A History of Japanese Literature/Book 2/Chapter 2

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Before proceeding to an examination of the Nara poetry, it seems desirable to give an account of those characteristics of Japanese poetry generally which distinguish it in a conspicuous manner from that of Europe. Narrow in its scope and resources, it is chiefly remarkable for its limitations—for what it has not, rather than for what it has. In the first place there are no long poems. There is nothing which even remotely resembles an epic—no Iliad or Divina Commedia—not even a Nibelungen Lied or Chevy Chase. Indeed, narrative poems of any kind are short and very few, the only ones which I have met with being two or three ballads of a sentimental cast. Didactic, philosophical, political, and satirical poems are also conspicuously absent. The Japanese muse does not meddle with such subjects, and it is doubtful whether, if it did, the native Pegasus possesses sufficient staying power for them to be dealt with adequately. For dramatic poetry we have to wait until the fourteenth century. Even then there are no complete dramatic poems, but only dramas containing a certain poetical element.

Japanese poetry is, in short, confined to lyrics, and what, for want of a better word, may be called epigrams. It is primarily an expression of emotion. We have amatory verse, poems of longing for home and absent dear ones, praise of love and wine, elegies on the dead, laments over the uncertainty of life. A chief place is given to the beauties of external nature. The varying aspects of the seasons, the sound of purling streams, the snow on Mount Fuji, waves breaking on the beach, seaweed drifting to the shore, the song of birds, the hum of insects, even the croaking of frogs, the leaping of trout in a mountain stream, the young shoots of the fern in spring, the belling of deer in autumn, the red tints of the maple, moon, flowers, rain, wind, mist, these are among the favourite subjects which the Japanese poet delights to dwell upon. If we add some courtly and patriotic effusions, a vast number of conceits more or less pretty, and a very few poems of a religious cast, the enumeration is tolerably complete. But, as Mr. Chamberlain has observed, there are curious omissions. Sunsets and starry skies, for example, do not appear to have attracted attention. War-songs, strange to say, are almost wholly absent. Fighting and bloodshed are apparently not considered fit themes for poetry.

It is not only in its form and subject-matter that Japanese poetry is limited in its scope. The modern poet of Europe makes free use of the works of the Greek and Roman poets as models and as storehouses of poetic imagery. Much of his very language comes from the same source. But the poets of Japan have deliberately refrained from utilising in this way the only literature which was known to them. That their refinement of language and choice of subjects are in some measure due to an acquaintance with the ancient literature of China is hardly open to question, but they allow few outward signs of it to appear. Allusions to Chinese literature and history, although not wholly absent, are unfrequent, and the use of Chinese words is strictly tabooed in all poetry of the classical type. There was a substantial reason for this prohibition. The phonetic character of the two languages is quite different. Chinese is monosyllabic; Japanese as polysyllabic as English. A Chinese syllable has far more complication and variety than those of Japanese words. It may have diphthongs, combinations of consonants and final consonants, none of which are to be found in Japanese, where every syllable consists of a single vowel or of a single consonant followed by a single vowel. It is true that the Japanese, in adopting Chinese vocables, modify them to suit their own phonetic system. But the process of assimilation is incomplete. The two elements harmonise no better than brick and stone in the same building. It was most natural, therefore, for the Japanese to refuse these half-naturalised aliens admission to the sacred precincts of their national poetry, although by so doing they sacrificed much in fulness and variety of expression, and deprived themselves of a copious store of illustration and allusion to which their prose writers resort even too freely.

The acknowledged euphony and ease of pronunciation of the Japanese language is greatly owing to that property of the syllable which has just been described. Even a reader who knows no Japanese may appreciate the euphonic quality of the following:—

"Idete inaba
Nushi naki yado to
Narinu tomo
Nokiba no ume yo
Haru wo wasuruna."[1]

But it is at the same time a source of weakness. It makes smooth versification almost a matter of course, but it also renders impossible much variety or force of rhythm. The Japanese poet can hardly do otherwise than obey Pope's precept:—

"Then all your Muse's softer art display,
Let Carolina smooth the tuneful lay,
Lull with Amelia's liquid name the line."

