Saying Good-bye to Cambridge Again

I learnt about the writer of this poem, the early 20th Century poet Xu Zhimo, from listening to the radio programme, ‘The Chinese Grand Tour’ on Radio 4 last Sunday.  This programme – still available for a few days! – was about the groups of Chinese tourists who come to the Britain to follow a very specific itinerary. From London, where they don’t seem to linger long, they head up the East coast stopping in Cambridge, York and Edinburgh, before heading down via Old Trafford and the Chinatown in Manchester and the brand-discount shopping centre in Bicester.

As a Northumbrian, I wondered whether they would stop here for anything. The presenter had explained their route related to cultural links to China, so it was conceivable that they might be interested in a wall, like their own, built to define an empire and keep out hostile tribes. But – even though the remnants of Hadrian’s Wall are right there between York and Edinburgh – they didn’t. More perplexed than me would be the proud Oxford alumni listening; if the group were interested in great learning institutions, then why not stop at Oxford as well as Cambridge? Oxford is just down the road from their last stop, Bicester, after all.

But Xu Zhimo didn’t go to Oxford, he went to Cambridge. Not only that, his most famous poem, a poem Chinese school children know by heart, is called ‘Leaving Cambridge Again’ or ‘Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again’. The presenter explained the poem’s importance to modern Chinese poetry by saying it was like the Chinese equivalent to Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ in English. There is a spot on the river Cam, near where Xu Zhimo used to sit where a plaque commemorates him, and it is pointed out to the groups of Chinese tourists who float by on specially enlarged rented punts. Listening to all this, I began to feel like I should know a bit more about the poet, especially since the couple of stanzas read on air were quite pretty, and – as it does – Google obliged me with a bit of information about Xu Zhimo and an anonymous translation of his poem, printed in full below.


Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again


Very quietly I take my leave,

As quietly as I came here;

Quietly I wave good-bye,

To the rosy clouds in the western sky.


The golden willows by the riverside,

Are young brides in the setting sun;

Their reflections on the shimmering waves,

Always linger in the depth of my heart.


The floating heart growing in the sludge,

Sways leisurely under the water;

In the gentle waves of Cambridge,

I would be a water plant!


That pool under the shade of elm trees,

Holds not water but the rainbow from the sky;

Shattered to pieces among the duckweeds,

Is the sediment of a rainbow-like dream.


To seek a dream? Just to pole a boat upstream,

To where the green grass is more verdant;

Or to have the boat fully loaded with starlight,

And sing aloud in the splendor of starlight.


But I cannot sing aloud,

Quietness is my farewell music;

Even summer insects keep silence for me,

Silent is Cambridge tonight!


Very quietly I take my leave,

As quietly as I came here;

Gently I flick my sleeves,

Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away.


(See Original Chinese here)


There’s something about eastern England, with its marshes and slow rivers, its clement weather and its flat expansive landscape, that seems to fit so well with the flavour of Far Eastern poetry. The willow dipping in the lazy river and the pink-tinged clouds would not be out of place in poetry from China’s golden age. Perhaps the environs of Oxford, Durham or Saint Andrew’s would not have been so symapathetic to Xu’s poetic sensibility!

 For me, the poem captures very that sense of leaving a place to somewhere completely different when you will take nothing of it with you, and the seemingly contradictory feeling that something of it will, in some part of you, stay with you. The repeated references to the poet’s silence are significant – is this the silence of a foreigner abroad, or the silence in which beauty is best appreciated? Most intriguing of all is the ‘heart’ that rests in the sludge of the river Cam, that seems to speak of Xu’s desire to be suspended in the moment, his desire to stay in this dream of Cambridge that is reflected in the river. The poem’s imagery at once invites and resists interpretations of these sorts, but is a poem of feeling and desire more than one of ideas, and a poem of beauty. I suppose that it is impossible to know the beauty of the original from the English, but this translation has some beauty of its own.

How nice, anyway, that the Chinese have garnered this nugget of ephemeral beauty  from one poet’s stop inEngland – it’s good for more than just Manchester United shirts and discount Burberry!



