A History of Japanese Literature/Book 3/Chapter 2

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For seventy or eighty years after the establishment of the capital at Heian or Kiōto, Chinese learning monopolised the attention of the nation. No prose writings of importance in the Japanese language have come down to us from this period. The native poetry also languished. Chinese verse composition was the fashion, Mikados and even princesses being numbered among the adepts in this accomplishment. The end of the ninth century, however, saw a revival of Japanese poetry. We now meet with the names of Yukihira, Narihira, Ōtomo no Kuronushi, and others, followed in the early part of the tenth by Ki no Tsurayuki, Ōshi Kōji, Henjō, and Ono no Komachi (a poetess).

In A.D. 905 the Mikado Daigo instructed a committee of officials of the Department of Japanese Poetry, consisting of Ki no Tsurayuki and other poets, to make a collection of the best pieces which had been produced during the previous one hundred and fifty years. The Anthology known as the Kokinshiu (Poems, Ancient and Modern) was the result of their labours. It was completed about 922, and contains over eleven hundred poems, arranged under the headings of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Felicitations, Partings, Journeys, Names of Things, Love, Sorrow, and Miscellaneous. Only five of this number are in the longer metre called Naga-uta, the rest being Tanka of thirty-one syllables, with a few in somewhat similar short metres.

The neglect of the Naga-uta for the Tanka which is indicated by these figures was no passing phase of Japanese poetry. It has continued up to our own day, with fatal consequences, and has been a bar to all real progress in the poetic art. How a nation which possessed in the Naga-uta an instrument not unfitted, as there are examples to show, for the production of narrative, elegiac, and other poems, could practically confine itself for many centuries to a form of poetic expression within whose narrow limits nothing more substantial than aphorisms, epigrams, conceits, or brief exclamations can be contained, is a question which it is more easy to ask than to answer.

Much of the poetry of this time was the outcome of poetical tournaments, at which themes were proposed to the competitors by judges who examined each phrase and word with the minutest critical care before pronouncing their verdict. As might be expected, the poetry produced under these circumstances is of a more or less artificial type, and is wanting in the spontaneous vigour of the earlier essays of the Japanese muse. Conceits, acrostics, and untranslatable word-plays hold much too prominent a place; but for perfection of form, the poems of this time are unrivalled. It is no doubt to this quality that the great popularity of this collection is due. Sei Shōnagon, writing in the early years of the eleventh century, sums up a young lady's education as consisting of writing, music, and the twenty volumes of the Kokinshiu. Subsequent poetry is evidently modelled on it rather than on the more archaic poems of the Manyōshiu. Even at the present day the Kokinshiu is the best known and most universally studied of all the numerous anthologies of Japanese poetry.


"Who could it have been
That first gave love
This name?
'Dying' is the plain word
He might well have used."

Neatly rendered by Mr. Chamberlain:—

"O love! who gave thee thy superfluous name?
Loving and dying—is it not the same?"

The personification of love, however, is hardly in the Japanese style.

"Do I forget thee
Even for so brief a space
As the ears of grain
On the fields of autumn
Are lit up by the lightning's glare?"

"I fell asleep while thinking of thee;
Perchance for this reason
I saw thee in a dream!
Had I only known it to be one
I would not have awaked."

"Shall we call that only a dream
Which we see
While asleep:
This vain world itself
I cannot regard as a reality."

"I know that my life
Has no assurance of to-morrow;
But to-day,
So long as darkness has not yet fallen,
I will grieve for him who has passed away."

"O thou cuckoo
Of the ancient capital
Of Iso no Kami! [Nara]
Thy voice alone
Is all that is left of the olden time."

Tsurayuki, having met with a cool reception at his native place, plucks a branch of flowering plum, and exclaims—

"Its people? Ah well!
I know not their hearts,
But in my native place
The flowers with their ancient
Fragrance are odorous."

"The hue of the flowers
Mingles with the snow,
So that it cannot be seen;
But their presence may be known
Were it only by the perfume."

"I came and found thee not:
Wetter far is my sleeve
Than if I had threaded my way at morn
Through the bamboo-grass
Of the autumn plain."

"This night of spring,
Of formless gloom,
The colour of the plum-flowers
Cannot, indeed, be seen;
But how can their perfume be hidden?"

"What is it that makes me feel so desolate
This evening
While I wait
For one who comes not?
Can it be the blowing of the [chill] autumn wind?"

"I would that thy heart
Were melted unto me,
As when spring comes
The ice thaws away
And leaves no remainder."

"For many a year
The fire in me of love
Has not been quenched,
Yet my frozen sleeve [soaked with tears]
Is still unthawed."

"It is I alone
Who am most miserable,
For no year passes
In which even the 'Cow-herd'
Does not meet his love."

There is here an allusion to the Chinese story, according to which the Cow-herd, one of a group of stars near the River of Heaven (the Milky Way), is the lover of a star on the other side called the Spinster. They are separated all the year round except on the seventh day of the seventh month, when magpies bridge over the River of Heaven, so as to allow the pair to meet. Both Chinese and Japanese poetry contain numberless allusions to this legend.

The most convenient of the many editions of the Kokinshiu is Motoöri's Tō-Kagami. It contains a modern colloquial paraphrase of the original.