Mr. Wen Yuan Ning's brilliant character-sketch of this "scholar-gentleman" appeared before the publication of his Collected Poems (1936). In reading his poems afresh, I become more and more intrigued by the hidden folds in his character. If I say that Mr. Wu Mi is the most complex personality among my senior contemporaries, I am not pitching the case too high. To be called "complex" is perhaps a distinction which we of this self-conscious and auto-analytic age all envy, but for a man of Mr. Wu Mi's principles, who aims at symmetry, poise, and the beautiful harmony of all natural impulses and faculties, in a word, a man who aims at being "complete", to be judged as merely "complex" is damning enough. I will not here discuss his work as editor, teacher and critic. We of the younger generation owe him a great debt, because he alone of all critics of a decade and half ago seems to have a synoptical knowledge of European literary history, and is the first to start the study of comparative literature which includes our own "old" literature within its purview.
This, however, belongs to Mr. Wu Mi as a phenomenon; what fascinates me most is the noumenal Mr. Wu Mi hinted in his poetry. His noumenal self may be as elusive as the Spencerian "unknowable", but I have no higher ambition than to push our ignorance of this "unknowable" a step further back. If I am severe in my criticism, it is not from any malice prepense. One can not help being candid in dealing with such a heroically sincere and honest man. I sometimes think that a serious and enlightened reactionary serves the cause of " progress as well as a radical advance-guard. Mr. Wu Mi is not a stick-in-the-mud-conservative at all. No one with the slightest knowledge of that period can fail to see his essential modernity. In a sense, he collaborated with the literarary revolutionaries by his opposition just as the opposing teams collaborate in a football game. He had a vision of "Florence, Weimar, Athens, Rome", when the radicals were dazzled by the sight of New York and perhaps the hallucination of St. Petersberg. He might not know so much about the great Russians as his opponents, but surely he knew infinitely more than they of the Greeks and Romans. And take my word for it, to us at that time, Greek and Latin literature was every whit as strange and as new as Russian literature. Like the "moderns", the "ancients" with Mr. Wu Mi at their head drew their inspiration from the West and from that part of the West of which the Chinese up to the time of the Critical Review had only the haziest notion. He very early translated Paul Valery, leaving the leader of the "moderns" to enjoy and paraphrase Bret Harte. It is like his luck that his modernity should have been ignored.
His championship of Irving Babbitt's anti-romantic humanism is another case in point. Thanks to his ill-starred and untimely efforts, the very name of Babbit has become an anathema to our young intellectuals who would have been among the first to lick the shoes of the sage of Harvard if they had known that 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 so pious tributes to Babbitt's memory, is essentially the sort of character whom Babbitt would have denounced as a pernicious writer and renounced as a reprobate disciple. His pageant of bleeding heart, his nympholepsy and self-flagellation, his sense of being a grand incompris, all these to which his poems bear ample evidence, are simply so much grist to the mill of Rousseau and Romanticism. Perhaps Mr. Wu Mi does not realise himself that the Babbittian influence on him has been on the whole harmful. Under that influence, he abhors intellectually what he loves temperamentally.
As a matter of fact, he is the only genuine Chinese romantic of this generation, incorrigible and impenitent. His poetry makes us understand his brave crusade against romanticism: he is really trying to quell that blatant beast in himself without knowing it. 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, understands the struggle between the " deux bonshommes" in himself, and understanding is already the beginning of arbitration. As Mr. Wu Mi is sadly lacking in such lucid self-knowledge, his warring elements have to clash like enemies in the dark!
Surely no ordinary man can be so twy-minded. An ordinary man has no conflicts (which are spiritual), though he may have plenty of scruples (which are pragmatic). His soul remains too much in its primordial mud-cake state to form moral distinctions. But Mr. Wu Mi's soul is in the state of having distinctions without order: every distinction is made into an opposition. Small wonder that Mr. Wu Mi should have tackled to the problem of One and Many, a problem which, though inherited from Plato through Babbitt and P.E. More, has acquired an almost personal urgency in Mr. Wu Mi's system. No one talks more about synthesis or hierarchy of interests and values, and none shows it less in actual life.