Filed under Poetry

15 responses to “Saying Good-bye to Cambridge Again

  1. Like you, I heard this on Radio 4 and liked it – and your commentary above is an interesting complement. Having followed up your link to Wikipedia, I wonder whether this poem sounds immediately appealing to an English ear because Xu Zhimo was himself influenced by the English Romantic poets; or do we detect a Chinese quality?
    I think the closing lines are exquisite – so subtle, hinting at such mixed emotions – much more delicate than Wordsworth’s declaratory conclusion to Daffodils which never sounded authentic to me.

  2. There’s definitely a Chinese quality in there, though I’d struggle to define it. I went and had another look at Daffodils after reading your comment, and agree there’s something a little inauthentic in there. Not that a man can’t be very moved by a bank of flowers, but it seems a little too eager to portray nature as something elevating. Thanks for the comment, anyway.

  3. Very beautiful poem. It’s very apropos for a Chinese poem, the emphasis on nature and speaking of reality as a dream (Chuang tzu talks of a dream where he believed he was a butterfly then woke up a man and couldn’t say which reality was true). There is a feeling of disconnection, of watching this other world that he does not belong to as he floats by. He would shout (I’m assuming, as they do), but that isn’t his way, so he stays silent like all of the visitors.

    “The Floating World” is a common theme in Chinese literature, or reality as a dream, so this poem continues that tradition.

  4. I’ve heard that expression, ‘the floating world’, but never really thought about what it means. It’s interesting in the context of this poem and the circumstances it was written in – the poet is disconnected both as an observer of the world, but also as a foreigner in a strange place…

  5. Another preposterously eloquent post (pardon the low-budget Christopher Hitchens impression). I like the way the poem makes use of the kinds of epiphanies you can find in haiku written by Japanese Zen mystics. One question: did you mean to write that the wall was “built to define an empire,” or is that a typo? (I thought maybe you’d intended to write “defend.”) Either way, “define” works well, as walls do seem to define empires, just as the divisions between and among us define strife, unlike the harmony exhibited both by this poem and your apt appreciation of it.

  6. Define, defend… can’t remember to be honest. Glad you liked the poem and my commentary, though. Thanks for the eloquently preposterous praise!

  7. Susanna Morell

    Thank you “sweettenorbull” for your poem, from the marvel chinese poet Xo Zhimo. It took my heart his writing, my heart of former emigrant in Cambrige, now in Spain, so different place, not far by plane, but yes for me to stay for another while. However, if Cambridge is done for me, his glossy matte green silent leaf of transcurrent surface is yet in my property, and his clouds as well, untouchables in their ever-changing, forever.
    Can you understand the feeling-writing from one wordless woman on English letters? Hope you so¡
    Thanks again.
    I leave here the link to my blog about my dear stay in Cambridge; sorry it is written in Spanish, but anyway¡, who knows, perhaps the river Cam can hear and understand my story…

  8. Thanks Susanna. I’ll take a look at your blog.

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  11. Thank so much for this moving post. I came across Xu Zhang needing a poet with Z for the A-Z April Challenge and was very pleased to find him and this poem. I thought you might be interested to read more about Tagore’s tour of China and Xu’s support. I did find a great article and was going to provide the link but if you Google them you will find it. Apparently, Tagore received a very hostile response, although Xu was full of praise and support. I have been writing a series of Letters to Dead Poets, which has included Tagore. You might like my post about Xu:
    xx Rowena

  12. Thanks for the comment, Rowena. Actually, I wrote this post three years ago after hearing the radio documentary, and I didn’t know much more about Xu Zhang than I heard on the programme. Your post is actually a lot more informative – and I was especially interested by the Tagore connection. About ten years ago one of my favourite poems was Neruda’s ‘paraphrase’ of Tagore in In My Sky at Twilight. Your series looks interesting, anyway – I will take a look at my leisure, I think. Thanks for dropping by.

  13. zhuhongwei

    Xu Zhimo was born in my hometown,HangZhou, his father is banker,very rich, he is the only son of the family, he married to a girl that he did’t like,
    The marriage is for bussiness ,so he go to the england, he wrote a poem when he go back China, at first it’s a chinese poem, compare the chinese version and english version, the chiese version more nature,more deep.
    he fall in love when he is in england.

    he was died at a air crash

  14. zhuhongwei

    he fall in love when he is in english

  15. Thanks for the comment and background, HongWei. I took the translation from Wikipedia as that is not copywritten… but there are many other translations out there, some of which, perhaps, will capture more of the depth of the original Chinese – although I wouldn’t be qualified to say.

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