The whole language is composed of words made up, like Carolina and Amelia, of syllables with open vowels preceded by single consonants or none. Nor is he under any temptation to

"Rend with tremendous sound your ears asunder
With gun, drum, trumpet, blunderbuss, and thunder."

His phonetic resources simply will not admit of it. Pope further advises that

"When loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse rough verse should like a torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours and the words move slow."

But it is vain for the Japanese poet to strive to adopt this counsel. With a language like the old Japanese it is only within the narrowest limits that it is possible to make the sound an echo to the sense. It is probably in some measure to the want of variety of rhythm which results from this quality that the preference of the national genius for short poems is due.

The mechanism of Japanese verse is simple in the extreme. Unlike Chinese, it has no rhyme, a want which is plainly owing to the nature of the Japanese syllable described above. As every syllable ends in a vowel, and as there are only five vowels, there could only be five rhymes, the constant reiteration of which would be intolerably monotonous.

In the Japanese poetical language all the vowels are of the same length, so that quantity, such as we find in the poetry of Greece and Rome, is unknown. Nor is there any regular succession of accented and unaccented syllables as in the poetry of modern Europe, the Japanese laying hardly any greater stress on one part of a word than on another. In short, the only thing in the mechanism of Japanese poetry which distinguishes it from prose is the alternation of phrases of five and seven syllables each. It is, in fact, a species of blank verse.

Some Japanese critics seem to think that the numbers five and seven were suggested by the Chinese Book of odes, where many of the poems consist of lines of five, and others of lines of seven syllables. This does not seem very probable.

The best known metre constructed on this principle is what is known as "Tanka" or "short poems." When poetry is spoken of in Japan it is usually this kind of verse which is meant. It consists of five phrases or lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables—31 syllables in all.[2] Each of these stanzas constitutes an entire poem. The Tanka is the most universal and characteristic of the various forms of poetry in Japan. The oldest examples date back to the seventh century, or possibly earlier. Ever since there has been a continual and copious stream of this kind of composition. Even at the present day the Mikado gives out themes at the New Year for his courtiers to show their skill upon, and the pages of the magazines give evidence that Tanka are still produced in considerable quantity.

It may be thought that in the compass of 31 syllables, and with the other limitations to which the poet in Japan is subject, nothing of much value can be the result. This, however, is far from being the case. Although no great qualities can be claimed for the Tanka, it must be admitted that the Japanese poets have made the most of their slender resources. It is wonderful what felicity of phrase, melody of versification, and true sentiment can be compressed within these narrow limits. In their way nothing can be more perfect than some of these little poems. They remind us of those tiny carvings known to us as Netsuke, in which exquisite skill of workmanship is displayed in fashioning figures an inch or two in height, or of those sketches where the Japanese artist has managed to produce a truly admirable effect by a few dexterous strokes of the brush.

Next to the Tanka, the most common kind of classical metre is the Naga-uta or "long poetry." The Naga-uta has the same alternation of five and seven syllable phrases, with an additional line of seven syllables at the end, as the Tanka, and only differs from it in having no limit in regard to length.

Some of the best poetry which Japan has produced is in this metre. But it has never been a great favourite, and after the Nara period was almost completely neglected, the preference of the national genius being evidently for the shorter kind of verse.

Notwithstanding the name, Naga-uta are by no means long poems. Few of them are nearly so long as "Locksley Hall," and the majority are effusions of a few dozen lines only.

