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Waley, Arthur

WALEY, ARTHUR

WALEY, ARTHUR (1889–1966), English poet and translator of Oriental literature. Originally named Arthur David Schloss, Waley was born in Tunbridge Wells and was educated at Rugby and at Cambridge University. The family changed its name to Waley in 1918. From 1912 to 1930 he was assistant keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum but devoted much of his time to the translation of Chinese and Japanese literature. In 1918 he published his translation of One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems and between 1925 and 1933 the classic Japanese romance, The Tale of Genji. The Chinese poems were a genuine popularization of material previously accessible only to specialists, and many poets derived inspiration from the technical adroitness of Waley's free verse. The modern British interest in syllabics – poetry measured by syllable rather than stress – derived from Waley's Chinese translations, just as the extraordinary popularity of the haiku in English arose from his translations from the Japanese. Through his translations, Waley brought something new into English poetry; a quiet, meditative tone, far removed from the crude Orientalizing of the 19th century. However, Waley never visited China. He apparently felt that his detachment from the immediate scene would enable him to concentrate upon more permanent issues and values. Waley's later work is mainly of interest to specialists, much of it lying in fields remote from creative literature.

He wrote several books on Chinese philosophy, notably Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (1939). His last publications were mostly biographical and historical – The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes (1958), studies of the Chinese poets Li Po and Po Chu-I, and The Secret History of the Mongols (1963). He was made a Companion of Honor (ch) in 1956. His Madly Singing in the Mountains, edited by Ivan Morris (1970), is an anthology of writings with an appreciation of his work.

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