Idealism and Allusion in the Poetry of Shimazaki Tosun, Doi Bansui, and Yosano Akiko


A review of Beyond Shasei, Beyond Nature: Idealism and Allusion in the Poetry of Shimazaki Tōson, Doi Bansui, and Yosano Akiko, by Nicholas Albertson

In his dissertation, Nicholas Albertson takes up the early poetry of Shimazaki Tōson, Doi Bansui, and Yosano Akiko, and focuses on the way it goes beyond the modern project of realistic description (shasei) from the perspective of the Romantic ideal of nature and the poet’s relationship to it. As Albertson points out, in their poems, Tōson, Bansui and Akiko creatively interweave, both in form and content, elements from the Japanese, Chinese, and Western traditions in order to give poetic shape to the new type of sensibility that was being born in the Meiji period (1868-1912).

The three poetry collections discussed in the dissertation are Shimazaki Tōson’s Wakanashū (Seedlings, 1897), Doi Bansui’s Tenchi Ujō  (Nature Has Feelings, 1899), and Yosano Akiko’s Midaregami (Tangled Hair, 1901). With his analysis of these significant poetic achievements of the 1880s and 1890s, Albertson brings together two different poetic forms, shintaishi (new-style poetry) and tanka (short traditional poems), and points out that their development during the Meiji period occurred interdependently, in a fluid literary environment; he also emphasizes the importance of adding Yosano Akiko’s work to the discussion of modern Japanese poetry in order to “remind ourselves of the dangers of an unself-consciously male historical bias in narrating and judging the cultural climate” (p.14).

In the introductory chapter of the dissertation, Albertson professes his belief in the necessity of striking a balance between “what literature can do” and “how” it does it, proposing that, while “poetry is very much part of the suprastructure of society,” an “‘engaged’ scholarship” will not necessarily “solve the world’s problems better than a ‘naive’ one” (p. 6). Consequently, in his analysis, he relies less on historical background and biographical information, instead employing methods that lay the greatest emphasis on building an “intimacy with literature” and on having texts “‘bounce off’ each other” (pp. 5-6). Thus, he succeeds in revealing the meaning and signification of Tōson’s, Bansui’s and Akiko’s works as part of a worldwide poetic network and as poetry that can still speak to today’s reader.

Albertson goes on to address in his introduction the concepts of nature and Romanticism, drawing on Julia Adeney Thomas’s Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001) as a starting point for his analysis of the various meanings associated with nature within the discourses circulating in Japan during the 1890s. He pays particular attention to the tension between Masaoka Shiki’s “painterly concern for ‘sketching from life’” (p. 9) and the political as well as cultural implications of Romanticism adapted to the Japanese context (in connection with the People’s Rights Movement and the reaction against the embrace of technology and science).

The introduction also touches upon the traditional use of citation and allusion in classical Japanese poetry, pointing out the need for modern poets to “negotiate different relationships with their intertexts” (p.17) in order to establish a new national poetry. Furthermore, it outlines the development of shintaishi and the transformations undergone by tanka during the Meiji period, identifying in the “arguments for both sophistication (of thought), and ordinariness (of language)” present in contemporary discourses about poetry “the call for a national poetic revolution” (p.22).

Chapter 1 deals with Shimazaki Tōson’s concern with the poet’s relationship with nature, as detailed in his essays “The Shade of the Grape Plant” and “On Poetry,” and illustrated in poems such as “Song of the Autumn Wind,” “Pillow of Grass,” and “Rambling through the Deep Woods” from his first collection Seedlings. For Tōson, nature should be imbibed with the poet’s imagination and passion, even though he does not recognize the way this interplay is informed by the cultural prism. On the other hand, the religious (Christian) background makes Tōson’s ideal nature not only good and beautiful, but also (as a consequence) invested with moral meaning. At the same time, his poetry, as Albertson observes, is an attempt to insert the modern subject into what Haruo Shirane calls “secondary nature,” i.e., nature mediated by intertexts and allusions (cf. Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts; New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Albertson further puts Tōson’s poems in context by connecting them to the poet’s own ideas on poetry, as developed in the above-mentioned essays, and by making them “bounce off” the works of the main Western poets who had influenced him/them. With detailed textual analyses, Albertson points out the continuum of Naturalist and Romantic elements/descriptiveness and lyricism characteristic of Tōson’s poems, and traces the way conventional formulae and connotations are embedded in an intertextual and intersubjective web, where the modern self of the poet resides.

