Review of Augusta Webster’s Yu-Pe-Ya’s Lute, A Chinese Tale, in English Verse

Review of Yu-Pe-Ya’s Lute. A Chinese Tale, in English Verse. By Augusta Webster. Macmillan. Examiner (6 June, 1874): 600.

Nothing certainly so attunes the mind to a vivid sympathy with races and nations removed from us by the intervening distances of space or time, renders us so conscious, even while sharply attenuating the lines of demarcation in manners and customs, of that touch of nature which “makes the whole world kin,” as the songs and stories of a people, revealing as they do these profounder human emotions, which, like bright eyes through a mask, startle us by shining with a clear light through the customary wraps and trappings of nationality. In this sense, we are daily realising a more vital imaginative unity with peoples alien from ours, the fancy becoming naturalised, so to speak, in Russia and Norway, India and Japan, by means of fables, stories, and poems, rendered more and more accessible by careful translations, or paraphrastic versions. Mrs. Webster has, therefore, earned our best thanks for introducing this delicious story of  ‘Yu-Pe-Ya’s Lute’ to the English public, and for preserving, to a great extent, in her freehand rendering of the original, its quaint and foreign flavour, combined, as this is, with touches of the simplest natural pathos.

The story, indeed, as here rendered in an English dress is by no means a translation or even a paraphrase, as the authoress, although faithfully adhering to the leading incidents of the Chinese narrative, has made its mode of presentation entirely her own. Mrs. Webster has been particularly successful in conveying to us by a few descriptive touches certain characteristic features in the landscape and habits of China. The tale in brief outline is this. Yu-Pe-Ya, the Emperor’s favourite, returning from an embassy to his native principality, is overtaken while journeying down the river by a terrific storm, so that the crew are fain to anchor the ships in a little quiet cove till the tempest be over. Yu-Pe-Ya seeks to wile away the time by playing on his lute—

                                      That second heart
Which seemed to share his pulse and be a part
Of the great heart within him, and expound
In living rhythms and sweet articulate sound,
Its mute, dim longings, and to himself reveal,
Some secret of himself he could not feel
Until the music spoke it.

But the instrument, so far from responding to his touch, emits only a few sighing sounds. From this the minstrel infers the presence either of some skilled musician thirstily drinking in the sounds, or else of thieves of a more practical sort. Search being made along the banks, however, no one is found save a woodman, who confesses to having lingered by the wayside in order to enjoy the exquisite harmony. Now ensues an interview between prince and peasant rich in suggestions of a peculiarly high-wrought poetic mood. The former, who in the midst of boundless wealth and fortune has yet gone lonely-hearted on his way through life, is greeted for the first time by accents that thrill him as of some long-lost kinsman’s voice. Eagerly he questions Tse-Ky, listens to his description of the origin of the lute, plays him subtle and intricate airs the hidden meaning of which he unravels with unerring skill, and at last, when the latter has interpreted to him the tenderest emotions but half expressed in his music, he clasps him in his arms in an ecstasy of delight, adopts him as his brother, and would fain take him to the capital. The woodman refuses to leave his aged parents. However, Yu-Pe-Ya promises to return to the same spot within the year, ”when this ripe month of leaves and gold is here.” He comes, indeed, but Tse-Ky is not there to meet him and when—

              Unfolded from its broidered shrouds,
The lute was wooed to speak, the strings denied
Their vibrant resonance, and but replied
With muffled whispers, save when one long wail
Rung from the chord of Wen-Wang.

Tse-Ky has kept the tryst, indeed, even in death; for he lies buried by the hillside which looks down the river, and thither Yu-Pe-Ya, escorted by his friend’s father, resorts, and taking his lute, wakes shrill sounds of grief on its resonant strings.

Mrs. Webster, in her metrical adaptation of this quaintly beautiful tale, has evinced much delicacy and grace of handling; her versification, if lacking the inmost living pulse of rhythm, is yet smooth and well-sustained throughout. It would be ungracious to cavil at the minor blemishes of a poem that has afforded us true pleasure, both on account of the really charming story and beauty of workmanship; we hope, therefore, it may deservedly find an audience thoroughly fitted to appreciate and enjoy both the one and the other.

M.B.