Lorca’s Gypsy Ballad ‘Reyerta’ – a new translation

This week, at the Omnibus Theatre on Clapham Common, I was invited to deliver a brief, personal talk about Lorca’s poetry, particularly from the perspective of translating it. I have always found his poems difficult to work on – beyond a superficial level – though, as what follows suggests, I hope I have made some headway with it over the years. There are plenty of very poor translations around. I’m posting two blogs on this and including two of my own translations, the first, unpublished as yet, the second appeared  a while back in a small magazine. I’ve left my talk pretty much as . . . My translation of ‘Reyerta’ can be found at the end of the posting. I will post on the even more astonishing poem, ‘Romancero sonambulo’, next week.


My personal story with Lorca maybe begins even before I’d read him. When I did come to read him – in a Penguin Modern Poets collection with (quote) plain prose translations – I didn’t get it. Later – as I often calculatingly do with a poet I don’t get – I tried to translate a few poems. To begin with, I didn’t get it then either.

Actually, my problems are genuinely surprising, in retrospect, as I’d long before this responded powerfully to something which I can now see had a strong Lorca quality to it. Let’s go back to the early 1980s. Imagine the beard, the much longer hair. The ignorance . . . A friend of mine loved his Irish folk music. He told me to listen to a song sung by Christy Moore. I say a song – a ballad really.

The song’s voice (a young man) tells us he went to a wood, he cut a branch of hazel, went fishing with it and caught a trout. What drove him was the fire in his head. The scene is vividly conveyed, neat turns of phrase like the white moths and moth-like stars and, as he lights a fire, the trout turns into a girl who calls to him but runs off.

Then the youth’s narrative jumps – the kind of moment that really does take the top of your head off. The voice concludes:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

download (1)I really didn’t know it at the time, but the song’s words are, of course, by W.B.  Yeats. It is his poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

But I knew well enough that I found it moving – the yearning of the narrative, the devastating presentation of time passing, the strange images and most of all the mystery that spread itself over the whole like endlessly suggestive moonlight.


And so eventually, in Lorca too, I began to understand three big things – his poetry’s sense of generative mystery, the strange unexpectedness of his images and the boldness – the jump cuts – of his narrative development.

I’m focusing on these things tonight and what better place to start than a lecture he gave. Lorca typically (both self-deprecating and boldly idiosyncratic) calls it rather a talk about something no one has taught him – a lecture about the collection of poems called Gypsy Ballads. He published this best-selling book in 1930 and here he is speaking in October 1935. Of course, within the year he would have been murdered, his body dumped somewhere never to be found.

But in these lecture comments, we catch the man very much alive, I think, plus the poet’s love of outlandish metaphors. He says that lectures, in the traditional sense, tend to “fill the audience’s eyes with the pinpoints where Morpheus hangs his irresistible anemones”. For those of you already nodding off, he means in such talks we often fall asleep. Or at least, the speaker inadvertently fills the hall with “yawns too big for even the mouth of an alligator”.

hqdefaultI have now translated a number of Lorca’s poems and one of the great difficulties is to carry over such metaphorical leaps into English where they risk sounding very silly indeed. Fair enough, the alligator is, on the face of it, obvious enough: its gaping jaws give a good jolt of comic hyperbole to his image. But it’s still surprising in the context of a be-suited, bespectacled lecture hall in Spain. There is an exoticism there on the verge of surrealism and is characteristic of Lorca’s images. This search for novelty in image is clear when he argues later that a real poet must “shoot his arrows at living metaphors and not at the contrived and false ones which surround him”.

The Morpheus image does something else which is typical. Lorca takes up a creaking old mythic figure and with his sustained and vividly specific imagination, a vigorous verb, plus the kind of adjective on which he always liked to turn the volume up to 11, he brings the god of sleep and dreams to modern life: “the pinpoints where Morpheus hangs his irresistible anemones”. This sort of thing really is at the heart of Lorca’s project to take up traditional forms and stories and invest them with a modern vitality. One of his fellow students in his brief time at Columbia University reported that for Lorca, “new metaphors were the core and mainstay of any new poetry [. . .] Lorca’s central idea in writing was to employ phrases which had never been used before [. . .] an attempt to place together two things which had always been considered as belonging to two different worlds, and in that fusion and shock to give them both a new reality”.

