The Spirit of Japanese Poetry/Chapter 2



Walter Pater, in one of his much-admired studies, The School of Giorgione, represents art as continually struggling after the law or principle of music, toward a condition which music alone completely realises; "lyrical poetry," he thinks, "approaches nearest to that condition, hence is the highest and most complete form of poetry; and," he adds, "the very perfection of such poetry often appears to depend, in part, on a certain suppression or vagueness of mere subjects, so that the meaning reaches us through ways not distinctly traceable by the understanding. . . ."

I should like to develop Pater's literary ideal a little further through Lao Tze's canon of spiritual anarchism (it's nothing so strange to speak sometimes the names of this ancient Chinese sage and the modern English critic side by side); is it not that to mean nothing means all things; again, not to sing at all means to sing everything? Lao Tze says: "Assert non-assertion. Practise non-practice. Taste non-taste"; let me here add one more line: "Express in non-expression." To attach too closely to the subject matter in literary expression is never a way to complete the real saturation; the real infinite significance will only be accomplished at such a consummate moment when the end and means are least noticeable, and the subject and expression never fluctuate from each other, being in perfect collocation; it is the partial loss of the birthright of each that gains an artistic triumph. I have a word which is much used carelessly in the West, but whose true meaning is only seldom understood, that is the word of suggestion. I have an art; that is the art of suggestion. What suggestion? you might ask. I will point the way, if you are given a right sort of artistic susceptibility, where the sunlight falls on the laughter of woods and waters, where the birds sing by the flowers; again I will point, if you are able to read the space between the lines, to the pages of the Japanese seventeen-syllable Hokku poems, the tiniest poems of the world.

I do never mean that the Hokku poems are lyrical poetry in the general Western understanding; but the Japanese mind gets the effect before perceiving the fact of their brevity, its sensibility resounding to their single note, as if the calm bosom of river water to the song of a bird. One of the English critics exclaims from his enthusiasm over Hokku: “That is valuable as a talisman rather than as a picture. It is a pearl to be dissolved in the wine of a mood. Pearls are not wine, nor in themselves to be thought of as a drink, but there is a kind of magic in the wine in which they are dissolved.” That magic of the Hokku poems is the real essence of lyrical poetry even of the highest order. I do not see why we cannot call them musical when we call the single note of a bird musical; indeed, they attain to a condition, as Pater remarked, which music alone completely realises, because what they aim at and practise is the evocation of mood or psychological intensity, not the physical explanation, and they are, as I once wrote:

A creation of surprise (let me say so)
Dancing gold on the wire of impulse.”

And even from the narrow scientific understanding of the term they are musical, as they are the first seventeen syllables out of the euphonic thirty-one-syllable Uta poem, whose birth, according to the mythological assumption, was in the same time when heaven and earth were created; a reader who knows no Japanese will find his ears softened, to take one at random, on hearing the following Hokku poem:

Osoki hi no
Tsumorite toki
Mukashi kana.”

Or again in the following by the same author, Buson Yosano (1716–1783):

Kindachi ni
Kitsune bake tari
Yoi no Haru.”


Such brevity of poetical form might be well compared with an eight-coloured butterfly or a white dew upon summer grasses; again, with a tiny star carrying the whole large sky at its back. When I say that the Hokku poet’s chief aim is to impress the readers with the high atmosphere in which he is living, I mean that the readers also should be those living in an equally high poetical atmosphere; such readers’ minds will certainly respond to the wistfulness and delicacy of the Hokku, a wistfulness and delicacy not to be met with in the general run of English poetry.

I admit that they will appear first, at once, to you to be the vagrant utterances of a primitive man who, uneducated, sings of whatever his fancy or whim finds fair and striking. But I should like to ask what poet is not primitive in heart when he is true. The real poet in the Japanese understanding is primitive, as primitive are the moon and flowers; the voice of a wind we hear to-day is the same voice which echoed, let me say, to the ears of Adam and Eve through the valley and trees. I think it is quite a happy epithet to call the poets the friends of winds and moon. You may think it a pantheism if you will, when our Japanese poets go to Nature to make life more meaningful, sing of flowers and birds to make humanity more intensive; it was from the sense of mystical affinity between the life of Nature and the life of man, between the beauty of flowers and the beauty of love, that I wrote as follows:

It’s accident to exist as a flower or a poet;
A mere twist of evolution but from the same force:
I see no form in them but only beauty in evidence;
It’s the single touch of their imagination to get the embodiment of a poet or a flower:
To be a poet is to be a flower,
To be the dancer is to make the singer sing.”

