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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 7 - Romanticism  


The Japanese Lyric

As in China, which heavily influenced the development of Japanese culture, lyric poetry has been central to Japanese civilization and has been carefully preserved over the ages. The first anthology of Japanese poetry is the Manyoshu, a title that has never been satisfactorily explained, although it probably means something like "collection of 10,000 leaves." This collection of some 4,500 poems written in the seventh and eighth centuries is remarkably diverse; while the poetry written in the imperial courts traditionally was preserved, the Manyoshu also includes hundreds of folk poems. Unlike the literature produced exclusively by court circles, the poems in the Manyoshu often directly express profound and disturbing emotions.

Also like China, Japan produced no long epic poem. Over the centuries, in fact, the standard Japanese poem became shorter and more condensed. By the eighteenth century, the haiku -- a poem arranged in an unvarying sequence of three lines, the first with five, the second with seven, and the last with five syllables --became the preferred mode. In fact, a contest sponsored in 1988 by Japan Air Lines documents the constant popularity of this form. The company offered two first-class, round-trip tickets to Tokyo and $1,000 for the best haiku that an American or Canadian traveler could produce. In promoting the contest, the airline ran an ad explaining, "In Japan, most everyone writes a haiku now and then, even busy executives."

That a modern airline should act as a cultural ambassador reveals something about Japan's consciousness of its geographical position. As an island nation, Japan has had a complicated relationship with the non-Japanese world. On the one hand, modern-day Japan has excelled in foreign trade; on the other hand, in earlier centuries, the country had to remain vigilant against invaders coming across the sea. Thus travel and its dangers are frequent themes in traditional Japanese poems. Indeed, much of the greatest prose written in Japanese takes the form of poetic travel journals. An intense devotion to the landscape, along with a sense of individual places and their special beauties, preoccupies Japanese writers.

Often threatened by the huge nations of the Asian subcontinent (China and India), Japan turned its gaze inward in another way as well. One way of maintaining its unique identity was to focus on intimate personal relationships and as far as possible to ignore external political and social pressures. Much of the most distinctive Japanese poetry, then, describes favorite places and the people associated with them in the poet's mind.

Perhaps the most highly regarded of the poems in the Manyoshu are the relatively lengthy choka, which simply extend the pattern of five- and seven-syllable lines in several stanzas. The best known writer of choka is Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, who wrote in the seventh century. In the following poem he expresses his sorrow at parting from a beloved person -- his wife -- and a beloved place.

From The Manyoshu

In the sea of Iwami,
By the cape of Kara,
There amid the stones under sea
Grows the deep-sea miru weed;
There along the rocky strand
Grows the sleek sea-tangle.

Like the swaying sea-tangle,
Unresisting would she lie beside me--
My wife whom I love with a love
Deep as the miru-growing ocean.
But few are the nights
We two have lain together.

Away I have come, parting from her
Even as the creeping vines do part.
My heart aches within me;
I turn back to gaze--
But because of the yellow leaves
Of Watari Hill,
Flying and fluttering in the air,
I cannot see plainly
My wife waving her sleeve to me.
Now as the moon, sailing through the cloud rift
Above the mountain of Yakami,
Disappears, leaving me full of regret,
So vanishes my love out of sight;
Now sinks at last the sun,
Coursing down the western sky.

I thought myself a strong man.
But the sleeves of my garment
Are wetted through with tears.

My black steed
Galloping fast,
Away have I come,
Leaving under distant skies
The dwelling-place of my love.

Oh, yellow leaves
Falling on the autumn hill,
Cease a while
To fly and flutter in the air
That I may see my love's dwelling-place!

Questions for Discussion

  1. A later, more discreet poem might well refer to fading cherry blossoms in place of the natural images used here. Miru is a kind of edible seaweed. How does the description of its intertwining extend from the natural world to the personal?
  2. While the horse gallops ahead, the poet tries to stop time. What is the significance of what he sees when he looks back?
  3. How do the references to sleeves contribute to a reliance on sensuous textures and shapes to indicate emotional states in the poem?


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The Chinese Lyric
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The Arabic Lyric

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