I have received Mr. Wu Mi's Collected Poems («吴宓诗集»,中华书局印行，定价二无四角) which you sent to me to review. I should certainly write a full-dress article on this interesting book, if my hands were not particularly full for the moment. But a short letter, I believe, will go some way towards remedying the injustice it has so far received.
I have not been able to keep myself au courant with Chinese literary journalism since my arrival in England which coincided with the appearance of Mr. Wu Mi's Collected Poems . The book seems to have got little "press , and a very spiteful one at that. Mr. Wu Mi has supplied everything necessary for an intelligent appreciation of himself and his work in introductory matters, appendices, footnotes and the very poems themselves, but the press notices are neither intelligent nor appreciative. He has been copiously and embarrassingly autobiographic, and the whole book might pass for a dossier about himself which would satisfy the curiosity of the most inquisitive police inspector. Photos, itineraries, and all things of documentary value are there—except, perhaps, a few finger¬prints. He must have known that in thus taking the public into his confidence, the ungrateful public would cover him with ridicule, and yet he runs the risk.
Now, only a great man, or perhaps an egregious fool, can be so impervious to ridicule, and Mr. Wu Mi is a great personality. His espousal of the supposedly lost cause of the wen-li is conclusive proof of his indomitable courage. To be sure, it is a bit Quixotic to tilt at the windmill of the "New Chinese Literature Movement" when it was in full swing, but it is fine, clean courage nonetheless. His crusade against Romanticism (a thing that has never been able to flourish on our soil and in our mental climate) under the banner of Irving Babbitt's Humanism is just another case in point. And thanks to his untimely and ill-starred efforts, the very name of Babbitt has become anathema to our self-conscious moderns who would have been among the first to lick the shoes of the Sage of Harvard if they had known how people as disparate in their views as T. S. Eliot and J. Middleton Murry agree in respecting his critical grasp and integrity. Curiously enough, Mr. Wu Mi who pays such pious tributes to Babbitt's memory is the sort of character whom Babbitt would have been the first to denounce as a pernicious writer and renounce as a reprobate pupil. Mr. Wu Mi's pageant of a bleeding heart, his inclination to wash occasionally his dirty linen in public, his sense of being a grand incompris , his incessant self-flagellation, all these to which his book bears ample evidence, are simply so much grist to the mill of Rousseau and Romanticism . I for one doubt whether Babbitt's influence on him has been on the whole beneficial. He has imbibed the Babbittian variety of Humanism and come to abhor intellectually what he temperamentally desires. He is really the only impenitent Chinese romantic in word (witness his poems) and in deed (witness his love affairs recorded in the poems). His poetry makes us understand why he should have fought such a doughty battle against the non-existent thing—Chinese romanticism: he is really trying to quell that blatant beast in himself. It is this mental split that has been his undoing, and his tragic unhappiness is, as it were, a splitting headache in his soul. Flaubert, for instance, knows the perennial struggle between the deux bonshommes in himself, and to know this is already to arbitrate between them. But Mr. Wu Mi is sadly lacking in such lucid self-knowledge, and his warring elements have to clash like enemies in the dark!
Surely no ordinary man can be so twy-minded. An ordinary man can have no conflicts which are spiritual, though he may have scruples which are pragmatic. His soul stuff is still too much in the primordial lumpish state to form any moral distinctions, a clammy mud-cake not parched yet by the dry intellectual light, fissureless and rather featureless. But Mr. Wu Mi's soul seems to be in a state of having distinctions without order: every distinction becomes an opposition in his mind. No one talks more about synthesis or hierarchy of interests and values, and no one shows it less in actual life. And he is too sophisticated to enjoy that moral, vegetative calm which is one of Nature's gifts to simpletons, boors and children. Hence his almost desperate love-making; why, he has lost Paradise without gaining an Eve who will "share his woe" and "lighten his burden"! Upon this psychological discord is grafted a cultural conflict between the Old and the New which a man of his generation and education is bound to feel. Yet he alone of his generation seems to have felt it acutely, while his contemporaries have grown fat and pink and happy by simply muddling through. All these are faithfully mirrored in his poetry; it has, therefore, an enthralling interest independent of its purely literary merit. He is not a great poet, but he is unquestionably the most complex personality of his generation who seeks relief by writing poetry.