This is the root of his belief that by means of poetry “a man more rapidly approaches the cutting edge that the philosopher and the mathematician turn away from in silence”. Never a proper, card-carrying surrealist, we can see why his work was working along that same grain. The well-honed, well-trodden, conventional, empirical/logical grooves of the philosopher or mathematician need a down-right shake up and poetic images easily seize the liberty to do this.


The Gypsy Ballad called ‘Reyerta’ or ‘The Quarrel’ or ‘Fight’ shows a lot of this for me. Lorca’s own comments on the poem suggest his interest in the way groups attack each other for unlikely reasons – a glance, a rose, a love affair centuries old, a man feeling a bug on his cheek. It opens:

Halfway down the gulley,

knives of Albacete,

beautiful with enemy blood

glinting like fish.

Like fish? A surprising image – but perhaps the silver and red (of fish fins; of steel and blood) makes this a vivid visual opening to the poem. But the surprise holds my attention; I can’t dismiss the slipperiness of the fish, the literal and metaphorical slipperiness of knives in a fight, perhaps the speed of movement of fish/fighters.


The images of the next quatrain are vividly expressive but hard to be literal about:

In the crown of an olive,

two old women mourn.

The bull of the brawl

heaves itself up walls.

The women weep but to see them apparently perched in a tree top explains less and reveals more. So – they are far from the quarrel, putting distance between themselves and the ruckus, and where better than an olive tree, symbol of rootedness, domesticity perhaps, a long rural history, the bark’s wrinkles echoing their old weeping faces. Then the quarrel as an utterly non-literal, aggressive bull might seem an obvious image but again Lorca fixes our attention and conjures an independent life for it – as in a bullfighting ring – crashing into walls, even beginning to climb them.


Mysterious black angels float through this poem at various moments. They are partly obvious, ominous, harbingers, though not of salvation but doom. Again, Lorca commits to them, commits details to them which tend to deepen the mystery of their significance: they are “bringing / meltwater, handkerchiefs. / Angels with wings as wide / as these Albacete knives” and, at the conclusion of the poem, they are seen “wheeling / in the air to the west. / Angels with trailing braids / and with hearts of oil”. With hearts of oil? Golden, greasy, liquid, melting, fast-beating, lacking healthy blood, anointing the earth, the good stuff spilling everywhere? Its meaning is a mystery and I suspect one Lorca would not venture to explain himself.

images oilJust one last detail from this great poem. Juan Antonio de Montilla is killed in the fight and – in one of Lorca’s characteristic jump cut edits (more of that in a minute) suddenly (it seems) the “judge and Civil Guard / come through the olive groves”. Somebody – a participant, one of the old women? – gives them an account of events in the form of exactly one of Lorca’s startling metaphors. This may have been a quarrel over a card game, or a girl, like so many others, but Lorca dizzyingly elevates it into an historical, even epic context:

Just as they always do:

four Romans have died

and five Carthaginians.

Here is my translation in full – the original Spanish follows:



Halfway down the gulley

knives of Albacete,

beautiful with enemy blood

glinting like fish.

a harsh playing-card light,

silhouettes on sour green,

the infuriated horsemen.

In the crown of an olive,

two old women mourn.

The bull of the brawl

heaves itself up walls.

And black angels bringing

meltwater, handkerchiefs.

Angels with wings as wide

as these Albacete knives.

Juan Antonio Montilla

rolling dead down a slope,

his body full of irises,

pomegranate on his brow.

He rides a cross of fire now

down the road to death.


The judge and Civil Guard

come through olive groves.

Slithering blood moans

a serpent’s mute song.

Masters! Civil Guardsmen!

Just as they always do:

four Romans have died

as have five Carthaginians


Evening crazed with figs

and hot rumours falling

faint on the wounded

thighs of the horsemen.

And black angels wheeling

in the air to the west.

Angels with trailing braids

and with hearts of oil.



En la mitad del barranco
las navajas de Albacete,
bellas de sangre contraria,
relucen como los peces.
Una dura luz de naipe
recorta en el agrio verde,
caballos enfurecidos
y perfiles de jinetes.
En la copa de un olivo
lloran dos viejas mujeres.
El toro de la reyerta
se sube por las paredes.
Ángeles negros traían
pañuelos y agua de nieve.
Ángeles con grandes alas
de navajas de Albacete.
Juan Antonio el de Montilla
rueda muerto la pendiente,
su cuerpo lleno de lirios
y una granada en las sienes.
Ahora monta cruz de fuego,
carretera de la muerte.


