Poetry. Japanese prosody, though exceptionally simple, has interest in the eyes of specialists, because it is one of the few indisputably original productions of the Japanese mind. There is no rhyme, no weighing of syllables, as in China and other lands further to the west. All syllables count alike. The rule is that lines of 5 syllables and 7 syllables must alternate. Besides this, there must be an additional line of 7 syllables at the end. That is all. "Stanzas," "cantos," etc., are things entirely unknown. Thus, Japanese poems assume the following shape:, 7, 5, 7, 5, 7, . . . . . . 7. Some poems may run into as many as fifty or a hundred lines, say, a page or two of this book. Such are styled Naga-uta, literally "long poems," though they would be deemed short in other literatures. But the overwhelming majority are tiny odes (Tanka) of no more than five lines each, of the shape 5, 7, 5, 7, 7, making but thirty-one syllables all told. The first three lines of such an ode, is called the kami no ku, or "upper hemistich;" the second is the shimo no ku, or "lower hemistich." A slight pause is always made between the two in reciting. Thus:
(7) Nakitsuru kata wo
(7) Tada ari-ake no
(7) Tsuki zo nokoreni
that is, literally rendered,
"When I gaze towards the place where the cuckoo has been singing, nought remains but the moon in the early dawn."—Such is the narrow circle within which the poets of Japan have elected to move.
The favourite subjects of the Japanese muse are the flowers, the birds, the snow, the moon, the falling leaves in autumn, the mist on the mountains, in fact, the outward aspect of nature,—love of course, and the shortness of human life. Many of our Western commonplaces are conspicuously absent: no Japanese poet has expatiated on the beauties of sunset or starlight, or has penned sonnets to his mistress's eyebrows, or even so much as alluded to her eyes; much less would he be so improper as to hint at kissing her. Japanese poetry has commonplaces of its own, however; and rules from which there is no appeal prescribe the manner in which each subject is to be treated. One rule of general application in the odes forbids the employment of Chinese words,—a circumstance which narrowly limits the range of thought and expression, seeing that more than half the words in the language, and nearly all those denoting abstractions and delicate shades of meaning, are of Chinese origin.
Many Japanese odes are mere exclamations,—words outlining a picture for the imagination, not making any assertion for the logical intellect. Take, for instance, the following, written by an anonymous poet a thousand years ago:
Tobu kari no
Kazu sae miyuru
Aki no yo no tsuki!
"The moon on an autumn night making visible the very number of the wild-geese that fly past with wings intercrossed in the white clouds." Such a manner of expression may seem strange at first, but its charm grows upon one.
With the doubtful exception of the Nō, or classical dramas, all the genuine poetry of Japan is lyrical. The Japanese have also burlesque or comic stanzas. Even their serious poetry admits of a curious species of pun, named "pivot," in which the first part of the sentence has no logical end, the second part no logical beginning; and also of "pillow-words,"—terms which, often devoid of meaning themselves, serve as props for other significant words to rest on, somewhat after the fashion of the stock epithets in Homer. Acrostics, anagrams, and palindromes are well-known to the Japanese, all such conceits having come in early in the Middle Ages. The introduction of the poetical tournaments known as Uta-awase, which originated in China about A.D. 760, may be traced to the end of the ninth century. It was then that the custom grew up of setting themes on which thirty-one syllable odes were written to order on the spot,—a custom which has lasted ever since, and has done more than ought else to conventionalise Japanese poetry alike in subject-matter and in treatment, and to degrade it into a mere exercise of ingenuity. The poets of an elder day had given expression to the genuine feelings evoked from time to time by their individual experience. Henceforth this was rarely to be the case. The narrow bounds of the thirty-one syllable form contributed towards the same undesirable end. It contributed doubly,—on the one hand by enabling almost anybody to say something in verse, on the other by making it well-nigh impossible for even the truest poet to say anything of value. But the limit of the little was not yet reached. A favourite game at these tournaments, called Renga, wherein one person composes the second hemistich of a verse and another person has to provide it with a first hemistich, seems to date from the eleventh century. Out of this, at a later date, by the dropping of the second hemistich, grew the Haikai or Hokku, an ultra-Lilliputian class of poem having but seventeen syllables (5, 7, 5). Here are a couple of specimens:
Rakkwa eda ni
"What I saw as a fallen blossom
"A shower, and head-gear variously
this latter a vignette of the scattering caused by an unexpected shower, when one, maybe, will hold up a fan, another don a kerchief, etc., to get as little wet as possible.—Millions of these tiny dashes of colour or humour have been considered worthy of preservation. In fact, the votaries of the Hokku claim, not without justice, that, though but half the length of the classic ode, it is wider in scope, as no theme however unconventional is excluded by its rules, neither does it lay half the dictionary under a ban.