A feature which strikingly distinguishes the Japanese poetic muse from that of Western nations is a certain lack of imaginative power. The Japanese are slow to endow inanimate objects with life. Shelley's "Cloud," for example, contains enough matter of this kind for many volumes of Japanese verse. Such lines as

"From my wings are shaken
The dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest
On their mother's breast
As she dances about the sun,"

would appear to them ridiculously overcharged with metaphor, if not absolutely unintelligible. Still more foreign to their genius is the personification of abstract qualities. Abstract words are comparatively few, and it does not occur to the Japanese poet (or painter) to represent Truth, Justice, and Faith as comely damsels in flowing robes, or to make Love a chubby naked boy with wings and a bow and arrows. Muses, Graces, Virtues, Furies—in short, the host of personifications without which Western poetry would be only a shadow of itself—have little counterpart in Japanese literature.

This impersonal habit of the Japanese mind is shared by them with other races of the Far East, notably China. It is not confined to poetry, or even to literature, but is profoundly characteristic of their whole mental attitude, showing itself in their grammar, which is most sparing of personal pronouns; in their art, which has no school of portrait-painting or monumental sculpture worth mentioning; in the late and imperfect development of the drama; and in their religious temper, with its strong bent towards rationalism, and its hazy recognition of a ruling personal power in the universe. To their minds things happen, rather than are done; the tides of fate are far more real to them than the strong will and the endeavour which wrestles with them. The significance of this fact in regard to the moral and psychological development of these races may be left to others to determine. It is sufficient here to note its influence on the literature, and especially on the poetry.

Some rhetorical devices which are peculiar to Japanese poetry require a brief notice. One of these is the Makura-Kotoba, or "pillow-word" as it is called, because it usually stands at the beginning of the verse, serving, as it were, as a pillow upon which it rests. The Makura-Kotoba is a stock conventional epithet prefixed to certain words something after the fashion of Homer's "swift-footed" Achilles or "many-fountained" Ida. These words are survivals from a very archaic stage of the language, and the meaning of some of them is now extremely doubtful, a circumstance which forms no obstacle whatever to their continued use. Others are still intelligible and appropriate enough, such as the "house-bird" cock, the "rain-enshrouded" Mount Mikasa, the "ever-firm" heaven, "morning-mist" thought-wandering. But even although a Makura-Kotoba may be sufficiently apt if it is rightly applied, some Japanese poets take a perverse pleasure in wresting it from its proper sense in a way which to us is nothing short of ludicrous. "Whale-catching," for example, may pass as an epithet of the sea. But what shall we say of the poet who uses it as a prefix to the inland sea of Ōmi, now called Lake Biwa, where, needless to observe, whales are an unknown phenomenon? "Creeper-clad" is well enough as an epithet of a rock, but it tries one's patience a little to find it applied to the province of Iwami, simply because Iwa means rock.

From the versifier's point of view the Makura-Kotoba is a very useful institution. It consists almost invariably of five syllables, and therefore supplies him without any trouble with a first line ready made, no unimportant consideration when the entire poem consists of only thirty-one syllables. These epithets are several hundreds in number, and are collected into dictionaries which serve the purpose of a Gradus ad Parnassum. They are most useful in a country where the composition of Tanka has been for centuries little more than a mere mechanic art.

Another trick of the Japanese poet is what Mr. Chamberlain[3] has aptly termed "pivot-words." In these a word or part of a word is used in two senses, one with what precedes, the other with what follows. Thackeray has something of the kind in The Newcomes, where he speaks of the tea-pot presented to Mr. Honeyman by the devotees attending his chapel as the "devotea-pot." Here the syllable "tea" is contrived a double debt to pay. It represents at the same time the final syllable of "devotee" and the first syllable of "tea-pot." Perhaps a better example is the following from Butler's Hudibras:—

"That old Pyg—what d'ye call him—malion,
Who cut his mistress out of stone,
Had not so hard a hearted one."

"What is this but a kind of pun?" the reader will not unnaturally say. Yet it would be hardly fair to stigmatise these jeux de mots as puns. They are meant not to provoke laughter, but as ornament, and the effect is sometimes not unpleasing.

