How to Read Chinese Poetry


One of my favourite Chinese books is How to Read Chinese Poetry by Zong-qi Cai. It is, as the subtitle proclaims, a “guided anthology” and includes many wonderful poems as well as a huge amount of information about how these poems can be read. Whether you know Chinese or not, this book is a must-have for the light it throws on a glorious poetic tradition (or, to be more precise, on centuries of different poetic traditions).

An accompanying volume, a How to Read Chinese Poetry Workbook, is also excellent. Surprisingly, it covers a slightly different range of poems, but that does at least mean that we get masterpieces like ‘Written on the Wall of the West Wood Temple’ by Su Shi. (I’ve also just discovered that there is a third volume: How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context – another book for the To Read pile.) Here is Su Shi’s poem in Chinese, followed by Zong-qi Cai’s translation:









‘Written on the Wall of the West Wood Temple’

All broad ridges it is, if seen lengthwise, all soaring peaks it becomes, if seen sideways;

Viewed from afar and near, high and low, it looks all different.

The true face of Mount Lu I cannot tell

Only because I am in the midst of it.

Su Shi (1037-1101)


How to translate such taut verse is a real problem, so I shall return to possible translations of the famous final couplet later in the year. For now, the poem is more than capable of standing on its own twenty-eight feet without any additional comment from me.

Books which span the years

In recent posts I have recommended some 11th century and 21st century books. Now it’s time to look at books which span the years. These books help us step aside from what Francois Hartog has called “presentism,” allowing us to be challenged by premodern ways of thinking, not so that we can retreat into nostalgic reverence for a non-existent past but so that we can see our own age in perspective. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his introduction to St Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’: 

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

Lewis’ argument was a lot subtler than he was sometimes given credit for. He certainly didn’t believe in some mythical Golden Age, but he certainly did believe in the power of old books:

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

Lewis’ recommendation was that, after reading a new book, we should not allow ourselves “another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” This remains very good advice. Nonetheless, we might also suggest that there are some modern books which can  have the same palliative effect of which Lewis wrote. I am thinking, in particular, of the following:

‘Laurus’ by Eugene Vodolazkin

‘Beside the Ocean of Time’ by George Mackay Brown

‘Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ by Walter M. Miller Jr.

‘That Hideous Strength’ by C. S. Lewis himself

Some children’s books – think of Pan in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and the Phoenix in ‘The Phoenix and the Carpet’

We sometimes need to be reminded that the great conversation is not a monologue: it goes back and forth. So I’ll finish with a remarkable passage from Henry of Huntingdon’s ‘Historia Anglorum’ which he wrote in AD 1135. Towards the end of his book he wrote these words:

Ad uos igitur iam loquar qui in tercio millenario, circa centesimum tricesimum quintum annum, eritis. Cogitate, inquam, quo duenerimus. Dicite, precor, quid nobis profuerit, si magni uel clari fuerimus? Nichil prorsus nisi in Deo claruerimus. Si enim nunc in eo claremus, et uestro tempore clarescemus, cum Domino nostro domini celi et terre, milibus milium qui in celis sunt collaudabiles. Nunc autem qui tanto tempore antequam nascamini de uobis mentionem iam uestro tempore puluis in hoc opere feci, si contigerit – quod valde desiderat anima mea – uestras ut in manus hoc opus meum prodeat, precor ut Dei clementiam inexcogitabilem pro me miserrimo exoretis. Sic et pro uobis orent et impetrent qui quarto uel quinto millenario cum Deo ambulabunt, si generatio mortalium tamdiu protelabitur. 

which has been translated by Diane Greenway in her edition of Henry’s book in this way:

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if – as my soul strongly desires – it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.

Great 11th Century Books

While it is true that some great books have been written in the 21st century, Joseph Joubert was also absolutely right to argue that the trouble with new books is that they prevent us from reading the old ones. So here – notwithstanding some difficulties with precise dating, which I shall skate over – are seven books from the 11th century which are well worth reading:


The Battle of Maldon

La Chanson de Roland

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which continued into the 11th century)

The Marvels of the East

St Anselm’s Proslogion

The poetry of Su Shi


Great 21st Century Books

While Joseph Joubert was absolutely right to argue that the trouble with new books is that they prevent us from reading the old ones, it is also true that some great books have been written in the 21st century. Here are seven which are well worth reading:

‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook Shin (2009)

‘The Madonna on the Moon’ by Rolf Bauerdick (2009)

‘Waiting for the Evening News’ by Tim Gautreaux (2010)

‘Laurus’ by Eugene Vodolazkin (2012)

‘The Seventh Day’ by Yu Hua (2013)

‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson (2014)

Henri Rousseau’s ‘The Customs Post’

The Customs Post

In an interesting article in Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris (Tate Publishing, 2005), Nancy Ireson argues that “The Customs Post is a particularly interesting picture for, in addition to suggesting that Rousseau saw his careers as complimentary [he was a customs official for much of his life], it also shows how he considered work and leisure to overlap.”

