Article Index





Chengru He, University of Alabama


When Cathay was published in 1915, Ezra Pound presented the West with a long scroll of painting with exquisite images and sounds. There are mountains and waters, there are personas, there are stories on and off the scroll, there are also sounds that speak for all the images and personas. As the scroll spreads, individual poems tell stories as if they are in natural order. In the original Cathay, Pound selects 14 poems from some 150 in the notebooks of Fenollosa. The selection itself presents a unified set of images of separation, exile, nostalgia, and lament, and has been discussed extensively by scholars. Pound’s rewriting represents his first venture into understanding Chinese culture (Davie 39). But this is not a silent scroll. It has breath and sounds, decomposed and recomposed by Pound, a remixer magician. Pound’s use of poetic form does not only greatly contribute to the completeness of the scroll Cathay. As the first vers-libre translations not derived from other translations but from detailed notes on the Chinese text (Kenner, “The Invention of China” 198), it is also a gift to modernity and poetics in the context of the English poetry tradition. Here I will explore the sounds and structure of vers-libre in Cathay, take a close look at the “white space” Pound leaves in lines and between words, and explain how these sounds and structures help build a kingdom that the ears hear first and lead the way for the heart.



Names breathe. When Chinese people give names, they listen and appreciate how individual characters sound when combined like a musical chord. We can see the similar attention Pound gives to the translation of Chinese poets. In Fenollosa’s notes, both the original sounds in Chinese and the Japanese Kanji names are provided. Pound chooses Rihaku over Li po, To-Em-Mei over Tao Yuanming, Kutsugen over Qu Yuan, Rihoku in “Lament of the Frontier Guard” over Li Mu. Pound’s choices follow the ear and the expectation of exotic, beautiful sounds that a waltz of syllables can achieve.  

Similarly, Pound chooses “Cathay,” the Anglicized version of “Catai” and an alternative name for China in English, as the book title. The word “Cathay” originates from the word “Khitan.” It mostly appeared in works of poetry and literature. For example, it occurred in the work of Byron and Tennyson (OED). Pronouncing the word Cathay requires a delicate touch between the teeth and the tongue. By giving a name that detaches at the first glance from its meaning in terms of geography, readers are introduced to a gate of history and culture, distance and mystery.

Both the names of the poets and the collection title alienate their immediate connections from their meanings. They invite readers to read aloud at heart: Rihaku, To-Em-Mei, Kutsugen, Rihoku, Cathay, and ponder the sounds. The sounds of the names create desire for the readers before they dive into the scroll and divert their attention to more images and sounds.



Pound’s translation shows his understanding, imagination, and creativity. It is no surprise that he does not directly translate the form of the original Chinese poems or strictly follow Fenollosa’s notes, as the original Chinese poems have strict, regular structures, and Pound does not know Chinese well. What he grasps is the soul of the poems. The “soul” involves not only the images in the original poems and Fenollosa’s notes, but also the new sounds and structures Pound creates based on the notes, breathing into the English language the air of modernity, with more flexibility, naturalness and possibility. Wim-lim Yip (1969) comments that “it seems clear that in [Pound’s] dealings with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central concerns of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance.”

It is not the discovery or re-discovery of the vers-libre principle that arouses the attention of Western readers and scholars; rather, what encourages more meditation and debates is the journey through a text that is rewritten from Chinese, through Japanese Kanji, and finally to English – all while astonishingly adapting the vers-libre principle that is not used in the original text. The Cathay poems extend the tendency toward the gnomic and fragmentary that can be found in late nineteenth-century poetry.

The lines in Cathay poems do not break like those readers are used to in the tradition of English poems. They still rhyme, albeit in a different, and freer way. Yet when we look back into the original Chinese texts, the line lengths are regular and strict, as are those of many Chinese poems. Usually there is no enjambment. Pound keeps this lack of enjambment, just as he keeps most of the original lines as single lines. He does, however, bring in fresh contributions, that is, adding pauses and breaths in the form of “white space” in the lines and by not strictly following the lines in terms of architecture. Donald Davie and Hugh Kenner both talk about the vers-libre in Cathay. For Davie, “what is most immediately striking about these poems is the frequency with which a line of verse comprises one full sentence” (41). He then uses South-folk in Cold Country as an example, pointing out that “the poem establishes a convention by which the gauge of a poetic line is not the number of syllables or of stressed syllables or of metrical feet, but the fulfilment of the simple grammatical unit, the sentence.”

“Song of the Bowmen of Shu” is a typical example of four-character lines:


采薇采薇,薇亦作止。曰歸曰歸,歲 亦莫止。靡室靡家,玁狁之故;不遑 啟 居,玁狁之故。


采薇采薇,薇亦剛止。曰歸曰歸,歲 亦陽止。王事靡盬,不遑 啟 處。憂心孔疚,我行不來。




Most poems in Shijing, or the Book of Songs, are written in four-character meter, providing rich and balanced rhythms and rhymes. The density of the rhythms diminishes in Pound’s recreated poem. Here we meet an imaginative narrator who speaks, almost like singing, an adagio like a bard. “We” sings not only for one, but for all who are “picking the first fern-shoots.” “We” sings through questions and answers, through ballad-like lines. “What flower has come into blossom? / Whose chariot? The General’s. / Horses, his horses even, are tired. They were strong.” As he does not know Chinese well, Pound’s choice of free verse seems like not much of a choice at all, but it does bring more freedom into the lines. Now a line can sing itself as the breaths flow more naturally.