Basho, the most famous Hokku poet of the seventeenth century, in fact, the real creator of the seventeen-syllable form of poetry, spent the best part of his life of fifty years in travelling; travelling, or to use a better word, pilgrimage, for this Basho (“Basho” is his nom de plume, meaning banana-leaves whose flexibility against winds and autumn, he imagined, was that of his ephemeral life) was never searching after life’s selfish joy; it was a holy service itself, as if a prayer-making under the silence of a temple; is there a more holy temple than the bosom of Nature? He travelled East and West, again South and North, for the true realisation of the affinity of life and Nature, the sacred identification of himself with the trees and flowers; he could not forget Nature even at the final death moment when he wrote a Hokku poem saying:

Lying ill on journey,
Ah, my dreams
Run about the ruin of fields.”

The thought of Basho makes me think of Walt Whitman; the above poem of Basho’s recalls to my mind Whitman’s pathos of his last years: “I am an open-air man: winged. I am an open-water man: aquatic. I want to get out, fly, swim I am eager for feet again. But my feet are eternally gone.” I read somewhere of Whitman denying the so-called “literature” (accidentally laughing, scorning, jeering at his contemporaries). “I feel about literature what Grant did about war. He hated war. I hate literature. I am not a literary West Pointer; I do not love a literary man as a literary man, as a minister of a pulpit loves other ministers because they are ministers: it is a means to an end, that is all there is to it: I never attribute any other significance to it.” Basho always spoke from the same reason that there was no other poetry except the poetry of the heart; he never thought literature or so-called literature to be connected with his own poetry, because it was a single noted adoration or exclamation offhand at the almost dangerous moment when his love of Nature suddenly turned to hatred from the too great excess of his love. It is the word of exclamation; its brevity is strength of his love. Hokku means literally a single utterance or the utterance of a single verse; that utterance should be like a “moth light playing on reality’s dusk,” or “an art hung, as a web, in the air of perfume,” swinging soft in music of a moment. Now again to return to Whitman. He remarks somewhere: “New York gives the literary man a touch of sorrow; he is never quite the same human being after New York has really set in; the best fellows have few chances of escape.” Although Basho never expressed his hatred of city life in such a bold emphasis of words as Whitman, as his were the days when politeness of language was inculcated, the fact of his spending the greater part of his life, now on the sleepy back of a horse by a whispering stream, then seeing the fallen petals in deep sigh with country rustics, is proof enough that he regarded a city life as fatal to his poetry; he was, with Whitman, a good exemplar to teach us how to escape the burden of life; and again the Hokku poems, if intelligently translated into English (indeed that is an almost impossible literary feat to accomplish), will give the most interesting example to encourage the modern literary ideal of the West which seeks its salvation in escape from the so-called literary.

My literary mind of Hokku love often finds itself highly pleased, as if when a somewhat familiar face is disclosed out of the crowd under a strange flash of light, to discover a Hokku touch in English poetry in my casual reading of my beloved poet’s pages; I will call Landor a Hokku poet when he wrote the following:

I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.”

This poetical atmosphere is the atmosphere in which Buson wrote, as I mentioned before,

Osoki hi no
Tsumorite toki
Mukashi kana.”

which might be translated as follows:

Slow-passing days
Gathered, gathering,–
Alas, past far-away, distant!”

Although the poet simply appears to recollect the past (making objectivity in poetical expression reveal his subjectivity clearer through the virtue of the poem’s being a good Hokku), the meaning that he is ready to depart when fate calls upon him will be well understood by those whose spiritual endowment is rich enough to read the part of silence. I can point out sometimes a Hokku effect of poetry even from the works of Tennyson and Browning; it is not too much to say that many of Wordsworth’s poems could be successfully turned as series of Hokku poems. My humanity always thrills, trembles in reading “The Toys,” from Coventry Patmore’s The Unknown Eros, as if, when I read Chiyo’s lamentation over her dead boy, a little thing really worthy of a place in any Greek Anthology:

The hunter of dragonflies,
To-day, how far away
May he have gone!”

