Shiki and Wordsworth

VOL 1- 2 AUGUST 2001

WHC Shiki Centenary Celebrations

 Shiki and Wordsworth:  two shades of gold

Martin Lucas
Lancaster, UK
From the perspective of someone who practises that art of dubious validity, haiku in English, the value of the legacy of Shiki is undeniable. Two key results of his criticism and practice were the establishment of haiku as an independent genre, cut loose from the context of linked verse, and the method of the realistic sketch, shasei, which grounded haiku in the objective and accessible. With these developments, innocent Westerners were ultimately encouraged to believe that they could penetrate the mysteries of haiku and we acquired confidence to attempt the art ourselves. But since I expect many others will draw attention to these points, I do not wish to elaborate. Instead  I will turn to a brief examination of Shiki’s skill in concision:  his directness. We can learn much from his steady aim of the arrow of perception.

To make my case I will focus on a single tanka by Shiki in the translation of Janine Beichman. (I must trust the translator’s judgement since I am not in possession of the Japanese text:  I hope my argument doesn’t go astray.)

saw the country
and returned–now deep at night
I lie in bed and
fields of mustard flowers
bloom before my eyes

What I would like to do is to compare this poem with one of the most famous examples from English literature:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed? and gazed? but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Both poems perfectly exemplify Wordsworth’s dictum of “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. The coincidence is remarkable, and the contrasts, therefore, all the more instructive.

What is obvious about Wordsworth’s approach is that he rambles.  The whole basis of the poem is, indeed, a country ramble.  The first two words establish the pattern: “I wandered”. And we can proceed to discover further aspects of his technique: animism, didacticism, redundancy, reiteration, duplication and generalisation. I do not mean to imply that these tendencies are faults, they are merely conventions of English literary practice. Firstly, animism: The daffodils are “tossing their heads in sprightly dance” and they outdo the waves of the bay “in glee”. This observation prompts a didactic development. The poet’s response has an exemplary purpose, it seems, as if he is challenging the reader to share his happiness. Shiki’s mustard flowers, meanwhile, do nothing more than what flowers do, they “bloom”. His imagination in no way distorts their flower-nature. And when they bloom before Shiki’s eyes he simply tells us so, without special emphasis.  There may be a similar challenge to the reader, but it remains implicit; there is no explicit declaration that this constitutes poetic experience.

Redundancy, reiteration and duplication are all inter-related rhetorical methods.  Wordsworth’s daffodils are “golden”, probably because the metre demands an adjective at this point. Rhythmically, we can approve, but semantically the adjective is enfeebling. We are not so naive as to need to be told the colour of daffodils, and even if we were, “golden” is so approximate that you wonder if Wordsworth was really looking of blundering along in a blissful daze. Shiki trusts his reader to supply the colour of the mustard flowers.

Wordsworth’s reiteration is much more successful: “dancing” at the end of stanza one; “dance” at the end of stanza two; “danced” at the beginning of stanza three and “dances with the daffodils” as the finale. This accumulation provides a satisfying emphasis, bolstered by alliteration. It is impressive, but rather forceful, against which Shiki’s masterful understatement is refreshing if in no way superior.

Wordsworth duplicates all over the place: “vales and hills”; “a crowd, A host”, “shine And twinkle”;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing ..

Again there is a rhythmic satisfaction, but it leaves the reader feeling a little browbeaten. Shiki tells us once only and relies on our attention.

A further key difference comes at the end of each poem, the reflective experience. With Shiki, we sense a specific moment: “now deep at night”. For Wordsworth, the single moment is lost in a succession of similar occasions: “For oft, when on my couch I lie …”; “And then my heart with pleasure fills”. Not only does Shiki’s method have the merit of greater immediacy, it is also, again, pleasingly unassertive. It is simply what happens, whereas Wordsworth’s attempt to load the issue with significance obstructs the reader’s freedom of movement.

Three further contrasts spring to mind. Firstly, Wordsworth takes three six-line stanzas to tell the tale of the encounter (prior to the conclusion). Shiki could not be more blunt and to-the-point: “saw the country / and returned”. The very absence of exaltation in Shiki’s way of putting it seems almost perverse. But it sets up the reflective moment wonderfully. It comes across, at least in English, as almost bitter, or at any rate, dry. Whether we prefer this to Wordsworth’s perhaps cloying sweetness is a matter of taste.

Secondly, Wordsworth’s moments on the couch “In vacant or in pensive mood” seem almost a self-conscious attempt to conjure an uplifting experience. Shiki says, simply, “I lie in bed”. His aim appears to be the mundane business of getting to sleep, with the flower-vision as a by-product. It is all the more convincing for it.

Finally, let us pause to consider the relative merits of daffodils and mustard flowers. The latter doubtless have some cultural significance in Japan, a poetic essence, conventional associations of which I am ignorant. But they seem to me to be earthy and unassuming, lacking showy beauty, unremarkable unless seen as field after field, in which case they do take on a dazzling quality. They have a haikai humility, whereas the daffodils have a renga elegance. It is a light, airy, delightful elegance, to be sure, and Wordsworth captures it excellently, but his perception of its beauty is in no way remarkable. Shiki, by contrast, offers us the jolt of an unexpected discovery.

I wish to end this brief discussion with two postscripts. The first is a declaration that if I were offered the choice of one of these two poems to take to a desert island I would take the Wordsworth, because of its music and its richness. If the Shiki were all I had in the world, I might find it too dry, minimalist and unsatisfying. But read to cleanse the palate after Wordsworth, Shiki is superb:  as invigorating as a cold shower on a hot day.

… And this leads me to end on two of my favourite haiku by Shiki. We are approaching summer, and summer is, at least in Japan and in haiku, the most oppressive of the seasons. Thus it is a perfect time to relish the joy and refreshment of these two haiku. In both cases, Shiki comes straight to the point.  This is in Blyth’s translation, full of activity and life:

The summer river;
There is a bridge,
But the horse goes through the water.
natsukawa ya
hashi aredo uma
mizu o yuku

Notice the forcefulness of the horse, and the uninhibited delight in the element of water.  Different, and yet similar, is this peaceful scene.  (The translation is my own, a slight variation on Blyth.)

the coolness –
in the middle of the green rice-field
a single pine
a single pine
aota no naka
nihitotsu matsu

It seems visually to be static, but it evokes, without saying so, a sense of a pleasant summer breeze. Notice how the sense of touch, the “coolness”, and the sense of sight, the colour “green”, reinforce each other in a fused moment of reflective delight. I believe the fact that the pine is in the middle of the field is also significant. It seems, without any animistic consciousness, to share the determination of the horse: a single mind, which is no-mind. Again, Shiki has cut straight to the heart of the matter.

Shiki, as we all know, suffered with illness all his adult life, but in this tanka and these two haiku we sense the energy and vitality of his mind and spirit.  For modern-day practitioners of haiku in English there can be no better model.

May 2001

1. Shiki Masaoka, Jane Beichman, Twain Publishers, Boston, MA., 1982

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