the meeting itself, mistakes in translating from Chinese were deplored and gone into at some length. Conscious of the difficulty of the language, one member suggested in the discussion that translations of selected passages should be listed in chronological order to illustrate how progress was made step by step in establishing the meaning of the original. This was too much for Waley. "Would it not be better still to translate it right?" he exclaimed, thereby bringing the discussion to an abrupt end.

The thing to do with errors, as Waley had been doing with those of Legge and Maspero, is to get them out of the way, not wallow in them.

The following year, perhaps too encouraged by his own fluent success with Ywaen Mei, or perhaps just because he thought that a person of his stature somehow ought to, Waley took on a poet of an opposite stripe, the coruscating Li Bwo. This is the Waley book that should never have been written. Never can a translator have been more out of synch with a roguish subject, never can a translation style have proved more inadequate to the conspicuous prosodic verve of an original.

Not deterred by this misstep, or perhaps weighing it in a larger balance, or, who knows, perhaps liking it, England made Waley a Companion of the British Empire in 1952, and awarded him the Queen's Medal for Poetry in 1953

Arthur Waley: The Book of Songs

A small gem, really an article in the form of a 64-page book, appeared in 1955. This was Waley's study of The Nine Songs, where ethnology, poetry, and contexting history smoothly cooperate to clarify another point ultimately derived from Granet: the nature of shamanism. The investigation may have been energized in some degree by Beryl de Zoete's 1938 study of dance in Bali, where trance states are part of the performance medium. Beryl had renewed her interest in this general tradition with her study of dance in India, which had appeared in 1953. To readers who might be surprised at the slimness of his Nine Songs volume, Waley, always lucid, explained:

"I have published this essay separately because it will, I think, be of interest chiefly to students of shamanism and similar aspects of religion. If printed in a Sinological journal or in a volume of miscellaneous studies, it would be likely to escape the notice of most of the readers for whom it is intended. But the Nine Songs are also well worth reading simply as poetry, and I have tried, within the limits of a literal translation, to make them sing as well as merely say."

If there is a Sinologist's answer to the Japanologues with their Shônagon, it may, as some think, be the Bwo Jyw-yi book. But it could also be argued that it is these Nine Songs.

Another old man book, this one on the late Chinese poet Ywaen Mei, appeared in 1956. In that same year, Waley was made a Companion of Honour. Beryl published a book on dance in Sri Lanka in 1957. Before leaving the Ching dynasty, Waley produced a work in which history for the first time was not draped over a trellis of poem translations, but taken straight: his Opium War book of 1958. This account "Through Chinese Eyes" was an anti-imperial tract if ever there was one (Waley was also of the opinion that the British Museum should return some of the Aurel Stein Chinese treasures to China). Its appearance seems to have put an end to the English honors, though not the Japanese ones. For his literally epic services in making Japanese literature known and appreciated abroad, Waley was awarded in 1959 the Order of Merit of the Second Treasure by the Japanese government.

In these years Waley was the famous recluse, sought out by visitors to England, and usually contriving to give them something memorably eccentric for their pains. I recall a group of students listening enthralled to Ed Schafer, at an evening reception for an AOS Western Branch meeting, as he added his own bit to the growing canon of these encounters. The story I have forgotten, but the sense of enthrallment persists. I suspect that we students were at best only half listening, imagining instead how we would have managed under those daunting conditions; what better question we might have asked; what solecism avoided. It took considerable tact, and indeed considerable expertise, to avoid irritating Waley.

Denis Sinor had become acquainted with Waley on the advice of Donald Keene. He recalls Waley as immensely knowledgeable about Chinese art, but like many an expert, hating to be consulted about it on social occasions. Denis had bought for 2 shillings sixpence, at an auction, a box of miscellaneous and vaguely Oriental objects, among them a small but interesting terra-cotta dog. This he put on the floor near his fireplace, and invited Waley over. Waley took it in at a glance, remarked "That's a nice Han dog you have there," and turned to other subjects. When Waley had gone, Denis immediately rescued the dog from the hearth and put it safely on the mantelpiece.

