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Bits of Poetry


LONG a people with whom poetry has been for centuries a universal fashion of emotional utterance, we should naturally suppose the common ideal of life to be a noble one. However poorly the upper classes of such a people might compare with those of other nations, we could scarcely doubt that its lower classes were morally and otherwise in advance of our own lower classes. And the Japanese actually present us with such a social phenomenon.

Poetry in Japan is universal as the air. It is felt by everybody. It is read by everybody. It is composed by almost everybody,--irrespective of class and condition. Nor is it thus ubiquitous in the mental atmosphere only: it is everywhere to be heard by the ear, and seen by the eye!

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As for audible poetry, wherever there is working there is singing. The toil of the fields and the labor of the streets are performed to the rhythm of chanted verse; and song would seem to be an expression of the life of the people in about the same sense that it is an expression of the life of cicadæ. . . . As for visible poetry, it appears everywhere, written or graven,--in Chinese or in Japanese characters,--as a form of decoration. In thousands and thousands of dwellings, you might observe that the sliding-screens, separating rooms or closing alcoves, have Chinese or Japanese decorative texts upon them;--and these texts are poems. In houses of the better class there are usually a number of gaku, or suspended tablets to be seen,--each bearing, for all design, a beautifully written verse. But poems can be found upon almost any kind of domestic utensil,--for example upon braziers, iron kettles, vases, wooden trays, lacquer ware, porcelains, chopsticks of the finer sort,--even toothpicks! Poems are painted upon shop-signs, panels, screens, and fans. Poems are printed upon towels, draperies, curtains, kerchiefs, silk-linings, and women's crêpe-silk underwear. Poems are stamped or worked upon letter-paper,

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envelopes, purses, mirror-cases, travelling-bags. Poems are inlaid upon enamelled ware, cut upon bronzes, graven upon metal pipes, embroidered upon tobacco-pouches. It were a hopeless effort to enumerate a tithe of the articles decorated with poetical texts. Probably my readers know of those social gatherings at which it is the custom to compose verses, and to suspend the compositions to blossoming trees,--also of the Tanabata festival in honor of certain astral gods, when poems inscribed on strips of colored paper, and attached to thin bamboos, are to be seen even by the roadside,--all fluttering in the wind like so many tiny flags. . . . Perhaps you might find your way to some Japanese hamlet in which there are neither trees nor flowers, but never to any hamlet in which there is no visible poetry. You might wander,--as I have done,--into a settlement so poor that you could not obtain there, for love or money, even a cup of real tea; but I do not believe that you could discover a settlement in which there is nobody capable of making a poem.

{p. 152}


Recently while looking over a manuscript-collection of verses,--mostly short poems of an emotional or descriptive character,--it occurred to me that a selection from them might serve to illustrate certain Japanese qualities of sentiment, as well as some little-known Japanese theories of artistic expression,--and I ventured forthwith upon this essay. The poems, which had been collected for me by different persons at many different times and places, were chiefly of the kind written on particular occasions, and cast into forms more serried, if not also actually briefer, than anything in Western prosody. Probably few of my readers are aware of two curious facts relating to this order of composition. Both facts are exemplified in the history and in the texts of my collection,--though I cannot hope, in my renderings, to reproduce the original effect, whether of imagery or of feeling.

The first curious fact is that, from very ancient times, the writing of short poems has been practised in Japan even more as a moral duty than

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as a mere literary art. The old ethical teaching was somewhat like this:--"Are you very angry?--do not say anything unkind, but compose a poem. Is your best-beloved dead?--do not yield to useless grief, but try to calm your mind by making a poem. Are you troubled because you are about to die, leaving so many things unfinished?--be brave, and write a poem on death! Whatever injustice or misfortune disturbs you, put aside your resentment or your sorrow as soon as possible, and write a few lines of sober and elegant verse for a moral exercise." Accordingly, in the old days, every form of trouble was encountered with a poem. Bereavement, separation, disaster called forth verses in lieu of plaints. The lady who preferred death to loss of honor, composed a poem before piercing her throat. The samurai sentenced to die by his own hand, wrote a poem before performing hara-hiri. Even in this less romantic era of Meiji, young people resolved upon suicide are wont to compose some verses before quitting the world. Also it is still the good custom to write a poem in time of ill-fortune. I have frequently known poems to be written under the most trying circumstances of misery or suffering,--nay,

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even upon a bed of death;--and if the verses did not display any extraordinary talent, they at least afforded extraordinary proof of self-mastery under pain. . . . Surely this fact of composition as ethical practice has larger interest than all the treatises ever written about the rules of Japanese prosody.


