The poetry of a nation is always the best revealer of its genuine life: the range of its spiritual as well as of its intellectual outlook. This is the case even where poetry is imitative, for imitation only pertains to the form of poetry, and not to its essence. Vergil copied the metre and borrowed the phraseology of Homer, but is never Homeric. In one sense, all national poetry is original, even though it be shackled by rules of traditional prosody, and has adopted the system of rhyme devised by writers in another language, whose words seem naturally to bourgeon into assonant terminations. But Japanese poetry is original in every sense of the term. Imitative as the Japanese are, and borrowers from other nations in every department of plastic, fictile, and pictorial art, as well as in religion, politics, and manufactures, the poetry of Japan is a true-born flower of the soil, unique in its mechanical structure, spontaneous and unaffected in its sentiment and subject.
The present collection of Japanese poetry is compiled and translated into English from what the Japanese call “The Collection of Myriad Leaves,” and from a number of other anthologies made by imperial decree year by year from the tenth until the fifteenth century. This was the golden age of Japanese literature, and nowadays, when poetry is dead in Japan, and the people and their rulers are aiming at nothing but the benefits of material civilization, these ancient anthologies are drawn upon for vamping up and compiling what pass for the current verses of the hour. The twenty volumes of the “Myriad Leaves” were probably published first in the latter half of the eighth century, in the reign of the Mikado Shiyaumu; the editor was Prince Moroye, for in those days the cultivation of verse was especially considered the privilege of the princely and aristocratic. A poem written by a man of obscure rank was sometimes included in the royal collections, but the name of the author never. And indeed some of the distinctive quality of Japanese poetry is undoubtedly due to the air in which it flourished. It is never religious, and it is often immoral, but it is always suffused with a certain hue of courtliness, even gentleness. The language is of the most refined delicacy, the thought is never boorish or rude; there is the self-collectedness which we find in the poetry of France and Italy during the Renaissance, and in England during the reign of Queen Anne. It exhibits the most exquisite polish, allied with an avoidance of every shocking or perturbing theme. It seems to combine the enduring lustre of a precious metal with the tenuity of gold-leaf. Even the most vivid emotions of grief and love, as well as the horrors of war, were banished from the Japanese Parnassus, where the Muse of Tragedy warbles, and the lyric Muse utters nothing but ditties of exquisite and melting sweetness, which soothe the ear, but never stir the heart: while their meaning is often so obscure as even to elude the understanding.
Allied to this polite reserve of the courtly poets of Japan is the simplicity of their style, which is, doubtless, in a large measure, due to the meagre range of spiritual faculties which characterize the Japanese mind. This intellectual poverty manifests itself in the absence of all personification and reference to abstract ideas. The narrow world of the poet is here a concrete and literal sphere of experience. He never rises on wings above the earth his feet are treading, and the things around him that his fingers touch. But within this limited area he revels in a great variety of subjects. In the present anthology will be found ballads, love-songs, elegies, as well as short stanzas composed with the strictest economy of word and phrase. These we must characterize as epigrams. They are gems, polished with almost passionless nicety and fastidious care. They remind us very much of Roman poetry under the later Empire, and many of them might have been written by Martial, at the court of Domitian. They contain references to court doings, compliments, and sentiments couched in pointed language. The drama of Japan is represented by two types, one of which may be called lyrical, and the other the comedy of real life. Specimens of both are found in the present collection, which will furnish English readers with a very fair idea of what the most interesting and enterprising of Oriental nations has done in the domain of imaginative literature.
‘Tis spring, and the mists come stealing
O’er Suminóye’s shore,
And I stand by the seaside musing
On the days that are no more.
I muse on the old-world story,
As the boats glide to and fro,
Of the fisher-boy, Urashima,
Who a-fishing loved to go;
How he came not back to the village
Though sev’n suns had risen and set,
But rowed on past the bounds of ocean,
And the sea-god’s daughter met;
How they pledged their faith to each other,
And came to the Evergreen Land,
And entered the sea-god’s palace
So lovingly hand in hand,
To dwell for aye in that country,
The ocean-maiden and he —
The country where youth and beauty