Waley was reticent in academic as well as social contexts. His response to a feeler about succeeding Haloun at Cambridge was, "I'd rather be dead." The administrative overhead of academic life appalled him. Nor can anyone ever have had less aptitude for the teaching part of academic life. After becoming Honorary Lecturer at SOAS in 1948, he did sit in on exams, and give an occasional lecture or seminar. The exams were humane (he phoned Ivan Morris, the night before his orals, to say "You are probably worrying about tomorrow. You needn't"). But the lectures and seminars were excruciating. After one seminar group had ground its way through its assigned Chinese poems, with the aid of collective dictionary work, they just sat there, unable in their awe to frame a question. Waley for his part also just sat there, incapable of guiding their first crude understanding to any higher level. His own understanding was already at the higher level: what else (he doubtless felt) was there to say? In Zen terms, he was a subitist, not a gradualist. This is not the stuff of which famous teachers are made. Walter Simon tells with relish how a proposal to collect examples of wrong translations of the same passage as aids to learning was destroyed by Waley, with the remark "Would it not be better still to translate it right?" Indeed, but the skill of knowing when one has got it right is not so lightly acquired. Waley's tools of acquisition were constant personal reading and a well-honed literary sensibility. Neither of which can very handily be assigned or delegated.

Those tools worked for Waley up to a point; indeed, up to a pinnacle. But he remained diffident about his lack of conventional technique and erudition. He felt increasingly, in his late years, that his kind of scholarship was outmoded, and (as he said to Roy Fuller in a 1963 interview) that his combination of the scholar and the poet can only succeed

"when scholarship is in a rather rudimentary state, as it was as regards Chinese in the days when I started. As it becomes more and more academically minute, the more difficult it is to combine the two roles. There weren't the same standards about having looked at every edition and being familiar with every commentary, and all that sort of thing . . . I couldn't now do work which would satisfy the young Americans."

Old age caught up with him more personally also. To Donald Keene in 1962 he had written:

"Thank you for so many things - your letter, the Hanako article which was just what I wanted some one to write, and finally the Chikamatsu book. The latter we are reading aloud and I think you have done them perfectly. My hand is still useless for writing. Beryl is very ill with chorea and in a state painful to suffer and of course also painful to witness. In addition I hear I must turn out of my flat. The landlord is the University of London, of which I regard myself as an ornament. But a last appeal for grace was not even answered. Work at present is out of the question. I read a great deal out loud to Beryl, as for example Lord Birkenhead's Life of that monster Lord Cherwell, Isaac Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature - a marvelous book, Harold Acton's second volume on the Bourbons at Naples, the autobiography of George Sand, the Life of Tolstoy by his son. Nothing Oriental."

His dispossession was all too symbolic for a man who in any case felt no longer able to work at his craft, surpassed as he imagined himself to be by the technically more proficient young Americans. Beryl de Zoete died in 1962. In his new home at Highgate, overlooking London, Waley published small pieces, reprinted reviews, made forays into still other languages like Mongol and Ainu. He temporized.

Arthur Waley in Death, Highgate 1966

An auto accident in April 1966 revealed incurable cancer of the spine. This condition was rendered still more agonizing when a clumsy nurse broke his back a second time while lifting him. He lay on two chairs, bearing the unspeakable pain stoically, cherishing existence as such. He was cared for by Alison Robinson, whom he formally married, in the manner of more than one French man of art and letters, in May 1966, a month before he died. His feeling for friendship as the central human relationship, articulated in the introduction to the Hundred and Seventy, persisted unimpaired to the end. Carmen Blacker, another who assisted in those last days, at one point phoned Denis Sinor with this message:

"Arthur is dying, and he asked me to tell you that he is thinking of you."

At his funeral, the Ox Mountain passage of Mencius was read, this being a piece he had found comforting in his last months. Neither he nor his mourners probably saw this passage as a lament for the loss of moral character by the world-abraded, but rather as an evocation of hope for the renewal of moral character by the recurring beauty of the world. That is, he had not read the piece all the way to its end. For a man who in his lifetime had twice achieved the impossible, in transmitting two literary cultures, in volume and with understanding, to a third culture, it was a perhaps pardonable incompleteness, a thread left hanging for future generations.

[Two years later, in 1968, Hv Ding-Shvng, whose opinion on the Shu Waley had quoted back in 1938, closed part of the circle by concluding his book of Shr studies with a brief survey of the 17 subject categories into which Waley had divided the Shr poems. The East had acknowledged the West, in the common enterprise of investigating the classical past of China].

E Bruce Brooks


Denis Sinor and John Walter de Gruchy contributed to this profile.

Back to Profiles Index Page

1 July 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to Sinology Page