Japanese Prints
by John Gould Fletcher
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TRANSCRIBER'S NOTES The letter o with a macron is represented as o[u].

Japanese Prints

By John Gould Fletcher Japanese Prints Goblins and Pagodas Irradiations: Sand and Spray

"Of what is she dreaming? Of long nights lit with orange lanterns, Of wine-cups and compliments and kisses of the two-sword men."

Japanese Prints


John Gould Fletcher

With Illustrations By Dorothy Pulis Lathrop

Boston The Four Seas Company 1918

Copyright, 1918, by The Four Seas Company

The Four Seas Press Boston, Mass., U.S.A.

To My Wife

Granted this dew-drop world be but a dew-drop world, This granted, yet—

Table of Contents



Lovers Embracing 21 A Picnic Under the Cherry Trees 22 Court Lady Standing Under Cherry Tree 23 Court Lady Standing Under a Plum Tree 24 A Beautiful Woman 25 A Reading 26 An Actor as a Dancing Girl 27 Josan No Miya 28 An Oiran and Her Kamuso 29 Two Ways Of Love 30 Kurenai-ye or "Red Picture" 31 A Woman Standing by a Gate with an Umbrella 32 Scene from a Drama 33 A Woman in Winter Costume 34 A Pedlar 35 Kiyonobu and Kiyomasu Contrasted 36 An Actor 37


Memory and Forgetting 41 Pillar-Print, Masonobu 42 The Young Daimyo 43 Masonubu—Early 44 The Beautiful Geisha 45 A Young Girl 46 The Heavenly Poetesses 47 The Old Love and The New 48 Fugitive Thoughts 49 Disappointment 50 The Traitor 51 The Fop 52 Changing Love 53 In Exile 54 The True Conqueror 55 Spring Love 56 The Endless Lament 57 Toyonobu. Exile's Return 58 Wind and Chrysanthemum 59 The Endless Pilgrimage 60


The Clouds 63 Two Ladies Contrasted 64 A Night Festival 65 Distant Coasts 66 On the Banks of the Sumida 67 Yoshiwara Festival 68 Sharaku Dreams 69 A Life 70 Dead Thoughts 71 A Comparison 72 Mutability 73 Despair 74 The Lonely Grave 75


Evening Sky 79 City Lights 80 Fugitive Beauty 81 Silver Jars 82 Evening Rain 83 Toy-Boxes 84 Moods 85 Grass 86 A Landscape 87 Terror 88 Mid-Summer Dusk 89 Evening Bell from a Distant Temple 90 A Thought 91 The Stars 92 Japan 93 Leaves 94

List of Illustrations

"Of what is she dreaming? Of long nights lit with orange lanterns, Of wine-cups and compliments and kisses of the two-sword men." Frontispiece




"Out of the rings and the bubbles, The curls and the swirls of the water, Out of the crystalline shower of drops shattered in play, Her body and her thoughts arose." 46

"The cranes have come back to the temple, The winds are flapping the flags about, Through a flute of reeds I will blow a song." 58



"Then in her heart they grew, The snows of changeless winter, Stirred by the bitter winds of unsatisfied desire." 70




"The green and violet peacocks Through the golden dusk Stately, nostalgically, Parade." Endleaf


At the earliest period concerning which we have any accurate information, about the sixth century A. D., Japanese poetry already contained the germ of its later development. The poems of this early date were composed of a first line of five syllables, followed by a second of seven, followed by a third of five, and so on, always ending with a line of seven syllables followed by another of equal number. Thus the whole poem, of whatever length (a poem of as many as forty-nine lines was scarce, even at that day) always was composed of an odd number of lines, alternating in length of syllables from five to seven, until the close, which was an extra seven syllable line. Other rules there were none. Rhyme, quantity, accent, stress were disregarded. Two vowels together must never be sounded as a diphthong, and a long vowel counts for two syllables, likewise a final "n", and the consonant "m" in some cases.