El juez, con guardia civil,
por los olivares viene.
Sangre resbalada gime
muda canción de serpiente.
Señores guardias civiles:
aquí pasó lo de siempre.
Han muerto cuatro romanos
y cinco cartagineses.


La tarde loca de higueras
y de rumores calientes
cae desmayada en los muslos
heridos de los jinetes.
Y ángeles negros volaban
por el aire del poniente.
Ángeles de largas trenzas
y corazones de aceite.

Explaining Robert Frost’s ‘Education by Poetry’

An earlier post in which I talked my way through Frost’s essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’  has proved to be one of my most visited pieces. As both teacher and poet, I wanted to explore Frost’s often teasing pronouncements and here I want to do the same with his longer essay, ‘Education by Poetry’. This was originally a talk delivered at Amherst College. It was subsequently revised for publication in the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly (1931). Frost also separately printed an extract from the conclusion of the essay under the title ‘The Four Beliefs’. Frost’s full text can be accessed here.   In the essay, Frost argues that nothing (other than mathematics)is known in itself – our knowledge is only via relations. So we must live by crediting metaphors of self, love, art, nation and deity, among others. Yet all these break down at some point and it this awareness that education ought to provide us with. There is a clear connection to Frost’s idea of a poem as a “clarification of life [. . .] a momentary stay against confusion” (‘’The Figure a Poem Makes’).



Paragraphs 1-7

Frost does not do rebarbative. Even when ultimately – as here – he has complex and profound issues to discuss, he invites us in and we follow trustingly. Here, he lulls us with the idea that he will “urge nothing”, will merely consider and describe. Only once he has finished will we grasp that his sometimes infuriating reluctance to commit lies at the core of his thinking.

His subject is how poetry is treated in American education. One approach is to bar it which, he admits with full-on irony, “takes the onus off the poetry of having to be used to teach children anything”.

Only slightly less ridiculous is the method of other institutions which permit a few examples of traditional poetry but “bar all that is poetical in it by treating it as something other than poetry”. What Frost means by “poetical” emerges later but here he mocks the way that poems are treated as no different to other conventional knowledge-based texts (“science”) or are examined merely for their linguistic and technical illustrations (“syntax, language”).

In a passage that all English teachers will recognise, Frost ironically concedes that education treats poetry in this way in large part because we have to submit marks for assessment. The brute simplicity of a marking regime has its attractions, but it inevitably narrows our focus until we mark for little else but “for accuracy, for correctness”. Still keeping what constitutes the “poetical” up his sleeve, Frost tempts us on by suggesting that such accuracy is “the least part of my marking. The hard part is the part beyond that, the part where the adventure begins”. The adventure is the real nature of a poetic text.

The Big Idea

Paragraphs 8-9

Having considered the abolition and the denaturing of poetry as ways of dealing with its “nuisance” value in education, Frost considers a third way of neutralising it. Mockingly once more, he describes those who accept poetry as a separate discourse but assign it to a “nowhere”, exile it to the “flowery”, to a place diametrically opposed to the “rigorous and righteous”. Poetry here becomes mere entertainment with no truth value, no concern for, or capacity for, knowledge. Poetry occupies only that part of the curriculum that “scatter[s] brains over taste and opinion” but this is hard to assess. Teachers may resort to “a general indefinite mark of X” in such courses and if a marking regime cannot be imposed then such a course can hardly be graced with the description of ‘education’. Frost’s tone is simultaneously sarcastic and passionately concerned: “How shall a man go through college without having been marked for taste and judgment? What will become of him? What will his end be? He will have to take continuation courses for college graduates. He will have to go to night schools”.

Coming closer to his real intention, Frost really does lament this lack of education in taste and opinion. Look at the rising seriousness of concern in this passage: “they have not been educated enough to find their way around in contemporary literature. They don’t know what they may safely like in the libraries and galleries. They don’t know how to judge an editorial when they see one. They don’t know how to judge a political campaign”.

This is a key moment because Frost makes it clear that for all his self-deprecatory tone, the foolery and sarcasm, he is leading us to a declaration that education does have a responsibility to prepare young people to be citizens as well as members of a skilled work force. Frost expects education to inculcate interpretative skills and too many Americans leave school/college ill-equipped to “know when they are being fooled by a metaphor, an analogy, a parable”. This is not science, nor is it merely syntax or language: “metaphor is, of course, what we are talking about”. For Frost, an understanding of how metaphor works is a key part of understanding the world (he will explain this later in the essay) and an understanding of metaphor is best learned through a study of how poetry works. Education about metaphor is education through poetry and “Education by poetry is education by metaphor”.

