The Bottom Two Lines of John Keats' Sonnet

- A Form of English Tanka -

The dew upon the fragile locust wing
Is lost among the leaves. Lost are my tears.

It was 1976 when this English tanka appeared first in The Tale of Genji, which was translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. He translated the following Japanese traditional tanka into this form of two lines of iambic pentameter.


Utsusemi no ha ni oku tsuyu no kogakure te shinobi shinobi ni nururu sode kana.

This is Lady Ise's tanka.

It was 2000 when I wrote an article for Ginza Tanka, a tanka magazine of a small tankaist group. I reached the same result through a reverse way at the time. One of my friends, David G. Anthony, suggested that I should compose some sonnets and he gave me a small poem book of John Keats. I felt the bottom two lines of his sonnet “On the Sea” were a beautiful English tanka. I tried to translate them into a Japanese tanka form as follows:

Sit ye near some old Cavern's Mouth and brood,
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quir'd!


Chinshi se yo furuki iwaya no kuchi ni zashi shiozai nymph no uta to kiku made
It worked well.

Seidensticker wrote a heading article “On Translating Tanka” for The Tanka Journal No. 1, which was published in 1992. I happened to read this article this year and I was surprised to know he suggested a form of English tanka should be two lines of iambic pentameter on the journal eight years earlier than I met the sonnet of John Keats. He wrote as follows:
“The best stitch for translation has seemed to me to be that which most naturally lends itself to poetry in the target language. In English this is iambic pentameter.”
It is said that a Japanese tanka does not consist of 31 syllables but 31 morae. Seidensticker wrote the difference between English syllables and Japanese morae for the journal as follows:
“The name of Hamlet takes at least twice as many syllables in Japanese as in English. “revenge,” a key word, also takes twice as many. This I think the Japanese syllable is a lighter, more expendable item than the English. I have a sense that the twenty syllables of English plus perhaps three or four balances the thirty one f Japanese rather well.”

By the way, a comparative linguist Koji Kawamoto insists that a Japanese tanka has the rhythm of five repeats of four beats One beat consists of two sounds. Therefore a tanka consists of twenty beats. He quotes a tanka of Kamakura no Udaijin from One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets as an example.


(Note) ○= a movable pause, ●= a fixed pause

James Kirkup, a famous poet of United Kingdom, translated this tanka into English as follows:

May it never change,
this world - stay thus for ever!
- Men towing a small
fishing boat along the strand -
how deeply that moves my heart!

He translated this tanka by the form of five-seven-five-seven-seven form.

An iambus consists of two beats. Two lines of iambic pentameter have twenty beats. This suggests that Seidensticker's fixed form that is two lines of iambic pentameter is an ideal form for an English tanka.

Aya Yuhki, a member of The Tanka Journal, pointed out the eighty percent of Anna Holley’s tanka in White Flower in the Sky, a book of communication tanka between Anna Holley and Aya Yuhki, were very near the rhythm of this twenty-beats.form.

Janine Beichman wrote her comment on this Seidensticker's article for The Tanka Journal No. 2.

“Rhyme has mostly been given up in modern verse translation, so the main subjects of debate have now become lineation and meter. In the last issue, Edward Seidensticker explained that he translated the tanka in The Tale of Genji into two lines of iambic pentameter because he considered that particular metrical form, or stitch, the closest English equivalent to tanka. But in addition to this theoretical justification, his choice has empirical virtues as well.” “I find the idea of using iambic pentameter attractive, for I agree with Seidensticker’s view of its virtues, but I can not be satisfied with tow-line poems in English.” “In the case of independent poems, I would prefer to break the line up, even while preserving the meter, as Anne sexton, for example, did in some of her early sonnet.” “The traditional terms sankugire, yonkugire, and so on, which pinpoint the place where the poem breaks in terms of syntax, show that sice the days of the imperial anthologies poets have always thought of their poems in terms of five units.”

Yes, it is true. Nowadays almost every English tanka is commonly written by five lines form. I could, however, agree with Seidensticker’s form of two lines of iambic pentameter because he said that the best stitch for translation had seemed to him to be that which most naturally lent itself to poetry in the target language.

This article was on The Tanka Journal No. 29, November 10, 2006