R. H. Blyth
Reginald Horace Blyth (1898-1964)

Archive of discussion on the PMJS mailing list (from Thu, 16 Nov - Tue, 21 Nov , 2000)

Question raised by Meredith McKinney

Discussants: Alexander R. Bay, Michael Watson, Richard Bowring, Noel John Pinnington, Daniel Gallimore, Robert E. Morrell, Janine Beichman, Adrian Pinnington, Kai Nieminen

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Information added or supplemented by editor is in square brackets. I have not tried to impose uniformity of style, but some italics have been added and some typing errors corrected. See general note on editing.

This version is without kanji. Japanese text on separate page.

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From: Meredith McKinney
Date: Thu, 16 Nov 2000
Subject: R.H. Blyth

I'm putting in this query on behalf of a friend who's become interested in gathering information on R.H. Blyth. His questions: who was he? What place is he accorded in the history of the study of "the Japanese classics"? Has any work been done on his influence on this realm of scholarship in the west? For me, and I suspect for many others, he was a hugely important early introduction and a key to my decision to study Japanese literature. But I realize I know next to nothing about him. Could anyone help, either directly or by pointing us to useful material?
Meredith McKinney

From: Alexander R. Bay

For a more personal account of his importance to Japanese studies, or to the introduction of Zen into the west, see Robert Aitken's book Original Dwelling Place; Zen Buddhist Essays, the chapter on "Ancestors," for Roshi Aitken's personal history with Blyth.
hope this helps-
Alex Bay

From: Michael Watson

See also

The Genius of Haiku: Readings from R.H.Blyth, with an introduction by James Kirkup. The British Haiku society, 1994.

The introduction by the poet James Kirkup is well informed and worth reading. The book also contains autobiographical notes by Blyth written in 1957.

However it would probably be true to say that Blyth's position in "the history of the study of "the Japanese classics" is disputed. If my memory serves me right, a distinguished member of this list once said in a book review that he sometimes wished Blyth's books could be hidden away in the closed stacks of libraries, out of reach of impressionable undergraduates!

From: Meredith McKinney

Thank you both for the useful suggestions and comments.

From: Richard Bowring

I don't know about being distinguished but it was I who commented somewhere, I don't remember where, about hiding Blyth's books. Although it is undoubtedly true that his books have had extraordinary influence, and I too was undoubtedly drawn to study Japanese in the first place by the likes of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, I now find Blyth's books quite appalling. The book quoted by Michael [abovej], which I actually discovered in Japan a few years ago, only served to strengthen this belief. He led the charmed life of an English eccentric in Japan and was obviously indulged by his printer Hokuseido. I remember hearing once that his manuscripts were simply printed as is with no change whatsoever. It shows, I'm afraid. Is there anyone out there who wished to stand up for him?

From: Noel John Pinnington

There is a good chapter on Blyth by my brother, Adrian Pinnington in Britain & Japan: biographical portraits, Folkestone : Japan Library, I believe it is the second volume. Adrian gives major bibliographical references, including a biographical study of Blyth in Japanese. If anyone is likely to defend Blyth it is my brother, and I will forward this correspondence to him.

From: Daniel Gallimore

Dear Meredith,

Yoshimura Ikuyo of Asahi University has published a book called The Life of R.H. Blyth Who Loved Zen and Haiku (I guess that's the English title - Dohosha, 1995). She is now researching the work of Blyth's only living pupil, James W. Hackett.

[R.H. Buraisu no shougai: zen to haiku wo aishite](kanji)

I think it might be useful to look at his interests in English literature as well as in Zen, in particular D.H. Lawrence. I also find him infuriating at times - why, for example, does he never give references for the poems he chooses? - but I do admire his range of haiku and his ranslations of them.

From: Robert E Morrell

A few words in defense of Blyth,

By your own admission,
"it is undoubtedly true that his books have had extraordinary influence, and I too was undoubtedly drawn to study Japanese in the first place by the likes of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, I now find Blyth's books quite appalling."

This in response to an earlier remark that "If my memory serves me right, a distinguished member of this list once said in a book review that he sometimes wished Blyth's books could be hidden away in the closed stacks of libraries, out of reach of impressionable undergraduates!"

I think we would be better served by hearing some specific objections to "the likes of" Blyth, D.T. Suzuki , Alan Watts, T.R.V. Murti, George Sansom, E.O. Reischauer, Harold Henderson, et al. -- about whom I have heard similar remarks for decades. (Suzuki has had at least two vicious attacks recently.) Whatever their imperfections -- and I admit that Blyth can be a bit too exuberant at times (like Walt Whitman) -- these earlier pioneers must have had some merit if they drew you "to study Japanese in the first place."