In other poems, casualness, looseness and freedom in individual lines is more than a mere breath.  Pound refashions a one-piece garment into a suit. The even number of lines that follow strict rules are gone, with added space between words and between lines as well. “The Beautiful Toilet” is a typical Gushi, or Ancient Poetry, a normal formal style with uniform line lengths of five or seven syllables. In this case, ten lines of five syllables. Each line is a sentence.



娥娥红粉妆,  纤纤 出素手。


荡子行不归,  空床难独守。

In Pound’s version, the poem is divided into two stanzas, with the first one singing a loose and blue song. The pause is much like the white space in Chinese painting. Traditional Chinese paintings usually leave certain spaces blank instead of covering the whole paper or scroll. The “white space” is a core concept in traditional Chinese aesthetics. It is part of the art as it is intentionally designed. Here the pause between the fifth and sixth lines guides the reader from a scene of natural elements to the persona, with no abrupt introduction, connecting the scenes while giving them a moment of silence.

“White space” is also used in many lines. The transit from 青青 to “blue, blue…” in terms of literal meaning has been extensively discussed. It is a canny choice that breathes into the word a level of meaning richer than color. But it’s more than that. Pound puts a comma between the two “blues.” By adding this small “white space” between the words, even reduplicated words, he directs the line to a pause, encouraging readers to focus on the word “blue” before inhaling again. This repetition continues in the first stanza: “And within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth / White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door. / Slender, she puts forth a slender hand.”

By abandoning the strict meter of the original Chinese poems yet generally retaining the way that a line of verse comprises a full sentence, creatively adapting the poems into an English vers libre, and bringing in “white space” between words and lines, Pound skilfully composes a scroll singing songs of nature, lament and exile.



Throughout Cathay, we see and hear repetition. Pound reinterprets the repeated characters in the original text and Fenollosa’s notes, occasionally unifying synonyms by recreating a repeated word and often creating repetitive structures that do not exist in the original texts.


Invented Repetition of Individual Words and Parallel Structures. In “The River-Merchant’s Wife: a Letter,” the original line “常存抱柱信” is recreated into “forever and forever, and forever.” Here, only 常 is close to the meaning “forever.” 存 means “have” or “hold,” 抱 means “hold (with both arms) or embrace,” 柱 means “pillar,” 信 means “faith.” The lines are based on a legendary tale: a woman has a date with her love by the river. She waited for him for a long time, but he still did not show up. Eventually she died holding the pillars of the bridge. In Pound’s translation, the compact five-character line dissolves, yet the core remains. Pound captures the heart of the line and increases the density by repeating “forever” three times. This change is unlikely to be recognized by general English readers. What readers know, or hear, is the repetition of the three-syllable word, “forever, and forever, and forever,” like the ending of an endless waltz. Again, although the nuance among the original Chinese characters is gone, the ears hear the central concern.

In another example, towards the end of “Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin,” "入 门 上高堂。列鼎 错 珍羞。 香 风 引 赵 舞。清管随 齐 讴  七十紫 鸳鸯  双双 戏 庭幽。 行 乐 争昼夜。自言度千秋。” Pound adopts five parallel-structured lines when recreating the section, “To high halls and curious food, / To the perfumed air and girls dancing, / To clear flutes and clear singing; To the dance of the seventy couples;/ To the mad chase through the gardens. / Night and day are given over to pleasure / And they think it will last a thousand autumns.” What can we make of this? We need to listen. The new freedom in the lines receives a summon, like having soldiers put a badge on the same shoulders for recognition. Ears follow the sound to the same direction with pleasure, to the “great banquets” readers can imagine. Although the new structure repeats itself in a certain pattern, it does not deprive the relaxing pace that the rest of the poem offers; rather, it encourages imagination and resonance.


Kept and Uniform Words.







In the original text of “Lament of the Frontier Guard” (李白《古風十四胡關》), 哀哀,悲,苦 are synonyms, all of which express sadness. They literally mean sadness, grief, and bitterness. In Fenollosa’s (92) note, 哀哀 is “melancholy melancholy,” 悲 is “regret,” 苦 is “hardship.” Pound chooses to banish the nuances of these characters. We meet five “sorrows” in a row: “And sorrow, sorrow like rain. Sorrow to go, and sorrow, sorrow returning.” And again, towards the end “Ah, how shall you know the dreary sorrow at the North Gate.” The  “sorrow” is not diluted; rather, it becomes denser. Before a second glance, “sorrow” is already haunting the ear. It allows no escape or cover from the heavy tone of the poem. Keeping readers’ attention on the journey of “sorrow,” Pound has a more personal touch in this piece by unifying multiple shades of blue into a deep and straightforward one.



Pound creates a Cathay that is both alluring and unattainable to western readers by creatively and successfully adapting structures and sounds from traditional Chinese poetry. It is not hard to understand that while images and motifs in poetry could be translated or rewritten in the most literal way, transplanting forms mechanically could lead to incompleteness or confusion. Pound creatively trims off these elements: while he respects the lines as complete units of meaning rather than break them, he adopts a vers libre structure, brings in “white space” between words and lines, and makes a choice on Japanese Kanji names of poets and people who appear in the poems. All these present a singing scroll with its own rhythms and breaths that is new to both classic Chinese and English poetry tradition, yet resonates with both of them in elegant ways.




Davie, Donald. Studies in Ezra Pound. Manchester: Carcanet, 1991.

Ezra Pound Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Pound, Ezra. Cathay. London: Elkin Matthews, 1915. Adam Matthew Digital. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.

Wim-lim Yip. Ezra Pound’s Cathay. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.