Paragraphs 10-11

I find the next two paragraphs hard to follow. Frost’s end point is to return to the importance of metaphor but here he detours through the idea of enthusiasm. As much as taste, enthusiasm is not something the academy can easily mark, but Frost wants it, or at least he wants enthusiasm “taken through the prism of the intellect”. This prism metaphor suggests that enthusiasm, when processed through the intellect, refracts a pure-blooded enthusiasm (Frost calls this latter “crude” and likens it to the “oh’s and ah’s” of someone admiring – without any thought? – a sunset). Such a refraction gives rise to a continuum of different levels of enthusiasm, from “something of overstatement, something of statement, and something of understatement”. The prism of the intellect is now re-named as “an idea”. I think Frost wants a not-unsurprising blend of passion and thought in his enthusiasm – neither cold assessment (marking?) nor the oh’s and ah’s of thoughtless fanaticism.


Paragraphs 12-14

Frost now returns to his main theme via a slight revision of his thought, suggesting he’s really been discussing “enthusiasm tamed by metaphor”. His next point is much clearer: “I do not think anybody ever knows the discreet use of metaphor, his own and other people’s, the discreet handling of metaphor, unless he has been properly educated in poetry”. Metaphor is the prism (spawned from intellect, something of an idea) through which our emotional responses are projected to achieve knowledge. But Frost is convinced that an awareness of this fact is not shared equally amongst us and that education through poetry will serve to increase this awareness.

Now Frost begins to talk more clearly about metaphor itself. The importance of it lies in the fact that it “begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, “grace” metaphors” but (as his essay argues) metaphor also “goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have”. Frost talks elsewhere of what Tim Kendall calls “ulteriority”, glossed here as the method of poetry of “saying one thing and meaning another”. The way Frost discusses this he is sure it is not an abstruse poetic idea but a day to day, almost instinctive human preference: “People say, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections—whether from diffidence or some other instinct”.

untitledFrost wants to make big claims for metaphorical thinking: “I have wanted in late years to go further and further in making metaphor the whole of thinking”. He allows the exception of “mathematical thinking” but wants all other knowledge, including “scientific thinking” to be brought within the bounds of metaphor. He suggests the Greeks’ foundational thought about the world, the “All”, was fundamentally metaphorical in nature, especially Pythagoras’ concept of the nature of things as comparable to number: “Number of what? Number of feet, pounds and seconds”. This is the basis for a scientific, empirical (measurable) view of the world and hence “has held and held” in the shape of our still-predominating scientific view of it.

Paragraphs 15-19

Frost refers to a visiting scientist who tried to mix spatial and temporal metaphors: “The two don’t go together”. Another such modern metaphor is that a thing is “an event”. Another is that space “is something like curved”. Another is that individual particles possess a freedom. Another is the “metaphor of evolution” or indeed that the whole universe, the whole of everything, “is like unto a growing thing”. Frost wants to alert his audience to the role of such metaphors – often unrecognised as such – in both our everyday and more refined scientific views of the world. He briefly dwells on the metaphor of evolution, accepting its brilliance (in terms of its still-continuing applicability) but insisting that even this “will break down at some point”.


Paragraph 20-23

These are the key paragraphs. Frost argues that our lack of understanding of how metaphor works will leave us “not safe”. We must understand “figurative values” and so be able to assess “the metaphor in its strength and its weakness”. In an image that brings to mind his poem ‘Birches’, he explains we will not “know how far [we] may expect to ride it and when it may break down”. The point is that it will break down (the boy riding the birch always comes back to earth) and education ought to give us the experience and the equipment to recognise a “good metaphor, as far as it goes, and [we] must know how far”. As I understand it, Frost wants us to approach human knowledge more tentatively, more sceptically, recognising its provisional nature because it is based in metaphors which will at some moment break down and need to be replaced by a better, more “brilliant” metaphor. The study of poetry offers us experiences of figurative thinking and (if we think of Frost’s poems) the sense of provisionality they often inculcate.