While personal preferences are sure to change over time, we need not discard the sources of our early enthusiasms and hide them away from "impressionable undergraduates." Let them make their own judgments.

These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
By others, as I pray you to forgive
Both bad and good. Last season's fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.

All the best,

Bob M

From: Janine Beichman

Bob, that's a lovely poem --can you tell us who wrote it, when, etc.?

From: Robert E Morrell


Yes, it is a lovely poem, isn't it. I wish I could say that I was the author -- but alas! . . . It's from the "Little Gidding" part of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. The entire work is
surely a masterpiece. Written about 1944, I believe. Fortunately, I never took a course in Eliot -- or I probably wouldn't like it.

From: Janine Beichman

what a surprise--if asked, I would have thought it was earlier than the 20th century, maybe late l9th...anyhow, thanks for giving me a fresh vantage point on Eliot.

From: Richard Bowring

I am sorry to butt in on this rather personal exchange about the Four Quartets, but can I bring the discussion back to Blyth? As Bob Morrell knows, I have myself complained in the past about excessive criticism of, for example, Ivan Morris, but that should not stop us from exercising a little judgement. The point about Blyth is that last season's fruit is still being eaten and last year's words are still this year's language. I find that a problem.

From: Robert E Morrell

Back to Blyth,

No, I certainly have no objection to our exercising a little judgment. But I am always more than somewhat surprised at the hostility which Blyth, Watts, D.T. Suzuki, et al., still provokes. Back in the early 60's, my mentor, Bob Brower, would almost have had a seizure if anyone so much as mentioned R.H. Blyth or Alan Watts. I understood this at the time -- Brower and Earl Miner were either finishing, or had just finished their serious examination of Japanese Court Poetry (1961) and were probably not amused by what they surely perceived as Blyth and Watts merrily frolicking in the fields of Zen and Japanese poetry. (I was not as critical, but soon learned to be quiet when necessary.)

But almost a half-century later, I am baffled by the antagonism toward Blyth and Watts. . . I am pretty sure I understand Suzuki's problem -- or is it OUR problem? The West is obsessed "monotheism" and we simply cannot come to terms with alternatives/accommodations. And so eventually, however bravely we start out, we return to the notion that the WORD is sacrosanct. My word for this is "logolatry," and I fully expect that the O.E.D. will properly recognize my contribution to the English language! . . . Note also how the "Beat Generation," which is probably more about adolescent rebellion than about "Zen". I wonder why? (Actually, I know G-D well why. And so do we all.)

We can quibble about mis-readings (instead of broadsides), but Blyth rarely (if ever) encroached on the sacrosanct territory of waka. Haiku/senryu , yes. But, unless we are questioning his TRANSLATION, is there an issue of FORM? How, indeed does one translate a
waka or a haiku? Blyth does not rhyme -- good. . . He uses 3 indented lines. Well, as opposed to what? . . . Does he attempt the impossible task of trying squeeze the Japanese 7/5/7/7/7 or 7/5/7 into English? No? . . .

I am sure that many have something to say -- but I am finally learning that brevity if the soul of wit.

From: Meredith McKinney

Richard, I wonder if you could say a little more about why you now find
Blyth "appalling". And do others think think so too?

It crossed my mind that the study of "haiku" in general may be felt by scholarly circles in the west as just a little disreputable. We're all perfectly comfortable with tanka, and yes sure renga is fascinating stuff too, but when it comes to "haiku" . . . somehow more the province of the flaky and the merely popular conception of J. poetry. Of course this is putting it a lot more bluntly than most would be prepared to acknowledge, but might it nevertheless have a grain of truth, or is it just my impression? And if it's so, how much can this be laid to the door of Blyth, and to scholarly fastidious reaction to him? Just a thought.

