BL. W. B. Yeats

11. Introduction to Certain Noble Plays of Japan (BK21), 1916.

    The plays Yeats introduced are reprinted in ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment, the Introduction itself in Yeats’s Essays and Essays and Introductions. Both the plays and Yeats’s Introduction to them appear in the Pound-Fenollosa Classic Noh Theatre of Japan.  

After Pound’s publication of works from the nô in 1914 and 1915 (see BK8, 13, and 17), Yeats asked for and received Pound’s permission to publish four of the plays at Elizabeth Corbet Yeats’s Cuala Press. He introduces them here with his most enthusiastic defence of a form he intends to ‘[adapt] for European purposes’. In 1914 Yeats had written that the ontology of the mugen nô was in many ways consistent with the beliefs of the Irish countryside, Swedenborg, and Soho mediums (see 15a). In this work he sets forth his understanding that the nô offers a set of dramatic conventions that point the way out of his difficulties with the stage (see especially 12a). ‘With the help of Japanese plays “translated by Ernest Fenollosa and finished by Ezra Pound”’, he writes, ‘I have invented a form of drama, distinguished, indirect, and symbolic, and having no need of mob or Press to pay its way—an aristocratic form’. The essay is first and foremost a vigorous attack on dramatic realism, and a call for a return to conventions that rely on the ‘beauty and emotional subtlety’ of long-held aesthetic traditions. The long description of the nô is largely correct, and focuses particularly on the use of mask, a chorus that comments on but takes no part in the action, dance, the ‘meeting with ghost, god, or goddess at some holy place or much-legended tomb’, and the ‘playing upon a single metaphor’ (compare to Pound’s understanding from the nô that a long Vorticist poem ‘gathered about one image’ is possible [see BK12, 17f, and 87], Eliot’s elaboration of the point [BK92b], and see Bush’s analysis of its importance in the birth and development of Anglo-American and Irish modernism [BK161]). The tales retold in the nô remind Yeats of ‘our own Irish legends and beliefs’, and he believes that ‘the men who created these conventions were more like ourselves than were the Greeks and Romans, more like us even than Shakespeare or Corneille’. No drama Yeats wrote after this essay is untouched by the principles outlined in it. The work includes indirect reference to Zen (‘a contemplative school of Buddhism’ from which the nô has received its ‘philosophy and its final shape perhaps’), Zeami (‘a contemporary of Chaucer’ who ‘brought [the plays] to the Court of the Shogun at Kioto’, Ap), and Chikamatsu (‘the most famous of all Japanese dramatists’ who ‘composed entirely for puppets’, Ap), along with direct reference to Craig (see D17), ‘theatrical [Japanese] colour prints’ and an Ogata Kôrin (Ap) screen that Yeats has seen at the British Museum, Kôbô Daishi (Kûkai, Ap), and the nô Nishikigi (BK8), Hagoromo (BK13d), and Takasago (BK88d), the former two of which in Pound’s versions appear in the volume, the latter of which, though not published in Pound’s version until 1993, had provided Pound (and given their collaboration at Stone Cottage [see especially BK183] one may guess Yeats as well) a model from which to derive understanding of the ‘structure’ of the nô (see especially BK88c) and to put it to use in his own work. Includes also high praise for Itô Michio (Ap), ‘the tragic image that has stirred [Yeats’s] imagination’, who has ‘made possible’ At the Hawk’s Well (12), in which Yeats first consciously put into practice the principles outlined here. The work is discussed in Miner (A25) and the four book-length studies of Yeats’s adaptations of the nô (131, 167, 180, and 250); helpful ‘notes for readers’ may be found in BK201. See especially 3 and 15a for earlier writing by Yeats that anticipates the understandings advanced here, BK109, 154, 155, and 175 for argumentation that Yeats took a greater role in the ‘translation’ of the plays themselves than commonly is believed, and see also A64, BK28, 59d, 89a, 90a, 92, BL20a, 36c, 44, 48h, 68, 87, 90, 92, 119b, 123, D12d, and 17a4. Reprinted in 23 and 50.





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