SOME FOREIGN POEMS ON JAPANESE SUBJECTS
from "Interpretations of Literature"

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THE western poet and writer of romance has exactly the same kind of difficulty in comprehending eastern subjects as you have in comprehending western subjects. You will commonly find references to Japanese love poems of the popular kind, made in such a way as to indicate the writer's belief that such poems refer to married life or at least to a courtship relation. No western writer who has not lived for many years in the East, could write correctly about anything on this subject; and even after a long stay in the country he might be unable to understand. Therefore a great deal of western poetry written about Japan must seem to you all wrong, and I can not hope to offer you many specimens of work in this direction that could deserve your praise. Yet there is some poetry so fine on the subject of Japan that I think you would admire it and I am sure that you should know it. A proof of really great art is that it is generally true --- it seldom falls into the misapprehensions to which minor art is liable. What do you think of the fact that the finest poetry ever written upon a Japanese subject by any western poet, has been written by a man who never saw the land? But he is a member of the French Academy, a great and true lover of art, and without a living superior in that most difficult form of poetry, the sonnet. In the time of thirty years he produced only one very small volume of sonnets, but so fine are these that they were lifted to the very highest place in poetical distinction. I may say that there are now only three really great French poets --- survivals of the grand romantic school. These are Leconte de Lisle, Sully-Prudhomme, and José Maria de Heredia. It is the last of whom I am speaking. As you can tell by his name, he is not a Frenchman either by birth or blood, but a Spaniard, or rather a Spanish Creole, born in Cuba. Heredia knows Japan only through pictures, armour, objects of art in museums, paintings and carvings. Remembering this, I think that you will find that he does wonderfully well. It is true that he puts a woman in one of his pictures, but I think that his management of his subject is very much nearer the truth than that of almost any writer who has attempted to describe old Japan. And you must understand that the following sonnet is essentially intended to be a picture --- to produce upon the mind exactly the same effect that a picture does, with the addition of such life as poetry can give.

LE SAMOURAI
D'un doigt distrait frôlant la sonore bîva,
A travers les bambous tresses en fine latte,
Elle a vu, par la plage éblouissante et plate,
S'avancer le vainqueur que son amour rêva.
"Lightly touching her biva with heedless finger, she has perceived through the finely woven bamboo screen, the conqueror, lovingly thought of, approach over the dazzling level of the beach.
C'est lui. Sabres au flanc, l'éventail haut, il va.
La cordelière rouge et le gland écarlate
Coupent l'armure sombre, et, sur l'épaule, éclate
Le blazon de Hizen ou de Tokungawa.
"It is he. With his swords at his side he advances, holding up his fan. The red girdle and the scarlet tassel appear in sharply cut relief against the dark armour; and upon his shoulder glitters a crest of Hizen or of Tokugawa.
Ce beau guerrier vêtu de lames et de plaques,
Sous le bronze, la soie, et les brillantes laques,
Semble un crustacé noir, gigantesque et vermeil.
"This handsome warrior sheathed with his scales and plates of metal, under his bronze, his silk and glimmering lacquer, seems a crustacean, gigantic, black and vermilion.
Il l'a vue. Il sourit dans in barbe du masque,
Et son pas plus hâtif fait reluire au soleil
Les deux antennes d'or qui tremblent à son casque.
"He has caught sight of her. Under the beaver of the war mask he smiles, and his quickened step makes to glitter in the sun the two antenna of gold that quiver upon his helmet."

The comparison of a warrior in full armour to a gigantic crab or lobster, especially lobster, is not exactly new. Victor Hugo has used it before in French literature, just as Carlyle has used it in English literature; indeed the image could not fail to occur to the artist in any country where the study of armour has been carried on. But here the poet does not speak of any particular creature; he uses only the generic term, crustacean, the vagueness of which makes the comparison much more effective. I think you can see the whole picture at once. It is a Japanese colour-print, --- some ancient interior, lighted by the sun of a great summer day; and a woman looking through a bamboo blind toward the shore, where she sees a warrior approaching. He divines that he is seen; but if he smiles, it is only because the smile is hidden by his iron mask. The only sign of any sentiment on his part is that he walks a little quicker. Still more amazing is a companion picture, containing only a solitary figure:

LE DAIMIO (Matin de bataille)
Sous le noir fouet de guerre a quadruple pompon,
L'étalon belliqueux en hennissant se cabre,
Et fait bruire, avec de cliquetis de sabre,
La cuirasse de bronze aux lames du jupon.
"Under the black war whip with its quadruple pompon the fierce stallion, whinnying, curvets, and makes the rider's bronze cuirasse ring against the plates of his shirt of mail, with a sound like the clashing of sword blades.
Le Chef vêtu d'airain, de laque et de crépon.
Otant le masque a poils de son visage glabre,
Regarde le voican sur un ciel de cinabre
Dresser la neige où rit l'aurore de Nippon.
"The Chief, clad in bronze and lacquer and silken crape, removing the bearded masque from his beardless face, turns his gaze to the great volcano, lifting its snows into the cinnabar sky where the dawn of Nippon begins to smile.
Mais il a vu, vers l'Est éclabussé d'or, l'astre,
Glorieux d'eclairer ce matin de désastre,
Poindre, orbe éblouissant, au-dessus de la mer;
"Nay! he has already seen the gold-spattered day star, gloriously illuminating the morning of disaster, rise, a blinding disk, above the seas.
Et pour couvrir ses yeux dont pas un cil ne bouge,
Il ouvre d'un seul coup son évantail de fer,
Ou dans le satin blanc se lève un Soleil rouge.
And to shade his eyes, on both of which not even a single eyelash stirs, he opens with one quick movement his iron fan, wherein upon a field of white satin there rises a crimson sun."

Of course this hasty translation is very poor; and you can only get from it the signification and colour of the picture --- the beautiful sonority and luminosity of the French is all gone. Nevertheless, I am sure that the more you study the original the more you will see how fine it is. Here also is a Japanese colour print. We see the figure of the horseman on the shore, in the light of dawn; behind him the still dark sky of night; before him the crimson dawn, and Fuji white against the red sky. And in the open fan, with its red sun, we have a grim suggestion of the day of blood that is about to be; that is all. But whoever reads that sonnet will never forget it; it burns into the memory. So, indeed, does everything that Heredia writes. Unfortunately he has not yet written anything more about Japan. I have quoted Heredia because I think that no other poet has even approached him in the attempt to make a Japanese picture --- though many others have tried; and the French, nearly always, have done much better than the English, be cause they are more naturally artists. Indeed one must be something of an artist to write anything in the way of good poetry on a Japanese subject. If you look at the collection "Poems of Places," in the library, you will see how poorly Japan is there represented; the only respectable piece of foreign work being by Longfellow, and that is only about Japanese vases. But since then some English poems have appeared which are at least worthy of Japanese notice.

Notes

(note by the web author)
In the mid-19th century, Japan stopped its national isolation policy and many artistic works were sent to Europe. That influenced so many artists and caused the movement of art with Japanese tastes, which is called Japonism. I guess that the poems on Japanese subjects which Hearn found were written in such a movement.
(note by the web author)
Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894) was the leader of Parnassians, a group of French poets which reacted against the subjectivism of the Romantics. René François Armand Sully-Prudhomme (1839-1907), the first Nobel Prize winner for Literature (1901), and José Maria de Heredia (1842-1905) were members of the group, too.
(note by the web author)
Biva, or biwa, is a kind of musical instrument. It is very popular for Hearn's fans because it appears in "The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hôïchi" of "Kwaidan". In a footnote of this story, Hearn explained about biwa as follows ---
The biwa, a kind of four-stringed lute, is chiefly used in musical recitative. Formerly the professional minstrels who recited the "Heiké-Monogatari," and other tragical histories, were called biwa-hôshi, or "lute-priests." The origin of this appellation is not clear; but it is possible that it may have been suggested by the fact that "lute-priests," as well as blind shampooers, had their heads shaven, like Buddhist priests. The biwa is played with a kind of plectrum, called bachi, usually made of horn.
(note by the web author)
In Yedo era (1603-1867), samurai's formal clothes had embroideries of the crest of his home on the shoulders and the back.
Hizen is a part of Kyûshû, Saga Prefecture to-day. Here "Hizen" means Nabeshima clan, the Lord of Hizen.
Tokungawa, exactly Tokugawa as written on the translation, is the surname of Shôgun, who had reigned Japan in Yedo era. Though the poem says "Le blazon de Hizen ou de Tokungawa", the crests of these families are not similar at all.
(note by the web author)
Daimio, or Daïmyô, is a status of samuraï who reigns a province or county in Sengoku and Yedo era (16c-1867). It is usually a hereditary status, and the word literary means "Widely-Noted Family".
(note by the web author)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
A poet of America. Famous for works with the theme based on native American, like "Évangéline", Song of Hiawatha", etc. His another well-known work is the translation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy".