Hagiwara Sakutarō Essay - Critical Essays

Sakutarō, Hagiwara


Hagiwara Sakutarō 1886-1942

Japanese poet, critic, and essayist.

Hagiwara Sakutarō is considered by many critics to be the father of modern Japanese poetry. He was among the first poets to break away from the traditional, strictly metered forms of Japanese poetry-tanka and haiku. He also established a new aesthetic in Japanese poetry in which he attained a sustained poetic lyricism by using colloquial Japanese speech in free verse poems. Hagiwara was deeply influenced by European nihilistic philosophies, and his poems, which often center on existential anxiety, are pervaded by melancholy and nostalgia.

Biographical Information

Hagiwara was born into a middle-class family in the provincial town of Maebashi, where his father was a successful physician. While in middle school, he took a keen interest in literature and began submitting traditional tanka poems to the literary magazine Bunko. He later withdrew from school due to poor health, and he made sporadic attempts to earn his high school degree into his twenties. At home, Hagiwara devoted himself to poetry and the study of Japanese and European literature. He also had an aptitude for music, and he studied the mandolin and guitar. By 1910, Hagiwara had become a regular contributor to several poetry journals. He spent several years living a somewhat Bohemian life, drifting between his hometown and Tokyo. During this time he explored his interest in Western philosophy and literature, and for a brief period he attended Christian churches. His lifestyle drew criticism from the Maebashi bourgeoisie, and his poetry includes many spiteful remarks about his native community. In 1916, he cofounded the magazine Kanjō with Murō Saisei, an author whose poems he greatly admired. The magazine featured a new style of modern Japanese poetry that was distinct from the highly intellectual poems that other magazines of the day were publishing. The following year Hagiwara published his first poetry collection, Tsuki ni hoeru. The collection, which introduced Hagiwara's extraordinary talent for using colloquial speech in a free verse style, gained wide critical acclaim and established his reputation as a significant new voice in Japanese poetry. He followed this success with several more volumes of poetry, criticism, and poetic theory. Despite his solid literary reputation, Hagiwara relied on his family for financial support throughout his life. In 1919, Hagiwara married Uedo Ineko, with whom he had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1929. His second marriage, to Ōya Mitsuko in 1938, lasted only eighteen months. Much of Hagiwara's poetry conveys the isolation and loneliness that he felt, and his later works, particularly the poems in his 1934 collection Hyōtō, are characterized by an increasingly despondent and nostalgic tone. He taught at the University of Meiji in Tokyo from 1934 until the year of his death. He died in 1942.

Major Works

Hagiwara's first poetry collection, Tsuki ni hoeru, had a wide and immediate impact on the Japanese literary community. Although the collection contains some traditional tanka, many of the poems are written in a colloquial vernacular in a loose, unmetered form. Hagiwara's success at elevating common Japanese speech to a poetic form was unprecedented. In this volume, commentators noted, Hagiwara essentially created a new aesthetic in modern Japanese poetry. In the preface to the work Hagiwara wrote, "Before this collection not a single poem had been written in colloquial language of this style, and before this collection the animation in the poetry one senses today did not exist." Critics also note that the poems in this collection were among the first in modern Japanese poetry to address questions of existential anxiety. In the title piece, "Howling at the Moon," Hagiwara likened the desperate psychological state of humanity to a lonely dog plaintively wailing at the moon. Throughout the collection, in poems such as "A Hanging in Heaven" and "An Ailing Face at the Bottom of the Earth," Hagiwara created characters who are ridden with despair. Hagiwara's second collection of poems, Aoneko, achieved even greater critical acclaim than his first. The poems in this volume reveal Hagiwara's personal interest in the nihilistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and the pessimistic ideology of Buddhism. The collection centers on abstract, metaphysical themes in which characters are nostalgic for times and places that they have never experienced. Hagiwara published a second "definitive" edition of the volume in 1936, in which he included the poem "The Corpse of a Blue Cat." The piece is a sad and nostalgic love poem in which time and memory are displaced. In it, the speaker says, "We have no past, no future, / And have faded away from the things of reality." Hagiwara's last major collection of poetry, Hyōtō (1934), received mixed critical reviews. In this volume, Hagiwara abandoned his innovative use of colloquial Japanese and returned to writing in a more formal language in metered verse. The poems in the volume are set in a more realistic context, and they convey an overwhelming sense of despair and bitterness. In the autobiographical poem "Returning to My Parents' Home," for example, Hagiwara recounted the anger and rejection that he felt after his first wife left him. In addition to his poetry, Hagiwara was widely respected for his volumes on poetic theory. His most noted work, Shi no genri (1928), laid out his conception of what he contended should be the principal aims of poetry. In aphoristic statements Hagiwara asserted that poetry should strive to convey transcendental themes and be critical of reality.