At its best, however, the "pivot" word is an ornament of doubtful taste, and poets of the classical period indulge in this figure of speech but sparingly. More remains to be said of it when we come to the dramatists of a later age, who have used it in an extravagant, and, at least to us Europeans, exasperating manner.

Parallelism, or the correspondence between each word of two successive lines or clauses, noun for noun and verb for verb, is an occasional ornament of Japanese, as it is of Chinese poetry. It is familiar to us in the Psalms of David, and is a favourite with Longfellow, whose Hiawatha contains numerous such pairs of parallel lines, as—

"Filled the marshes full of wild-fowl,
Filled the river full of fishes."

Some Japanese examples of this figure will be found in the poems quoted on page 37.

Nara Poetry

While the eighth century has left us little or no prose literature of importance, it was emphatically the golden age of poetry. Japan had now outgrown the artless effusions described in a preceding chapter, and during this period produced a body of verse of an excellence which has never since been surpassed. The reader who expects to find this poetry of a nation just emerging from the barbaric stage of culture characterised by rude, untutored vigour, will be surprised to learn that, on the contrary, it is distinguished by polish rather than power. It is delicate in sentiment and refined in language, and displays exquisite skill of phrase with a careful adherence to certain canons of composition of its own.

The poetry of this and the following period was written by and for a very small section of the Japanese nation. The authors, many of them women, were either members of the Mikado's court, or officials temporarily stationed in the provinces, but looking to the capital as their home. We hear nothing of any popular poetry. On the other hand, the faculty of writing verse was universal among the higher classes. Nearly every educated man and woman could indite a Tanka upon occasion. There were no voluminous writers. It was not the custom to publish the poems of individual authors separately. Had it been so, very thin volumes indeed would have been the result. Collections were made at intervals by Imperial authority, in which the choice poems of the preceding period were brought together, and if twenty or thirty Tanka of one poet found a place there, it was sufficient to give him or her a distinguished position among the multitude of contributors.

The poetry of the Nara period has been preserved to us in one of these anthologies, known as the Manyōshiu, or "Collection of One Thousand Leaves." According to the usual account, it was completed early in the ninth century. The poems contained in it belong chiefly to the latter half of the seventh and the first half of the eighth century of the Christian era, and cover a period of about 130 years. They are classified as follows: poems of the four seasons; poems of the affections; elegiac, allegorical, and miscellaneous poems. They number in all more than 4000 pieces, of which the great majority are Tanka, or short poems of thirty-one syllables. The remainder are for the most part Naga-uta or so-called "long poems." As for the authors, their name is legion. Among them, however, two poets stand out with some degree of eminence—viz., Hitomaro and Akahito. The former flourished at the end of the seventh century, the latter in the reign of Shōmu (724–756). Little is known of either, further than that they were officials of the Mikado's court, and attended him on some of his progresses through the provinces.

The Riakuge edition of the Manyōshiu in thirty volumes, which was formerly the best, has now been totally eclipsed and superseded by the magnificent Manyōshiu Kogi, recently published under official auspices. It extends to 122 volumes, and contains everything (and more) in the way of commentary and indexes that the most ardent student can desire. The print is admirable, and the text a great improvement on that of the Riakuge edition.

The following translations, inadequate as they are, may help to give some idea of the character of the Manyōshiu poetry. The first specimen is by Hitomaro. It is an elegy on Prince Hinami, son of the Mikado Temmu, who died A.D. 687, before succeeding to the throne.

The poet begins by relating the appointment, at a council of the gods, of the deity Ninigi no Mikoto as the first divine sovereign of Japan. In the second part allusion is made to the death of the late Mikado; while in the third the poet gives expression to the disappointment of the nation that Prince Hinami did not live to succeed him, and laments the loneliness of his tomb, which he represents as a palace where the Prince dwells in silence and solitude.