Now let me contrast one of the well-known poems by Rossetti, “The Woodspurge,” with a Hokku poem by Basho. “In moments of intense sorrow or grief,” Lafcadio Hearn was wont to repeat in his class-room, “when all the energies are paralysed, all the mental faculties being stricken into inaction, any new or strange thing, however small, seen accidentally, will be remembered for all the rest of one’s life.” Rossetti has the following:

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me,
The woodspurge has a cup of three.”

And Basho’s poem to which I invite your attention has the following:

Being tired,–
Ah, the time I fall into the inn,–
The wistaria flowers.”

Our Japanese Hokku master, the lone poet on a certain forgotten highway, found the beauty of the wistaria flowers most strikingly appealing to his poetic mind now simplified, therefore intensified, through the physical lassitude resulting from the whole day’s walk; if Basho had been a man of more specialised mind, in the modern sense, he might have taken notice of some forgotten flower with its peculiarity by his feet, when he rested himself on the bamboo porch of a country inn, perhaps facing the open garden where the evening silence already had begun to steal.

When I say the best Hokku poems do never know their own limitations, (remember, they are only seventeen syllables), that is because they are of the most essential of all the essential languages, which is inwardly extensive and outwardly vague; a severe restraint imposed on one side will be well balanced by the large freedom on the other. As in any poem of any other country, the Japanese poet’s work also rests on the belief that poetry should express truth in its own way; by that truth we Japanese mean Nature; again by that Nature the order of spontaneity. Lao Tze says: “Man takes his law from the earth; the Earth its law from Heaven; Heaven its law from Tao; but the law of Tao in its own spontaneity.” It was the Chinese sage’s greatness to interpret, you might say, psychologically God by the single word of spontaneity. When I measure our Japanese poetical truth by the said spontaneity, my mind dwells on the best Hokku poems as the songs “with no word, not tyrannised by form,” on which I wrote as follows:

A birth of genius,
Ascension of creative life,
Passion indefinable,
Accident inevitable:

A song, thou art phenomenon but not achievement.”

They are the voice of spontaneity which makes an unexpected assault upon Poetry’s summit; the best expression for it would be, of course, suggestion or hint of its eccentricity or emphasis. As the so-called literary expression is a secondary matter in the realm of poetry, there is no strict boundary between the domains generally called subjective and objective; while some Hokku poems appear to be objective, those poems are again by turns quite subjective through the great virtue of the writers having the fullest identification with the matter written on. You might call such collation poetical trespassing; but it is the very point whence the Japanese poetry gains unusual freedom; that freedom makes us join at once with the soul of Nature. I admit that when such poetical method is carried to the extreme, there will result unintelligibility; but poetical unintelligibility is certainly better than the imbecility or vulgarity of which examples abound, permit me to say, in English poetry. It is the aim of this Japanese poetry that each line of the poem should appeal to the reader’s consciousness, perhaps with the unconnected words, touching and again kindling on the particular association; there is ample reason to say that our poetry is really searching for a far more elusive effect than the general English poetry.

As I said before, the Hokku poems are, unlike the majority of English poems, the expression of the moods or forces of the writer's poetical exertion, and their aim, if aim they have, is hardly connected with the thing or matter actually stated, but it casts a light on the poetical position in which the writer stands; although the phrase might be taken wrongly in the West, our Japanese poets at their best, as in the case of some work of William Blake, are the poets of attitude who depend so much on the intelligent sympathy of their readers. Their work is like a silent bell of a Buddhist temple; it may not mean anything for some people, like that bell which has no voice at all. But the bell rings out, list, in golden voice, when there is a person who strikes it; and what voice the bell should have will depend on the other. And again the Hokku poem is a bell helpless, silent, when with no reader to cooperate; when I say that the readers of Japanese poetry, particularly this Hokku poem, should be born like a poet, I count, I should say, their personal interest almost as much as that of the writers themselves. Therefore in our poetry the readers assume an equally responsible place; and they can become, if they like, creators of poems which in fact are not their own work, just as if one with a bell-hammer did create the bell in the real sense. We have one very famous Hokku in the following:

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobikomu
Mizu no oto.”

(“The old pond!
A frog leapt into–
List, the water sound!”)

