THE POETRY OF YONE NOGUCHI

Arthur Ransome

So-shi, a Chinese philosopher, dreamed that he was a butterfly, and, in the moment of waking, talked to himself: "Are you So-shi who has dreamed that he was a butterfly, or are you a butterfly who is dreaming that he is So-shi?" That question is continually repeated in the works of Yone Noguchi, who seems, indeed, to have the freedom of two worlds, and to find reality as often in one as in the other. Noguchi is for ever in doubt of his own existence, suspicious of appearances, and searching for the reality in things beyond touch or description. "My soul," he writes:-

My soul, like a Chilly-winged fly, roams about the sadness-walled body, hunting for a casement to flit out.

Lo, suddenly, an inspired bird flies upright into the atom-eyed sky!

Alas, his reflection sinks far down into the mileless bottom of the mirrory rivulet!

Is this world the solid being? — or a shadowy nothing?

Is the form that flies up the real bird?  Or the figure that sinks down?

And again

This world is not my residence to the end!

Alas, the moon has lost her way, harassed among the leaf-fellows on the darkling hill top!

Isn't there chance for my flying out?

 

The world is not too much with this poet of Japan who writes in our language, and it is interesting to compare, this symbolist of a nation of conscious symbolists with the few men who in France and England have turned an unconscious but almost universal practice into a theory of poetry.

But I must not, in my care for his work, pretend that the poet is the immaterial floating fairy that he almost seems to be. "I have cast the world," he says, "and, think me as nothing,

Yet I feel cold on snow-falling day,

And happy on flower day."

 

Let me, before saying more, set down such facts as I know about his physical existence.

Yone Noguchi was born in Japan about 1876. He was in America before he was twenty, and, in company with a few other Japanese students, suffered extreme poverty, and the starvation which those who have not tried it consider so efficacious a stimulant to the soul. He made some friends among American writers, and stayed for a time with Joaquin Miller. In 1897 he published Seen and Unseen: or, Monologues of a Homeless Snail, and in the next year The Voice of the Valley, a little book inspired by a stay in the Yosemite. In 1902 he came to England, and lived with Mr. Yoshio Markino (who had not then realised himself and London in his water-colours) in poor lodgings in the Brixton Road. From these lodgings he issued a sixteen-page pamphlet of verse printed on brown paper, which drew such notice that the Unicorn Press (an unfortunate little firm that published some very good books, some bad ones, and died) produced a volume, called, like the pamphlet, From the Eastern Sea, and containing, besides those sixteen pages of poetry, other verses from the American books and a number of new pieces. The cover of this edition was designed by Mr. Yoshio Markino. I knew Noguchi at this time, and often walked with him along the Embankment in the evenings, or under those "lamp-lights of web-like streets bathed in the opiate mists," that he and Yoshio Markino have used so delicately in their several arts. I remember him as a small man, though perhaps not noticeably small by Japanese standards, with black hair less orderly and geometrical in growth than most Japanese hair, and a face of extraordinary sensitiveness, high-browed but broadly set eyes, and a mouth like a woman's, like that of a woman controlling some almost tearful emotion. Even in the handling of a cigarette, whose end he stripped of its paper so that the tobacco might serve in the making of another (we were almost penniless in those days), there was a delicacy that made it impossible not to recognise that he was a man who lived more finely than most. His conversations were of poetry, of the principles of the particular poetry he held that it was his to write, and of the work, of those English poets he had read. "I hate your Longfellow," he said, "and I love your Keats," and in contrasting the two he was, perhaps, defining to himself at least one tendency of his own.

He left London in 1903, and went to New York and then to Japan. He had some difficulties there, difficulties, I believe, of misunderstanding on the part of his own countrymen. He crossed to the mainland and travelled in China for a year, and perhaps longer. In 1907 he published The Summer Cloud in Tokio, and, in June last year, he sent me a two-volume book in a blue case with small ivory fastenings, printed by the Valley Press in Kamakura. This book, The Pilgrimage, has been issued in England by Mr. Elkin Mathews.

These five books do not contain a large body of verse, but they contain verse whose interest for us is not concentrated in the nationality of the writer. The title of the brown-paper pamphlet published in the Brixton Road is From the Eastern Sea, "by Yone Noguchi (Japanese)," but though that word aroused a careless curiosity, the curiosity was turned into something more valuable by qualities less incidental. The imagery of Noguchi's verse is Japanese in feeling, just as the imagery in Synge's plays is Irish, and that of Verlaine's poetry French, but the imagery in any one of these three cases would have been worthless if the man who used it had been merely Japanese, Irish, or French, and not a man of genius with the gift of setting words free with living breath. Our concern is not with the nationality of this writer, but with his conception of the poet, and with his poetry.

