By Alvin Langdon Coburn.
It was owing to my interest in the Japanese essays of Lafcadio Hearn that
I first became acquainted with the writings of Yone Noguchi--Hearn who, it seems
to me, has more than any other Occidental, given us the subtle perfume of the
East. I was in the book shop of Mr. C.C. Parker in Los Angeles, California, that
storehouse of literary treasures, and the presiding spirit, I remember, drew my
attention to a small exquisite yellow volume in a sage green case which I
thought at the time, and still think, one of the most attractive books I ever
beheld. Of course I carried it away with me in triumph, and having read it I
eagerly returned to Mr. Parker for more of Noguchi's books. I got that charming
volume, "The Summer Cloud," the beautiful two volume edition of "The
Pilgrimage," and the book of essays called "Kamakura."
It impresses me as strange but fitting that I should first have met Noguchi's work in California, the State [<33] in which he first became acquainted with a land other than his own, for it was to San Francisco that he came from Japan, and it was while wandering in the beautiful heights near Oakland that he met Joaquin Miller, the poet of the Sierras, who afterwards became so important a factor in his development.
The story is told that one day Miller working in his garden perceived a Japanese lad looking over the fence at him, and the following conversation took place:
"Where are you going?"
"Where are you staying?"
"What is your name?"
"Why don't you come and stay with me?"
And it impresses one with the unconventional kindliness
of American hospitality that Noguchi stayed with Miller
for six years, years which must have been of the
greatest possible service to him in his subsequent
career, for Miller I have heard was the centre of a
group of interesting people who would be just the ideal
associates for a young poet. I do not mean to suggest,
however, that even at this early age, Noguchi, who was
under twenty when he first went to America, was
definitely influenced in his work by anyone. His poetry
from the very beginning was strikingly original, and
The first work of Noguchi's to be printed appeared in that fantastic little magazine The Lark, edited by Gelett Burgess, and published by William Doxey in San Francisco. In number fifteen, dated July 1896, are five poems with an introduction entitled "The Night Reveries of an Exile," signed G. B. One line of the last of the three poems gives us in a single crystal the philosophy of Noguchi: "Ah, where is the man who lives out of himself?" The answer is obvious: he is himself such a one. In all his poems you feel this detachment. "Oh I am alone! Who knows my to-night's feelings?" he questions in almost a tearstained voice. The Lark was printed on Chinese paper of a rough texture with a very irregular deckel edge, a paper known and beloved by all frequenters of the Chinese quarters of American cities. It came out each month for two years, included some Stevenson fragments in its pages, and the two delightful bound volumes are now much sought after by collectors.
Noguchi's first book of verse "Seen and Unseen, or Monologues of a Homeless Snail" was published in the year 1897. It is very attractive with the wave pattern in gold on its red cloth cover. The frontispiece is a drawing made from a photograph of the Japanese poet just turned twenty, and looking very much younger, and each copy has a signature under the portrait, written in pencil in a round boyish hand. About this photograph, Noguchi once told me an amusing anecdote. It seems that he had at that time no collars, and, the idea of being photographed collarless being inconceivable, he hastily borrowed one from a friend for the occasion. The friend, unfortunately, was a large friend, with an amusing result in the photograph, which was copied with unnecessary accuracy, it seems to me, by the draughtsman in making his frontispiece, but perhaps not, for were it otherwise I would have had no excuse to tell you of this. We then come to the dedication: "Ah, who will care for my poetry? I do not know yet but I dare to hope that there may be some unknown friends and to them I lovingly dedicate these my songs." In the introduction, Gelett Burgess confesses: "If our hints and explanations of idiom and diction have aided him and if our hands, laid reverently upon his writings, have in some places cleared a few ambiguous constructions, how generously he has repaid the debt." We feel in this book the soul of the Orient in the body of the Occident, the ideas of Noguchi, clothed in the language of Gelett Burgess, and although the result is charming beyond measure, there is not the refreshing unexpectedness of the unadulterated Noguchi of the later poetry.
Then Noguchi went to that wonder place, the Yosemite. Valley, and his second book, a slender little volume, "The Voice of the Valley," was the result. What a, fitting experience for a poet! and in such lines as: "Alone I stray by mountain walls that support the enamelled mirror-sky," he shows us that the majesty of the place sank deep into his consciousness.
After his six years in California, Noguchi went east. During a fortnight's visit to Chicago, he wrote a caustic criticism of that city which caused a considerable sensation, and then he went on to New York where, in 1902, his "American Diary of a Japanese Girl " was published by Stokes. It was written anonymously, that is, it purported to have been written by a Miss Morning Glory and contained the highly amusing adventures of a young Japanese maiden on a visit to America with her uncle. Every page contains a sentence worth quoting. She goes to visit the wife of an exconsul to Japan, whose house is filled with Oriental curios like a Chinese bazaar, and Miss Morning Glory wonders how this lady could have lived in Japan without learning the message of simplicity. "Every inch of the Schuyler's parlour means a heap of money," is the quaint and pertinent comment. Then there is the bit about the poet whom her uncle is taking her to visit:
"Great Uncle, it's romantic! Is he married?"
"Because a poet is not one woman's property, but universal. My ideal poet is melancholy. Fat poet is ridiculous. Happy poet isn't of highest order. Tennyson? I wish his life had been more hard up. I suppose your friend poet won't mind if I sleep all day. Is he so particular about dinner time? Does he look up at the stars every night? Does he wash his shirt once in a while?"