Not for him the amoral, vegetative calm of soul which is one of nature's gifts to ordinary man. No! Humanism, like art, is not Nature, but Nature methodised! One's original image made by God after himself is not good enough; one must improve it after the fashion of Max Beerbohm's happy hypocrite by imposing on it the features of Socrates, Confucius, Dante, Byron, Arnold, etc. all rolled into one. This may be a possible ideal of self-culture, but Mr. Wu Mi, at any rate, has not made a good show of it. For one thing, the composite mask contains too many alien and disharmonious features to be really beautiful; for another, the face underneath is of too stubborn a stuff to be moulded by it. The result is pathetic. Mr. Wu Mi is driven by his nature and temperament to break one social convention after another in the grand romantic style of shocking the bourgeois and the smug, and at the same time he has to settle account with his doctrine and conscience and convince himself as well as the world that what he defies is not "morality but something called "manners", and that his defiance is quite in keeping with the humanistic tenet of "inner check" or 'decorum .
Mr. Wu has twice compared himself to the late Mr. Hsu Tse-mo in his poems. As an artist, Mr. Wu Mi is far too slovenly to be compared to that accomplished writer of charming if somewhat mincing verse. But as a Character, Mr. Wu Mi is much more interesting and—the word must out—grand. Hsu Tse-mo, for all his aestheticism and artiness, is still a baby who can enjoy innocently the pleasures of life; his fits of unhappiness are those of a spoiled child who wails either because he has not got enough of sweets to eat or because he has eaten more than is good for his stomach. Mr. Wu Mi has reached a higher stage of sophistication than romantic singers of the paradise lost. The romantics too often identify their loves or hearts desires with the Paradise, but Mr. Wu Mi knows enough of Babbitt's opinion on poems like Browning's Swnmum Bonum to make that naive identification. He talks frequently in this book of immolating himself to the Goddess of Reason or Tao and the Goddess of Love. As if the goddesses were not even more jealous than gods! His despair is not simply that of the paradise lost, but that of losing his paradise without gaining an Eve who will "fight his burden and share his woe"!
Thus, Mr. Wu Mi's poetry has an enthralling interest quite independent of its literary merit. His love-poetry is particularly characteristic. If he were more of a philosopher, he would be able to get on without woman alone. He needs woman, but he sublimates this natural craving into a pedagogic function to round off his self-culture, an architectonic necessity to complete his philosophical system. He plans a pyramid of his own existence, and Love is requested to contribute her share of stones to raise the apex. A moral must be pointed and an ethical fiat must be given to what is, to Chamfort and Baudelaire, an affair of epidermis, and to D. H. Lawrence, one of the dusky abdomen.
It would be unfair and inappropriate to compare Mr. Wu Mi to adolescent girls who se passionent pour la Passion, but his idea of love is just as impersonal and abstract as theirs. He regards love too much in the light of being a liberal education. Now, to address the queen of a country as if she were a public meeting is not half so impersonal as to regard the queen of your heart as a public school or rather a private tutorial. This pedantic theory of love, when put into practice, develops unforeseen paradoxical consequences. Mr. Wu Mi's favorite teaser of One and Many takes on a new aspect: although the grand passion that has Mr. Wu Mi in grips is absolutely and self-consciously one, its objects seem to the readers simultaneously and indiscriminately many. Mr. Wu Mi has tried to explain this discrepancy in the fiftieth section of his Talks on Poetry, and let us hope he has convinced his hypocritical censors. For my part, I am not concerned with judging his conduct, but with understanding his mentality. The doctrinaire in him has to be humoured before the lover in him is given a chance. The impulse loses its natural spontaneity and becomes grandiose, didactic and a little calculating. What is an exclusive snug relation is inflated into a hollow and capacious ideal in which scatter-brained flappers can participate with superannuated coquettes:
comme les mouchoirs anciens qui sentent encore I 'amour" This is surely Platonism with a vengeance! No doubt that the public should have reproached him with levity while he himself has been only conscious of his lofty idealism!
One expects from Mr. Wu Mi a few poems on the femmefatale, a theme never fully exploited by our writers of "old poetry. But in spite of the devil of a time those devil's playthings seem to have given him, he does not show any fascinated aversion or love turning against itself. Significantly, hot on the heels of two bitter tzu's which almost prepare us for an outburst about Odi et Amo, follows a translation of Catullus's famous poem to that effect. It seems that Mr. Wu Mi dared not speak his mind in propria persona , and had to "sing another love to interpret his own". Am I being far-fetched if I suggest that the doctrinaire in Mr. Wu Mi had here characteristically queered the pitch of the poet in him? The tenet of "inner check" disguised in the Confucian theory of poetry as a means of controlling and regulating emotions and as the expression of tender and kind feelings, keeps Mr. Wu Mi subdued. In consequence, we find a competent paraphrase where there should be an original poem on ambivalent love charged with Mr. Wu Mi's personal experience and told in his own poetic idiom.
