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Claims that the leaving-Cambridge poem was about the girl Lin Huiyin disrespect the poet Xu Zhimo
After making my rhyming translation of Xu Zhimo's Leaving Cambridge poem, I was dismayed to hear of 21st-century sensationalist claims that the poem was about an extramarital relationship with Lin Huiyin and that the poem's "clouded Western sky" is Huiyin.
Supposedly, Xu Zhimo first met Lin Huiyin in Cambridge in 1920 (even though Xu Zhimo's year of study at King's was not 1920 but 1921-22), and this alone is sufficient for armchair psychoanalysts to conclude that Cambridge and Lin Huiyin were inextricably intertwined in Xu Zhimo's subconsciousness. In 1922 Xu Zhimo and his first wife Zhang Youyi (arranged by parents in 1915) divorced by letter, and supposedly Xu Zhimo wanted to marry Lin Huiyin but in March 1928 she married someone else (Liang Sicheng) so in November 1928 Xu Zhimo wrote his leaving-Cambridge poem in memory of his lost love.
This theory ignores a very important fact: Xu Zhimo and his second wife Lu Xiaoman were married in 1926. Critics point out Xu Zhimo wrote some diary entries saying he was bored at times, and, in a 1927 letter to Elmhirst, compared his wife to a naughty child, but that's not enough evidence to prove he was reconsidering the marriage. On the contrary, the couple were clearly determined to cope with problems, and in 1936 the widowed Lu Xiaoman published a book in which she clearly showed she had been contented with their marriage. So we'd better trust that any courtship between Xu Zhimo and Lin Huiyin was over before 1926, and after that they were no more than good friends. When Lin Huiyin and Liang Sicheng married in 1928, Xu Zhimo would have been glad for the new couple.
Morever, the poem itself contains nothing to indicate the poet wanted his audience to think of Lin Huiyin here. He didn't say Lin Huiyin, he said cloud. He could have personified the cloud, but he didn't. Most of the poem's lines aren't even about the cloud. Changing the poem's message like this is disrespecting the poet. There's no evidence he wanted us to think of Lin Huiyin in this poem. The man said cloud, and we should listen to what he said. End of story.
Overinterpretation is a problem poets often have to face. Dorset poet Thomas Hardy, whom Xu Zhimo met, was no exception. For instance, some people say his poem "The Darkling Thrush" is about Darwin having killed God. Give the poet a break! He mentions the figurative corpse of the nineteenth century, but didn't say this was about God, Darwin, the Boer Wars, the Krakatoa volcanic explosion, Jack the Ripper, aspirin, cardboard boxes, Swiss Army knives, the revival of the Olympic Games, science fiction books by H.G. Wells, the Boxer Rebellion, Emma staying in the attic, or any other specific development of the last 20 or 30 years he knew about. I'm not saying Hardy was never influenced by Darwin, but in "The Darkling Thrush" he clearly wanted us to think about unexpected hopeful birdsong in the midst of winter and endings. If he wanted us to think about Darwin or religion in particular, he could have said so. He didn't say so. Of course we can quote this poem when discussing 19th-century events, but we shouldn't say what we're discussing is definitely this poem's message.
I tried to write poetry when I was small, but I got overinterpreted and psychoanalysed so much I gave up. My youthful playing around with the sound of words sometimes accidentally implied things that people took too seriously. Admittedly I was a difficult-to-understand child because my cortical visual impairment went undiagnosed until age 15 and before that psychologists and other concerned adults naturally tried to analyse my writing in an attempt to figure out what was wrong with me, but I realised this experience was likely indicative of the kind of overanalysis famous authors face. After I started teaching myself Chinese I decided that translating other people's poetry was safer than writing my own, but now I find myself wanting to defend the simplicity of the poet I translated. If we have no concrete evidence that Xu Zhimo was talking about Lin Huiyin and not just the evening clouds, we shouldn't spoil his poem by saying that. It wouldn't be respecting his wishes.
The story of Xu Zhimo's Cambridge poem being about Lin Huiyin belongs to the genre of "alternate history" novels. Authors can write alternate-history novels about how Hitler conquered Anglo-America, Martin Luther was the Pope, Napoleon beat Russia, a little bird told Hardy about the impossibility of abiogenesis, and Xu Zhimo never met Lu Xiaoman but continuously eulogized Lin Huiyin. I'm not saying whether these novels are literary masterpieces, but they're not real history.
All material © Silas S. Brown unless otherwise stated.