BK. Ezra Pound

17. ‘The Classical Stage of Japan: Ernest Fenollosa’s Work on the Japanese “Noh”’. Drama 5 (May 1915): 199-247.

  Reprinted with slight emendation in ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment and Translations.  

The third publication of Pound’s work with the Fenollosa/Hirata nô materials is reprinted in slightly emended form as parts I and II of ‘Noh’ (24). The manuscripts from which Pound worked are lost. In recent years Miyake ‘sent . . . letters to all the libraries in the United States holding Pound’s or Fenollosa’s mss [as] listed in American Literary Manuscripts’, but in response ‘heard no good news’ (192). As with the other work on the nô that appears in ‘Noh’, useful ‘notes for readers’ and comprehensive glossaries of Japanese names and terms may be found in A Guide (201). See also 8 and 70a.

a. [Introductory note]. In a brief introduction of Fenollosa’s career Pound writes ‘the Japanese sections of [Fenollosa’s] notes . . . are in themselves enough to form the basis for a new, or at least a revised understanding of the Japanese genius’.

b. ‘The Classical Stage of Japan’. A fragmentary but mainly accurate introduction to the social and historical development of the nô, derived largely from Fenollosa’s diary notes, which according to A Guide (201) are in Fenollosa notebooks 2 and 3 at the Yale archive (90a). Though based on Fenollosa, Pound’s hand is evident in comments and asides, including the assertion that ‘the life of . . . Fenollosa was the romance par excellence of modern scholarship’, the mistaken contention that when Fenollosa died in London ‘the Japanese government sent a warship for his body’ (see 82c3 and 103), and assertions that ‘the Noh is unquestionably one of the great arts of the world . . . quite possibly one of the most recondite’ and ‘is a theatre of which both Mr. Yeats and Mr. Craig [see D17] may approve’. Pound notes that he has ‘read what others have written in English about these plays’, and cites directly Stopes’s Plays of Old Japan (see D23) and Brinkley’s ‘Oriental Series’ volume III, a reference to Japan, Its History, Arts and Literature, vol. 3 of Oriental Studies (D14). In a note to a passage about the ‘Noh of spirits’ (mugen nô), one can hear conversations that would have taken place at Stone Cottage between Pound and Yeats, and which would have significant repercussions in the later work of both: the plays of the mugen nô ‘are the most interesting because of their profound and subtle psychology and because of situations entirely foreign to our western drama, if not to our folklore and legend’ (see especially BL15b and BL38b1 for Yeats’s contention of the same point). Includes Pound’s first mention of the ‘listening to incense’ of the court of fourteenth-century Japan (see also 45a and 77g), knowledge of which Pound attributes to Brinkley. The practice is here equated with the art of allusion, and found ‘comparable to the art of polyphonic rhyme’ in feudal Provence. Reprinted as the introduction to ‘Noh’.

Ona no Komachi as a beggar. Photograph by Yoshikoshi Tatsuo.  

c. Sotoba Komachi. Though Pound’s versions of this work and another about the fall and ultimate salvation of the legendary beauty and poet Ono no Komachi (Ap) are unsatisfactory as translation, they nonetheless reveal understanding of the sorrow and pathos of her story. The young Komachi’s beauty and elegance are familiar to all in Japan, but her life ended in solitude. Her manifestations on the nô stage are meditations on loss, the brevity of earthly beauty, and the ravages of vanity. Both here and in Kayoi Komachi (d) her spirit is released from its torment by acts of forgiveness and redemption. Pound’s version of Sotoba Komachi is roughly a fifth the length of the original, and misunderstandings of detail are evident even in the fragment presented. See Tsukui (167) for notes about omissions, unsuccessful condensations, and inaccuracies, and the suggestion that the Fenollosa manuscripts themselves were probably ‘incomplete and fragmentary’ for this play, Tamura (i), and Tsunemasa (j), all of which in Pound’s versions omit significant portions of the original. See also 22, 72, 72a, 89, 142, 186, 197, 201, BL33, 148, and D26b.