In Chapter 2, Albertson examines several of Doi Bansui’s poems from his collection Nature Has Feelings, as well as the preface, author’s note, and translations from Western poets included in the volume. In his work, Bansui seems to espouse the ideal of the European Romantic poet, with his/her rare gift and vision, while at the same time proposing the fostering of a new national poetry tradition—which “must become part of a global poetry tradition,” while the nature it describes “must become part of a global nature, instead of distinguishing a nature unique to Japan” (pp. 108-109).  Bansui furthers the project of a global poetry by turning his own poems into a brocade of allusions and references to numerous works, people, and places belonging to various poetic traditions (Western and Asian) in a way that, paradoxically, closely resembles the rhetorical devices of classical Japanese poetry, e.g., honkadori (“drawing on a base poem,” (p. 98)) or utamakura (“poem pillow,” (p.115)). Thus, Bansui’s poems function not as discrete units, but “as intertextual nodes joining other texts, that is, as maps of reading (and misreading) between languages, voices, times, spaces” (pp. 99-100). As Albertson points out, by drawing on sources as distant in time and space as Lucretius, Milton, Shelley, and Chinese classics, Bansui’s poems geographically synthesize East and West, while religiously synthesizing Buddhism and Christianity. In the end, Bansui’s poems refer to natural phenomena as archetypes, without describing them with any precision or particular detail. As a result, Albertson explains, one can say that “Bansui has traveled through the immensity of poetic artifact, not nature”; his work is thus, “twice removed from naturalistic description,” and nature is mediated exclusively by texts, intertexts, and ideals (pp. 150-151).

The third chapter deals with Yosano Akiko’s tanka collection Tangled Hair and focuses on an important, but often overlooked, pattern in her poems: the presence of supernatural figures, symbols, and concepts. The supernatural elements (divinities, sin, shrines, priests, etc.) can have Buddhist, Shinto, Christian, or mixed connotations in Akiko’s texts and are used for creating tension through their juxtaposition with sensuous descriptions of carnal desire.

While analyzing the various motifs present in the tanka, as well as the coherence of the collection itself, Albertson steers clear of the biographical approach to Akiko’s poetry, pointing to the limitations of interpreting poetry as a mere reflection of the poet’s life. He argues that the reordering and rewriting of the poems prior to publication show the desire to create “gaps” in the texture of Tangled Hair that readers could fill with their own biographical contexts. He concludes that Akiko’s poetry is a reaction against the contemporary trend towards realistic description, but also against the enlightenment values (especially as far as women’s education and social roles were concerned) of the Meiji period.

In his final chapter, Albertson ties together the three poetry collections discussed in the dissertation, looking at them through the prism of Natsume Sōseki’s novel Kusamakura (Pillow of Grass, 1906), in which the narrator dwells extensively on the relationship between artist, nature, and intertext. He concludes that, as part of literary history and by virtue of their interactions with language and nature, poets such as Tōson, Bansui, and Akiko can, in their work, make the best of “secondary natures, allusive language, and reflection on poetic ideals” (p. 223).

The Appendix to this dissertation includes Albertson’s original translations of ten poems from Shimazaki Tōson’s Seedlings and thirteen poems from Doi Bansui’s Nature Has Feelings, a valuable resource for students and instructors looking to know more about the poetic language and ideas that laid the foundations of modern Japanese poetry.

Nicholas Albertson’s dissertation will be of great interest to anyone working on Meiji poetry and literature in general. His discussion of the creation of a “new national poetry,” in the context of incorporating Western concepts of nature and new literary styles into native traditions, sheds valuable insights on the process of modernization of both the Japanese language and Japanese literature, with its inherent conflicts and contradictions. Also, Albertson’s in-depth engagement with what Tōson’s, Bansui’s and Akiko’s works do, particularly how they do it, can serve as a model to anyone with an interest in text analysis and the power of literary discourse.

Irina Holca
Institute for Research in Humanities
Kyoto University

Primary Sources
Shimazaki Tōson. Wakanashū (Seedlings). Tokyo: Shun’yōdō, 1897.
Doi Bansui. Tenchi ujō (Nature has feelings). Sendai: Sendai bungakukan, 2005.
Yosano Akiko. Midaregami (Tangled hair). Tokyo: Tokyo Shinshisha, 1901. Reprint.
Tokyo: Nihon kindai bungakkan, 1973.

Dissertation Information: The University of Chicago, 2013, 285 pp. Primary advisor: Michael Bourdaghs.

Image: Photograph from  Shimazaki Tōson Memorial Museum, Wikimedia Commons.

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