Principal Works

Tsuki ni hoeru [Howling at the Moon] (poems) 1917

Aoneko [The Blue Cat] (poems) 1923

Junjō Shōkyoku Shū [Short Songs of Pure Feelings] (poems) 1925

Shi no genri [Principles of Poetry] (criticism) 1928

Hyōtō [The Ice Land] (poems) 1934

Nekomachi [The Cat Town] (prose) 1935

Kyōshū no shijin Yosa Buson [Yosa Buson: The Poet of Nostalgia] (criticism) 1936

Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems (poems) 1969


Graeme Wilson (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: An introduction to Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems by Hagiwara Sakutarō, translated by Graeme Wilson, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1969, pp. 11-32.

[In the following excerpt, Wilson discusses Hagiwara's contributions to modern Japanese poetry, noting the influences of European philosophy on his works and his success at integrating western and Japanese poetic styles.]

Hagiwara began writing during that critical period in the history of Japanese literature when western influences, almost overwhelming in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), were at last being so successfully assimilated as to permit the regrowth of that essentially Japanese spirit which characterized the succeeding Taisho Era (1912-26). By 1910 the seeds dropped from foreign flowers, not all of them Fleurs du Mal, into the loam of Japanese consciousness were coming up like cryptomeria. Wakon yōsai, that Meiji slogan stressing the need to meld "western learning and the Japanese spirit", was still a living inspiration; and Hagiwara, working in full awareness there of, achieved universality.

It is still sometimes said that the artist's function is to hold a mirror up to nature. The time when that remark was true, if ever such a time there was, is now long past. The photographers have taken over; the photographers who implement the lawyers' pettifogging mania for reasonable facsimiles. The artist's function is (and has, I fancy, always been) to hold up mirrors that transmit not the photographers' literal reality but the artist's individual, even his cracked, perception of the universe. His function in the world is, I believe, to create unreasonable facsimiles thereof. For artists, especially lyric poets such as Hagiwara, are not concerned with truths verifiable by photographs, by the due processes of the law, or by the disciplines of formal logic. They have those reasons reason does not know. Hagiwara was once asked to explain the meaning of an early poem. He replied by asking if his questioner considered beautiful the nightingale's song. On receiving the inevitable affirmative, he then asked what that bird-song meant.… For Hagiwara holds no mirror, cracked or commonplace, up to nature: mirrors need light. Instead, he turns a radar onto nature's hitherto unpenetrated darknesses, feeling out shapes invisible. The resultant images, shining, golden or greeny-silver, often indeed distorted, may, to a photographer's eye, seem odd; but they are authentic versions, visions even, of the truth. For Hagiwara was a native of that strange world where Dylan Thomas' question ("Isn't life a terrible thing, thank God") really needs no answer. And of that world his poems are a terrible, but a beautiful, reporting.