5727567383_f719380140_oThat we have a tendency to forget this provisional nature of knowledge and understanding seems to be Frost’s next point. We take up arms (as it were) by taking up certain metaphorical ideas and making totems of them. He berates Freudianism’s focus on “mental health” as an example of how “the devil can quote Scripture, which simply means that the good words you have lying around the devil can use for his purposes as well as anybody else”. That this is dangerous (makes us not safe) is illustrated by the passage of dialogue Frost now gives between himself and somebody else. The other argues that the universe is like a machine but Frost (adopting a sort of Socratic interrogation technique) draws out the limits of the metaphor, concluding he “wanted to go just that far with that metaphor and no further. And so do we all. All metaphor breaks down somewhere. That is the beauty of it. It is touch and go with the metaphor, and until you have lived with it long enough you don’t know when it is going. You don’t know how much you can get out of it and when it will cease to yield. It is a very living thing. It is as life itself”.

Paragraphs 24-26

Frost now returns us to the school room and what it is for a student to “Think”. It is now clear that this frequent exhortation from teachers really means “just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another”. In a clear allusion to his poem ‘After Apple-picking’, Frost says to explain to students about the workings of metaphor is to “set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky”. The most significant example of such metaphorical thinking is “the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter.” This – like all metaphors in the end – is an attempt that must fail but “it is the height of poetry, the height of all thinking, the height of all poetic thinking, that attempts to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter”. Frost clearly feels each realm is more clearly understood via metaphors of the other but (speaking in the 1930s) the main danger he foresees is a too-materialist vision of the world: “The only materialist – be he poet, teacher, scientist, politician, or statesman – is the man who gets lost in his material without a gathering metaphor to throw it into shape and order. He is the lost soul”. He is lost because blind to metaphors.

Paragraphs 27-37

Frost starts to look at metaphors through some “trivial ones” from the Odyssey – a shield and seeds of fire. These are the raw materials for an education by metaphor and recall his definition of a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion” in The Figure a Poem Makes where he arguesI would rather have trivial ones of my own to live by than the big ones of other people. But there are more significant metaphors: “the ones we live by”. Frost repeats: “[metaphor] is all there is of thinking”. He explains we do not have to write poetry to understand metaphor. Reading it serves as long as we read it “not as linguistics, not as history, not as anything but poetry”. The only form of assessment a teacher can apply to someone reading poetry is how “close” they come to it. This remains vague, to say the least, but Frost insists “everything depends on the closeness with which you come, and you ought to be marked for the closeness, for nothing else”.

Paragraphs 38-43

Evidence of such closeness to the true nature of poetry (and hence metaphor) is now termed a form of “belief”. He gives five different forms of such belief. Frost makes each sound like a sense of conviction, arising from the perception of a metaphorical connection between two things. Our giving credence to this sense of connection is also what can give rise to a fulfilling of such a connection, almost as if our belief in it gives rise to it.

His first illustration of this is in a young person’s self-belief. Is this like a young woman seeing herself as an engineer, giving that vision credit and hence pursuing it towards fulfilment? Of course, such metaphors break down and this is something more clearly acknowledged in Frost’s second example: “the belief of love”. The metaphor of a romantic relationship between two individuals must be given credence (on both sides) to be pursued but “the disillusionment that novels are full of is simply the disillusionment from disappointment in that belief. That belief can fail”.


The third form of belief is literary or art belief. Frost focuses on the creation of a work of art which should arise not from cunning or calculation but from “belief. The beauty, the something, the little charm of the thing to be.” This is more “felt than known” (again recalling The Figure a Poem Makes) and we need to see the artist sensing a connection to something other, giving it credence, and trying to fulfil the insight, working towards it, bringing it in existence (not merely recording something already known). This is also the model for Frost’s fourth belief –  the God-belief. He’s most brief on this but the implication seems to be that God is something we bring into existence through our belief. Again, we need to remember that both literary- and God-belief is liable to failure and break down.

Here, Frost’s final belief is national belief, a belief in a nation to which we give credence and hence bring about its fulfilment, bringing it into existence. The particular and personal nature of each of these beliefs is brought out when Frost reaches for the metaphor of the painter’s palette. As he says elsewhere, being forced to adopt others’ metaphors, even a whole culture’s metaphors, becomes a form of tyranny that he would resist. This is partly because all metaphors break down eventually, but also because “I want my palette, if I am a painter, I want my palette on my thumb or on my chair, all clean, pure, separate colours. Then I will do the mixing on the canvas”. Whether we are engaged in self-, love-, art-, God- or nation-creation, we must make our own.

