Bits of Japanese Poetry, by Lafcadio Hearn
Among 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
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!
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 cicadae…. 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 crepe-silk underwear. Poems are stamped or
worked upon letter-paper, 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 frees,—
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.
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 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-kiri. 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 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
The other curious fact is only a fact of aesthetic 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 after-noon. Not only
would he be false to the traditions 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, in the majority of cases,
would signify almost nothing to the Western mind. Here, for
example, is a little verse, pathetic enough to Japanese
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 (ocho-mecho), the verse might
well seem to be less than commonplace. Or take this recent
composition, by a University student, which has been praised by
Fubo ari—mushi no
—"In my native place the old folks [or, my parents] are—clamor
1 I must observe, however, that the praise was especially evoked
by the use of the term koe-goe—(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.
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
Mi ni shimiru
Kaze ya I
Yubi no ato!
—"Oh, body-piercing wind!—that work of little fingers in the
shoji!" (2)…. What does this mean? It means the sorrowing of a
mother for her dead child. Shoji 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 through the little holes
that were made by the fingers of her dead child.
2 More literally:—"body-through-pierce wind—ah!
—shoji in the traces of [viz.: holes made by] fingers!"
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
A MOTHER'S REMEMBRANCE
Sweet and clear in the night, the voice of a boy at study,
Reading out of a book…. I also once had a boy!
A MEMORY IN SPRING
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
Ah! where does she dwell to-day, our dear little vanished sister?
FANCIES OF ANOTHER FAITH
(1) I sought in the place of graves the tomb of my vanished
From ancient cedars above there rippled a wild doves cry.
(2) Perhaps a freak of the wind-yet perhaps a sign of
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
Thy spirit, perhaps, dear friend!…
IN A CEMETERY AT NIGHT
This light of the moon that plays on the water I pour for the
Differs nothing at all from the moonlight of other years.
AFTER LONG ABSENCE
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 along remembers the charm of the time gone by!
MOONLIGHT ON THE SEA
O vapory moon of spring!—would that one plunge into ocean
Could win me renewal of life as a part of thy light on the
Whither now should! 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.
(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 my home.
1 A musical cricket—calyptotryphus marmoratus.
IN TIME OF GRIEF, HEARING A SEMI (CICADA)
Only "I," "I,"—the cry of the foolish semi!
Any one knows that the world is void as its cast-off shell.
ON THE CAST-OFF SHELL OF A SEMI
Only the pitiful husk!… O poor singer of summer,
Wherefore thus consume all thy body in song?
SUBLIMITY OF INTELLECTUAL POWER
The mind that, undimmed, absorbs the foul and the pure together—
Call it rather a sea one thousand fathoms deep!(2)
2. This is quite novel in its way,—a product of the University:
the original runs thus:—
Sumêru mo tomo ni
Chi-hiro no umi no
Mad waves devour The rocks: I ask myself in the darkness,
"Have I become a god?" Dim is The night and wild!
"Have I 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 aesthetic feeling and experience. Like the
pictures upon screens and fans and cups, they 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
Kane mono iwazu;
—"Old temple: bell voiceless; cherry-flowers fall."
MORNING AWAKENING AFTER A NIGHT'S REST IN A TEMPLE
Taki no oto.
—"In the mountain-temple the paper mosquito-curtain is lighted
by the dawn: sound of water-fall."
Yuki no mura;
"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
Kaya no te wo
—"Detaching one corner of the mosquito-net, lo! I 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 corner converts the square into a triangle;—and the moon
represents the circle.
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 the brave misery of the wandering
student;—and I very much doubt whether the effort could be
Kagashi no kasa ni
Ame kyu nari.
—"Heavily pours the rain on the hat that I stole from the