The nearest European parallel to the Japanese poems of thirty-one or seventeen syllables is the epigram, using that term in its earlier sense. Or we might say of the seventeen-syllable poems in particular, that they correspond to such prominent half-stanzas as
"The linnet born within the cage,
That never knew the summer woods,"
"And Autumn laying here and there
A fiery finger on the leaves,"
which, in the hands of our poets, are evolved as parts of members of a complex organic whole, but would in Japanese literature each stand alone as an independent composition. Naturally the brevity needed to put any statement into so narrow a compass soon led to an elliptical and enigmatic style, which continually crosses the border-line of obscurity.
The twin stars of early Japanese poetry are Hitomaro and Akahito, both of whom loved and sang during the opening years of the eighth century. Perhaps the most illustrious next to them—illustrious not only in verse, but in prose—is Tsurayuki, a great noble of about the year 930, after which time the decline of Japanese poetry set in. There are many other well-known poets, and also poetesses. But the Japanese consider poetry more as the production of an epoch than of an individual. They do not, as a rule, publish separately the works of any single author, as we publish Chaucer, Spenser, and the rest. They publish anthologies of all the poetical works of an era. The Man-yōshū, or "Collection of a Myriad Leaves," was the first of these anthologies, and is therefore the most highly prized. It was compiled in the eighth century. The moderns have devoted a whole mountain of commentary to the elucidation of its obscurities. The Kokinshū, or "Songs Ancient and Modern, collected by Tsurayuki and including many of his own compositions, dates from the tenth century, a period whose style has remained the model which every later poet has striven to imitate. Other collections—all made by Imperial order—followed in the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. These, together with the "Songs Ancient and Modern," are known under the general name of the "Anthologies of the One-and-Twenty Reigns" (Ni-jū-ichi Dai Shū). A much shorter collection, the Hyaku-nin Is-shu, or "Hundred Odes by a Hundred Poets," brought together by Teika Kyō, a nobleman of the thirteenth century, has long enjoyed exceptional favour with the public at large,—so much so that every one having a tincture of education knows it by heart; but the native critics justly refuse to endorse this superficial popular verdict. The acknowledged king of the seventeen-syllable style is Basho, who flourished at the end of the seventeenth century, and left ten principal followers, the so-called "Ten Wits," who flourished early in the eighteenth, and in their turn left imitators innumerable down to the present day.
Previous to the changes wrought by the revolution of 1868, it was considered one of the essential accomplishments of a Japanese gentleman to be able to write verses. This was not so difficult as might be imagined; for nothing was less honoured than originality. On the contrary, the old ideas had to be expressed in the old words, over and over again, plagiarism being accounted no crime, but rather a proof of wide reading and a retentive memory. Japanese gentlemen also composed Chinese verses, much as our schoolboys compose Latin verses. A good deal of all this still goes on. Numbers of persons, both men and women, make their living as teachers of the poetic art. Meetings are held, diplomas conferred, and time spent in elegant exercises, around which, as is the Japanese wont, a whole forest of technical terms has grown up. There lies before us the programme for 1904 of one of these teachers, an accomplished lady, whose poetry days are the first Sunday of each month. July and August are vacation time. The themes set for the other months, printed on neat little slips of paper and circulated among her friends and patronesses, are as follows, and may serve as specimens of a score of others:—
|January.||Snow in the Capital. The Pleasures of Seclusion.|
|February.||A Traveller Listening to the Nightingale. Plumblossoms in the Snow.|
|March.||A Moor in Spring. A Mountain Hut in Spring.|
|April.||Cherry-blossoms on a Dark Night. A Wistaria Blossoming on a Ruin.|
|May.||Rice-fields in Summer. A Prospect of Villages and Green Trees.|
|June.||Taking the Air at Eve. Clouds on the Mountains.|
|September.||The Moon upon the Waters. Coolness after Rain.|
|October.||A River in Autumn. Wild-geese Traversing the Clouds.|
|December.||Winter Flowers. Distant Mountains Seen through the Leafless Trees.|