Paragraph 44

Interestingly, Frost concludes by reviewing and re-ordering the five areas of metaphorical belief. Each has a “shyness” about it in that we are reluctant or incapable of pronouncing upon it until we have tried to pursue it: “only the outcome can tell”. This must be, in part, the source of Frost’s slipperiness, the sense we often have that his commitment is always provisional, or yet forthcoming. Even in national-belief, “it has got to be fulfilled, and we are not talking until we know more, until we have something to show”. This is understandably true of writing a poem which arises “not of cunning and craft [. . .] but of real art”. This is now glossed as “believing the thing into existence, saying as you go more than you even hoped you were going to be able to say, and coming with surprise to an end that you foreknew only with some sort of emotion”. In this conclusion, Frost holds back God-belief for its more traditional, ultimate position: “And then finally the relationship we enter into with God to believe the future in – to believe the hereafter in”.




Explaining Water Images in the ‘Daodejing’

Daoism has been referred to as the Watercourse Way because of the importance of water images in its key source, the Daodejing. I thought much about these images in translating/versioning these ancient Chinese texts and I want to record a few thoughts systematically here. However, as you’ll see, trying to ‘fix’ something runs counter to the Way – yet even if what we seek runs through our hands, the effort to consider the role of such images is worthwhile. (I have blogged about other images in the Daodejing here).


The Daodejing uses water images in two ways. Firstly as an image of the ineffable One, the plenitude that lies at the heart of all its thinking – imagine the vastness of the ocean, the unfixable flux of flowing water, never the same river twice. The texts also use water images to suggest aspects of our behaviour (personal and political) if we are acting in accordance with the Dao or Way. Many use metaphors of water in such a way that the vehicles are clear and recurrent (ocean, pool, river, stream) but the tenor remains an empty set, never defined because in its nature indefinable in language or figures.

So Chapter 1, ‘Nursery’ (I’ll give my titles as well as traditional Chapter numbers), introduces water images while giving a clear indication of the short-comings of all language. It deploys a metaphor that immediately undermines the efficacy of its own figurative language: “the path I can put a name to / cannot take me the whole way”. Even what can be named can only be grasped through a further metaphor: the “nursery where ten thousand things / are raised each in their own way”. What lies behind the phenomena of our world can only be suggested through additional metaphors such as a “mould”, a “source”, a “mystery”. Even this is not enough; more than a mystery it is “a riddle set adrift on a mystery”. In my version I introduced a watery context for the source itself (indefinably, untrackably “adrift”). I then developed this to image it as a body of water held behind a “flood-gate” which only in release and inundation delivers “greater truth”. The original Chinese text shifts its metaphors rapidly in just this way and this is what gives this opening Chapter the peculiar sensation of telling a clear truth that remains just beyond our grasp.


A similar image of a body of water occurs in Chapter 4, ‘Something greater’. The tenor of the metaphor is again reduced to “it” in the opening line.  The context indicates that “it” is the Dao itself, the One that precedes and contains all things, that state of wholeness and plentitude towards which the path of the Dao leads. Here the tentative nature of the metaphor is indicated firstly through the opening imperative – “imagine” – and then because the text itself consists of proposed alternatives to this very image. The opening formulation emphasises the Dao’s infinite nature, its resource: “a vessel to be drawn from / one that never needs to be re-filled // the bottomless source of all things”. This image of a bottomless water source is revised a few lines later in the form of a question: “is it rather a pool that never runs dry” yet this follows 4 other metaphorical formulations of the Dao’s beneficial effects:


fretted edges are smoothed within it


knots untangled all dazzle eased

all blinding clouds of dust slowly cleared


And the poem calmly goes on to declare its own ineffectiveness: “we cannot know it as a bodiless image / it must pre-date every beginning”. Even the concept of origin, or beginnings, is not adequate to convey the full force of the Dao but the fluidity of water – impossible to grasp, capable of taking any shape, a life-giving source – seems to come close.

