Japanese Poetry and the "Pathetic Fallacy"

By Johnson, Carl M. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2012 | Go to article overview

Japanese Poetry and the "Pathetic Fallacy"


Johnson, Carl M., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Many poems in the tradition of Japanese haiku appear to exhibit what John Ruskin named "the pathetic fallacy." A proper understanding of the philosophical framework within which these poems were created will show that this charge is unfounded because it relies on an overly stark separation of perceiving subject and perceived object.

Oku no Hosomichi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), or The Narrow Road to Oku, is the most famous work of Japan's most famous poet, Matsuo Basho [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1644-1694). It is an embellished travel diary, written in 1689, based on a journey he and his disciple Sora undertook from Edo through the deep interior of Japan. One of its best-known verses is the first of its travel poems: "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Yuku haru ya / tori naki uo no / me wa namida Spring is passing by! / Birds are weeping and the eyes / Of fish fill with tears" (Keene 23).

This poem is emblematic of Basho's style in its expression of the resonance between the poet and the natural world, but from a certain aesthetic point of view, one may question whether its beauty is marred by an over-indulgence of the pathetic fallacy. That is, Basho appears to be projecting his own feelings onto nature instead of respectfully describing it in its otherness.

Formally speaking, the poem consists of two parts divided by the cutting word ya. In the first, the poet invokes the passing spring. Earlier Japanese poets had created an association between grief over the changing of the seasons and the crying of birds (Kawamoto 84-85). In the second part of the poem, we are given a concrete image of spring's passing that relies on this association. (1) In Japanese, both the singing of birds and the mourning of humans is called naki (crying), and Basho has played up this ambiguity by writing naki with the character [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which can have either meaning, rather than using [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which specifically means mourning, or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which specifically means birdsong. Within the narrative context of The Narrow Road to Oku, we form a mental picture of Basho as he and his disciple leave to begin their long journey. Basho explains: "I set out after composing this verse, the first of my journey, but I could barely keeping going ahead, for when I looked back I saw my friends standing in a row, no doubt to watch until we were lost to sight" (Keene 23).

Reading this, some critics might suggest that the concreteness of the poem's imagery is undercut by Basho's strong emotional response. As Japanese literature critic Haruo Shirane notes in Traces of Dreams, the birds and fish seem to "mourn the passing of the spring, and by implication the departure of the traveler" (247). Yet, a critic might claim, this is surely impossible for birds and fish. Moreover, some commentators take the poem as perhaps representing travellers by the passing spring or allegorically identifying the disciples left behind with the fish and the departing Basho and Sora with the birds (Shirane 247). Other scholars interpret the image of the fish's tears more literally by seeing them as beads of water on fish in a fishmonger's shop (Kawamoto 85). Whatever our precise interpretation, critics sensitive to the pathetic fallacy might accuse Basho of projecting his own feelings of grief onto the scene and thereby compromising the integrity of the poem as an image of the world as it is. A more truthful poet, they might claim, would have contrasted his own sorrow with the indifference of the birds and fish rather than imposing his own sorrow on them. Even within the Japanese tradition, there is room for criticism of Basho. Masaoka Shiki, the late nineteenth-century poet who coined the term "haiku" in reference to poems like Basho's, wrote that the goal of haiku was shasei ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), a sketch from life, which he defined as the "depiction of objects as they are" (Kawamoto 52). …

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