- The Verse of Shao Xunmei: Heaven and May (1927) and Twenty-Five Poems (1936) by Shao Xunmei
This timely publication contains translations into English of two collections of Shao Xunmei’s poetry along with his translations into English of four poems by Du Fu, Li Qingzhao, Su Dongbo, and Yan Shu, all provided with accompanying Chinese texts. The book’s two-hundred pages also contain illustrations and a brief introduction to the poet and his work by the translators, followed by the translators’ biographical sketches. The translations themselves are both accurate and skillful and in addition generously provided with notes. The collection also includes a preface by the author to his collection Twenty-Five Poems. Altogether this is a welcome guide to a modern poet who is now hardly known in his own homeland.1
With the new attention now being granted to the “Nationalist decade” (plus the years preceding and following it), Shao Xunmei is again becoming recognized as a significant contributor to the development of new kinds of poetry, based chiefly on English and French models. Like another rediscovered author, Shi Zhecun, part of Shao’s rejuvenated fame is also due to his editorial and publishing efforts during his flamboyant life as a literary playboy in the 1930s, offset in the second half of his life by increasing poverty and obscurity from the 1940s to his death in 1968. Even today, it is difficult to judge whether it is his poetry or his scandalous way of life that is of greater interest to nonspecialist readers.
Turning to the poems themselves, readers will appreciate the distinctive nature of Shao’s early verse forms, which include a series of long poems consisting of an abundance of extremely short lines and a great deal of repetition. In resembling the verse forms adopted by Ai Qing and Tian Jian in the mid-1930s, they suggest that Shao’s romantic effusions written in Paris and [End Page 190] Cambridge in early 1926 may have been a major influence on radical left-wingers writing in wartime China.
Shao soon reverts to a more regular verse form later the same year as he journeys back to China via the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. A short poem written in London in 1926 inserts an English word, “harmonize” and the letter Y, a modernistic device popularized in the early 1920s by fiction writers like Yu Dafu as well as the poet Guo Moruo, although Shao maintains that given his traditional education he was unaware of these early pioneers. Poems celebrating Camille, Venus de Milo, Sappho, and Jesus round out works from the same period.
Another series of poems in this book, written over more or less the same period (1925–1926), consists of couplets or stanzas of more or less the same line length, and are more overtly erotic in wording and content. Had Shao not denied it, it would be easy to conclude that Xu Zhimo was his main influence, but Shao himself nominates Swinburne as his master. There is also an undercurrent, or even more overt signs, of a delicious sense of sin in these poems (her perfume is dirty, and his/her skin—twice—shows bloody guilt; her tongue crammed into his mouth is suffocating him; his trembling lips press down on her cleavage), perhaps forecasting the way of life their author was about to embark on back in Shanghai. Somewhat unexpectedly, Robert Burns (“an honest and romantic farmer”) appears in the company of Apollo, Sappho, Swinburne, Keats, Verlaine, Beethoven, Byron, Shelley, Shakespeare, Homer, and Goethe,2 in one of the last poems in this long journey.
The earlier of the twenty-five poems written between 1926 and 1933 that Shao collected for publication in 1936 continue the theme of self-congratulatory decadence: in “To a Poet” he is a madman, she is a flirt, and their alter ego a hundred years hence pulls up his...