BI. Amy Lowell

4. Lacquer Prints. Poetry 9 (March 1917): 302-07.

    Reprinted in Pictures of the Floatinf World.  

The first publication of Lacquer Prints as a series (see also 5 and 8), though according to Damon (29) by 1919 individual poems from the sequence had appeared in more than thirty journals, some as early as 1912. The brief works make use throughout of overtly Japanese material. Lowell writes in the foreword to a later expanded version of the series (8) that she has ‘endeavoured . . . to keep the brevity and suggestion of the hokku, and to preserve it within its natural sphere’, though she ‘made no attempt to observe the syllabic rules which are an integral part of . . . Japanese poetry’; while some of her subjects are ‘purely imaginary’, she notes that others ‘are taken from [Japanese] legends or historical events’, and others yet from ‘the vivid, realistic colour-prints of the Japanese masters’ of ukiyoe. Unlike such contemporaries as Ficke and Fletcher, whose attempts to incorporate Japanese motifs into their verse were often jarring (see, for example, BG4l and BH7d, e, i, q, x, y, and ad), Lowell has a sure hand with the material. Hughes (A19) notes the occasional conceit that ‘even to a tolerant reader’ will ‘appear absurd’, and Lowell’s friend D. H. Lawrence berated her for the ‘saddening’ use of ‘Japanese things’ (see 37), but the poems are largely accurate in detail, and as a result remain more readable today than much of the verse japonaiserie of the period. The work is discussed in some detail in Schwartz (A18 and BI28), Miner (A25), Durnell (A55), and Kodama (A59). Musical adaptations are †Alexander Steinert’s ‘Four Lacquer Prints’ (Paris: Senart, 1922; reprint, 1932), †Mary Howe’s ‘Three Hokku’ (New York: Galaxy, 1959) and †Lyell Cresswell, ‘Six Poems by Amy Lowell: Mezzo-Soprano and Piano’ (Wellington, N. Z.: Waiteata Press, 1991). Reprinted in 8 and 14. Some poems not noted below for lack of explicit connection to Japanese materials nonetheless rely on themes familiar in Japanese tradition. See also 20a, 24b-c, and 39.

a. Streets. According to a note the poem was ‘adapted from the poet Yakura Sanjin, 1769’, and Damon (29) adds that Ficke had translated Sanjin’s work from the German, but both references are obscure. The name Yakura Sanjin is not among those in Japanese literary records of the period, and nothing similar appears in Ficke’s published work. In any case, the poem is a striking description of beautiful women in beautiful garments, viewed by the speaker while wandering through the ‘eight hundred and eight streets’ of Edo.

b. Desolation. Three lines about nightingales under plum blossoms. Durnell finds the source in an unnamed print by Hiroshige (Ap), but Kodama is probably right in tracing it to ‘Five Nightingales and Pale Red Plum’ by Hokusai (Ap), a reproduction of which appeared in Kachôgaden, a compilation of ukiyoe Lowell owned and bequeathed to the library at Harvard.

c. A Year Passes. Kodama notes that Lowell has learned from ukiyoe much about the depiction of ‘the fragility of beauty and of life’ and cites this brief poem as an example.

d. To a Husband. The words of the speaker’s ‘beloved’ are ‘brighter than the fireflies upon the Uji River’, which has been renowned since the Heian period for its gatherings of fireflies.

e. From China. Miner was the first to note Lowell’s unacknowledged use here of a tanka by Abe no Nakamaro (c. 700-770, ama no hara / furisake mireba . . . ), a work printed in both the Kokinshû (Ap) and the Hyakunin isshu (Ap). In Nakamaro’s poem, written on the eve of the his return to Japan after three decades in China, the speaker views the moon and is moved that it is the same moon that shines on his homeland. The situation here is identical, though Lowell’s speaker adds that upon thinking of home his ‘tears fell / Like white rice grains / At [his] feet’, a simile that Miner notes correctly is ‘very un-Japanese’. Kodama speculates that Lowell’s source for this work and Temple Ceremony (8v) is Porter’s Hyakunin isshu (see D20), but in a third poem derived from the Hyakunin isshu Lowell introduces into the transcription of the poet’s name two errors not found in Porter (see 5).

f. Document. Schwartz demonstrates that a quote from Hokusai here is a direct translation from the French of Edmond de Goncourt’s Hokousaï (see D7, p. 180). See 7, 7a8, and 7a11 for other examples of Lowell’s unacknowledged borrowing from other works.

g. The Emperor’s Garden. In midsummer the emperor has the ‘miniature mountains’ in his garden draped with white silk so that he may ‘cool his eyes / With the sparkle of snow’. It has been believed in Japan that on particularly hot summer days the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) had the hill behind Kinkakuji so draped.

h. One of the ‘Hundred Views of Fuji’ by Hokusai. The thirsty speaker fills a sake cup with water and is surprised to find a reflection of Fuji floating in it ‘like a dropped leaf’. Durnell suggests a source among Hokusai’s views of the mountain reflected in a lake, but Kodama notes that among the ‘One Hundred Views’ is indeed a reflection of Fuji in a sake cup, and that an 1835 edition of One Hundred Views of Fuji was among the books Lowell bequeathed to the Library at Harvard.

i. Disillusion. Relates the story of a scholar who hurls himself into Asamayama, a volcano in central Honshu on the border of present-day Gumma and Nagano prefectures.

j. Paper Fishes. A brief work that derives its central image from koinobori, the ‘carp streamers’ flown in Japan to celebrate Children’s Day, formerly a boy’s festival, 5 May.

k. The CamellIa Tree of Matsue. The longest of the Lacquer Prints recalls the ‘ghostly Japan’ of Hearn (D9). When the moon rises a camellia tree of great beauty is known to ‘leave its place / By the gateway, / And wander . . . the garden, / Trailing its roots behind’; and when it is felled and the stump torn from the ground at the request of the frightened lady of the house, a ‘stream of dark blood’ spouts forth, and the ‘the hole quiver[s] like an open wound’. Various Japanese legends, including several recounted in the nô, assume that a soul may inhabit a tree. Though no specific source for Lowell’s tale may be found in Hearn, he discusses similar legends in some detail in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (see D9a). The poem includes reference to the shôji, paper windows, of the traditional house.





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