The Spirit of Japanese Poetry/Introduction


There are beauties and characteristics of poetry of any country which cannot be plainly seen by those who are born with them; it is often a foreigner's privilege to see them and use them, without a moment's hesitation, to his best advantage as he conceives it. I have seen examples of it in the work of Western artists in adopting our Japanese traits of art, the traits which turned meaningless for us a long time ago, and whose beauties were lost in time's dust; but what a force and peculiarity of art Utamaro or Hiroshige, to believe the general supposition, inspired in Monet, Whistler and others! It may seem strange to think how the Japanese art of the Ukiyoye school, nearly dead, commonplace at its best, could work such a wonder when it was adopted by the Western hand; but after all that is not strange at all. And is it not the same case with poetry? Not only the English poetry, but any poetry of any country, is bound to become stale and stupid if it shuts itself up for too long a time; it must sooner or later be rejuvenated and enlivened with some new force. To shake off classicism, or to put it more abruptly, to forget everything of history or usage, often means to make a fresh start; such a start often begins being suggested by the poetry of some foreign country, and gains a strength and beauty. That is why even we Japanese, I dare say, can make some contribution to English poetry. The English poem, as it seems to me, is governed too greatly by old history and too-respectable prosody; just compare it with the English prose, which has made such a stride in the recent age, to see and be amazed at its unchanging gait. Perhaps it is my destitution of musical sense (a Western critic declared that Japanese are for the most part unmusical) to find myself more often unmoved by the English rhymes and metres; let me confess that, before perceiving the silver sound of a poet like Tennyson or Swinburne, born under the golden clime, my own Japanese mind already revolts and rebels against something in English poems or verses which, for lack of a proper expression, we might call physical or external. As my attention is never held by the harmony of language, I go straightforward to the writer's inner soul to speculate on it, and talk with it; briefly, I am sound-blind or tone-deaf—that is my honest confession. It is not only my own confession, but the general confession of nearly all Japanese; our Japanese minds always turn, let me dare say, to something imaginative.

It is my own opinion that the appearance of Basho, our beloved Hokku master, was the greatest happening of our Japanese annals; the Japanese poetry, which had been degenerating for centuries, received a sudden salvation through his own pain and imagination. His greatest hope, to become a poet without words, was finally realised; he was, as I once wrote on the Buddha priest in meditation:

"He feels a touch beyond word,
He reads the silence's sigh,
And prays before his own soul and destiny:
He is a pseudonym of the universal Consciousness,
A person lonesome from concentration."

When the Japanese poetry joined its hand with the stage, we have the No drama, in which the characters sway in music, soft but vivid, as if a web in the air of perfume; we Japanese find our own joy and sorrow in it. Oh, what a tragedy and beauty in the No stage! I always think that it would be certainly a great thing if the No drama could be properly introduced into the West; the result would be no small protest against the Western stage, it would mean a real revelation for those people who are well tired of their own plays with a certain pantomimic spirit underneath.

We started our country as the land of poetry; our forefathers were poets themselves. They were free as the winds are free. When our modern young poets cry to go back to the age of their forefathers, they think that it is only the way to escape from the so-called literature and gain this poetical strength and beauty; it is their opinion that they find all the Western literary ideals in our Japanese ancient life and poetry. But I often quarrelled with them on the point that the real poetry of any country should be an expression of beauty and truth; we must build, I always insist, our poetry on our own true culture, which we formed through the pain and patience of centuries. It is my own opinion that the true Japanese poetry should be, as I once wrote, a potted tree of a thousand years' growth; our song should be a Japanese teahouse—four mats and a half in all—where we burn the rarest incense which rises to the sky; again our song should be an opal with six colours that shine within.

People who are already familiar with the Japanese poetry would ask me why I did not dwell on our Uta poetry at some length; I confess that my poetical taste desires far more intensity than the Uta poems, whose artificial execution often proves, in my opinion, to be their weakness rather than strength. Besides, they should be treated independently in a separate volume; they have their own poetical history of more than two thousand years.

"The Japanese Hokku Poetry" is the lecture delivered in the Hall of Magdalen College at the invitation of Mr. Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, and Dr. T. H. Warren, President of the College and Professor of Poetry in the University; and my lectures at the Japan Society, the Royal Asiatic Society, and the Quest Society have been based more or less on the other chapters in the book.

Y. N.

March 10th, 1914.