Ancient History & Civilisation


The “Manyoshu”—The “Kokinshu”—Characteristics of Japanese poetry—Examples—The game of poetry—The “hokka”-gamblers

The earliest Japanese literature that has come down to us is poetry, and the earliest Japanese poetry is by native scholars accounted the best. One of the oldest and most famous of Japanese books is the Manyoshu, or “Book of Ten Thousand Leaves,” in which two editors collected into twenty volumes some 4,500 poems composed during the preceding four centuries. Here in particular appeared the work of Hitomaro and Akahito, the chief poetic glories of the Nara age. When his beloved died, and the smoke from the funeral pyre ascended into the hills, Hitomaro wrote an elegy briefer than In Memoriam:

Oh, is it my beloved, the cloud that wanders

In the ravine

Of the deep secluded Hatsuse Mountain?7

A further effort to preserve Japanese poetry from time’s mortality was made by the Emperor Daigo, who brought together eleven hundred poems of the preceding one hundred and fifty years into an anthology known as the Kokinshu—“Poems Ancient and Modern.” His chief aide was the poet-scholar Tsurayuki whose preface seems more interesting to us today than the fragments which the book has brought down to us from his laconic muse:

The poetry of Japan, as a seed, springs from the heart of man creating countless leaves of language. . . . In a world full of things man strives to find words to express the impression left on his heart by sight and sound. . . . And so the heart of man came to find expression in words for his joy in the beauty of blossoms, his wonder at the song of birds, and his tender welcome of the mists that bathe the landscapes, as well as his mournful sympathy with the evanescent morning dew. . . . To verse the poets were moved when they saw the ground white with snowy showers of fallen cherry blossoms on spring mornings, or heard on autumn evenings the rustle of falling leaves; or year after year gazed upon the mirror’s doleful reflections of the ravages of time, . . . or trembled as they watched the ephemeral dewdrop quivering on the beaded grass.8

Tsurayuki well expressed the recurrent theme of Japanese poetry—the moods and phases, the blossoming and decay, of nature in isles made scenic by volcanoes, and verdant with abundant rain. The poets of Japan delight in the less hackneyed aspects of field and woods and sea—trout splashing in mountain brooks, frogs leaping suddenly into noiseless pools, shores without tides, hills cut with motionless mists, or a drop of rain nestling like a gem in a folded blade of grass. Often they interweave a song of love with their worship of the growing world, or mourn elegiacally the brevity of flowers, love and life. Seldom, however, does this nation of warriors sing of war, and only now and then does its poetry lift the heart in hymns. After the Nara period the great majority of the poems were brief; out of eleven hundred in the Kokinshu all but five were in the pithytanka formfive lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables. In these poems there is no rhyme, for the almost invariable vowel ending of Japanese words would have left too narrow a variety for the poet’s choice; nor is there any accent, tone or quantity. There are strange tricks of speech: “pillow words,” or meaningless prefixes added for the sake of euphony; “prefaces,” or sentences prefixed to a poem to round out its form rather than to develop its ideas; and “pivot words” used punningly in startling diversities of sense to bind one sentence with the next. These, to the Japanese, are devices sanctified by time, like alliteration or rhyme to the English; and their popular appeal does not draw the poet into vulgarity. On the contrary these classic poems are essentially aristocratic in thought and form. Born in a courtly atmosphere, they are fashioned with an almost haughty restraint; they seek perfection of modeling rather than novelty of meaning; they suppress rather than express emotion; and they are too proud to be anything but brief. Nowhere else have writers been so expressively reticent; it is as if the poets of Japan had had a mind to atone by their modesty for the braggadocio of her historians. To write three pages about the west wind, say the Japanese, is to show a plebeian verbosity; the real artist must not so much think for the reader as lure him into active thought; he must seek and find one fresh perception that will arouse in him all the ideas and all the feelings which the Occidental poet insists on working out in self-centered and monopolistic detail. Each poem, to the Japanese, must be the quiet record of one moment’s inspiration.

So we shall be misled if we seek in these anthologies, or in that Golden Treasury of Japan, the Hyaku-nin-isshu—“Single Verses by a Hundred People”—any heroic or epic strain, any sustained or lyric flight; these poets, like the rash wits of the Mermaid Tavern, were willing to hang their lives on a line. So when Saigyo Hoshi, having lost his dearest friend, became a monk, and mystically found in the shrines at Ise the solace he was seeking, he wrote no Adonaîs, nor even a Lycidas, but these simple lines:

What it is

That dwelleth here

I know not;

Yet my heart is full of gratitude,

And the tears trickle down.9

And when the Lady Kaga no Chiyo lost her husband she wrote, merely:

All things that seem

Are but

One dreamer’s dream. . . .

I sleep. . . . I wake. . . .

How wide

The bed with none beside.10

Then, having lost also her child, she added two lines:

Today, how far may he have wandered,

The brave hunter of dragon-flies!11

In the imperial circles at Nara and Kyoto the composition of tankas became an aristocratic sport; female chastity, which in ancient India had required an elephant as its price, was often satisfied, at these courts, with thirty-one syllables of poetry cleverly turned.12It was a usual thing for the emperor to entertain his guests by handing them words with which to fashion a poem;13 and the literature of the time refers casually to people conversing with one another in acrostic poetry, or reciting tankas as they walked in the streets.14 Periodically, at the height of the Heian age, the emperor arranged a poetry contest or tournament, in which as many as fifteen hundred candidates competed before learned judges in the making of tanka epigrams. In 951 a special Poetry Bureau was established for the management of these jousts, and the winning pieces in each contest were deposited in the archives of the institution.

In the sixteenth century Japanese poetry felt guilty of long-windedness, and decided to shorten the tanka—originally the completion, by one person, of a poem begun by another—into the hokku—a “single utterance” of three, lines, boasting of five, seven and five syllables, or seventeen in all. In the Genroku age (1688-1704) the composition of these hokku became first a fashion, then a craze; for the Japanese people resembles the American in an emotional-intellectual sensitivity that makes for the rapid rise and fall of mental styles. Men and women, merchants and warriors, artisans and peasants neglected the affairs of life to match hokku epigrams, constructed at a moment’s warning. The Japanese, with whom gambling is a favorite passion, wagered so much money in hokku-composing contests that some enterprising souls made a business of conducting them, fleecing thousands of devotees daily, until at last the government was forced to raid these poetical resorts and prohibit this new mercenary art.15 The most distinguished master of the hokku was Matsura Basho (1643-94), whose birth, it seemed to Yone Noguchi, “was the greatest happening in our Japanese annals.”16 Basho, a young Samurai, was so deeply! moved by the death of his lord and teacher that he abandoned the life of the court, renounced all physical pleasures, gave himself to wandering, meditation and teaching, and expressed his quiet philosophy in fragments of nature poetry highly revered by Japanese literati as perfect examples of concentrated suggestion:

The old pond,

Aye, and the sound of a frog leaping into the water.


A stem of grass, whereon

A dragon-fly essayed to light.17

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