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A curious verse, one might think, with which to begin a song-cycle—dry to the point of cynicism, and quite lacking in those superficially poetic characteristics so beloved of song-writers. But Britten's literary taste is both shrewd and subtle. Arthur Waley's Chinese Poems (Allen and Unwin, 1946) are a selection made by the author from his earlier volumes of translations, often with substantial revisions. In selecting six very short pieces from this collection Britten was skimming the cream of a great translator's life-work; yet the poems he chose are not merely magnificent in themselves, they are also arranged with extraordinary subtlety in relation to one another. Whether consciously or not Britten has hit on the one piece in the whole anthology which could best serve as the motto for his own Songs from the Chinese. What could stand more appropriately at the head of these brief settings for the exiguous combination of voice and guitar than a warning against the perils of public life and, by analogy, the grand gesture?
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