This method of writing poetry may seem to the reader to suffer from serious disadvantages. In reality this was not the case. Contrast it for a moment with the undignified welter of undigested and ex parte theories which academic prosodists have tried for three hundred years to foist upon English verse, and it will be seen that the simple Japanese rule has the merit of dignity. The only part of it that we Occidentals could not accept perhaps, with advantage to ourselves, is the peculiarly Oriental insistence on an odd number of syllables for every line and an odd number of lines to every poem. To the Western mind, odd numbers sound incomplete. But to the Chinese (and Japanese art is mainly a highly-specialized expression of Chinese thought), the odd numbers are masculine and hence heavenly; the even numbers feminine and hence earthy. This idea in itself, the antiquity of which no man can tell, deserves no less than a treatise be written on it. But the place for that treatise is not here.

To return to our earliest Japanese form. Sooner or later this crystallized into what is called a tanka or short ode. This was always five lines in length, constructed syllabically 5, 7, 5, 7, 7, or thirty-one syllables in all. Innumerable numbers of these tanka were written. Gradually, during the feudal period, improvising verses became a pastime in court circles. Some one would utter the first three lines of a tanka and some one else would cap the composition by adding the last two. This division persisted. The first hemistich which was composed of 17 syllables grew to be called the hokku, the second or finishing hemistich of 14 syllables was called ageku. Thus was born the form which is more peculiarly Japanese than any other, and which only they have been able to carry to perfection.

Composing hokku might, however, have remained a mere game of elaborate literary conceits and double meanings, but for the genius of one man. This was the great Basho[u] (1644-1694) who may be called certainly the greatest epigrammatist of any time. During a life of extreme and voluntary self-denial and wandering, Basho[u] contrived to obtain over a thousand disciples, and to found a school of hokku writing which has persisted down to the present day. He reformed the hokku, by introducing into everything he wrote a deep spiritual significance underlying the words. He even went so far as to disregard upon occasion the syllabic rule, and to add extraneous syllables, if thereby he might perfect his statement. He set his face sternly against impromptus, poemes d'occasion, and the like. The number of his works were not large, and even these he perpetually sharpened and polished. His influence persisted for long after his death. A disciple and priest of Zen Buddhism himself, his work is permeated with the feeling of that doctrine.

Zen Buddhism, as Basho[u] practised it, may be called religion under the forms of nature. Everything on earth, from the clouds in the sky to the pebble by the roadside, has some spiritual or ethical significance for us. Blake's words describe the aim of the Zen Buddhist as well as any one's:

"To see a World in a grain of sand, And a Heaven in a wild flower; Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour."

Basho[u] would have subscribed to this as the sole rule of poetry and imagination. The only difference between the Western and the Eastern mystic is that where one sees the world in the grain of sand and tells you all about it, the other sees and lets his silence imply that he knows its meaning. Or to quote Lao-tzu: "Those who speak do not know, those who know do not speak." It must always be understood that there is an implied continuation to every Japanese hokku. The concluding hemistich, whereby the hokku becomes the tanka, is existent in the writer's mind, but never uttered.

Let us take an example. The most famous hokku that Basho[u] wrote, might be literally translated thus:

"An old pond And the sound of a frog leaping Into the water."

This means nothing to the Western mind. But to the Japanese it means all the beauty of such a life of retirement and contemplation as Basho[u] practised. If we permit our minds to supply the detail Basho[u] deliberately omitted, we see the mouldering temple enclosure, the sage himself in meditation, the ancient piece of water, and the sound of a frog's leap—passing vanity—slipping into the silence of eternity. The poem has three meanings. First it is a statement of fact. Second, it is an emotion deduced from that. Third, it is a sort of spiritual allegory. And all this Basho[u] has given us in his seventeen syllables.

All of Basho[u]'s poems have these three meanings. Again and again we get a sublime suggestion out of some quite commonplace natural fact. For instance:

"On the mountain-road There is no flower more beautiful Than the wild violet."

The wild violet, scentless, growing hidden and neglected among the rocks of the mountain-road, suggested to Basho[u] the life of the Buddhist hermit, and thus this poem becomes an exhortation to "shun the world, if you would be sublime."

