Transience and Water

Awhile back I posted a dozen or so translations into half a dozen languages of Janus Vitalis’ poem “Qui Roma in media quaeris novus advana Roma”, a reflection on permanence and change which ends

Oh Rome, in your greatness and your beauty,
what was firm has fled, and only the transitory remains and lasts.

The “transitory” in this poem is the Tiber, which flows past the ruins of a Rome which is no more. Vitalis’ poem expresses a philosophical acceptance of the ravages of time.

The following poem by Ted Hughes, which makes a similiar point in a geological context, has a cruelty to it, as Hughes’ poems so often do:

  Sugar Loaf

The trickle cutting down from the hill-crown
Whorls to a pure pool here,
with a whisp trout like a spirit.
The water is wild as alcohol
–distilling from the fibers of the blue wind.
Reeds, nude and tufted, shiver as they wade.


I see the whole huge hill in the small pool’s stomach.

This will be serious for the hill.
It suspects nothing.
Crammed with darkness, the dull, trusting giant
Leans, as over a crystal, over the water
where his future is forming.


Ted Hughes, “Sugar Loaf”, in Wodwo, 1967.  

Hughes’ theme is, of course, a commonplace of Chinese culture, and is especially characteristic of  the Taoism of Lao Tzu:

天 下 莫 柔 於 水  
而 攻 堅 強 者 莫 之 能 勝    

There is nothing in the world softer than water,
yet there is nothing better for attacking the hard and strong”
 

Lao Tzu, Ch. 78  

The following characteristically simple and transparent lines by the T’ang dynasty Chinese poet Po Chu-i (Bai Zhuyi) put a rather surprising twist on this theme:

浪 淘 沙
 
一 波 沙 來 一 波 去  
一 重 浪 滅 一 重 生  
相 攩 相 淘 無 歇 日  
會 教 山 海 一 時 平  

One wave brings the sand,
another sucks it back again.
One wave dies away,
another wave is born.
This constant stirring and scouring of wave on sand
Turns at last the hills and seas to level land.  

Po Chu-i, “Lang Sao Sha” in A Further Collection of Chinese Lyrics, (tr. Ayling and Macintosh), Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

The last line literally can be read “is able to teach (, jiao) the hills and seas to be level ( , ping)”, where     ping has the secondary meanings of “peaceful”, “quiet”, or “orderly”. Unlike Hughes and Vitalis, however, Po Chu-i does not stress the destructive force of water at all, but only its tendency to even things out and make them nice and civilized. (Fenellosa’s “ideographic fallacy” (which fooled Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell almost a century ago and caused the Imagist movement) has been refuted many times by now.  Note, however, that in the poem above and its title, 10 of 31 Chinese characters are classified under the  “water” radical).

Finally, a poem of similar theme from Rome itself (perhaps chosen for translation for its anarchist flavor). During the last years of the western Rome, Sulpicius Lupercus Servasius (ca. 400 AD) seemed to have a premonition of what was going to happen: 

Rivers level granite mountains,
Rains wash the figures from the sundial,
The plowshare wears thin in the furrow;
And on the fingers of the mighty
The gold of authority is
bright with the glitter of attrition.  

Sulpicius Lupercus Servasius, Jr.in Poems from the Greek Anthology, tr. Kenneth Rexroth, Michigan, 1962).