From: Janine Beichman

re meredith's musing below:i think some people who are into haiku without having japanese like it because it is philosophical rather than because it is literary. philosophical in a rather sentimental sense, i mean --all about oneness of existence, etc. one can't do that so easily with tanka or renga.

what follows is personal, be forewarned!
i remember reading blyth on zen in english literature when i was fourteen, beside lake okanagan in british columbia, where my step-mother's parents lived (they were canadian/american but for some reason i now forget had an interest in zen and buddhism), and i imagine blyth did something to turn me towards japanese literature, along with d.t. suzuki, who i read during the beat age. ditto alan watts. but i don't recall ever thinking of any of them
as a tower of wisdom or learning. i guess all they did was let me know that there was an interesting civilization out there on the other side of the world. a good corrective to what i was getting in school, where american history was required and european history was something you got to take if you were interested enough to do AP courses in history.

but now that i think of it i remember getting quite excited about the title 'zen in english literature' --the idea that the former could be found in the latter seemed positively brilliant. it still does. who would have the nerve to title a book like that today? these people who stand there at the beginning of the world, the opening of a new horizon--i say let them make
their mistakes and be appalling---all we need do, as teachers, is place them in context, and then i think they don't do so much mischief--in fact, i happen to think that even the mistakes are interesting --it's kind of like the mistakes made in the political novels of the meiji period, whose distortions of disraeli, et al are also interesting---one way to teach japanese literature is through the images that we in countries other than japan have had of it...

From: Richard Bowring

For Meredith McKinney
I don't want to be misunderstood here. The study of haikai literature is extremely interesting and important and Shirane's recent work on Basho shows one way how to do it properly. What I find difficult to accept about Blyth is not the translations as such but his gushing, undisciplined prose, which I find difficult to read and impossible to take seriously. The Zen business is also a major stumbling block and has to do with his uncritical acceptance of the writings of Suzuki. No one has ever persuaded me that haikai or later haiku have ever had anything to do with Zen. See the truly excellent article by Robert Sharf, 'The Zen of Japanese Nationalism' in History of Religions 33.1 (1993).

From: Adrian Pinnington

My brother, Noel Pinnington, forwarded to me the discussion concerning R.H.Blyth. In the real world, I happen to be sitting in an office in Portland State University, Oregon (where I am teaching for three months) instead of in my study at Waseda University. The result is that I do not have access to any of my books and notes, but I would urge anyone who is interested in Blyth to read my article (which my brother also mentioned) contained in Britain and Japan: Biographical Portrait', and also to look at my bibliography there. Most of the biographical information in that article is based on the only important source of information about Blyth
(other than his own books), which is a collection of essays and memoirs by people who had known Blyth. This book (which is in Japanese) was put together and published privately after Blyth's death by one of his colleagues at Gakushuin. (This book was also the main source for James Kirkup's introduction to the book mentioned by Richard Bowring, which happened to appear almost simultaneously with my article. What I have heard from friends is that this information was mediated to Kirkup by a Japanese lady, whose name I cannot at the moment recall, but who is also the author of a slim biography of Blyth published in Japan about two years ago.)

Reading Richard Bowring's remarks, I was reminded of a story which I read recently. One of the top US specialists on Tibet was at a conference and he confessed that his interest had first been drawn to Tibet by the writings of Lobsang Rampa (who, as many of you will know, was in real life a postman in Liverpool or somewhere, and who invented all the so-called occult Tibetan lore contained in his books out of his somewhat deranged brain). When the eminent academic confessed this, he discovered to his surprise that many of the other leading authorities present had also first been drawn to the study of Tibet by the wildly popular (among hippies) books of Lobsang Rampa. The same is probably true of Blyth, Alan Watts, D.T.Suzuki and the like, and professors of Japanese literature, and it is undoubtedly natural for us to feel somewhat embarrassed by our adolescent enthusiasms. But to treat all these writers as Lobsang Rampas seems to me extremely unfair, and so I would like to say a few words in defence of Blyth, in the hope that they will encourage people to look at my article:

1. First of all, Blyth was an extremely gifted and serious individual. After suffering imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs as a teenager for refusing to fight in the First World War, he took a First in Modern Languages at London University. While he was studying for an MA he was invited to Seoul to teach in the new Imperial University which the Japanese authorities were in the process of establishing. He was an extremely gifted linguist and musician and also a man of deep moral seriousness, who devoted much of his income to helping others, including many of his Korean students.

2.Blyth also was someone who left his mark upon the world in a variety of ways. In 1939 he crossed to Japan proper and applied for Japanese citizenship. His application was ignored and he found himself imprisoned as an enemy alien. It was during the war years that he wrote most of the four volumes of 'Haiku'. After the War he suddenly found himself feted as a British citizen who was also obviously pro-Japanese. He became a tutor to the Crown Prince and also played an extremely important (although in some ways still obscure) role as a mediator between the Imperial Household and the Allied authorities (together with that other haiku enthusiast, Harold G.Henderson.) It is said that it was out of gratitude to Blyth for the part
he had played in saving the Imperial institution, that Yoshida, through intermediaries, paid to have his books published by Hokuseido.

