Saturday, July 14, 2012


Books Are Hard to Leave Behind

A poem by Yuan Mei (1716–1797), tr. Arthur Waley:
Everything else in life is easy to break with;
Only my books are hard to leave behind.
I want to go through them all again,
But the days hurry by, and there is not time.
If I start on the Classics I shall never get to history;
If I read philosophy, literature goes by the board.
I look back at the time when I purchased them—
Thousands of dollars, I never worried about the price.
If passages were missing, the pains I took to supply them,
And to fill out sets that were incomplete!
Of the finest texts many are copied by hand;
The toil of which fell to my office clerks.
Day and night I lived with them in intimacy.
I numbered their volumes and marked them with yellow and red.
How many branches of wax-candle light,
How many drops of weary heart's blood!
My sons and grandsons know nothing of this;
Perhaps the book-worms could tell their own tale.
Today I have had a great tidy-up,
And feel I have done everything I was born to do....
It is good to know that the people in the books
Are waiting lined up in the Land of the Dead.
In a little while I shall meet them face to face
And never again need to look at what they wrote!

Simon Renard de St. André, Vanitas

Update: Thanks to Phil Edgren, who identified the book in de St. André's Vanitas as Jean Puget de la Serre, Le Tombeau des Delices du Monde, opened to chapter IV (Le Tombeau des Plaisirs de l'Odorat). Here is the first page of chapter IV, from a different edition in Google Books:

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