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The Master-Singers of Japan
Clara A. Walsh
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Pages (PDF): 77
Publication Date: 1910
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This is a selection of Japanese classical poetry, including the classical Tanka form, translated as part of the Wisdom of the East Series. The author includes numerous poems from such works as the Maniyoshu, plus several more modern compositions such as the Japanese National Anthem.
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IN times when everything relating to the history and literature of Japan has become of such vivid interest to the people of this allied Island-Empire, these attempted renderings into English of well-known Japanese poems may prove acceptable, especially to those who may not have time or opportunity to study the works of great Oriental scholars. The dainty grace and beauty of the original poems, with their impressionist word-pictures, are unfortunately easily lost in the endeavour to "English" them. It is scarcely possible to convey the full meaning of the shorter poems to English readers, without elaboration of the original theme, when at once they cease to be "Japanesque"; just as the unerring instinct and delicate harmonies of Japanese bird and flower paintings would be ruined by over-elaboration of details. Mr. Stewart-Dick has well said, "In art, the European requires that everything should be stated with the utmost fulness of a tedious realism, before he can grasp its meaning, but to the more cultured Japanese a mere hint or slight suggestion is sufficient." The majority of Japanese poems are little odes of five lines, of thirty-one syllables; some "Hokku" contain but seventeen. There are, of course, some of greater length, such as the "Naga Uta"—Long Lays of the Manyôshiu. Wherever possible I have tried to give as literal a rendering as I could, but here and there an additional line has seemed necessary in order to convey the meaning to readers unacquainted with the original. Most of the earlier poems in the book are taken from the Manyôshiu, or "myriad leaves collection," an anthology of verse (to quote Mr. Dickins) "wholly Japanese in diction and phrasing . . . and exhibiting almost the oldest, perhaps the truest, certainly the most pleasing portraiture extant of the Japanese world in its archaic age." The exact date of its compilation is matter of controversy, some writers contending that it was compiled by Yakamochi (who died A.D. 785); others claim that Mōroye (died 767) commenced the task, which was completed by Yakamochi. The dates of the Lays range from. about A.D. 347 to 759, a period of over four hundred years. Some of the Lays appear to be elaborations of still earlier poems, found in the Kojiki, or Ancient Annals, A.D. 712, containing the mythology and primitive history of the nation. The following, from its pages, is said to be the oldest poem in Japanese language—the version is that of Mr. Dickins:
Lay attributed to the God of Eight Thousand Spears
Of spears countless, His Majesty the God,
In all wide Yashima He sought, but found no spouse.
In far-off Koshi, a virtuous damsel dwelt,
So heard the God—So went He, her well wooing,
His glaive in belt still girded, His veil unloosed.
"And here I stand," quoth He, her door to open!
The while the owl-bird screameth, the green hills midmost,
And moorland pheasant echoeth, and nigh her dwelling,
The cock too, loud be croweth!
I would these birds all
Would stop scream, call and crow,
These fowls too wretched
That fill the air with rumor!
Japanese poetry is wanting in narrative poems; even ballads are few and far between; political and (strange to say in so soldierly a race) war songs are mostly absent. Emotional poems and those dealing with the various aspects of nature form the majority, and except for the "Wasau" or Buddhist hymns, there are few of an exclusively religious character. The Nara period—eighth century—was the Golden Age of Japanese Poetry. Among the higher classes, the art of verse-writing was universally cultivated. The poetry of the Nation was, however, almost exclusively written by, and for, the Court and officials; hence the subjects of many of the Lays, such as the journeyings of the Court to different capitals, elegies on the deaths of Royal Personages, love incidents of lords and ladies of the Court, the sending of officials to distant march-lands, etc.
Among the poets of this period stand conspicuous the "twin stars of Japanese poetry," Hitómaro and Akáhito, whose rival claims to supremacy are even yet undecided. There is a pretty story of the former told by Mr. Chamberlain of a warrior, Ayabe, who found a child of more than mortal beauty under a persimmon tree. Asked who he was, the child replied, "No father or mother have I, but the moon and winds obey me, and in poetry I find my joy." The boy was adopted, and became Kakinomoto (under the persimmon tree) no Asomi, Hitómaro, prince of Japanese poets. Scarcely less distinguished is Omi Okura, whose verses breathe a sturdy loyalty, perhaps tinged with the practical common sense of Confucianism, yet at the same time often echoing the higher sentiments of Buddhism. Then Yakamochi, compiler of the anthology of which his own charming and polished verse forms a most attractive part, and whose poetical correspondence with his friend Ikenushi gives us a delightful glimpse into the life and literature of Court and official life in the eighth century. In the Fujiwara and Nara periods Confucianism and Buddhism became ruling influences in Japan, yet, with very few exceptions, there is little trace of the influence of either in the Manyôshiu. Not until much later do we find in the shorter poems or "Tanka" allusions to the impermanence of life, the vanity of egoistic desires, etc., as in the poems of Saigyō and Chōmei.
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