I should like, to begin with, to ask the Western readers what impression they would ever have from their reading of the above; I will never be surprised if it may sound to them to be merely a musician’s alphabet; besides, the thought of a frog is even absurd for a poetical subject. But when the Japanese mind turns it into high poetry (it is said that Basho the author instantly awoke to a knowledge of the true road his own poetry should tread with this frog poem; it has been regarded in some quarters as a thing almost sacred although its dignity is a little fallen of late), it is because it draws at once a picture of an autumnal desolation reigning on an ancient temple pond whose world-old silence is now broken by a leaping frog. But a mind of philosophical turn, not merely a lover of description, would please to interpret it through the so-called mysticism of the Zen sect Buddhism. Basho is supposed to awaken into enlightenment now when he heard the voice bursting out of voicelessness, and the conception that life and death were mere change of condition was deepened into faith. It is true to say that nobody but the author himself will ever know the real meaning of the poem; which is the reason I say that each reader can become a creator of the poem by his own understanding as if he had written it himself.

Take the following poem by Buson:

Katamari ni
Ume no aruji kana.”

(“The lump of clay
He beats with a stick,–
He, the master of the plum-orchard.”)

There might be many people, I believe, who will wonder where in the world poetry will come in from a piece of clay beaten by a stick. But be patient, my friends. This is quite an excellent Hokku poem; here we have a scene of some old retired master of a plum-orchard now in a stroll (“And day’s at the morn; morning’s at seven,” perhaps as in Robert Browning’s song in Pippa Passes), who beats a lump of clay playfully while walking lazily. And go again to the lines of great Browning:

God’s in His Heaven–
All’s right with the world.”

Do you still call the above Hokku nonsense? Take one more poem by Buson in the following:

Suzushisa ya
Kanewo hanaruru
Kaneno koye.”

(“Oh, how cool–
The sound of the bell
That leaves the bell itself.”)

Some little amplification would perhaps help in understanding the beauty of the above poem; but if your sensitive ears can differentiate the sounds of a bell in the daytime and during the night it is certainly futile to dwell on it. Although the author never tells when he heard the bell, I would understand it to be the bell of very early Summer morning, when the whole world and life are in perfect silence; if you awake at such an hour, your bodily composure making your ears doubly susceptible to any sound, I am sure your mind will become at once cooler with the sound of a bell which, with the finest feeling, leaves the wooden bell-hammer, and bids good-bye. And take still one more poem by the same author in the following:

Haru no voya
Yoi akebono no
Sono Nakani.”

(“The night of the Spring,–
Oh, between the eve
And the dawn.”)

The old Chinese poets sang on the Spring eve, prizing it above many thousand pounds in gold, while the Japanese Uta poets of ancient days admired the purple-coloured dawn of Spring; in the opening passages of Sei Shonagon’s Makura Zoshi or Pillow Sketches we have the following: “In Spring,” to use Aston’s translation, “I love to watch the dawn grow gradually white and whiter, till a faint rosy tinge crowns the mountain’s crest, while slender streaks of purple cloud extend themselves above.” Such is the beauty of a Spring dawn. Now Buson is pleased to introduce the night of the Spring which should be beautiful without questioning, since it lies between those two beautiful things, the eve and the dawn; and we are thrice glad with this Buson’s Hokku.

I have quite an interest in the pages of English translation or free rendering of our Japanese poetry, because I learn from them the point of the Western choice of the subjects, and where the strength or weakness of the English mind lies in poetical writing; take the following Hokku poem with the translation by Edwin Arnold and Miss Walsh:

Asagawo ni
Tsurube torarete
Morai mizu.”

(“The morning-glory
Her leaves and bells has bound
My bucket handle round.
I could not break the bands
Of these soft hands.
The bucket and the well to her left,
‘Let me some water, for I come bereft.’ ”)

(“All round the rope a morning glory clings;
How can I break its beauty’s dainty spell?
I beg for water from a neighbour’s well.”)

With due respect to these translators, I ask myself why the English mind must spend so much ink while we Japanese are well satisfied with the following:

The well-bucket taken away
By the morning-glory–
Alas, water to beg!”

Is it not the exact case as when the Western fountain-pen attempts to copy a Japanese picture drawn with bamboo brush and incensed Indian ink on a rice paper, in which formlessness, like that of a summer cloud, is often a passport into the sky of the higher art of Japan? When the English poet must cling to such an exactitude, let me dare say, as if a tired swimmer with a life-belt, I have only to wonder at the general difference between East and West in the matter of poetry. Take another example to show in what direction the English poetical mind pleases to turn:

I thought I saw the fallen leaves
Returning to their branches:
Alas, butterflies were they.”