The other curious fact is only a fact of æsthetic theory. The common art-principle of the class of poems under present consideration is identical with the common principle of Japanese pictorial illustration. By the use of a few chosen words the composer of a short poem endeavors to do exactly what the painter endeavors to do with a few strokes of the brush,--to evoke an image or a mood,--to revive a sensation or an emotion. And the accomplishment of this purpose,--by poet or by picture-maker,--depends altogether upon capacity to suggest, and only to suggest. A Japanese artist would be condemned for attempting elaboration of detail in a sketch intended to recreate the memory of some landscape seen through the blue haze of a spring morning, or under the great blond light of an autumn afternoon. Not only would he be false to the traditions

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of his art: he would necessarily defeat his own end thereby. In the same way a poet would be condemned for attempting any completeness of utterance in a very short poem: his object should be only to stir imagination without satisfying it. So the term ittakkiri--meaning "all gone," or "entirely vanished," in the sense of "all told,"--is contemptuously applied to verses in which the verse-maker has uttered his whole thought;--praise being reserved for compositions that leave in the mind the thrilling of a something unsaid. Like the single stroke of a temple-bell, the perfect short poem should set murmuring and undulating, in the mind of the hearer, many a ghostly aftertone of long duration.


But for the same reason that Japanese short poems may be said to resemble Japanese pictures, a full comprehension of them requires an intimate knowledge of the life which they reflect. And this is especially true of the emotional class of such poems,--a literal translation of which,

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in the majority of cases, would signify almost nothing to the Western mind. Here, for example, is a little verse, pathetic enough to Japanese comprehension:--

    Chôchô ni! . .
Kyonen shishitaru
    Tsuma koishi!

Translated, this would appear to mean only,--"Two butterflies! . . . Last year my dear wife died!" Unless you happen to know the pretty Japanese symbolism of the butterfly in relation to happy marriage, and the old custom of sending with the wedding-gift a large pair of paper-butterflies (ochô-méchô), the verse might well seem to be less than commonplace. Or take this recent composition, by a University student, which has been praised by good judges:--

    Furosato ni
Fubo ari--mushi no

--"In my native place the old folks [or, my parents] are--clamor of insect-voices!" . . .

[1. I must observe, however, that the praise was especially evoked by the use of the term koë-goë- (literally meaning "voice after voice" or a crying of many voices);--and the special value of the syllables here can be appreciated only by a Japanese poet.]

{p. 157} The poet here is a country-lad. In unfamiliar fields he listens to the great autumn chorus of insects; and the sound revives for him the memory of his far-off home and of his parents. . . . But here is something incomparably more touching,-though in literal translation probably more obscure,--than either of the preceding specimens:--

Mi ni shimiru
    Kazé ya!
    Shôji ni
Yubi no ato!

--"Oh, body-piercing wind!--that work of little fingers in the shôji!"'[1] . . . What does this mean? It means the sorrowing of a mother for her dead child. Shôji is the name given to those light white-paper screens which in a Japanese house serve both as windows and doors,--admitting plenty of light, but concealing, like frosted glass, the interior from outer observation, and excluding the wind. Infants delight to break these by poking their fingers through the soft paper: then the wind blows through the holes. In this case the wind blows very cold indeed,--into the mother's very heart;--for it comes

[1. More literally:--"body-through-pierce wind--ah!--shôji--in the traces of [viz.: holes made by] fingers!"]

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through the little holes that were made by the fingers of her dead child.

The impossibility of preserving the inner quality of such poems in a literal rendering, will now be obvious. Whatever I attempt in this direction must of necessity be ittakkiri;--for the unspoken has to be expressed; and what the Japanese poet is able to say in seventeen or twenty-one syllables may need in English more than double that number of words. But perhaps this fact will lend additional interest to the following atoms of emotional expression:--


Sweet and clear in the night, the voice of a boy at study,
Reading out of a book. . . . I also once had a boy!


She who, departing hence, left to the flowers of the plum-tree,
Blooming beside our eaves, the charm of her youth and beauty
And maiden Pureness of heart, to quicken their flush and fragrance,--
Ah! where does she dwell to-day, our dear little vanished sister?


(1) I sought in the place of graves the tomb of my vanished friend:
From ancient cedars above there rippled a wild dove's cry.

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(2) Perhaps a freak of the wind--yet perhaps a sign of remembrance,--
This fall of a single leaf on the water I pour for the dead.