Noguchi wrote his first book in 1896, and so had not read Mr. Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature, which was issued three years later. He would have found there an account of poets not unlike himself, and the theory of a poetry nearer than Keats' to his own, and further removed than Keats' from that of the hated Longfellow.

Symons, writing of Verlaine, says: " Is not his whole art a delicate waiting upon moods, with that perfect confidence in them as they are, which it is a large part of ordinary education to discourage in us, and a large part of experience to repress? But to Verlaine, happily, experience taught nothing; or rather it taught him only to cling the more closely to those moods in whose succession lies the more intimate part of our spiritual life." Noguchi lives almost continuously in those moods; experience with him is momentary rather than cumulative; and his aim, expressed more than once in his verse, is only to keep himself a vessel as clear as possible for the [unsullied] transference of those moments from the bowl of life to that of art. It will not be difficult to make from his own verses a portrait of his ideal poet, and, in writing of a man not yet very widely known, I believe I shall best be doing my duty by him in quoting his own words as often as I can. In The Poet he says:-

The roses live by the eating of their own beauty and then die.

His song is the funeral chant for his own death of every moment. And again, of himself:-

I sing the song of my heartstrings, alone in the eternal muteness, in the face of God.

And again:-

The God-beloved man welcomes, respects as an honoured guest, his own soul and body in his solitude.

Lo! the roses under the night dress themselves in silence, and expect no mortal applaud—content with that of their voiceless God.

And again:—

O, wash me and wash me again with thy light, And burn my body to turn to a flame of soul!

It is this moment that I conquer the intervention of flesh,

And its rebellions that worked in me at unexpected time.

It's not too much to say I am a revelation or a wonder,

Winging as a falcon into the breast of loveliness and air.

And again:—

. . . What a bird

Dreams in the moonlight is my dream,

What a rose sings is my song.

 

"O, to lose the world and gain a song," he cries, and then, "I am glad to be no-man to-day, with the laughter and dance of the sea soul." His thoughts fall like leaves in autumn "on the snowy cheeks of his paper." His is the poetry of self-abnegation, of identification of himself with the world. His soul dances "on the silver strings" of the rain. "We," he sings, are "happy to be biographers of each other, I and a bird." He flies himself as a kite, to be lifted or let fall by the winds that do not move at all those whose pride is in their sage and measured footsteps on the ground.

In the last of his volumes there are a few specimens of Japanese seventeen-syllabled verse, hokku, and in a note Noguchi write,- that such a poem " in Japanese mind, might be compared with a tiny star, I dare say, carrying the whole sky at its back. It is like a slightly open door, where you may steal into the realm of poesy. Its value depends on how much it suggests. The Hokku poet's chief aim is to impress the reader with the high atmosphere in which he is living." The Hokku poet, like Noguchi, never writes of the thing about which he is writing. The emotions he wishes to express are too subtle for description in words, and can only be written of in the spaces between the lines, just as between the petals of a flower we may, find dreams that the flower has never known, and suggestions of something less ponderable than the earth in which it had its roots. An example of hokku poetry will illustrate the method of all Noguchi's:—

Where the flowers sleep,

Thank God! I shall sleep to-night.

Oh, come, butterfly.

That is valuable as a talisman rather than as a picture. It is a pearl to be dissolved in the wine of a mood. Pearls are not wine, nor in themselves to be thought of as drink, but there is a kind of magic in the wine in which they are dissolved.

In Noguchi's poems there is the co-operation between silence and speech of which Carlyle was thinking when he wrote:-" In a Symbol there is concealment and yet revelation: here therefore by Silence and Speech acting together, comes a double significance. And if both the Speech be itself high, and the Silence fit and noble, how expressive will their union be!" In many poems of the French symbolists the Speech is almost meaningless, except in the Silence that is coloured by its melody. In Noguchi both Speech and Silence are full of a charm that we can scarcely find in life but in fortunate rare moods. He writes:

I am stirring the waves of Reverie with my meaningless but wisdom-wreathed syllables.

 

But he is incapable of denying his own charm to the carefully-worded accompaniment of the Silence with which he is really concerned. He sees the world with eyes too guileless not to make it alive, even when using it as an invocation. He sees ideas too clearly not to make them, even in a spell, independently vivid for his listeners. For an example of the one take this picture:-

Alas, the mother cow, with matron eyes, utters her bitter heart, kidnapped of her children by the curling gossamer mist!

 

For an example of the other, this idea:-

The Universe, too, has somewhere its shadow; but what about my songs?

An there be no shadow, no echoing to the end-my broken-throated lute will never again be made whole.

He is a poet whose flame has been so scrupulously tended as to flicker with the slightest breath. He is as many-mooded as the combinations between sunshine and shadow. His poetry actually is the thing that has induced a mood in him, trimmed of all that he had had to remove for himself, and so made into something between nature and that pure elevation of mind from which Noguchi feels. This quality of pale flame-like emotion is common to all his poems, extraordinarily various as they are.