3. Blyth is also unusual in having more or less single-handedly inspired a new genre of poetry in English - the English haiku. Richard Bowring calls his influence 'extraordinary', but when we look at the reason for this influence, I think that we have little doubt that the answer is that he was a translator of genius. (One fascinating example is the black American novelist, Richard Wright, who came across Blyth's books by chance when dying from cancer in a hospital in France and who went on to write many fascinating English haiku in the last months of his life. These have recently been published in the US as a book.) The impact which Blyth's books had, quite independently, on a variety of writers is one testament to their literary quality as English.

4. Which brings me to the last, and perhaps for people reading this, most important question: the value of Blyth's work as Japanology. Here I would make a number of points:

a. Blyth had a far more scholarly knowledge of the history of haiku than a casual reading of his books would suggest. It is clear, for example, that he knew a great deal about haikai no renga and the difference between haikai and haiku. On the other hand, Blyth is also very clear that merely historical knowledge is not what he is interested in - somewhere he quotes Hegel to the effect that the Greek temples were the structures which allowed Greek statues to come into being, but that once we have the statues, we no longer need the temples. This was his attitude to linked verse, for example. In other words, Blyth was interested in the particular effect which he called Zen and not in presenting an academic, historical study of his

b. On 'Zen' itself, Blyth also clearly distinguished what he called Zen from the actual traditions of Zen teachings or discipline in Japan; that is why he was prepared to find so much Zen in English literature (especially Robert Louis Stevenson) or other world literature. Again he was not so interested in history as in the particular attitude or insight which he called Zen. He
called this Zen because he thought that it was sometimes given very clear expression in Japanese Zen. One might disagree with him about whether this quality is there or not, but one could not accuse him of misrepresenting Japanese Zen as being something which it is not. In this regard, his position seems to me rather more sophisticated than that of Suzuki himself.

c. As a way of understanding haiku, this is actually very close to the understanding of haiku which many Japanese post-Shiki haiku poets have had, who have seen the essence of haiku as a certain kind of experience of nature, and have read that back into earlier hokku. Again, it is a position which one can criticise, but it is not obviously stupid. Certainly, from one point of view, Blyth can be seen as part of a movement within Zen, beginning with Soen Shaku in the Meiji Period, which aimed both to modernise Zen and to give it appeal to secularised intellectuals (the links between Natsume Soseki, Soen and D.T.Suzuki are very interesting from this point of view.) I am not sure, however, why we need to feel as hostile to this movement as some recent writers on Zen are. Traditions only survive with innovation - it is surely very naive to think otherwise. But what I would say is that haiku has a rather special role to play in this, because Basho's hokku have been explained in terms of Zen since at least the 18th century. This is, of course, only one possible way to read Basho but as a way of reading him it is neither peculiarly modern nor foreign. It is worth noting that the first real discussion of Zen in English comes in B.H.Chamberlain's 1906 article on Basho - long before Suzuki, Blyth etc. came on the scene. (This article is probably the reason why the young Waley was also so interested in Zen.)

Well, I am afraid my remarks have become rather extended, but I would suggest that Blyth is not someone to be dismissive about, however tempting it is to be so,

Adrian Pinnington

From: Robert E Morrell

For Meredith McKinney, et al.,

I feel that I should make some response to this ongoing Blyth controversy even though your original question was not directed to me -- and none of us have either the time nor stamina to explore the Judeo/Christian/Islamic biases against which we prejudge Japanese literature/religion/ whatever. And, my reply is also generally directed to readers in general. I definitely do not want this to become a major issue of discussion -- at least at this time. But I personally feel a moral obligation at least to RAISE the issue. It's a big one -- if you have not yet discovered this. I don't know your age, and I merely wish to put a few propositions before you, without being in any way patronizing.

First of all. Don't believe everything your teachers tell you. They are working out their ideas, just as you are. ALSO, don't trust me either -- but at least listen. I could be right. (Thanks, Cromwell.) Pay attention, but ask yourself what YOU think of the matter. Read Emerson, if necessary. But you need not knuckle down to any fashionable dogma. It will soon disappear.

Read Blyth, Suzuki, Watts, with an open mind. You won't agree with everything -- I certainly don't -- but at least it's YOURS. Yes, indeed, read Emerson. And then hold fast to that which is good. It's your only salvation -- and ours. The rest is panel talk.