I need not give further examples. The reader can now see for himself what the main object of the hokku poetry is, and what it achieved. Its object was some universalized emotion derived from a natural fact. Its achievement was the expression of that emotion in the fewest possible terms. It is therefore necessary, if poetry in the English tongue is ever to attain again to the vitality and strength of its beginnings, that we sit once more at the feet of the Orient and learn from it how little words can express, how sparingly they should be used, and how much is contained in the meanest natural object. Shakespeare, who could close a scene of brooding terror with the words: "But see, the morn in russet mantle clad, Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill" was nearer to the oriental spirit than we are. We have lost Shakespeare's instinct for nature and for fresh individual vision, and we are unwilling to acquire it through self-discipline. If we do not want art to disappear under the froth of shallow egotism, we must learn the lesson Basho[u] can teach us.

That is not to say, that, by taking the letter for the spirit, we should in any way strive to imitate the hokku form. Good hokkus cannot be written in English. The thing we have to follow is not a form, but a spirit. Let us universalize our emotions as much as possible, let us become impersonal as Shakespeare or Basho[u] was. Let us not gush about our fine feelings. Let us admit that the highest and noblest feelings are things that cannot be put into words. Therefore let us conceal them behind the words we have chosen. Our definition of poetry would then become that of Edwin Arlington Robinson, that poetry is a language which tells through a reaction upon our emotional natures something which cannot be put into words. Unless we set ourselves seriously to the task of understanding that language is only a means and never an end, poetic art will be dead in fifty years, from a surfeit of superficial cleverness and devitalized realism.

In the poems that follow I have taken as my subjects certain designs of the so-called Uki-oye (or Passing World) school. These prints, made and produced for purely popular consumption by artists who, whatever their genius, were despised by the literati of their time, share at least one characteristic with Japanese poetry, which is, that they exalt the most trivial and commonplace subjects into the universal significance of works of art. And therefore I have chosen them to illustrate my doctrine, which is this: that one must learn to do well small things before doing things great; that the universe is just as much in the shape of a hand as it is in armies, politics, astronomy, or the exhortations of gospel-mongers; that style and technique rest on the thing conveyed and not the means of conveyance; and that though sentiment is a good thing, understanding is a better. As for the poems themselves they are in some cases not Japanese at all, but all illustrate something of the charm I have found in Japanese poetry and art. And if they induce others to seek that charm for themselves, my purpose will have been attained.


Part I

Lovers Embracing

Force and yielding meet together: An attack is half repulsed. Shafts of broken sunlight dissolving Convolutions of torpid cloud.

A Picnic Under the Cherry Trees

The boat drifts to rest Under the outward spraying branches.

There is faint sound of quavering strings, The reedy murmurs of a flute, The soft sigh of the wind through silken garments;

All these are mingled With the breeze that drifts away, Filled with thin petals of cherry blossom, Like tinkling laughter dancing away in sunlight.

Court Lady Standing Under Cherry Tree

She is an iris, Dark purple, pale rose, Under the gnarled boughs That shatter their stars of bloom. She waves delicately With the movement of the tree.

Of what is she dreaming?

Of long nights lit with orange lanterns, Of wine cups and compliments and kisses of the two-sword men. And of dawn when weary sleepers Lie outstretched on the mats of the palace, And of the iris stalk that is broken in the fountain.

Court Lady Standing Under a Plum Tree

Autumn winds roll through the dry leaves On her garments; Autumn birds shiver Athwart star-hung skies. Under the blossoming plum-tree, She expresses the pilgrimage Of grey souls passing, Athwart love's scarlet maples To the ash-strewn summit of death.

A Beautiful Woman

Iris-amid-clouds Must be her name.

Tall and lonely as the mountain-iris, Cold and distant.

She has never known longing: Many have died for love of her.

A Reading

"And the prince came to the craggy rock But saw only hissing waves So he rested all day amid them."

He listens idly, He is content with her voice.

He dreams it is the murmur Of distant wave-caps breaking Upon the painted screen.

An Actor as a Dancing Girl

The peony dancer Swirls orange folds of dusty robes Through the summer.

They are spotted with thunder showers, Falling upon the crimson petals.

Heavy blooms Breaking and spilling fiery cups Drowsily.

Josan No Miya

She is a fierce kitten leaping in sunlight Towards the swaying boughs.

She is a gust of wind, Bending in parallel curves the boughs of the willow-tree.