Sometimes he speaks with grandeur, as in these lines:-

When I am lost in the deep body of the mist on the hill,

The world seems built with me as its pillar!

Am I the god upon the face of the deep, deepless deepness in the Beginning?

Sometimes wistfully:-

Alas! my soul is like a paper­lantern, its paste wetted off under the rain.

'My love, wilt thou not come back to­night?'

Lo! the snail at my door stealthily hides his horns.

'Oh, put forth thy honourable horns for my sake!
Where is Truth? Where is Light?'

Sometimes questioning:—

My Poetry begins with the tireless songs of the cricket, on the lean gray haired hill, in sober-faced evening.

And the next page is Stillness.

And what then, about the next to that? Alas, the god puts his universe-covering hand over its sheets!

"Master, take off your hand for the humble servant!"

Asked in vain:—

How long for my meditation?

But it is impossible with the quotations permissible in an article to give an adequate presentment of a poet whose poems are so separate that a hundred of them do not suffice for his expression. Noguchi has, like Verlaine, escaped the wisdom of experience; his latest moods are as sky-clear as his first, different though they are in technique and in feeling. Each one of them is a glint of light from a diamond ; it is impossible, but in seeing innumerable glints together, satisfactorily to perceive the diamond itself.

Noguchi's technique is his own, though it would be possible to find in reminiscent phrases suggestions of influence. A man using English words with something of the surprising daring of the Irish peasants on whose talk Mr. Synge modelled his prose, using them, too, like a foreigner who has fallen in love with them, he is able to give them a morning freshness newer and stranger than is given them (though the words of all fine writers are newly discovered) by men whose ancestors have bandied them about. He uses them in short and long lines that, in his later books, learn more and more of rhythm. Rhyme he has not attempted, and it would, I think, have hampered the butterfly-flash of his verse from thought to thought. In The Summer Cloud many of the poems of his early books are altered to prose simply by the plan of their printing. The type is differently set on the page and they are called prose poems. I do not know what. led Noguchi to make this experiment, but it proved that the irregular, broken lines in which his poems were originally published had a real power over the effect the words produced. The spaces between the lines were a kind of thought punctuation, and the mind needed these moments between the little breathless, scarcely-worded sighs that make his poems. In reading them aloud it becomes clear that the ritual of the line-spacing was more important than that of commas or full-stops. Noguchi's songs are like bird flights, timing themselves with the pulse of the mind that follows them. His ideal is a poetry of pure suggestion whose melody shall be of thought, capricious and uncertain as the mind, but only with the mind's caprice, the mind's uncertainty. The following poem was printed as prose in The Summer Cloud, and as it stands here in The Pilgrimage.

Little Fairy,

Little Fairy by a hearth,

Flight in thine eyes,

Hush on thy feet,

Shall I go with thee up to Heaven

By the road of the fire-flame?

 

Little Fairy,

Little Fairy by a river,

Dance in thy heart,

Longing at thy lips,

Shall I go down with thee to 'Far-Away'

Rolling over the singing bubbles?

 

Little Fairy,

Little Fairy by a poppy,

Dream in thy hair,

Solitude under thy wings,

Shall I sleep with thee to-night in the golden cup,

Under the stars

It is easy, in reading it aloud, to recognise that its form is not accidental, but follows, breath for breath, the movements of the mind.

But who shall analyse charm, or separate the tints of the opal? In writing of Noguchi, I am writing of something that can only be defined by itself. I can only take shred after shred from the cloak of gossamer lie has woven for himself, and only hope in doing so to persuade other readers to buy his books and find for themselves a hundred shreds as beautiful as these. The frontispiece to The Pilgrimage is a reproduction or a drawing by Utamaro, a thing of four pale colours and a splash of black, and made as light as wind by curves as subtle and as indefinable as those traced by worshipping stars round the object of their adoration. I had forgotten that it is the picture of a girl, and that fact is, indeed, as immaterial as the titles of Noguchi's poems. In looking at it, I forget not only its subject, but the book in which it is, for this art, of poet or painter, Verlaine, Noguchi, Utamaro, Whistler, frees us, infecting us with its own freedom, from the world which is too much with us, for the exploration of that other world of dream which, unless we, too, are children, is with us so fitfully, and so seldom.

Beckoned by an appointed hand, unseen yet sure, in holy air,

We wander as a wind, silver and free,

With one song in heart, we, the children of prayer.

 

Our song is not of a city's fall;

No laughter of a kingdom bids our feet wait;

Our heart is away, with sun, wind and rain:

We, the shadowy roamers on the holy highway.

 

Notes:

Reprinted in Ransome, Portraits and Speculations (London: Macmillan, 1913).