The most important feature of the book is of course Mr. Wu Mi's love-poetry. Whether his objects be but scatter-brained flappers or superannuated coquettes comme les mouchoirs anciens qui sentent encore I 'amour, to him they are veritable femmes fatales . He can neither get on with them nor get on without them. And there is something wistful even in the note of resignation and "consolation by philosophy" which ends the book. What constitutes novelty, however, is the poet's high seriousness, a thing hitherto unknown in our 'old" or iven-li love-poetry. No flippant banter, no lecherous rakishness, in a word, no lascivete parfumee, as goes the admirable French translation of our term (香艳) under which our old love-poetry is subsumed. "The importance of being earnest" indeed! Mr. Wu Mi has given as the motto of his book Chenier's famous line: Sur des pensers nouveaux faisons des vers antiques , and he has certainly succeeded.
But then, Chenier began his poetic career with the reverse of the dictum which Mr. Wu Mi has quoted with approval. He started, as the late Emile Faguet first pointed out, by making new verses upon old thoughts, a thing that Mr. Wu Mi seems not to have done enough. For a writer of vers antiques whose very rigour of form demands and even compels a meticulous verbal and rhythmic perfection, he seems very deficient in curiosa felicitas. I will not dwell on his slipshod versification, his costive diction, his rugged and harsh texture, and a general short-windedness of his poetic breath (to employ an expressive phrase in our ' old criticism), but wish to call attention to those gnomic lines scattered throughout the book which, weighted with personality and bare of rhetoric, positively achieve the grand style of Tu Fu. Take the following couplet for a happy example:
略识艰难赖此行(bk. viii, p. 4)
Or take that fine tz'u (词) written to the tune of The Butterfly among Flowers (蝶恋花) which begins with （已别何须来送我） and ends with （轻尘飞扬随颠簸） (bk. xiii, p. 10). Who would have believed before seeing it that the fragile frame of that particular tune can stand the strain of such tossing and foaming emotion? Or that the "butterfly" can bear gallantly on its wings so much tense, bitter thought which may even break a camel's back? Mr. Wu Mi has triumphed over the limitations of his medium and transformed them into potentialities. His art, in this case, has changed what is meant to be merely pretty-pretty into something sublime or "very pretty" in the sense which Coleridge's lady applied to a waterfall.
It would be easy to scoff at his frequent deplorable lapses in taste. Indeed, the last section of his poems reminds me very much of Hazlitt's Liber Amoris and Sainte-Beuve's Livre d'Amour. Like the two, it represents the indiscretions of a middle-aged writer mashed on a woman whom he has failed to marry. And like the two, it caused a mild scandal. I venture to think that the poems in this section are much better than Sainte-Beuve's, though the footnotes may fall short of Hazlitt's prose. At any rate, if Mr. Wu Mi has sinned against "good form", he cannot have sinned in better company. The following mighty line ought to redeem any fault he has committed whether as a poet or as a man:
未甘术取任缘差(bk.xiii, p. 14)
Not to be aware of the austere beauty of such a line argues lack of taste; not to be aware of its burden of pathos argues lack of sensitiveness.
There are many other things which I want to say of this book and of Mr. Wu Mi himself. In the appendices, for instance, he shows himself a thoughtful and scholarly critic slightly spoiled by crotchetiness. One can also see that he is a loyal friend and a conscientious teacher. Young Chinese students of my generation owe him a great debt. He first emphasized the "continuity of letters" and advocated the study of comparative literature which should include our own "old" literature within its purview. He alone of all practising Chinese critics of a decade and a half ago has a "synoptical" knowledge of European literary history. But it requires a monograph to do justice to this extraordinary man who, with all his faults, is, as the brilliant writer of Imperfect Understanding has rightly said, every inch of him "a scholar and a gentleman."
Yours etc. ,
16, Norham Gardens
March 7th, 1937