The second way in which water images are used in the Daodejing is as a gesture towards actual human behaviours which occur when we are influenced by the Dao: in knowing that the truth of the Dao is like a watery flood, we behave in a water-ish fashion. So ‘The great rivers’ (Chapter 32) reminds that the Dao “has no name” and uses one of the other recurring images of it (the uncarved block of wood). If “the powerful” would attend to the nature of the Dao they would be successful “without recourse / to compulsion or law”. One of the recurring political beliefs of these texts is that if society is organised and governed in accordance with the Dao then people will live in “harmony” without even trying (indeed it is the trying that causes the harm – see wu wei below). Metaphorically, this translates as a society knowing “when to call a halt” to our distancing from truth (the hacking of the block, the reliance on naming/language, our remoteness from the ‘water’ source that is the Dao). The poem ringingly concludes with the image of right human behaviours being likened to the natural flow of water:


all things come to those

who follow the way

as all wild streams

and all unruly torrents

drive eventually

to great rivers the sea


Water is also the image used to consider more individual behaviour. ‘Best teaching’ (Chapter 43) opens rhetorically, alluding again to water:


—what of all things is most yielding

tell me what overwhelms the hardest


without solid form itself what flows

penetrates even the smallest gap


This understanding of the action of water in its pliability and fluidity, its erosion effects and its penetrability, reminds the poet of the concept of wu wei, or non-action, another untranslatable but key idea in the whole sequence. This is the wise person’s ability to achieve actions or goals without determined or intended pursuit of them. I have translated this as “unacted deed” and this poem immediately links this to the art of teaching, the best of which “occurs in the absence of words” (show not tell?). Water is an appropriate image for this in its passivity yet power, its pliability yet ineluctable nature. The poem ends almost with a shrug at the difficulty of grasping such concepts or behaviours:


the unacted deed the indirect

direction—it’s hard to comprehend


The text of ‘Clearest words’ (Chapter 78) reinforces the image of water as a key aid to understanding Daoist thought:


—there is nothing in the world more soft

more yielding than water

yet in conflict with hard resistant things

there’s nothing better

and there is no way to alter this

what is yielding will defeat what resists

these are facts clearly known to all

why don’t we make better use of them


In these final lines we can perhaps hear Laozi’s legendary disgruntlement with the parlous state of the real world – why don’t we put known truths into action? Yet here again, the poem concludes by recognising how difficult such simple principles can be to grasp: “even clearest words are contradictory”.

Chapter 61, ‘Tributaries’, returns to a more political perspective with its comments on how “strong nations” ought to behave. The action of water in relation to both geography and gravity is the figure used on this occasion:


—strong nations must play the low ground

to which all contributing waters flow

the point to which all things converge


This ensures that any exercise of power by such nations will “issue from stillness” and “quiescence” (according to the principle of wu wei) rather than self-assertion, anxious, fearful imposition, bullying. It’s this (former) sort of behaviour that the Daodejing repeatedly returns to and characterises as “female” and what follows is one of the most beautiful passages where water images are integral to the meaning:


[ . . . ] and the male cannot

resist he brings his watery tributes

and she gains adherents he procures favour

as she looks to embrace and empower

he finds himself part of a greater thing

in this way becomes part of creation

so both thrive both discovering bliss—

real power is female it rises from beneath


This coincidence of water images and female images and the description of the passive exertion of power, nourishment, subtlety, irresistibility, is wholly characteristic of these poems. The image of water collecting at its lowest point – power exerted by doing nothing – is likewise the focus of ‘Influence’ (Chapter 66) which explicitly links such calculated passivity with virtuous potency:


—how do rivers and seas secure mastery

over the hundreds of lesser streams

through lying lower than they do


so to govern or teach you must stand

and acknowledge you are beneath the people

to guide them put yourself at the rear


only in this way can true leaders rise

not stifling people with their being on top

not bullying them into harm’s way


only this way all things under heaven

are content to range under your influence

not find instruction provocative—


a teacher achieves not by trying to achieve

and because she does not strain to succeed

there’s no-one comes forward to compete

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Images of the Child in Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’

Most images of the child in Laozi’s Daodejing appear as metaphors. For a text that has a strongly backward-looking, even primitivist tendency there is surprisingly little of our own post-Romantic fetishisation of childhood. For Wordsworth, the child could be seriously considered father of the man and the loss of childhood an event from which we never recover. But for Laozi (almost as paradoxically) the child is more often used as an image of the state of being towards which the wise man or woman strives.