An Oiran and her Kamuso

Gilded hummingbirds are whizzing Through the palace garden, Deceived by the jade petals Of the Emperor's jewel-trees.

Two Ways of Love

The wind half blows her robes, That subside Listlessly As swaying pines.

The wind tosses hers In circles That recoil upon themselves: How should I love—as the swaying or tossing wind?

Kurenai-ye or "Red Picture"

She glances expectantly Through the pine avenue, To the cherry-tree summit Where her lover will appear.

Faint rose anticipation colours her, And sunset; She is a cherry-tree that has taken long to bloom.

A Woman Standing by a Gate with an Umbrella

Late summer changes to autumn: Chrysanthemums are scattered Behind the palings.

Gold and vermilion The afternoon.

I wait here dreaming of vermilion sunsets: In my heart is a half fear of the chill autumn rain.

Scene from a Drama

The daimyo and the courtesan Compliment each other.

He invites her to walk out through the maples, She half refuses, hiding fear in her heart.

Far in the shadow The daimyo's attendant waits, Nervously fingering his sword.

A Woman in Winter Costume

She is like the great rains That fall over the earth in winter-time.

Wave on wave her heavy robes collapse In green torrents Lashed with slaty foam.

Downward the sun strikes amid them And enkindles a lone flower; A violet iris standing yet in seething pools of grey.

A Pedlar

Gaily he offers Packets of merchandise.

He is a harlequin of illusions, His nimble features Skip into smiles, like rainbows, Cheating the villagers.

But in his heart all the while is another knowledge, The sorrow of the bleakness of the long wet winter night.

Kiyonobu and Kiyomasu Contrasted

One life is a long summer; Tall hollyhocks stand proud upon its paths; Little yellow waves of sunlight, Bring scarlet butterflies.

Another life is a brief autumn, Fierce storm-rack scrawled with lightning Passed over it Leaving the naked bleeding earth, Stabbed with the swords of the rain.

An Actor

He plots for he is angry, He sneers for he is bold.

He clinches his fist Like a twisted snake; Coiling itself, preparing to raise its head, Above the long grasses of the plain.

Part II

Memory and Forgetting

I have forgotten how many times he kissed me, But I cannot forget A swaying branch—a leaf that fell To earth.

Pillar-Print, Masonobu

He stands irresolute Cloaking the light of his lantern.

Tonight he will either find new love or a sword-thrust, But his soul is troubled with ghosts of old regret.

Like vines with crimson flowers They climb Upwards Into his heart.

The Young Daimyo

When he first came out to meet me, He had just been girt with the two swords; And I found he was far more interested in the glitter of their hilts, And did not even compare my kiss to a cherry-blossom.


She was a dream of moons, of fluttering handkerchiefs, Of flying leaves, of parasols, A riddle made to break my heart; The lightest impulse To her was more dear than the deep-toned temple bell. She fluttered to my sword-hilt an instant, And then flew away; But who will spend all day chasing a butterfly?

The Beautiful Geisha

Swift waves hissing Under the moonlight; Tarnished silver.

Swaying boats Under the moonlight, Gold lacquered prows.

Is it a vision Under the moonlight? No, it is only A beautiful geisha swaying down the street.

A Young Girl

Out of the rings and the bubbles, The curls and the swirls of the water, Out of the crystalline shower of drops shattered in play, Her body and her thoughts arose.

She dreamed of some lover To whom she might offer her body Fresh and cool as a flower born in the rain.

The Heavenly Poetesses

In their bark of bamboo reeds The heavenly poetesses Float across the sky.

Poems are falling from them Swift as the wind that shakes the lance-like bamboo leaves; The stars close around like bubbles Stirred by the silver oars of poems passing.

The Old Love and the New

Beware, for the dying vine can hold The strongest oak.

Only by cutting at the root Can love be altered.

Late in the night A rosy glimmer yet defies the darkness.

But the evening is growing late, The blinds are being lowered; She who held your heart and charmed you Is only a rosy glimmer of flame remembered.

Fugitive Thoughts

My thoughts are sparrows passing Through one great wave that breaks In bubbles of gold on a black motionless rock.


