Wednesday, May 1, 2013


In both Japanese and English poetry, dew is an emblem of the fragility and the transience of our lives.  My previous post included the following poem by Saigyo:

Drops of dew
strung on filaments
of spider web --
such are the trappings
that deck out this world

Saigyo (translated by Burton Watson), in Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991).

George Price Boyce, "Thorpe, Derbyshire" (1879)

Perhaps the best-known Japanese poem on the subject of dew is the following haiku by Issa.

     The world of dew
is the world of dew.
     And yet, and yet --

Issa (1763-1827) (translated by Robert Hass), in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994).

The English transliteration (i.e., romaji) of the original Japanese is:

     Tsuyu no yo wa
tsuyu no yo nagara
     sari nagara

Tsuyu is "dew."  No is a particle that means, in this context, "of."  Yo is "world."  Wa is a particle that identifies the first occurrence of tsuyu no yo as the subject.  However, given that (1) there is no verb in the first two lines, and (2) the second occurrence of tsuyu no yo is the object (sort of), wa ends up serving as "is" (sort of).  As for nagara sari nagara, I am told (adamantly) by a native speaker that the phrase is untranslatable, but that "yet," "then again," or "on the other hand" will suffice.  Please note that these glosses are based upon my inexpert and limited knowledge of the Japanese language.

George Price Boyce, "Tithe Barn" (c. 1878)

Issa's haiku stands on its own as a beautiful expression of how we live. However, we should remember that it was written within the context of Issa's own life.  The poem originally appeared at the end of the following prose passage from his book A Year of My Life (1819).  He is writing about Sato, his one-year-old daughter, who had contracted smallpox.

"After two or three days, however, her blisters dried up and the scabs began to fall away -- like a hard crust of dirt that has been softened by melting snow.  In our joy we made what we call a 'priest in a straw robe.'  We poured hot wine ceremoniously over his body, and packed him and the god of smallpox off together.  Yet our hopes proved to be vain.  She grew weaker and weaker and finally, on the twenty-first of June, as the morning glories were just closing their flowers, she closed her eyes forever.

Her mother embraced the cold body and cried bitterly.  For myself, I knew well it was no use to cry, that water once flown past the bridge does not return, and blossoms that are scattered are gone beyond recall.  Yet try as I would, I could not, simply could not, cut the binding cord of human love.

                                        The world of dew
                                   is the world of dew.
                                        And yet, and yet --"

Issa (prose translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa; haiku translated by Robert Hass), Ibid, pages 227-228.

George Price Boyce, "Landscape at Wotton, Surrey: Autumn" (1864)


Jacob said...

Wonderful haiku. While dwelling on the image of dew, one surely cannot pass by Marvell's miraculous poem:


See, how the orient dew,
Shed from the bosom of the morn
Into the blowing roses,
(Yet careless of its mansion new,
For the clear region where 'twas born,)
Round in itself incloses ;
And, in its little globe's extent,
Frames, as it can, its native element.
How it the purple flower does slight,
Scarce touching where it lies ;
But gazing back upon the skies,
Shines with a mournful light,
Like its own tear,
Because so long divided from the sphere.
Restless it rolls, and unsecure,
Trembling, lest it grow impure ;
Till the warm sun pity its pain,
And to the skies exhale it back again.
So the soul, that drop, that ray
Of the clear fountain of eternal day,
(Could it within the human flower be seen,)
Remembering still its former height,
Shuns the sweet leaves, and blossoms green,
And, recollecting its own light,
Does, in its pure and circling thoughts, express
The greater heaven in an heaven less.
In how coy a figure wound,
Every way it turns away ;
So the world-excluding round,
Yet receiving in the day ;
Dark beneath, but bright above,
Here disdaining, there in love.
How loose and easy hence to go ;
How girt and ready to ascend ;
Moving but on a point below,
It all about does upwards bend.
Such did the manna's sacred dew distil ;
White and entire, though congealed and chill ;
Congealed on earth ; but does, dissolving, run
Into the glories of the almighty sun.

n.b. too Empson's sense of Marvellian self-reflection as analogous to buddhist meditation (

Stephen Pentz said...

Jacob: thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing Marvell's poem -- it provides a nice complement to Issas' haiku. And thank you also for the link to the commentary by Empson: I need some time to digest that, I confess!

Thanks again.