Hagiwara's earliest truly modern poems, of which the first examples appeared in magazines during 1913, show traces of the influence of Baudelaire and the French Symbolists. He has, in fact, been called "the Japanese Baudelaire" but, though there are obvious resemblances in their attitudes, Hagiwara's poetry (as distinct from his prose) contains none of the intellectualism of his predecessor. Similarly, those poems in which he shows most resemblance to Rimbaud are in the lighter lyrical field; and it is interesting to compare Hagiwara's "Elegant Appetite" with Rimbaud's Au Cabaret Vert, the latter the poem in which Ezra Pound considers Rimbaud's real originality to be found. Though Hagiwara's work rings with a certain natural pessimism and despair (themselves reflections of ill health, ill nerves and plain ill-luck), its tone was deepened by study of Nietzsche, Bergson and Schopenhauer. Not only his first book but also his middle-period poetry (notably the poems in "To Dream of a Butterfly" of 1923 and "Blue Cat" of the same year) exhibit that pure but desperate lyricism which German critics have called "the Keats' sickness". These poems do not argue: they sing. They are, in Japanese, songs of those very nightingales which, in T. S. Eliot's poem,

Sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.

As Hagiwara aged, his poetry began to lose its lyrical purity and, though it never sank to the level of logical argument, it did begin to organize its imagery into a sort of argument by visual analogy. At the same time he reverted to a more frequent use of the classical Japanese literary vocabulary (a vocabulary or, to be more precise, a syllabary derived from the Chinese), and his poems so acquired a clanging rather than a singing quality. These stylistic changes, of which "Late Autumn" is a good example, have been praised as marking Hagiwara's development, albeit belatedly, towards a more masculine manner. Such may indeed have been the poet's own intention, but I share Miyoshi's view that the change was a retrogression. I would not go so far as to echo that comment ("Even the powerful bow weakens in the end") which so annoyed Hagiwara, but there can be no doubt that his later poetry contains intellectual elements which adulterate, if they do not actually sour, his earlier pure lyricism. His prose writings demonstrate his reasoned (and, I think, rightly reasoned) antipathy to the styles of political poetry which, almost world wide, characterized the schools of the 1930s; but so far as these poets were poets and not political theorists or would-be politicians, Hagiwara shared their everdeepening sense of anger, sadness and despair. Some of his later poems such as "Useless Book" and "What I Don't Have Is Everything" are almost querulous. He became eventually so bankrupt of all hope that, in Auden's terrifying words (which might well have been his own), he moved towards the ultimate silence of death

Saying Alas
To less and less.

The reasons for Hagiwara's importance in the history of modern Japanese literature (and, indeed, in the whole history of Japanese literature) may be summarized under the following six headings: his use of novel forms, his use of novel language, his escape from the bonds of traditional metric rhythms, his entirely personal music, his astonishing personal vision, and his unprecedented achievement of sustained lyricism.

The earliest collection of Japanese poetry (the Manyōshū of 759) consists largely of tanka, but it also contains many poems in the longer forms of the chōka and sedōka. However, by the time that Ki no Tsurayuki wrote his catalytic Preface to the Kokinshū (the First Imperial Anthology of 905), the Japanese poetic tradition had already begun to crystallize into a tradition of pure lyricism. "Poetry", wrote Tsurayuki, "has its seeds in man's heart"; and this view of poetry as lyricism necessitating no breadth of learning in the lyricist has remained the main strand of the Japanese poetic tradition. Such a tradition demands precisely that intensity of feeling which is always most tellingly expressed in short forms; and for this reason the chōka and sedōka withered away. Though at various times in the subsequent development of Japanese poetry, poets struggled for the freedom of such other longer forms as the imayō, kouta, dodoitsu and jōruri, the five-line tanka remained the normal mode of expression. Some measure of freedom appeared to be offered by the development of linked verse (renga) in which often different poets would compose successive three-line and two-line groups: but, in the event, this breaking of the tanka into a three-line upper hemistich (kami no ku) of 5:7:5 syllables and a two-line lower hemistich (shimo no ku) of 7:7 syllables merely resulted in a yet greater compression of Japanese poetic form. For the upper hemistich embarked on an independent development to become that flower of Edo poetry, now shriveled to a tourist's gaud, the three-line haiku. Thus, at the time when contact was reestablished with the outside world in 1868, the main tradition of Japanese poetry was rigidly confined within the narrow courses of the tanka and the haiku. The notion of poetry as a vehicle for intellectual thought, the concept of the poetry of social protest, the didactic element in Chinese poetry; all these had perished with Yamanoue no Okura (660-733) from the Japanese tradition.

