Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Proverbial Saying on Wine?

Li Bai Chanting a Poem
Liang K'ai (13th Century)

I came across a 'proverbial' saying yesterday, or it seemed, though I had my doubts as to the proverbial provenance of these words:
Such is the rapture of wine, that the sober shall never inherit.

I read it, did a double-take, then read it again, and again. And again. Something was wrong, and I don't mean the enthusiasm for drunken imbibing of the Dionysiac spirit. Something was wrong with the grammar. After a few moments' reflection, I managed to see the problem. The first clause sets up an expectation that the rapture of wine will do something in the second clause, that something will result from that rapture. Instead, we find the sober as subject, and the sober were not doing something! As if the rapture of wine somehow caused the sober not to inherit. An odd result, that!

I checked around on the internet and found this, the final two lines being what I sought, more or less:
A Vindication

If heaven loved not the wine,
A Wine Star would not be in heaven;
If earth loved not the wine,
The Wine Spring would not be on the earth.
Since heaven and earth love the wine,
Need a tippling mortal be ashamed?
The transparent wine, I hear,
Has the soothing virtue of a sage,
While the turgid is rich, they say,
As the fertile mind of the wise.
Both the sage and the wise were drinkers,
Why seek for peers among gods and goblins?,
Three cups open the grand door to bliss;
Take a jugful, the universe is yours.
Such is the rapture of the wine,
That the sober shall never inherit.

A bit more checking located the author, the great 8th century Chinese poet Li Bai (701-762), who often wrote verse in praise of wine. But who had provided what seemed to me an awkward translation? More searching uncovered the answer: Shigeyoshi Obata (1888-1971). Here's the book this Japanese man published in English of Li Bai's Chinese poetry, though the name is transliterated as "Li-Po":
The Works of Li-Po, The Chinese Poet: Done into English Verse by Shigeyoshi Obata, With an Introduction and Biographical and Critical Matter, Translated from the Chinese (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1923)

The use of the definite article before the first reference to wine seems odd, and would be awkward in prose, but it's not impossible, especially in a poem. I should also note that I don't know what "Wine Star" and "Wine Spring" refer to, though this is no fault of the translator, simply pure ignorance on my part (although some footnotes would be helpful). But what's this about "the sage" and "the wise"? Are they different? The two words "sage" and "wise" are synonyms. And "gods" and "goblins"? To seek peers among the gods would be an overweening ambition, but would anybody desire to seek peers among goblins? And should "turgid" be "turbid"? The word "turgid" is placed in contrast with the term "transparent" two lines above, but that better fits a contrast with "turbid." There must be some degree of inadequacy to this translation of what appears to be an intriguing poem. As for my initial puzzlement, I see the solution: Replace "That" with "Which," for the second clause is not an adverbial result clause but a nonrestrictive relative clause. The first clause now points not ahead but behind, to words that promise wine's ability to rapture the drinker to the heights of the universe, where one is lord of all one surveys! The word "Which" in the second clause would probably refer not to "the rapture of wine," but to possession of the universe (i.e., "the universe is yours"), a possession uninherited by the sober, who never "Take a jugful."

The title is nicely done, however, being a subtle pun on wine: "A Vindication."

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