It will be noticed that the themes are in most cases appropriate to the month to which they are allotted,—a consideration made clearer still by reference to Japanese literary conventions. For instance, an uncultured European may suppose that the moon belongs equally to every season. He is wrong: the moon is the special property of autumn, and the still more private and particular property of September. You ask, why? That only shows your want of education. Educated persons accept all such literary dicta without question. European notions may be all very well in such matters as railways, and drainage, and steam-boilers, and things of that sort; but when it comes to poetry, the Japanese cry halt, for this is sacred ground. There are, no doubt, some heretics in these latter days:—one programme shown to us proposes such themes as "A Torpedo-boat," "The Yearly House-cleaning," "Lucifer Matches." (!) A few men have even endeavoured to lead Japanese poetry into completely new paths,—to introduce rhyme, with stanzas formed on the English model, etc.; but such innovators have scant following.—To return to orthodoxy. The Palace itself, conservative in most things non-political, offers to the nation an example of fidelity to the national traditions in matters relating to poetry. The Imperial family has its teachers of the art. The Emperor's passion for poetry is such that he devotes a portion of every evening to the writing of verse, and during the nine years from 1893 to 1901 composed no fewer than 27,000 odes in the thirty-one syllable style. Once a year too, in January, a theme is set, on which the Emperor, the Empress, and other exalted personages compose each a thirty-one syllable ode, and the whole nation is invited to compete, with the result that many thousands of verses are sent in, written on thick paper of a certain size prescribed by custom. In January, 1904, the theme was "A Pinetree on a Rock." In January, 1903, it was "The Plum-tree at New Year." In other years it was "Patriotic Congratulations," "Pine-trees Reflected in the Water, and so on, the general custom being to insinuate some delicate compliment to the reigning house, even when the theme may make that a feat involving some difficult twisting.
All that has been written above refers to the poetry of the educated. As for the common people, they have songs of their own, which conform as far as possible to classical models, but are much mixed with colloquialisms, and are accordingly despised by all well-bred persons. The ditties sung by singing-girls to the twanging of the guitar belong to this class. Perhaps we should also mention the Wasan, or Buddhist hymns, which, sharing in the general contempt poured by the modern Japanese spirit on all things Buddhistic, yet retain considerable influence over the uninstructed classes. The Rev. Arthur Lloyd, who has made a special study of this recondite subject, informs us that not a few of the hymns composed by a famous abbot of the fifteenth century, named Rennyo Shōnin, will bear comparison with the productions of Christian hymn-writers. Many others are simply versified paraphrases of sutras.
One poor little category, standing apart on the lowest plane, is mnemonic verse. Its use suggested itself early; for there still exists a booklet of such, intended to teach the Chinese characters, which goes back to the ninth century of the Christian era. Quite recently a whole shower of these charitable endeavours to prompt dull youth has fallen on the Tōkyō bookshops. There lies before us a little volume enumerating in orthodox fives and sevens all the thoroughfares and sights of the metropolis; two others give the stations on various lines of railway; a fourth quite a triumph of doggerel—serves to impress on recalcitrant memories the names of the ships forming the Imperial Japanese navy, together with the speed and tonnage of each. One feels almost sorry, on glancing over it, that so much industry should not rather have been devoted to something more generally useful, stone-breaking on the highways, for instance.
Book recommended. A History of Japanese Literature, by W. G. Aston.—For the Nō or Lyric Dramas, see Article "Theatre" of the present work.
- Some critic, very learned in everything but Japanese, will perhaps say that the first and fifth, and the second and fourth lines of this little poem do rhyme together, after all. We would remind him that rhyme is the intentional likeness of sound, not an accidental likeness, and that such accidental concurrences are not to be prevented in a language which, like Japanese, has but six finals, namely, the five vowels, a, e, i, o, u, and the consonant n. No rhyme is perceived in any such cases by the Japanese themselves, nor is it easy at first to get them to appreciate our European rhymes, or even to hear them.
- This line may seem to have but four syllables. There are, however, five in writing, and even to a Japanese ear in pronunciation, as the long syllable chō counts double.
- The number in the last year for which we have statistics was 12,357.