BI. Amy Lowell


8. Pictures of the Floating World. New York: Macmillan, 1919. Reprint, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927.

Reprints earlier Lacquer Prints (4 and 5) and expands the sequence. Though Lowell’s ‘Japanese things’ were not well received by all (see especially 37), they were enormously popular. The first edition of this work was sold out in advance of its 24 September publication date. The title is taken from a common translation of ukiyoe. See also 24.

a. Circumstance. Durnell (A55) writes that the poem ‘bears a close analogy to a haiku by Buson [Ap] ’, but does not say which. The work bears close similarity to many Japanese verses about autumn. The dew ‘shines red’ on the maple leaves, but on the lotus blossom ‘has the pale transparence of tears’. Compare, for example, to Chiyo’s koborete wa / tada no mizunari / beni no tsuyu, in which the dew in a ‘rouge flower’ becomes transparent when spilled from the flower cup.

b. Angles. Durnell is surely right when she suggests a source in ukiyoe, probably by Hiroshige (Ap), for this brief description of rain falling.

c. Yoshiwara Lament. Four lines depicting a spring scene and the longing of a woman whose lover does not return to her.

d. The Pond. When Durnell suggests that the poem ‘probably owes its inception to Bashô [Ap] ’, she presumably has in mind the famous furuike ya, frog, pond, sound of water hokku. Lowell’s poem is brief—four lines—and does include a frog and a pond, and so probably she would have had the Bashô in mind, though the poem is neither a translation nor adaptation of that poem.

e. The Return. Miner (A25) notes the ‘subtle’ debt to ukiyoe, and that Lowell was more inclined to incorporate the unusual detail from Japanese sources than other poets of the period: ‘Only a reader familiar with the block print would know that the composition of the picture . . . —a woman at her toilette with her features depicted only by their reflection in a mirror—is borrowed from an artist like [Hosoda] Eishi’; and ‘only . . . Lowell among the Imagists was capable of such a fillip of Orientalia as the metal Japanese mirror’.

f. Nuance. Miner observes that in several of the Lacquer Prints ‘slight changes in imagery or in situation do not disguise the degree to which [Lowell] borrowed many of the short poems she had been reading in translation’. Here, an iris bends under the slight weight of a butterfly, and Miner notes the ‘echo’ from a Bashô hokku in which a jonquil bends under the slight weight of the year’s first snow. See also g, h, and r below.

g. Autumn Haze. Two lines in which the speaker wonders whether what she sees settling ‘softly down upon the water’ is a dragonfly or a maple leaf; Miner points out that the conceit is that of Moritake’s famous rakka eda ni (Ap), in which what appears to be a blossom returning to its branch turns out to be a butterfly.

h. Peace. Miner again finds an antecedent in haiku, and notes as well that in this poem the haiku ‘even proved useful in expressing such contemporaneous events as the armistice which followed the First World War’. In Lowell’s poem, a butterfly opens and closes its wings on the muzzle of a cannon; in Buson’s tsurigane ni / tomarite nemuru / kochô kana the butterfly is asleep on a temple bell.

i. Again the New Year Festival. Five lines that include details associated with shôgatsu, the new year: a red lacquer sake cup, bronze lanterns, and the wind-bells of summer (fûrin) corroded and fallen to the ground.

j. Time. As the speaker gazes into a bronze mirror she sees ‘faintly outlined, / The figure of a crane / Engraved upon its back’. The crane in both China and Japan has long been a symbol of longevity, and indeed was often used for decoration on artefacts such as mirrors. 

k. Pilgrims Ascending Fuji-yama. The speaker is not disturbed by ‘showers of ashes’ dislodged by the feet of pilgrims ascending Fuji because she knows that ‘at night they fly upward / And spread themselves once more / Upon the slopes of the Honourable Mountain’.

l. The Kagoes of a Returning Traveller. In the four-line poem the speaker mistakes the sounds of the bearers of a palanquin (kago) for the beating of wings in a stand of cryptomeria.

m. A Street. A hokku-like three lines about a procession of geisha passing before a silk shop called the Matsuzakaya.

n. Outside a Gate. Two lines derived from Lowell’s keen sense of the imagery, motifs, diction, and tone of hokku, if not from a specific haiku itself: ‘On the floor of the empty palanquin / The plum-petals constantly increase.’