For example in Chapter 20, the narrative voice compares himself to a child (all translations in what follows are from my forthcoming book (Spring 2016)). This is one of the few parts of the Daodejing where we hear a reasonably consistent lyric voice (not the figure of the teacher) expressing a troubled state of mind because he tries to adopt the teachings of Laozi. Though opening optimistically, “—in putting by what / passes for knowledge / truth is there are / fewer reasons to grieve”, the narrator is soon perturbed by his observations of “the grinning crowd”. What follows is a vivid description of the worldly mob, intent on their own petty, material lives, their narrow purposes:


as if celebrating

closing some deal


about to embark

on a summer vacation


This is the world that Laozi (the putative author of the Daodejing) is said to have despaired of in his own time. The story goes that he vanished from Chinese society sometime in the sixth century BCE, leaving behind only the 81 Chapters of the Daodejing as a kind of despairing, if consolatory handbook. In Chapter 20, the narrator reaches for the image of a child in trying to characterise himself:


I live in solitude

I’m like a quiet child


though one who’s yet

to take his first steps

I’m like an infant

incapable of smiling


I dither and droop

find no place to belong

[. . . ] I seem

to have let things slip


His contrast to the determined mob is vivid and for most of the poem it seems not strongly in his favour. However, the concluding lines present a more satirical tone, a more defiant effort at self-confidence, declaring that he finds:


no significance

in those things

that do not drive roots

deep in the way


On several occasions, the poems present those who follow the way, the teachings of Laozi, as ill-adjusted to the world as we find it. Chapter 28 begins to explain why. The follower of the way does not divide or discriminate; her vision of life is comprehensive:


—know the male

yet hold to the female

become a valley

in receipt of all things


in becoming a valley

know the power

that cannot be

called on in vain


In achieving such a state of perception (we might say vision), the poem again calls on the image of a child: “this the reprise / to the child-like state”. That this is a reprise, a return of some sort, is an idea repeated throughout the 81 Chapters of the Daodejing. I think this sounds more Wordsworthian than it really is. Laozi is more concerned to draw his readers’ attention back to the wisdom of a previous age rather than one innately the preserve of childhood and subsequently lost as the bars of the prison house fall. But perhaps both images really ought to be read as no more than metaphors. Interestingly, Chapter 28, deploys an alternative metaphor in its effort to convey the wholeness of vision:


be the reversion

to the uncarved block

when the block is cut

shaped for use


by the teacher’s hand

a controlling force

the truth is who carves

best carves least


Reprise here becomes “reversion” but the “uncarved block” represents the oneness of being that Laozi’s teaching is founded on. The resort to the figurative suggests the basic inadequacy of language to encompass this oneness – just one of the very modern-seeming themes of these wonderful poems.

The premise of this oneness yields the (again modern-sounding) corollary that even our individual selves are provisional at best. The opening of Chapter 49 suggests:


—the true teacher is like a poet

who has no self to speak of

using the self of others as his own


And Laozi is under no illusions about how such beliefs distance the believer from the world as it is lived. The sage, or master, or (as I have translated it) the teacher, inevitably seems a square peg in a round hole. But it is ironically she who perceives the underlying truth of things:


in the way she deals with the world

the teacher may seem dazed

confused as if her wits were dull


yet even as the nation’s households

strain ears and eyes she listens

she watches in the guise of a child


The most developed consideration of the image of the child comes in Chapter 55. Those who manage to follow the way possess a child-like innocence that William Blake would recognise as built not on narrowness, naivety and ignorance but on a fullness of knowledge beyond what most of us can aspire to and such transcendent innocence is like a protective charm. In Chapter 55, images of children include indications of sexuality and pain suggesting a world undivided by conventionally shallow ideas of morality or ‘happiness’, a world of profound harmony discovered in the recognition of the oneness of all things. The poem also powerfully argues that to be ignorant of this truth breeds egotism and greed which, under the guise of acquisition and self-aggrandisement, turn out to be nothing less than a primrose path to a form of extinction.


Dead inflexibility

chapter 55


—the immunity of one pursuing the way

is like the charm of innocence about a child


winged insects will not sting nor beasts

attack sharp beaks do not swoop to peck


though bones may be soft and sinews weak

yet the grip of the child is powerful still


and though the sexual life is still remote

the boy’s prick stands stiff as a thumb


despite the hungry child’s keening all day

she sleeps with no rawness in her throat


the body of a child has such harmony—

to know harmony is to find the ever-here


finding the ever-here is enlightenment

but cramming life to the brim is foolish


when such a person asks so much of life

the resulting glut is dead inflexibility


such irritable reaching only ends in decay