These two extracts are taken quite at random, but there
are plenty more, for instance: "American women can't
keep away from Omar and chicken salad." The book has
gone through several editions. in Japan, and may now be
procured in England from Elkin Mathews, produced in the
Oriental manner. In this last edition of the book,
Noguchi has acknowledged his authorship.
About this time, Noguchi came to England, and from his lodgings in Brixton Road he published, on, January 15th, 1903, a sixteen page brown paper pamphlet entitled "From the Eastern Sea, Yone Noguchi'. (Japanese)." This he sent to poets and authors of eminence, and its reception was extraordinary when [<34 /35] one considers that he was, at that time, practically unknown in England. George Meredith wrote: "Your poems are another instance of the energy, mysteriousness and poetical feeling of the Japanese, from whom we are receiving much instruction." Thomas Hardy wrote: "I am much attracted by the novel metaphor and qualifying words, which often are full of beauty, the luxuriance of phrase suggesting beds of Eastern flowers under the moonlight," and there are words of praise from Mrs. Meynell, "Fiona Macleod," Andrew Lang, Austin Dobson, Professor Giles and many others. The sixth page of this brown paper pamphlet contains one of the most exquisite thoughts in Noguchi's poetry:
"When I am lost in the deep body of the mist on a hill
The universe seems built with me as its pillar."
Later in the year, an enlarged edition of this book
containing over three times the number of poems, was published by the Unicorn
Press of London, in 1904 it was reprinted in Tokyo with still further additions,
and in 1910 it was published by Elkin Mathews in its final and most beautiful
form with its Fuji-mountain end papers.
Noguchi now returned home, and his next book, "Kicho No Ki," was printed in 1904 and only published in Japan. It is interesting because it is partly in English and partly in Japanese. It has a Japanese cover on what we consider the back of the book, and an English cover on what they consider the back of the book, and the text begins at both ends and works towards the middle! To the best of my knowledge and belief, it is quite unique in this respect. The Japanese part of the book is a description of Noguchi's travels abroad, and it is interspersed with quotations from English poets.
At home in his native land, Noguchi published "The Summer Cloud," a charming little volume of prose poems (The Shunyodo, Tokyo, 1906); edited The Iris, a quarterly magazine of poetry which only ran to two numbers (June and September, 1906), but which contains besides poems by the editor and other interesting things, a facsimile poem by Arthur Symons: "Japan," which he dedicated to Noguchi; and he also brought out in 1909 the two-volume edition of "The Pilgrimage," which contains much of his best verse.
In 1910 came the first book of essays, "Kamakura," embellished with half tones of indifferent quality which look all the cruder by their contact with the beautiful Japanese paper on which the body of the book is printed. The essays themselves are, however, needless to remark, delightful. In the "Temple of Silence" there is a passage which we of the modern city with its din of motor omnibuses, would do well to read and take to heart: "I had journeyed from Tokyo, the hive of noise, here to read a page or two from the whole language of silence which, far from mocking you with all sorts of crazy-shaped interrogation marks, soothes you with the song of prayer."
In 1910 also, Noguchi published "Lafcadio Hearn in Japan," which is an enthusiastic appreciation of one of my favourite writers. If it had only been for this book I should have felt in Noguchi a kindred spirit before I met him. It gives first an essay on Hearn, then a defence after reading Dr. Gould's unpleasant "Biography"; and Mrs. Hearn's reminiscences and the translations of the letters to "Little Sweet Mamma" are written in such a delightful way that they give3 an intimate personal picture which throws all sorts of charming sidelights on favourite stories by Koizumi. This was the first book of Noguchi's, I believe, to be published simultaneously in Japan, England and America: by Kelly and Walsh, Yokohama; Elkin Mathews, London; and Mitchell Kennerley, New York.
We now come to Noguchi's last book "Through the Torii," but as it was reviewed in the February number of The Bookman, it will be unnecessary for me to say anything further about it here.
Early in 1912 I wrote to Noguchi. I was in California at the time and he was in Japan. I told him in my letter that I admired his poetry, that I had his book "The Summer Cloud," and that I was sending him a photograph of my own on the same subject. I received in reply a tapering green envelope which contained a charming letter written in that fine delicate handwriting which it has been my good fortune to see many times since. In it he told me the list of his books that I had sent him was quite complete, and then having said some kind things about my photography, he ended by hoping that I would come to Japan "before she will lose her own original Japanese appearance."
Upon my return to London our correspondence continued, and it was with great pleasure I learned that Noguchi was coming here also, for a second visit, and I eagerly awaited his arrival, and an opportunity to make a photograph of so rare a poet.
One day early in December, 1913, my morning post contained a mysterious little package of unmistakable Japanese origin, but postmarked Marseilles. It was an advance copy of "Through the Torii" and a letter saying that on the 14th, if I would be at home, he would come and see me. And so on a bright December morning he came, looking more like a poet in his Japanese garments than I believed it possible for any human being to look in these modern times. We talked of books and art through the morning and afternoon, and I made the much desired and long anticipated photographs.
And now that I have known Noguchi, I go back to his books with a renewed interest. His is the quiet calm of the contemplative East. That he is not given to idle talk for its own sake it is easy to see, for in contrasting the Japan of to-day with that of a hundred years ago, in his book about Hearn, he says that "the interruptions which pass nowadays under the hypocritical name of sociableness did not flap in the air so wantonly"; but that he can lecture with sincerity and purpose many have been privileged to discover during his present visit to England.[<36]