Such a view would have been largely uncontroversial before the Industrial Revolution, mainly because what we now regard as separate spheres were not sharply differentiated then. In fact, leisure as we understand it today was a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution’s valorisation of what Josef Pieper called a world of total work. Leisure became the absence of work and a determination to be temporarily rid of work. That is why Ruskin could write: “Now in order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it: They must not do too much of it: and they must have a sense of success in it.”

However, we now live in a largely post-industrial world where work and leisure have begun to merge, largely because of technological developments. The rise of email and the smartphone have led inexorably to a blurring of the lines between work and leisure. We work from home and leisure is subsumed into work.

So does this mean that we are now more able to recover the vision that Rousseau set out in The Customs Post? Sadly not. Work and leisure may overlap but it is work that calls the shots. 

What strikes us today, by contrast, is how tolerant Rousseau’s employers were by today’s standards, allowing him the time and space he needed to paint during what we tend to think of as work hours. Efficiency was not the prime virtue. What Rousseau had was what proponents of the Slow Movement call for today: an attitude to time that was not dominated by an industrial mindset. Both jungles and customs posts in Paris escaped what Auden called “the formal logic of the clock.”




I am currently listening to, and greatly enjoying, the audiobook of Véronique Olmi’s Bakhita. Once I have finished listening (and reading), I will write a proper review.

Listening to Olmi’s novel made me wonder what St Bakhita (whose saint’s day it is later this week) wrote herself. The answer is not much. As with St Thérèse of Lisieux, she was a reluctant autobiographer, telling her story only under obedience to her mother superior. The resulting journal, which is currently available in Italian and French but not in English, is simple but extremely powerful.

I was also greatly struck by a collection of pensées that are included in the Journal but which were collected by those who knew Bakhita in Italy. Time and time again, Bakhita directed her listeners away from her own great suffering towards the faithfulness of God. 

What we have, therefore, are two great books which are, in some ways, quite different from each other. The first will be available in English translation soon. Let’s hope the second is translated soon after.

Bakhita Journal


Secularization and Snowmen

The high point of the week for my children was the opportunity to build two snowmen and – this year’s innovation – a snow dog. A low point was the moment when they realised that those same snowmen (and dog) had begun to melt, the  first signs of terminal decline coming when the coal eyes and nose fell out.

Inside the house it was easy to miss that crucial moment. From a distance, eyes and nose still seemed to be there, the cavities being smudged black with coal. A closer inspection revealed the sad truth. And worse is still to come: as I type, with the temperature rising, limbs are starting to sag and heads, no doubt, will soon begin to roll.

There are two reasons why, sadly, I won’t be able to use this image of secularization in my PhD (on secularization and contemporary fiction). The first is that neither snowmen nor snowdogs are standard features of doctoral theses. The second is that the image doesn’t wholly work because it is grounded in an assumption of inevitability. Snowmen are built and snowmen melt. There is no other way. However, the secularization thesis no longer holds sway in the academy because secularization is clearly neither inevitable nor unstoppable. If anything is melting, it is the secularization thesis itself.



Intriguing news about J.D. Salinger’s books

We learn today that J.D. Salinger’s son and widow are working hard to publish the books he wrote during the last fifty years of his life. As became painfully apparent when Harper Lee agreed to allow Go Set a Watchman to see the light of day, publishing so many years after the event can be a perilous business, so let’s hope that Salinger fans won’t be disappointed. (In fact, what the publication of Go Set a Watchman revealed, above all else, was the importance of a good editor. The person who pulled To Kill a Mockingbird out of Go Set a Watchman deserves a Nobel Prize.)

However, it might be different with J.D. Salinger if only because he was such a restless writer. He was in search of something, or someone, he never quite found in his published works. I would be surprised to discover that the restlessness ever came to an end but the journey, the quest, could well throw up some fascinating surprises.

Time off

“When Augustine was ordained presbyter in the African town of Hippo in 391 one of the first things he did was to ask for time off – time to devote himself to intensive study of the Bible.” (R.P.H. Green in the introduction to St Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, OUP 1997)

I now wonder whether I should have done the same when I started teaching Theology A Level.

Ronald Knox on the current crisis

Of course, Ronald Knox didn’t have a view on the current crisis. Nevertheless, what he said in a series of sermons to schoolgirls during World War II (later published in The Creed in Slow Motion) was extremely prescient:

“What holds up the conversion of England, I always think, is not so much the wickedness of a few Catholics, as the dreadful ordinariness of most Catholics. There is a temptation for us, simply because we belong to a holy Church, just to sit back and be passengers, and say, ‘I’m not going to bother about being anything above the average; I leave the Church to do the holiness for me.’ But we have got to match the Church, you and I, to wear her colours. And when we say, ‘I believe in the holy Catholic Church,’ we mean, among other things, ‘I believe holiness is a good thing; that holiness would be a good thing for me.'”