"When began the earth and heaven,
By the margin of the River
Of the firmament eternal,
Met the Gods in high assembly,
Met the gods and held high counsel,
Myriads upon myriads gathered.
Then to each high charge was given;
On the Goddess of the Sunlight,
Her who fills the sky with radiance,
They bestowed the realm of Heaven.
To her grandchild they delivered
This, the land of Ashihara,
This, the land of fairest rice-ears,
His with god-like sway to govern,
Long as heaven and earth endurèd.
Downward sped, he swept asunder
Heaven's clouds, the many-pilèd,
Earthward gloriously descending.

In the Palace of Kiyomi,
The great seat of power Imperial,
God-like ruled his true descendant,
The august High-shining-sun-Prince,
Till he rose on high divinely,
Flinging wide the gates eternal
On the plain of heaven that open.

Mighty Prince, if thou hadst deignèd
This sublunar world to govern,
Thou hadst been to all thy people
Dear as are the flowers in spring-time,
As the full moon, soul-contenting.
As in a great ship the seaman,
So our trust in thee we rested;

As the welcome rain from heaven,
All the nation did await thee.
Thou hast chosen—why we know not—
By the hill of lone Mayumi
There to raise the massy pillars,
There to build a lofty palace,
But at morn thy voice is heard not;
Months and days have passed in silence,
Till thy servants, sad and weary,
Have departed, none knows whither."

The next specimen is also by Hitomaro. It is an elegy on a lady of the court.

"In her face were the tints of the autumn woods,
Buxom was her form as the graceful bamboo.
Unknown to us are her thoughts of the future;
We hoped for her a cable-long life,
Not transitory like the dew which falls at morn
And vanishes before evening,
Or the mist which rises at even
And is dispersed in the morning.
Even we, who knew her by report—
We, who had seen her but by glimpses,
Are filled with deep regret.
What then must be the sorrow
Of her youthful spouse
Who shared her couch—
Their white arms interlaced for pillows?
Desolate indeed must be his thoughts as he lies down,
Despairing must be his longings for her.
Ah me! she who has passed away from us
By so untimely a fate,
Did indeed resemble the morning dews
Or the mists of evening."

The following illustrates the Japanese poet's use of parallelism. It is dated A.D. 744.

"By the Palace of Futagi,
Where our great king
And divine lord
Holds high rule,

Gentle is the rise of the hills,
Bearing hundreds of trees;
Pleasant is the murmur of the rapids
As downward they rush.

So long as in the spring-time
(When the nightingale comes and sings)
On the rocks
Brocade-like flowers blossom,
Brightening the mountain-foot;
So long as in the autumn
(When the stag calls to his mate)
The red leaves fall hither and thither,
Wounded by the showers,
The heaven be-clouding—

For many thousand years
May his life be prolonged,
To rule over all under heaven
In the great palace
Destined to remain unchanged
For hundreds of ages."

In Praise of Japan

"The land of Yamato
Has mountains in numbers,
But peerless among them
Is high Kaguyama.
I stand on its summit
My kingdom to view.
The smoke from the land-plain
Thick rises in air,
The gulls from the sea-plain
By fits soar aloft.
O land of Yamato!
Fair Akitsushima!
Dear art thou to me."

The Legend of Urashima

This is one of the most ancient and popular of Japanese legends. In its original version it is much older than the Manyōshiu.