Good luck -- you will probably need it.

Robert E. Morrell

From: Janine Beichman

Adrian, I just want to say a public thank you for that long and very helpful letter. I do wonder why Blyth decided to come to Japan and try to become a citizen in 1939 --an odd time--but perhaps it is explained in your article, which I shall try to get. Best wishes, Janine

From: Kai Nieminen

The discussion re: Blyth reminded me of what Zeami said (and what we all should always remember, I think): "shoshin wasurubekarazu." [kanji]
"don't forget your initial zeal." Blyth never did.
And: let's not forget Blyth was also the main introducer of zappai & senryuu into English, thus: West. Which has to do with his concept of zen. Which reminds me of recent responce I had in a literary meeting in Japan: I was talking about Ikkyuu & Ryookan, whose poems I've translated, and had a friendly comment from the audience: "Our concept of zen differs a little" (that is: from Ikkyuu's and Ryookan's concept), which sure enough was to be anticipated: this is why the two of them reneged on their monastic life and became what they became. Poets par exellence. Which also explains why Blyth finds them next of kin, rather than other, more orthodox monks. Which has nothing to do with anything else than initial zeal and poetry. The two things we need, I feel, until we are buried.

As a translator I may be blessed in not working in English, thus being able to read Blyth as a source, not an idol. But as a source of zeal he sure is a paragon, whateve his shortcomings. And as a guide he was like the one Bashoo describes after the haiku about fleas and lice and horse peeing by his pillow, (this in Donald Keene's translation): "...'you had best get a guide to show the way'... very well, I said, and hired one, a strong young fellow who wore a scimitar at his side and carried an oak stick. He walked ahead and, thinking uneasily that today we were certain to meet with danger, we followed him.."

But: what about his Oriental Humour, Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies and his two Senryuu books? Which I find utmost interesting. Are they out of print, fallen in oblivion?

From: Noel John Pinnington

As it happens I have been reviewing Makoto Ueda's translation of Senryu (Light Verse from the Floating World, Columbia) lately, and so have had reason to look more closely at Blyth's translations. Actually the only one I could get my hands on is "Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies," a charming book from Hokuseido, 1961. Now the fact is, that despite the considerable effort put in by Ueda, and his many talents, I rarely read more than a few of his verses before my mind drifts off somewhere else. Since I found Blyth's book, however, I have been drawn in despite myself to reading much more of it than I intended. Part of the reason is Blyth's skill in translation. If we compare say the well-known verse:
"Hen to iu nigemichi isha wa akete oku"
from Yanagidaru,
Ueda has: "Sudden change for the worse" / a doctor always has / that escape clause."
This is certainly not bad. But for me, "escape clause" is too legal, and recalls the Marx brothers' "sanity clause." Also, the order of the English overly emphasises "escape clause" as the counterpart to "Sudden change for the worse."
Blyth has:
The doctor is ready / with his way of escape - / "A sudden change for the worse."
Now here, "way of escape" seems to me better, conjuring up the image of the doctor smoothly evading responsibility with his "nigemichi." More important is the reversal of the order of the phrases. The forward momentum of Japanese, placing weight on the final phrase stresses the phrase "akete oku." Now this "oku" is of course difficult to translate. I think Blyth's "ready with" is nearer than Ueda's "always has". By placing it at the beginning, however, Blyth finds the position in English that gives it the right weight. It therefore balances the doctors words, so that, what is most important, when we read it, we get the sense with the right balance of emphasis and tension without any effort. A further point is the "A" in the doctor's words, surely necessary in a spoken phrase.

In general to translate poetry is hard, comic verse, worse, and that from the Edo period, impossible. Still for reasons closely explored above, with Blyth I find I "get it" more easily, and then, looking closer at the Japanese, I find that what I get is what I should get. He is both readable and scholarly.

There is more that can be said to Blyth's advantage about this book, but in the interest of brevity, I stop here.

Noel Pinnington

Editor's note. The Japanese library network webcat.nacsis.ac.jp lists 37 titles by R.H.Blyth. Amazon.com gives 23 "matches" for R. H. Blyth. All books are out of print. Second-hand copies of the four-volume Haiku series and some of Blyth's other books can be found at sites like Barnes & Noble [author=R.H.Blyth]

Michael P. Garofalo has put together an interesting page about Blyth.

Edited 2000/12/17. Changed to ISO format 2001/03/03. Last revised 2002/04/02.

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