o. Road to the Yoshiwara. Again Lowell’s details are perfectly selected to remind of hokku. Along the ‘Nihon Embankment’ of an unnamed river that would be the Sumidagawa, a traveller on his way to an assignation in the Yoshiwara notes the darkening of the road as wild geese pass across the moon.

p. Ox Street. Takanawa. Four lines revolving around a central image of melon slices beside an empty cart. Takanawa was a district of Edo and remains a place name in modern Tokyo.

q. A Daimio’s Oiran. The speaker dresses her hair with chrysanthemums when she hears the daimyô’s ‘runners’ shouting to the peasants to ‘get down! get down!’ as the Lord approaches. Lowell was fond of such imagery. Compare 7a6, 7a9, and l above.

r. Passing the Bamboo Fence. In Nuance (f) Lowell takes over from Bashô the image of a flower bent by the slightest of weights; here a related image returns in a hokku-like two lines: ‘What fell upon my open umbrella— / A plum blossom?’

s. Frosty Evening. Four lines that depend on the image of a shadow visible through shôji, the ‘paper windows’ of a traditional Japanese house.

t. An Artist. Relies on the legend of the priest and poet Kisen (fl. ca. 810-824), who is said to have composed a thousand poems, but destroyed all but one. Among English-language poets making use of Japanese materials in the first quarter of the century, only Lowell was capable of incorporating such a detail. Kisen is, in fact, remembered for but one poem, though his mention by Ki no Tsurayuki (Ap) in the preface to the Kokinshû (Ap) places him in the ranks of the rokkasen (see BC20h).

u. Daybreak. Yoshiwara. Four lines of advice to those who must depart the Yoshiwara on a misty, grey morning.

v. Temple Ceremony. Lowell acknowledges in a note that this is a version of a poem by Henjô (c. 816-890), another of the rokkasen. Like poems she works from and does not acknowledge in 4e and 5, Henjô’s tanka appeared in the Kokinshû and later in the Hyakunin isshu.

w. Two Porters Returning Along a Country Road. An ‘empty kago [see l] can be carried upon the back of one man’, and so the other ‘has nothing to do / But gaze at the white circle / Drawn about the flying moon’.

x. The Exiled Emperor. The single image is of the emperor’s birds that ‘tomorrow . . . will be flown / Many miles across the tossing sea’, presumably with the emperor into exile. The emperor in question likely would be Gotoba (1180-1239) or his son Juntoku (1197-1242), both prominent figures in the poetry of their day.

y. Constancy. Again Lowell’s detail is remarkable for 1919 and for one who had not been to Japan. Not many outside of the country would have known of the custom of writing one’s hopes on a slip of paper and tying it to the branch of a tree at a sacred place, that the gods may grant the wish. Fewer still who had not been to Nara would know of the seven trees of seven varieties growing from a single trunk in a small courtyard amid the great red buildings at Kasugi Taisha. In Lowell’s poem, vows of love taken many years in the past remain ‘tied to the great trunk / Of the seven separate trees / In the courtyard of the Crimson Temple / At Nara’.

z. Free Fantasia on Japanese Themes. A reverie about climbing sacred mountains, reclining on a balcony in beautiful kimono, singing and playing the shamisen, and other ‘Japanese themes’. Miner notes the ‘Whistlerian title’, and believes the poem demonstrates that Lowell ‘consciously attempted to combine Whistler’s art and the [Japanese] print’. Of the passage beginning ‘I would sit in a covered boat’, he notes that only by comparing identical subjects in Whistler’s paintings of Battersea Bridge and Hiroshige’s ‘Fireworks at Ryôgoku Bridge’ may one properly understand the ‘cross-fertilizing’ that has ‘taken place between two cultures and three artistic media’, for ‘all three present the same artistic composition’. Reprinted in 17.

aa. At the Booksellers. Set in nineteenth-century Japan. The speaker describes the shop and several of the ukiyoe sold there. Schwartz notes a resemblance to lines in Edmond de Goncourt’s Outamaro (see D7). The reference to the publisher ‘Tsoutaya’ who has grown rich from the prints would be to Tsutaya Jûzaburô, whose seal appears on prints by Utamaro, Toyokuni, Sharaku, and others.





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