"On a hazy day in spring
I went forth and stood upon the beach of Suminoye;
And as I watched the fishing-boats rock to and fro,
I bethought me of the tale of old,
How Urashima of Midzunoye,
Proud of his skill in catching the bonito and the tai,
Did not return even for seven days,
But rowed on beyond the bounds of ocean,[4]
Where with a daughter of the Sea God
It was his fortune to meet as he rowed onwards.
When, after mutual courtship, they had come to an understanding,
They plighted their troths, and went to the immortal land.
Hand in hand they two entered
Into a stately mansion within the precincts
Of the Palace of the Sea God.
Here he might have dwelt for ever,
Never growing old, and never dying.
But the foolish man of this world
Thus addressed his spouse:
'For a little while I would return home
And speak to my father and my mother;
To-morrow I will come again.'
Thus he spake, and his wife replied:
'If thou art to return again to the immortal land
And live with me as now,
Beware how thou openest this casket.'
Strongly did she enjoin this on him.
But having returned to Suminoye,
Though he looked for his house, no house could he see;
Though he looked for the village, no village could he see.
Wondering at this, the thought occurred to him:
'In the space of three years, since I left my home,

Can my home have vanished, leaving not even the fence?
Were I now to open this casket,
Might it not appear as before?'
So saying, he opened a little the precious casket,
Whereupon a white cloud issued from it
And spread away towards the immortal land.
He ran, he shouted, he waved his sleeves,
He writhed upon the earth, and ground his feet together.
Of a sudden his heart melted away;
Wrinkles covered his body, that had been so youthful;
His hair, that had been so black, became white.
By-and-by his breath also failed;
At last his life departed.
And, lo! here once stood the cottage
Of Urashima of Midzunoye."

Like most Naga-uta, the above is followed by a thirty-one syllable poem known as a Hanka. The Hanka sometimes echoes the principal idea of the poem which precedes, and is at others employed as a sort of poetical save-all to utilise any stray scrap of thought or imagery which it may not have been convenient to include in the principal poem. Some Naga-uta have several Hanka appended to them.


"In the immortal land
He might have gone on to dwell;
But by his nature
How dull was he, this wight!"

The authors of the two following lyrics are unnamed.

Mount Fuji (Fujiyama)

"Where on the one hand is the province of Kai,
And on the other the land of Suruga,
Right in the midst between them
Stands out the high peak of Fuji.
The very clouds of heaven dread to approach it;
Even the soaring birds reach not its summit in their flight.

Its burning fire is quenched by the snow;
The snow that falls is melted by the fire.
No words may tell of it, no name know I that is fit for it,
But a wondrous deity it surely is!
That lake we call the Sea of Se
Is contained within it;
That river which men, as they cross it, call the Fuji
Is the water which flows down from it;
Of Yamato, the Land of Sunrise,
It is the peace-giver, it is the god, it is the treasure.
On the peak of Fuji, in the land of Suruga,
I never weary of gazing."


The following is exceptional, as giving a glimpse of the condition of the poorer classes. It contains lines in which Buddhist influence is traceable.

"'Tis night: mingled with the storm the rain is falling;
Mingled with the rain the snow is falling.
So cold am I, I know not what to do.
I take up and suck coarse salt [fish?]
And sip a brew of saké dregs;
I cough, I sneeze and sneeze, I cannot help it.
I may stroke my beard, and think proudly to myself,
Who is there like me?
But so cold am I, I pull over me the hempen coverlet,
And huddle upon me all the nuno cloaks I have got.

Yet even this chilly night
Are there not others still poorer,
Whose parents are starving of cold and hunger,
Whose wife and children are begging their food with tears?

(The poet fancies himself addressing such a person.)
'At such a time how do you pass your days?'

'Heaven and earth are wide, but for me they have become narrow;
The sun and moon are bright, but for me they yield no radiance.

Is it so with all men, or with me alone?
Born a man by the rarest of chances,
I am made in human shape like another,
Yet on my shoulders I wear a nuno cloak void of padding,
Which hangs down in tatters like seaweed—
A mere mass of rags.
Within my hut, twisted out of shape,
Straw is strewn on the bare floor of earth.
Father and mother at my pillow,
Wife and children at my feet,
Gather round me weeping and wailing,
With voices as from the throat of the nuye bird.
For no smoke rises from the kitchen furnace,
In the pot spiders have hung their webs,
The very art of cooking is forgotten.
To crown all—cutting off the end, as the proverb has it,
Of a thing that is too short already—
Comes the head man of the village with his rod,
His summons [to forced labour] penetrates to my sleeping-place.
Such helpless misery is but the way of the world.'"