Rain rattles on the pavement, Puddles stand in the bluish stones; Afar in the Yoshiwara Is she who holds my heart.

Alas, the torn lantern of my hope Trembles and sputters in the rain.

The Traitor

I saw him pass at twilight; He was a dark cloud travelling Over palace roofs With one claw drooping.

In his face were written ages Of patient treachery And the knowledge of his hour.

One dainty thrust, no more Than this, he needs.

The Fop

His heart is like a wind Torn between cloud and butterfly; Whether he will roll passively to one, Or chase endlessly the other.

Changing Love

My love for her at first was like the smoke that drifts Across the marshes From burning woods.

But, after she had gone, It was like the lotus that lifts up Its heart shaped buds from the dim waters.

In Exile

My heart is mournful as thunder moving Through distant hills Late on a long still night of autumn.

My heart is broken and mournful As rain heard beating Far off in the distance While earth is parched more near.

On my heart is the black badge of exile; I droop over it, I accept its shame.

The True Conqueror

He only can bow to men Lofty as a god To those beneath him, Who has taken sins and sorrows And whose deathless spirit leaps Beneath them like a golden carp in the torrent.

Spring Love

Through the weak spring rains Two lovers walk together, Holding together the parasol.

But the laughing rains of spring Will break the weak green shoots of their love.

His will grow a towering stalk, Hers, a cowering flower under it.

The Endless Lament

Spring rain falls through the cherry blossom, In long blue shafts On grasses strewn with delicate stars.

The summer rain sifts through the drooping willow, Shatters the courtyard Leaving grey pools.

The autumn rain drives through the maples Scarlet threads of sorrow, Towards the snowy earth.

Would that the rains of all the winters Might wash away my grief!

Toyonobu. Exile's Return

The cranes have come back to the temple, The winds are flapping the flags about, Through a flute of reeds I will blow a song.

Let my song sigh as the breeze through the cryptomerias, And pause like long flags flapping, And dart and flutter aloft, like a wind-bewildered crane.

Wind and Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemums bending Before the wind.

Chrysanthemums wavering In the black choked grasses.

The wind frowns at them, He tears off a green and orange stalk of broken chrysanthemum.

The chrysanthemums spread their flattered heads, And scurry off before the wind.

The Endless Pilgrimage

Storm-birds of autumn With draggled wings:

Sleet-beaten, wind-tattered, snow-frozen, Stopping in sheer weariness Between the gnarled red pine trees Twisted in doubt and despair;

Whence do you come, pilgrims, Over what snow fields? To what southern province Hidden behind dim peaks, would you go?

"Too long were the telling Wherefore we set out; And where we will find rest Only the Gods may tell."

Part III

The Clouds

Although there was no sound in all the house, I could not forbear listening for the cry of those long white rippling waves Dragging up their strength to break on the sullen beach of the sky.

Two Ladies Contrasted

The harmonies of the robes of this gay lady Are like chants within a temple sweeping outwards To the morn.

But I prefer the song of the wind by a stream Where a shy lily half hides itself in the grasses; To the night of clouds and stars and wine and passion, In a palace of tesselated restraint and splendor.

A Night Festival

Sparrows and tame magpies chatter In the porticoes Lit with many a lantern.

There is idle song, Scandal over full wine cups, Sorrow does not matter.

Only beyond the still grey shoji For the breadth of innumerable countries, Is the sea with ships asleep In the blue-black starless night.

Distant Coasts

A squall has struck the sea afar off. You can feel it quiver Over the paper parasol With which she shields her face;

In the drawn-together skirts of her robes, As she turns to meet it.

On the Banks of the Sumida

Windy evening of autumn, By the grey-green swirling river, People are resting like still boats Tugging uneasily at their cramped chains.

Some are moving slowly Like the easy winds:

Brown-blue, dull-green, the villages in the distance Sleep on the banks of the river: The waters sullenly clash and murmur. The chatter of the passersby, Is dulled beneath the grey unquiet sky.

Yoshiwara Festival

The green and violet peacocks With golden tails Parade.

Beneath the fluttering jangling streamers They walk Violet and gold.

