The Book of Odes

Anyone who’s read any the Confucian canon’s Four Books will have heard much of the Book of Odes. Confucius and Mencius discuss it and reference it constantly, and Confucius even told his son, “If you do not study the Odes you will not be fit to converse with.” He explains why in another chapter that I’ve quoted and discussed previously, “My young friends, why do you not study the Odes? They will stimulate your emotions, broaden your observation, enlarge your fellowship, and express your grievances. They will aid you in your immediate service to your parents and your more remote service to your sovereign.” The Confucians place so much emphasis on the Odes and their study that one can only have the highest expectations going into the book, but this can also set some false expectations as to what they are exactly. Even Ezra Pound, the great poet, translator, and admirer of Confucius, once expressed confusion as to what exactly the Confucians saw in them.

The Odes, you see, are a collection of 305 folk songs and poems; traditionally Confucius himself is supposed to have compiled them, though there’s much doubt over this. Several were used in a ritual context, as one would expect from the Confucians’ treatment of them, and many do have some moral component, though more often than not, this isn’t explicit. For the most part, though, they’re simply folk songs, and look exactly like one would expect folk songs to look. Most are romantic, some praise famous heroes, a few deal with the hardship of a soldier’s life, and some decry tyrannical government. This is all well and good, and they’re certainly enjoyable, but one can also understand the reservations of people like Pound; it’s as if a great sage urged you to study the great moral instruction of a collection of songs, then handed you a copy of Anthology of American Folk Music. Take, for example, Ode 61, “The River is Broad.”

Who says that the River is broad?
On a single reed you could cross it.
Who says that Song is far away?
By standing on tip-toe I can see it.

Who says that the River is broad?
There is not room in it even for a skiff.
Who says that Song is far away?
It could not take you so much as a morning.

Well, it looks like a folk song about a loved one’s poor excuses for not coming to visit. I like it, and it’s quotable, but it also doesn’t quite fit in with the explicitly political Four Books. Others have to do with “Express[ing] your grievances,” as Confucius put it, like Ode 70, which Arthur Waley speculates addresses the fall of the Western Zhou dynasty:

Gingerly walked the hare,
But the pheasant was caught in the snare.
At the beginning of my life
All was still quiet;
In my latter days I have met these hundred woes.
Would that I might sleep and never stir!

Gingerly walked the hare;
But the pheasant was caught in the trap.
At the beginning of my life
The times were not yet troublous.
In my latter days I have met these hundred griefs.
Would that I might sleep and wake no more!

Gingerly walked the hare;
But the pheasant got caught in the net.
At the beginning of my life
The times were still good.
In my latter days I have met these hundred calamities.
Would that I might sleep and hear no more!

That Ode uses a technique common to many of the other poems, beginning each stanza with a pair of related images, which I assume are meant as an analogy or metaphor for what follows. Some of these, though, seem like non sequiturs to me. Ode 248 describes a funeral ceremony; the “ducal Dead” refers to one impersonating a deceased ancestor, apparently part of the ritual, and the first stanza reads:

The wild-duck are on the Jing;
The ducal Dead reposes and is at peace.
Your wine is clear,
Your food smells good.
The Dead One quietly drinks;
Blessings are in the making.

What do ducks on the Jing River have to do with what follows? I assume there’s some cultural connotation I’m missing here, and it makes me miss James Legge’s verbose approach to annotation.

In any case, Legge did translate these, but I read Arthur Waley’s version, in an edition published as The Book of Songs and edited by Joseph R. Allen, who also translated a few of the Odes that Waley left out of his original editions. I can’t gauge the accuracy, but as poetry these are all serviceable. The strength lies in the imagery, but the verse has a slightly stiff quality common to translated poetry. This edition includes a decent preface by Stephen Owen and an informative postface by Allen on the history of the Odes. There’s also a moderate number of annotations, mostly by Waley but with a few supplementary ones by Allen, which gloss some of the proper names and concepts that would be obscure to modern Westerners, like who the “ducal Dead” would be in the above Ode.

I also read several dozen Odes from Ezra Pound’s translation, thinking that his version would be more poetic than Waley’s, and his is just as idiosyncratic as the rest of his Confucian translations, for better and worse. Allen includes it in a bibliography in his edition, and comments, “very creative and often compelling, especially with the courtship poems in the ‘Airs’; not suitable for research, however.” That sounds about right to me.

As a point of comparison, take a look at Ode 14, “The Cicada.” First, Waley:

Anxiously chirps the cicada,
Restlessly skips the grasshopper.
Before I saw my lord
My heart was ill at ease.
But now that I have seen him,
Now that I have met him,
My heart is at rest.

I climbed that southern hill
To pluck the fern-shoots.
Before I saw my lord
My heart was sad.
But now that I have seen him,
Now that I have met him,
My heart is still.

I climbed that southern hill
To pluck the bracken-shoots.
Before I saw my lord
My heart was store distressed.
But now that I have seen him,
Now that I have met him,
My heart is at peace.

Now, Pound’s version:

“Chkk! chkk!” hopper-grass,
nothing but grasshoppers hopping past;
tell me how a lady can
be gay if she sees no gentleman?

But when I’ve seen a man at rest,
standing still, met at his post,
my heart is no more tempest-toss’d.


I climb South Hill to pick the turtle-fern,
seeing no man
such climb’s heart-burn

but to see a good man at rest,
standing still, met at his post,
I no more think this trouble lost.


To climb South Hill picking the jagged fern
and see no man, who shall not pine and yearn?

But to see good man at rest
standing still there at his post
is the heart’s design’s utmost.

All of Pound’s translations look more like modern English poetry, and he often tries to make his versions sound colloquial. I prefer the more formal approach taken by most other translators of the Confucian classics, but Pound’s versions are worth reading, though both here and with the Analects, I’d highly recommend making it the second or third that one reads.

So, one may still wonder why the Odes occupy such a central place in the Confucian canon. Interestingly, even the Confucians seem to have had some reservations. Confucius was critical of the music for the Airs of Zheng, some of which are licentious enough, at least by Confucian standards, that some philosophers considered their moral worth to be by way of illustrating a negative example. I suppose that much of Confucius’ and Mencius’s praise of them comes from their cultural significance, and from the value of beauty both in itself and in the effect it has on a reader.

All told, the Book of Odes is well worth reading. For those interested in Confucianism it is, of course, required reading anyway, and those interested in literature in general should also take a look. Most of my audience are Westerners, and though it’s most important to familiarise oneself with one’s own literary traditions first, it’s productive to have some idea of other traditions, as well. Most of all, though, the Odes are worth reading because they’re good poetry; often charming, and always enjoyable.