d. Kayoi Komachi. An old woman peddling seeds and fruits turns out to be the ghost of Komachi, unable to release herself from knowledge that her youthful vanity caused the death of her most ardent lover, Shôshô. As she is about to be blessed by a travelling priest to whom she has appeared, the ghost of Shôshô intervenes, but through the prayers of the priest and re-enactment of the tragic moment of their lives the spirits are joined and assuaged. Pound’s version of the work is more complete than his rendering of Sotoba Komachi (c) but nonetheless fragmentary, and at a critical juncture Shôshô questions Buddhism instead of, as in the original, embracing its redemptive message. Most commentators have seen this as an error, but Miyake argues that the ‘idiosyncrasy’ of Pound’s version is, if not intentional, at least consistent with larger themes that may be traced through his canon, including motifs from Dante and the Eleusinian Mysteries (187, 191, and 192), a line of argument also followed by Wells (197). Longenbach (183) notes that an ‘Irish . . . lilt’ in this first publication of the work is edited out of the version in ‘Noh’ (24), and suggests from this that in 1915 Pound ‘was still intent on embodying the link both he and Yeats sensed between the Noh and Irish folk literature’. See Flory (186) for a compelling argument that the spirit of Komachi informs the Drafts & Fragments sequence of The Cantos, particularly in CX (72a) and CXVI (72e), and Eide (BL148) for suggestion that ‘shadows’ of Ono no Komachi are evident in Yeats’s Crazy Jane poems (BL33). See also 22, 72, 89, and 201.

e. Suma Genji. Again Pound’s version is fragmentary—critics have particularly noted the omission of frequent allusions to Genji monogatari—but nonetheless captures the central image of the work, the divine manifestation of Genji at Suma, the desolate sea village where as Prince Genji he had lived in exile and despair. The spirit, the ‘soul of the place’, appears in glorious garments on the ‘sea-marge’ at Suma, ‘from the vaulting heaven’ descended to ‘set a magic on mortals’, made manifest in a god-dance beside the waves. Pound’s postscript notes that the work relies on the ‘suspense of waiting for a supernatural manifestation— which comes’. To appreciate this, he adds, one must put oneself in ‘sympathy’ with the priest to whom Genji appears, ‘eager to see “even in a vision” the beauty lost in years’. He equates the ‘psychology’ of the work with ‘spiritistic séances’ and Yeats’s studies of Irish folklore and the occult, underlining the relation both he and Yeats intuited between the nô and what Yeats later would call the ‘Anima Mundi’ (see especially BL13). Genji appears in the waves as a divine presence at Pisa, called forth along with Kannon, Venus-Aphrodite, and other ‘supernatural manifestations—which come’ in a key passage of canto LXXIV (56a). In discussing the relation of the play to The Cantos Niikura (147) argues, following Miyake, that Pound conflates Genji with the Eleusinian Mysteries, and that ‘seen in this way, Suma Genji forms part of the central imagery in the . . . structure of The Cantos’ (see 201). See also Stoicheff’s argument (in 202) that the central theme here of ‘beauty lost in years’ informs the closing of The Cantos; and see related material at 17f, 133, and 185.

f. [Commentary]. Pound interrupts presentation of the plays with further commentary about the ‘very great art’ of the nô, including notes about staging, the ‘fusing’ of words with musical performance and ‘ceremonial dancing’, and extended quotes from Fenollosa’s notes of particular conversations with Umewaka Minoru (Ap), but the importance of the commentary lies in Pound’s own observations about the structure of the nô. The plays may seem to ‘lack . . . construction’, he writes, but in fact evidence ‘a very severe construction’, which he says he will ‘present in a future article’ to accompany the text of Takasago. His following comments outline some of his understanding of the ‘construction’ of the nô: if the works seem ‘to “go off into nothing” at the end’ we must remember that they are provided a ‘unity of emotion’ by the final dance, and evidence as well a ‘Unity of Image’, for the better works ‘are . . . built into the intensification of a single Image: the red maple leaves and the snow flurry in Nishikigi [8], the pines in Takasago [88d], the blue-grey waves and wave pattern in Suma Genji [17e], the mantle of feathers in . . . Hagoromo [13d]’. In a footnote Pound returns to the point he had made earlier in ‘Vorticism’ (12, and see also 87, 112, 161, and 165): ‘This intensification of the Image, this manner of construction, is very interesting to me personally, as an Imagiste’, he writes, for ‘these plays are . . . an answer to a question that has several times been put to me: “Could one do a long Imagiste poem, or even a long poem in vers libre?”’ The article on nô structure promised to accompany the text of Takasago was not published during Pound’s lifetime, but has recently been discovered and printed (see BK88c), and casts light on the construction of Pound’s ‘long Imagiste poem’, which was under composition at the latest seven months after publication of this commentary (see 70a). Even before the article was discovered, however, critics had established a firm link between Pound’s comments here, the early Cantos, and those written at Pisa and after. See especially Slatin (108), Bush (145 and 161), and Longenbach (183) for discussion of the ‘sparks’ that ‘flew’ between Pound’s editing of the nô and the beginning of The Cantos, and Eliot (92b) and Yeats (see especially BL11 and 12) for evidence that Pound’s perception of a ‘unity of image’ in the nô had repercussions for modernist verse beyond those that may be traced in Pound’s work alone.