(3) I whispered a Prayer at the grave: a butterfly rose and fluttered--
Thy spirit, Perhaps, dear friend! . . .


This light of the moon that plays on the water I pour for the dead,
Differs nothing at all from the moonlight of other years.


The garden that once I loved, and even the hedge of the garden,--
All is changed and strange: the moonlight only is faithful
The moon alone remembers the charm of the time gone by!


O vapory moon of spring!--would that one plunge into ocean
Could win the renewal of life as a part of thy light on the waters!


Whither now should I look?--where is the place of parting?
Boundaries all have vanished;--nothing tells of direction:
Only the waste of sea under the shining moon!


Wafted into my room, the scent of the flowers of the plum-tree
Changes my broken window into a source of delight.

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(1) Faded the clover now;--sere and withered the grasses:
What dreams the matsumushi[1] in the desolate autumn-fields?

(2) Strangely sad, I thought, sounded the bell of evening;--
Haply that tone proclaimed the night in which autumn dies!

(3) Viewing this autumn-moon, I dream of my native village
Under the same soft light,--and the shadows about thy home.


Only "I," "I,"--the cry of the foolish sémi!
Any one knows that the world is void as its cast-off shell.


Only the pitiful busk! . . . O poor singer of summer,
Wherefore thus consume all they body in song?


The mind that, undimmed, absorbs the foul and the pure together--
Call it rather a sea one thousand fathoms deep!

[1. A musical cricket--calyptotryphus marmoratus.

2. This is quite novel in its way,--a product of the University. the original runs thus:--

    Nigoréru mo
Suméru mo tomo ni
    Iruru koso
Chi-hiro no umi no
Kokoro nari-keré!


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Mad waves devour the rocks: I ask myself in the darkness,
"Have I become a god?" Dim is the night and wild!

"Have become a god?"--that is to say, "Have I died?--am I only a ghost in this desolation?" The dead, becoming kami or gods, are thought to haunt wild solitudes by preference.


The poems above rendered are more than pictorial: they suggest something of emotion or sentiment. But there are thousands of pictorial poems that do not; and these would seem mere insipidities to a reader ignorant of their true purpose. When you learn that some exquisite text of gold means only, "Evening-sunlight on the wings of the water-fowl,"--or, "Now in my garden the flowers bloom, and the butterflies dance,"--then your first interest in decorative poetry is apt to wither away. Yet these little texts have a very real merit of their own, and an intimate relation to Japanese æsthetic, feeling and experience. Like the pictures upon screens and fans and cups, they

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give pleasure by recalling impressions of nature, by reviving happy incidents of travel or pilgrimage, by evoking the memory of beautiful days. And when this plain fact is fully understood, the persistent attachment of modern Japanese poets--notwithstanding their University training--to the ancient poetical methods, will be found reasonable enough.

I need offer only a very few specimens of the purely pictorial poetry. The following--mere thumb-nail sketches in verse--are of recent date.


    Furu-dera ya:
Kané mono iwazu;
    Sakura chiru.

--"Old temple: bell voiceless; cherry-flowers fall."


    Yamadera no
Shichô akéyuku:
    Taki no oto.

--"In the mountain-temple the paper mosquito-curtain is lighted by the dawn: sound of waterfall."

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    Yuki no mura;
Niwatori naité;
    Aké shiroshi.

--"Snow-village;--cocks crowing;--white dawn."

Let me conclude this gossip on poetry by citing from another group of verses--also pictorial, in a certain sense, but chiefly remarkable for ingenuity--two curiosities of impromptu. The first is old, and is attributed to the famous poetess Chiyo. Having been challenged to make a poem of seventeen syllables referring to a square, a triangle, and a circle, she is said to have immediately responded,--

    Kaya no té wo
Hitotsu hazushité,
    Tsuki-mi kana!

--"Detaching one corner of the mosquito-net, lo! behold the moon!" The top of the mosquito-net, suspended by cords at each of its four corners, represents the square;--letting down the net at one comer converts the square into a triangle;--and the moon represents the circle.

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The other curiosity is a recent impromptu effort to portray, in one verse of seventeen syllables, the last degree of devil-may-care-poverty,--perhaps

Square and Triangle

the brave misery of the wandering student;--and I very much doubt whether the effort could be improved upon:--

Kagashi no kasa ni
    Amé kyû nari.

--"Heavily pours the rain on the hat that I stole from the scarecrow!"

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