What real poetry is in the above, I wonder, except a pretty, certainly not high ordered, fancy of a vignettist; it might pass as fitting specimen if we understand Hokku poems, as some Western students delight to understand Hokku poems, by the word “epigram.” Although my understanding of that word is not necessarily limited to the thought of pointed saying, I may not be much mistaken to compare the word with a still almost dead pond where thought or fancy, nay the water, hardly changes or procreates itself; the real Hokku, at least in my mind, are a running living water of poetry where you can reflect yourself to find your own identification. (Therefore the best Hokku poem is least translatable in English or perhaps in any language.) It is, as I wrote already somewhere, “like a dew upon lotus-leaves of green, or under maple-leaves of red, which, though it is nothing but a trifling drop of water, shines, glitters, and sparkles now pearl-white, then amethyst-blue, again ruby-red, according to the time of day and situation; better still to say this Hokku is like a spider-thread laden with the white summer dews, swaying among the branches of a tree like an often invisible ghost in the air, on the perfect balance; that sway indeed, not the thread itself, is the beauty of our seventeen-syllable poem.”

But you must know that such language can only apply to the very best Hokku, which, when introduced with sympathy rather than mere intelligence, will serve, through their magic of potential speech, using Arthur Ransome’s phrase, or, let me say, potential effect, the modern Western writers or poets, as I said before, in search of an escape from the so-called literature; and these very best Hokku poems cannot be, in my opinion, more than half a thousand, nay, perhaps not more than two hundred and fifty in number from all works written in the last three hundred years. As there are indeed a most prodigious number of productions, my estimate will show, I believe, that even a dozen good Hokkus in one’s whole life would not be regarded as a bad crop. In fact, the Hokku poems produced in the time before great Basho’s appearance (1644–1694), when, under the influence of Teitoku, Teishitsu, and Soin Nishiyama, the school of art for art’s sake, from the point of intricacy, mannerism, and affectation, was finally formed under the name of Danrin or “Forest of Consultation,” are certainly not better than the butterfly poem quoted above; although Basho and his disciples (it is said that this Basho had three thousand disciples or followers in his life’s days) rescued poetry from the hands of such a school of artistic vulgarity, the Shofu or “The School of Righteous Wind” which he established, we might say, with the power of faith and prayer, became soon again sadly degenerated; and it was Buson Yosano, who, now putting aside the brush for the picture, as he was an eminent artist of his own days, cried out for the so-called poetical revival of the Tenmei period. There was no more popular poetry once than this Hokku form, and still popular it is even to-day, when our insularity, poetical or otherwise, has been irrevocably broken. It goes without saying that where was a great master was a great Hokku poem which never makes us notice its limitation of form, but rather impresses us by the freedom through mystery of its chosen language as if a sea-crossing wind blown in from a little window. There have been, since the Grand Restoration, a few bold attempts at a Hokku revival, notably that of the late Shiki Masaoka; but it is not my present aim to follow after their historical record. What I hope to do at this moment is to point out to you the very value of the Japanese poetry of this peculiar form.

Arthur Ransome says somewhere in his paper called “Kinetic and Potential Speech”: “It is like a butterfly that has visited flowers and scatters their scent in its flight. The scent and the fluttering of its bloom-laden wings are more important than the direction or speed of its flying.” Such language applies to the Hokku poems at their best. I agree with Ransome in saying: “Poetry is made by a combination of kinetic with potential speech. Eliminate either, and the result is no longer poetry.” But you must know that the part of kinetic speech is left quite unwritten in the Hokku poems, and that kinetic language in your mind should combine its force with the potential speech of the poem itself, and make the whole thing at once complete. Indeed, it is the readers who make the Hokku’s imperfection a perfection of art.

  1. Kindachi ni
    Kitsune bake tari
    Yoi no Haru.”

    Prince young, gallant, a masquerading fox goes this spring eve.

    You must have seen somewhere a humorous Japanese sketch in which a fantastic young prince wearing a hunting dress of potato leaves (why, he is a masquerading fox; see his tail, which assumes the place of a back-sword), and having his hair dressed with two or three wheat-straws after an old fashion, is lightly drawn under the new moon of a spring eve; the evening in Japan’s April or May, rich, misty, perhaps at Kyoto, has such charm to make the mind of a fox beautifully unbalanced. Buson’s love of an irresistibly pretty gesticulation of life and nature lets him excel in such a subject as a spring night, whose soul is that of poetry.