g. Kumasaka. As in his versions of Kayoi Komachi (d) and Aoi no Ue (22), Pound slights or misunderstands important Buddhist elements in this work, the central theme of which is the salvation of the spirit of the title character, who had died at the hand of the young ‘Ushiwaka[maru]’, the name by which Minamoto Yoshitsune (see BJ4i) was known as a young man. Like Pound’s versions of SHÔjÔ (h), Tamura (i), and GenjÔ (24c) the translation is entirely in prose. What struck Pound in the work was that ‘Kumasaka’s spirit returns to do justice to the glory of Ushiwaka and to tell of his own defeat’. Pound’s admiration for the nobility of this spirit, returning to earth not from rancour but to celebrate the skill of the boy who killed him, figures directly in ‘Three Cantos’ II (27b), a key passage in Guide to Kulchur (45b), and in the Pisan cantos LXXIV and LXXIX (56a and d). In the early years of the Second World War he suggested seriously on Radio Rome (76e) and in correspondence with Kitasono (see 82b14) that the United States should return Guam to Japan in exchange for film recordings of this play and Kagekiyo (21a; see also 49). In addition to the reprint in ‘Noh’, the work appears also in Certain Noble Plays (21). See Tsukui (167) for notes about departures from the original in this version; Uno’s ‘Kumasaka and The Cantos’ in A Guide (201); and see also 53, 76b, 89, 179, and D26b.

h. Shojo [SHÔjÔ]. Pound’s version of this short dance play is mainly accurate in detail, though the shôjô of the title is an imaginary creature and not, as Pound has it, a monkey; Taylor (132) complains that the translation ‘lumbers along in heavy prose while the delicacy and spontaneity of the verse in Japanese provides much of the joyful and exquisite effect for which the play is famous’.

i. Tamura. Again Pound’s version is fragmentary, and again omissions are particularly related to Buddhism (see also 8 and 17d and g), in this case the warrior Tamura’s faith in Kannon. Bush (145) finds the work the source of Pound’s use of ‘Kwannon’ in ‘Three Cantos’ I (27a) and later cantos (see 31, 56a, 56c, 64, and 72), and Miyake’s argument that Pound in The Cantos conflates Kannon with Isis (see 191) finds the source of his understanding of Kannon in this play, ChÔRyÔ (24b), and GENJÔ (24c).

j. Tsunemasa. The ghost of the Taira warrior Tsunemasa appears to a priest sometime after the fall of the Taira (see BK21a), speaks, largely via the chorus, of the beloved lute he played at court and of his love of life and grief at its loss—‘I was happy here. All that is over soon’—but fades before the priest may offer a blessing. In a brief foreword Pound writes that the ‘Noh of spirits’ (mugen nô) ‘abounds in dramatic situations, perhaps too subtle and fragile for our western stage, but none the less intensely dramatic’. In this play in particular he finds the ‘psychological tension of the séance’ and other ‘parallels with western spiritist doctrine’, a perception echoed frequently by Yeats (see especially BL11, BL13, and BL15a). Pound’s version of the play, like others published here, is fragmentary and not altogether aware of religious overtones, but is nonetheless accurate in tone and imagery, and has been well received by commentators familiar with the original. Miyake (191) believes that Pound conflates Fenollosa’s text with motifs from Dante’s Convivio and that this work is ‘the most moving’ of his no renditions. See also 17c and 89.





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