It is characteristic of the difference between the Japanese and English languages, that this poem in the original contains only seven personal (including possessive and relative) pronouns.

Some Tanka

No Edward FitzGerald has yet come to give us an English metrical version of the best Tanka of the Manyōshiu and Kokinshiu. A prose rendering must serve in the meantime. The translations correspond mostly line for line to the original.

The following are ten of a set of thirteen Tanka composed in praise of saké by Ōtomo-no-Yakamochi (died 785), after Hitomaro and Akahito, the most distinguished poet of his day. This is not a very common theme of the Japanese poet, and its choice is probably due to Chinese influence.

"Ah! how true was that saying
Of the great sage
Of the times of old,
Who gave to saké
The name of 'Sage.' "

"It was saké
That was the thing most loved,
Even by the seven wise men
Of the days of old."

"Better than talk
That would be wise,
Were it even to drink saké
Until you weep tears
Of drunkenness."

"More than I can say,
More than I can do to show it,
An exceeding noble thing
Is saké."

"If it turned out
That I were aught else but man,
I would be
A saké-jar,
For then I should get soaked."

"Hateful in my eyes
Is the sententious prig
Who will not drink saké.
When I look on such a one
I find him to resemble an ape."[5]

"Talk of priceless treasures!
Can they be more precious
Than a single cup
Of thick saké?"

"Talk of jewels
Which shine by night!
Can they give so much pleasure
As drinking saké
To drive away one's care?"

"Many are the ways
Of this world's pleasures;
But none to my mind
Is like that of getting mellow,
Even to tears."

"So long as in this world
I have my pleasure,
In the future existence
What care I though I become
An insect or a bird?"

Spring is a more favourite subject. The following are by various authors:—

"On the plum blossoms
Thick fell the snow;
I wished to gather some
To show to thee,
But it melted in my hands."

"The plum blossoms
Had already been scattered,
But notwithstanding
The white snow
Has fallen deep in the garden."

"Among the hills
The snow still lies—
But the willows
Where the torrents rush together
Are in full bud."

"O thou willow
That I see every morn,
Hasten to become a thick grove
Whereto the nightingale[6]
May resort and sing."

"Before the wind of spring
Has tangled the fine threads
Of the green willow—
Now, I would show it
To my love."

"The time of the cherry blossoms
Is not yet past—
Yet now they ought to fall
Whilst the love of those who look on them
Is at its height."

"Fall gently
O thou rain of spring!
And scatter not
The cherry flowers
Until I have seen them."

"When I went out
Over the moor,
Where the haze was rising,
The nightingale sang;
Spring, it seems, has come."

"My days pass in longing,
And my heart melts
Like the hoar-frost
On the water-plants
When spring has come."

"In yearning love
I have endured till night.
But to-morrow's long spring day
With its rising mists,
How shall I ever pass it?"

"My love is thick
As the herbage in spring,
It is manifold as the waves
That heap themselves on the shore
Of the great ocean."

"No more will I plant for thee
Tall trees
O cuckoo![7]
Thou comest, and with thy resounding cry
Dost increase my yearnings."

"This morn at dawn
The cuckoo's cry I heard.
Didst thou hear it, my lord,
Or wast thou still asleep?"

"I will plant for thee
A whole grove of orange-trees,
O thou cuckoo!
Where thou mayst always dwell
Even until the winter."

"It is dawn;
I cannot sleep for thoughts of her I love.
What is to be done
With this cuckoo
That goes on singing?"

"Were only thy hand
Lying in mine,
What matter though men's words
Were copious as the herbage
Of the summer meads."

"Since we are such things
That if we are born
We must some day die,
So long as this life lasts
Let us enjoy ourselves."