The green and violet peacocks Through the golden dusk Showered upon them from the vine-hung lanterns, Stately, nostalgically, Parade.

Sharaku Dreams

I will scrawl on the walls of the night Faces.

Leering, sneering, scowling, threatening faces; Weeping, twisting, yelling, howling faces; Faces fixed in a contortion between a scream and a laugh, Meaningless faces.

I will cover the walls of night With faces, Till you do not know If these faces are but masks, or you the masks for them.

Faces too grotesque for laughter, Faces too shattered by pain for tears, Faces of such ugliness That the ugliness grows beauty.

They will haunt you morning, evening, Burning, burning, ever returning. Their own infamy creating, Till you strike at life and hate it, Burn your soul up so in hating.

I will scrawl on the walls of the night Faces, Pitiless, Flaring, Staring.

A Life

Her life was like a swiftly rushing stream Green and scarlet, Falling into darkness.

The seasons passed for her, Like pale iris wilting, Or peonies flying to ribbons before the storm-gusts. The sombre pine-tops waited until the seasons had passed.

Then in her heart they grew The snows of changeless winter Stirred by the bitter winds of unsatisfied desire.

Dead Thoughts

My thoughts are an autumn breeze Lifting and hurrying Dry rubbish about in a corner.

My thoughts are willow branches Already broken Motionless at twilight.

A Comparison

My beloved is like blue smoke that rises In long slow planes, And wavers Over the dark paths of old gardens long neglected.


The wind shakes the mists Making them quiver With faint drum-tones of thunder.

Out of the crane-haunted mists of autumn, Blue and brown Rolls the moon.

There was a city living here long ago, Of all that city There is only one stone left half-buried in the marsh, With characters upon it which no one now can read.


Despair hangs in the broken folds of my garments; It clogs my footsteps, Like snow in the cherry bloom.

In my heart is the sorrow Of years like red leaves buried in snow.

The Lonely Grave

Pilgrims will ascend the road in early summer, Passing my tombstone Mossy, long forgotten.

Girls will laugh and scatter cherry petals, Sometimes they will rest in the twisted pine-trees' shade.

If one presses her warm lips to this tablet The dust of my body will feel a thrill, deep down in the silent earth.

Part IV

Evening Sky

The sky spreads out its poor array Of tattered flags, Saffron and rose Over the weary huddle of housetops Smoking their evening pipes in silence.

City Lights

The city gleams with lights this evening Like loud and yawning laughter from red lips.

Fugitive Beauty

As the fish that leaps from the river, As the dropping of a November leaf at twilight, As the faint flicker of lightning down the southern sky, So I saw beauty, far away.

Silver Jars

I dreamed I caught your loveliness In little silver jars: And when you died I opened them, And there was only soot within.

Evening Rain

Rain fell so softly, in the evening, I almost thought it was the trees that were talking.


Cities are the toy-boxes Time plays with: And there are often many doll-houses Of which the dolls are lost.


A poet's moods: Fluttering butterflies in the rain.


Grass moves in the wind, My soul is backwards blown.

A Landscape

Land, green-brown; Sea, brown-grey; Island, dull peacock blue; Sky, stone-grey.


Because of the long pallid petals of white chrysanthemums Waving to and fro, I dare not go.

Mid-Summer Dusk

Swallows twittering at twilight: Waves of heat Churned to flames by the sun.

Evening Bell from a Distant Temple

A bell in the fog Creeps out echoing faintly The pale broad flashes Of vibrating twilight, Faded gold.

A Thought

A piece of paper ready to toss in the fire, Blackened, scrawled with fragments of an incomplete song: My soul.

The Stars

There is a goddess who walks shrouded by day: At night she throws her blue veil over the earth. Men only see her naked glory through the little holes in the veil.


An old courtyard Hidden away In the afternoon. Grey walks, Mossy stones, Copper carp swimming lazily, And beyond, A faint toneless hissing echo of rain That tears at my heart.


The splaying silhouette of horse-chestnut leaves Against the tall and delicate, patrician-tinged sky Like a princess in blue robes behind a grille of bronze.

An edition of 1000 copies only, of which 975 copies have been printed on Olde Style paper, and 25 copies on Japanese Vellum.


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