Book: A Hundred Verses from Old Japan
Author: William N. Porter

A Hundred Verses from Old Japan By William N. Porter

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 133
Publication Date: 1909

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This is a collection of 100 specimens of Japanese Tanka poetry collected in the 13th Century C.E., with some of the poems dating back to the 7th Centry. These little gems are on themes such as nature, the round of the seasons, the impermanence of life, and the vicissitudes of love. There are obvious Buddhist and Shinto influences throughout. Porter's notes put the poems into a cultural and historical context.

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THE Hyaku-nin-isshiu, or 'Single Verses by a Hundred People', were collected together in A.D. 1235 by Sadaiye Fujiwara, who included as his own contribution verse No. 97. They are placed in approximately chronological order, and range from about the year 670 to the year of compilation. The Japanese devote themselves to poetry very much more than we do; and there is hardly a home in Japan, however humble, where these verses, or at least some of them, are not known. They are, and have been for many years, used also in connexion with a game of cards, in which the skill consists in fitting parts of the different verses together.

Japanese poetry differs very largely from anything we are used to; it has no rhyme or alliteration, and little, if any, rhythm, as we understand it. The verses in this Collection are all what are called Tanka, which was for many years the only form of verse known to the Japanese. A tanka verse has five lines and thirty-one syllables, arranged thus:

5-7-5-7-7 as this is an unusual metre in our ears, I have adopted for the translation a five-lined verse of 8-6-8-6-6 metre, with the second, fourth, and fifth lines rhyming, in the hope of retaining at least some resemblance to the original form, while making the sound more familiar to English readers.

I may perhaps insert here, as an example, the following well-known tanka verse, which does not appear in the Hyaku-nin-isshiu collection:—

Idete inaba
Nushinaki yado to
Narinu tomo
Nokiba no ume yo
Haru wo wasuruna.

Though masterless my home appear,
When I have gone away,
Oh plum tree growing by the caves,
Forget not to display
Thy buds in spring, I pray.

This was written by Sanetomo Minamoto on the morning of the day he was murdered at Kamakura, as related in the note to verse No. 93.

It is necessarily impossible in a translation of this kind to adhere at all literally to the text; more especially as Japanese poetry abounds in all sorts of puns, plays upon words, and alternative meanings, which cannot be rendered into English. For example, a favourite device with Japanese verse-writers is to introduce what Professor Chamberlain calls a 'pivot-word', which they consider adds an elegant touch to the composition. An instance of this will be found in verse No. 16, where the word matsu, though only appearing once, must be understood twice with its two different meanings. It is almost as if we should say, 'Sympathy is what I needless to say I never get it.' Other peculiarities of Japanese verse, as Professor Chamberlain points out, are the 'pillow-word', or recognized conventional epithet (see verse No. 17), and the 'preface', where the first two or three lines appear to have only the slightest connexion with the main idea, and simply serve as an introduction (see verse No. 27).

The Hyaku-nin-isshiu, like all Japanese classical poetry, contains no Chinese words, such as are so extensively introduced into the modern spoken language; it consists of poetical ideas clothed in poetical language, compressed within the regulation metre, embellished with various elegant word-plays, and is absolutely free from any trace of vulgarity. In the old days it was only the nobles, court officials, and church dignitaries, who wrote verses; or at all events only their verses have been handed down to our time, and the lower classes were not supposed to know anything at all about the art.

Thus, it is related that long ago Prince Ota Dokwan was hunting with his retinue on the mountains; and, a storm of rain coming on, he stopped at a mountain inn, to request the loan of a rain-coat; a girl came at his call, and retired into the hut, coming back again in a few minutes looking rather confused, and without saying a word she humbly presented the Prince with a yamabuki blossom (a kind of yellow rose) on an outstretched fan. The Prince, much incensed at being trifled with like this, turned on his heel, and went off in high dudgeon; until one of his attendants reminded him of a well-known verse, which runs:—

Nanae yae
Hana wa sake domo
Yamabuki no
Mi no hitotsu dani
Naka zo kanashiki.

The yamabuki blossom has
A wealth of petals gay ;
But yet in spite of this, alas
I much regret to say,
No seed can it display.

The words as printed in the last couplet mean, 'I am very sorry that it has not a single seed; but, if mino is taken as one word, it would mean, 'I am very sorry that (the yamabuki, i.e. herself, the mountain flower) has not any rain-coat'. And this was the maiden's delicate apology. The Prince, we are told, was astonished to find such culture and learning in a peasant girl!
Perhaps what strikes one most in connexion with the Hyaku-nin-isshiu is the date when the verses were written; most of them were produced before the time of the Norman Conquest, and one cannot but be struck with the advanced state of art and culture in Japan at a time when England was still in a very elementary stage of civilization.
The Collection, as will be seen, consists almost entirely of love-poems and what I may call picture-poems, intended to bring before the mind's eye some well-known scene in nature; and it is marvellous what effect little thumbnail sketches are compressed within thirty-one syllables, however crude and faulty the translation may be; for instance, verses Nos. 79, 87, and 98. But the predominating feature, the undercurrent that runs through them all, is a touch of pathos, which is characteristic of the Japanese.