Whenever I explain what Project Gutenberg is, one question that frequently arises is, “How do they decide which books to publish?” The easy answer, of course, is that we’ll prepare any public domain text that we can get our un-grubby, white-gloved archival hands on. Like most easy answers, though, it doesn’t hold up well to closer scrutiny. If all of us content providers really spent our time chasing every book we came across, we’d never finish any one of them. So what really happens is that we find our niche. We choose an era; we choose a language; we choose an earthly (or otherwise!) region. Or, we choose a genre–some broad topic or style that falls just a little nearer and dearer.
I should confess up front. The majority of my content providing is done to finish up existing, but incomplete projects–lost illustrations, torn pages, that sort of thing. I call it entropy control. I also enjoy helping to proofread books that are slated to be published for Project Gutenberg. A few weeks ago, it happened, I was spending some time on a volume called The London Mercury–a kind of catch-all for literary reviews, much like the New York Time’s bestseller list of today. This is a fun kind of project to work on because it offers short articles that are easy to follow and finish, even if I only have a few minutes to spare for proofreading that day. And naturally, the works that are reviewed are almost universally qualified as potential Gutenberg works, too. I try to keep an eye open for works that look interesting to me, but most of the biographies, natural histories, and public policy reports just slide right by me. However, one review stood out.
More Translations from the Chinese, by Arthur Waley, received a glowing review for its “[skillfully] handled unrhymed verse,” and “rhythm and flow of sound…amazing in translations.” Several excerpts were included–eloquent, unadorned blank verse. I’ve always enjoyed the misleading simplicity of Japanese haiku, and these excerpts quickly captivated me. So naturally, I searched for More Translations on Project Gutenberg. And I found it.
The full volume does not disappoint. Beyond the limitations of a half-page review, Waley’s chosen poems really shine. “The Great Summons,” by Ch‘ü Yüan, was described by the Mercury’s review as “[t]he finest thing in the book.” According to the book’s notes, it was written by Ch‘ü during his nine-year exile from the Court, as a cry against his own depression. Being separated from his beloved homeland, Ch‘ü called to his soul to “come back again and go not east or west, or north or south!” He tells of the terrors, the “treacherous voids” that lie beyond the borders, tempting his soul back with beguiling lures of favorite foods, wine, song, and service to his king. Each new stanza unveils a happiness that is only found at home; it’s enough to lure anyone’s soul back time and again.
Shorter poems are not as layered, but instead evoke the quiet moods of the scenes described:
I sat drinking and did not notice the dusk,
Till falling petals filled the folds of my dress.
Drunken I rose and walked to the moonlit stream;
The birds were gone, and men also few.
“Self-Abandonment,” by Li Po
Having read that and others like it, I see why so many great artists of ancient Asia seem to incorporate such writings right into their paintings and woodcuts (such as Green Hills and White Clouds, by Gao Kogong). The poems themselves bring pictures to mind, and some of them simply cry out to be represented in pigment or fiber. Spanning from the eleventh century back to the fourth century B.C., the eight poets represented address timeless subjects that still capture the human condition. I was repeatedly reminded of Robert Frost’s poems–natural, evocative, and just a hint of humor to balance out the lyric pace and occasionally melancholy subject. Not coincidentally, Po Chu-I’s “Going alone to spend a night at the Hsien-Yu Temple” is a dead ringer for “Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening,” but older by over a millennium.
I now have More Translations from the Chinese permanently bookmarked in my browser, and drift back to it whenever I’m seeking a contemplative moment. Even the ebook number, #16500, has a nice round completeness to it. But this volume is simply More Translations, which implies that another volume came before. The London Mercury is kind enough to shed some light on this: “The new collection should not be missed by anyone who has the old one; those who have not should get the old one…which, on the whole, covers better poems.” As it happens, one of my local libraries has a copy of 170 Chinese Poems, by Arthur Waley, so as soon as I have the chance, I’ll borrow it and begin preparing it for Project Gutenberg. After all, I’m a content provider. It’s what I do.