In one respect, however, Mr. Wu Mi is an innovator; the note of high seriousness sounds for the first time in the Wen-li poems on love. No flippant banter, no lecherous rakishness, in short, no lasciveti parfumee as the French have charmingly translated our term 香艳 under which our "old" love-poetry used to be subsumed. Mr. Wu Mi has taken for the motto of this book Andre Chenier's line: Sur des pensers nouveaux faisons des vers antiques , and he has succeeded.
Chenier, however, began his poetic career with the very reverse of the line that Mr. Wu Mi has quoted with approval. He started, as fimile Faguet first pointed out, by making new verses upon old thoughts, a thing that Mr. Wu Mi seems not to have done enough. Indeed for a writer of the vers antiques, the very rigidity of whose form demands a meticulous verbal and rhythmic perfection, Mr. Wu Mi is rather deficient in curiosa felicitas . I will not dwell on his slipshod versification, his costive diction, his rough texture and the general shortwindedness of his poetic breath ( to employ that expressive term in our 'old criticism), but wish to call attention to those gnomic lines scattered throughout the book which, weighted with personality and bare of ornament, 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 read the fine tzu written to the tune of the " Butterfly among Flowers" (die lian hua)(蝶恋花) which begins with
已别又何来送我 (bk.XIII, p. 10) Who would have believed that the fragile frame of this particular tune could stand the strain of such tossing and foaming emotion? Or that the "butterfly" should be able to bear gallandy on its wings so much tense and hard thinking that might even break a camel's back? Well, to see is to believe, Mr. Wu Mi has triumphed over the limitations of his medium and transformed them into potentialities. In his hands, something which is only meant to be pretty-pretty becomes sublime.
I cannot read the poems of the last section without thinking of Hazlitt's Liber Amoris and Sainte-Beuve's Livre d'Amour. Like the two, this section contains the indiscretions of a middle-aged writer mashed on a woman whom he cannot marry.(……)
p. 1: If his noumenon is as exclusive as the Spenserian "unknowable", that is all for the better; it will be a perennial object of search to devotees to the proper study of man. No one can help being sincere in the presence of so passionately sincere and honest a man. My admiration and respect of him compels me to be candid. He is too great a man to be damned with faint praises or praised with faint damns; we have to make a thorough job of both damning and praising.
His volume of poems seems to have got a very bad press. He has supplied everything necessary for an intelligent appreciation of himself and his work in introductory matters, appendices, explanatory notes and the poems themselves, but the reviewers are neither intelligent nor appreciative. He has been so copiously, embarrassingly, and veridically autobiographic that the whole book might be used as a dossier about our poet by the most inquisitive of police inspectors. Photos, itineraries, scraps of book-keeping, all things of documentary interest are there—except, perhaps, a few fingerprints.
He has edited himself with the fureur de I 'inedit of an American postgraduate bent on exhuming all the strays and waifs of an obscure writer to a doctorate thesis. Every torso of two or three lines, every bit of juvenile lisping in numbers finds its way into this book. The poet is all for collection, leaving selection to the readers. He himself has no high opinion of many of the poems included and frankly says so, but, good or bad, they are "fragments of a great confession", and what more do you want? True, the result is a book of good faith, as Montaigne says of his essays, but of what bad taste! He must have known that in thus taking the public into his confidence, he would be covered with ridicule, and yet he runs the risk.
Now either a great man or an egregious fool can be so impervious to ridicule, and Mr. Wu Mi is a great man. His espousal of the supposedly lost cause of the wen-li shows his indomitable courage. It is of course a bit Quixotic to tilt at the windmill of the "New Chinese Literature Movement' when it was in full swing, but it is a clean, fine, and precious courage nonetheless.
p. 3: The doctrinaire in Mr. Wu Mi has to be humoured before the lover in him is given a chance. Appetition loses its spontaneity, and becomes apologetic and grandiose. But appetition, like everything else in human nature, has the Taoist way of conquering by yielding: the idealist who in the nature of things should scorn the real and the individual because they fall short of the perfection of his ideal, now embraces them because they are partial manifestations of the universal, the ideal, the archetype. Love which should be an exclusive snug relation, is now inflated into a hollow and capacious Platonic ideal in which one woman can participate with another, a scatter-brained flapper, let us say, with a superannuated coquette.