The first result in the poetic field of the Meiji reopening of windows on the west was the appearance in 1882 of Shintaishi (New Style Poetry), a collection of translations of early nineteenth century English poems edited by three Professors (significantly of philosophy, botany and sociology) at the University of Tokyo. The Preface sharply attacked the cramping brevity of traditional forms ("How can a consecutive thought be expressed in such tight forms?"); and three further collections (Shimazaki Tōson's Seedlings in 1887, Mori Ōgai's Semblances in 1889 and Ueda Bin's Sound of the Tide in 1905) pursued the same line of attack but broadened the scope of...

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Charles Dunn (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: A review of Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems, in Pacific Affairs, Vol. XLIII, No. 3, Fall 1970, pp. 481-82.

[In the following review, Dunn offers a favorable review of Hagiwara's Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems.]

This book includes forty poems by Hagiwara (1886-1942), in an English version by Graeme Wilson, who also provides a short but enthusiastic introduction. I think it is true to say that Hagiwara's poems were characterized by a freshness of thought, and a clarity of description, in which language not greatly differing from the ordinary was used to write about things that were blinding by original, and sometimes...

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The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Transmutations of a Westernizer," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3618, July 2, 1971, p. 755.

[In the following review, the critic asserts that translator Graeme Wilson's use of traditionally western images distorts the meaning of the poems in Hagiwara's Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems.]

Owing to some remarkable resemblances in tone and imagery Hagiwara Sakutarō has had the misfortune of being dubbed "the Japanese Baudelaire". In much the same way Chikamatsu Monzaemon became "Japan's Shakespeare" and Osaka (of all places) "the Venice of Japan". Such pairings compel invidious comparisons and are invariably unfair to the supposed Japanese...

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F. D. Reeve (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems, in Poetry, CXVIII, No. 4, July 1971, pp. 234-38.

[In the following review, Reeve offers a positive assessment of Hagiwara's Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems and praises Graeme Wilson's translations of the poems in the collection.]

Having no Japanese and not trusting Amy Lowell's What's o'Clock? or other Imagist imitations of Japanese style, such as Richard Aldington's:

One frosty night when the guns were still
I leaned against the trench
Making for myself hokku
Of the moon and flowers and of the snow


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Graeme Wilson (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Some Longer Poems of Hagiwara Sakutarō," in Japan Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1972, pp. 170-81.

[In the following essay, Wilson assesses critical appraisals of Hagiwara's works.]

The last few years have seen a steady enhancement, both within Japan and outside Japan, of the reputation of Hagiwara Sakutarō as the best poet there to have emerged during the last hundred years. His outstanding quality has, of course long been recognized by his more perceptive fellow-countrymen. "He was," wrote Miyoshi Tatsuji, "the greatest poet on earth. Such a poet could hardly be found in an hundred years." But that recognition has often been qualified by a basic feeling,...

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Makoto Ueda (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Hagiwara Sakutaro," in Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, Stanford University Press, 1983, pp. 137-83.

[In the following excerpt, Ueda discusses the conception of poetry that Hagiwara put forth in his Principles of Poetry and analyses his works within that critical framework.]

Hagiwara Sakutarō (1886-1942) is generally considered the most original of the poets who helped perfect the art of free-style poetry in modern Japan. Shi existed before him: Shiki, Akiko, and Takuboku, along with many other poets, tried their hands at that new verse form. But in two respects Sakutarō's contribution outweighs that of anyone else. First, his...

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Donald Keene (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Taishō Period (1912-1926)," in Dawn to the West, Japanese Literature of the Modern Era: Poetry, Drama, Criticism, Vol. 25, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984, pp. 255-91.

[In the following excerpt, Keene discusses the emotional characteristics of Hagiwara's poetry and his innovative use of colloquial language.]

Hagiwara is by common consent the chief figure of modern Japanese poetry. He is not an easy poet, and the exact interpretations of many works elude the exegesis of even his most devoted admirers, but his work both commands the respect of other poets and critics and is popular with the general public. The novelist and poet Fukunaga Takehiko gave a...

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