"To what shall I compare
This life of ours?
It is like a boat
Which at daybreak rows away
And leaves no trace behind it."[8]

"I would go to some land
Where no cuckoos are,
I am so melancholy
When I hear
Their note."

"The rippling[9] wistaria
That I planted by my house
As a memento
Of thee whom I love,
Is at length in blossom."

"When the cuckoo sang,
Straightway I drove him off,
Bidding him go to you.
I wonder did he reach you?"

"Go, thou cuckoo,
And tell my lord,
Who is too busy
To come to see me,
How much I love him."

"Granted that I
Am hateful to you,
But the flowering orange,
That grows by my dwelling,
Will you really not come to see it?"

"I wear no clothing
Drenched with dew
From wending my way through the summer herbage;
But yet the sleeve of my garment
Is never for a moment dry [from tears]."

"'Tis the sixth month,
The sun is shining,
So that the very ground is cracked;
But even so, how shall my sleeve become dry
If I never meet thee?"

"On the spring moor
To gather violets
I went forth;
Its charm so held me
That I stayed[10] till morn."

"Oh! the misery of loving,
Hidden from the world
Like a maiden-lily
Growing amid the thick herbage
Of the summer plain!"

"The sky is a sea
Where the cloud-billows rise;
And the moon is a bark;
To the groves of the stars
It is oaring its way."

"Oh! that the white waves far out
On the sea of Ise
Were but flowers,
That I might gather them
And bring them as a gift to my love!"
Prince Aki, a.d. 740.

Although the Nihongi,[11] being in the Chinese language, does not fall within the proper scope of this work, it occupies so conspicuous a position among books written in Japan, that it deserves a passing notice. In it we have a collection of the national myths, legends, poetry, and history from the earliest times down to A.D. 697, prepared under official auspices and completed A.D. 720. It is the first of a long series of official histories in Chinese. They are for the most part dreary compilations in which none but students of history, anthropology, and kindred subjects are likely to take much interest. The writers were content to record events in their chronological sequence from month to month and from day to day, without any attempt to trace the connection between them or to speculate upon their causes. The attention to Chinese composition and studies, which the use of this language necessitated, had, however, some important effects. It served to engross the attention of the men, the cultivation of the native literature being left in a great measure to the women, and it helped to familiarise the Japanese with better models of style than they could find in their own country.

  1. The initial i of inaba is elided. Translation:—

    "When I am gone away,
    Masterless my dwelling
    Though it become—
    Oh! plum tree by the eaves,
    Forget not thou the spring."

  2. See specimen on page 27.
  3. In his Classical Poetry of the Japanese.
  4. The horizon.
  5. The official edition of the Manyōshiu has bestowed eight pages of commentary on this last stanza.
  6. The bird which it is necessary in an English translation to call the nightingale is not our songster, but an allied species, the Uguisu or Cettia cantans. It is not without some resemblance to the English bird, being of the same size, and of a plain greyish colour. Its habits are not specially nocturnal, but when singing it seeks the deepest shade of a bush or thicket, a condition which the Japanese simulate by covering its cage with paper so as to produce an artificial gloom. The repertory of the Uguisu is by no means so varied as that of the nightingale, but for liquid melody of note it is unsurpassed by any songster whatever. Its brief melodious utterances are no inapt emblem of the national poetry.
  7. The Japanese have quite different associations with the cuckoo from ourselves. They hear in its cry the longings of unsatisfied love. It is true that it is not the same bird as ours, but an allied species with a different note. Its name (in Japanese, Hototogisu) is onomatopoetic.
  8. The sentiment of this poem is Buddhist. The transitoriness of life is a constant refrain all through Japanese literature.
  9. The flowers are supposed to resemble waves.
  10. No doubt to be understood metaphorically of a visit to his love.
  11. Translated by W. G. Aston in the Transactions of the Japan Society, 1896.