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Judith Gautier’s Japanese passion

In an earlier blog for R&V, I explored the contribution that Judith Gautier (1845 – 1917) made to popularising Chinese poetry in France through her 1867 anthology of translations Le Livre de jade ( Like many of her fellow authors, including Mallarmé and Huysmans, Gautier was also fascinated by Japanese culture and aesthetics, a passion first aroused by seeing men in traditional costume at the 1862 Universal Exhibition in London, which she visited with her father Théophile, the Parnassian poet and critic. Some twenty years later, this early exposure to things Japanese would help to inspire one of the most spectacular illustrated books of late nineteenth-century France – Poèmes de la libellule (Dragonfly Poems).

Portrait of Judith Gautier by Yamamoto Hosui

Poèmes de la libellule appeared in 1885, in a luxurious limited edition, at a time when japonisme was all the rage. Its title alludes to ‘Dragonfly Island’, an ancient name for Japan attributed to the country’s mythical first emperor, who remarked that his land was shaped like two dragonflies mating. Gautier’s book was created in collaboration with three Japanese contributors: Saionzi Kinmochi (1849 – 1940),i a member of the Imperial court who studied in France in the 1870s and would later become Prime Minister of Japan on two occasions; Komyoji Saburo (1847 – 1893), who in France adopted the name Mitsouda Komiosi and was a fellow student with Saionzi; and Yamamoto Hosui (1850 – 1906), an artist who spent a decade in Paris from 1878 and studied under Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Arts, before opening a school in Japan teaching French-style painting. How the partners in rhyme met remains unclear.

Gautier’s contribution to the book included a verse dedication followed by eighty-seven short poems by various authors, taken mainly from eight ‘representative collections’ compiled at the fiat of successive emperors between 794 and 1333 and containing noted poems of their eras. There is no evidence that she knew any Japanese (unlike Chinese which she studied with her tutor Tin-Tun-Ling), so her versions were based on Saionzi’s literal prose translations of the original poems into French. It seems likely that he also had a hand in choosing the poems, while the accomplished French of the prose texts, given at the end of the book, suggests that Gautier polished his drafts. Saionzi may also have provided an initial translation for the extended prose ‘Préface’ that introduces the poems. This was based on a famous preface to the first of the eight ‘representative collections’, the Kokin Wakashu, where the origins of Japanese poetry are discussed.

An example of Yamamoto's monochrome illustrations

As an example of how Saionzi and Gautier worked together, his translation of a Japanese text by an unidentified poet reads:

‘Oh! fleur du prunier si tu t’envoles laisse-moi au moins ton parfum comme souvenir.’ (O plum-tree blossom, if you fly away, leave me at least the memory of your perfume).

In Gautier’s reworking, this becomes:

 O fleur du prunier
Qui vas t’enfuir, tout à l’heure,
  Au vent qui t’effleure,
Qu’au moins ton parfum demeure
Comme un souvenir dernier!

(Oh plum-tree blossom / Which soon will flee / On the wind that caresses you / At least let your perfume remain / As a last memory!)

The second Japanese collaborator, the painter Yamamoto, created eight full-page monochrome illustrations in a range of pastel colours. The illustrations are repeated at intervals throughout the book and feature a variety of natural phenomena often represented in Japanese art, such as a waterfall, a flight of dragonflies and a bat fluttering beneath a tree. They provide a backdrop on which Gautier’s poems are printed in black. Yamamoto also supplied a cover and a title page depicting a hovering dragonfly, as well as seven independent colour plates, several of which include Japanese text.

Gautier dedicated the book to her third collaborator, Mitsouda Komoisi, whose role in its genesis is less clear, but may have involved helping to compile the final manuscript, since there was a gap between Saionzi’s return to Japan in 1880 and the eventual publication of the book five years later.ii Gautier’s dedication begins ‘Je t’offre ces fleurs’ and her use of the familiar ‘tu’ form fuelled speculation that Mitsouda might have been her lover.

The title page of Poèmes de la libellule

In creating her eighty-seven poems and the dedication, Gautier eschewed the now ubiquitous ‘haiku’ in favour of the much older ‘tanka’ form,iii which originated in the seventh century and quickly became the preferred verse form not only of the Imperial Japanese Court, where nobles would compete in tanka contests, but also of lovers communicating their intimate thoughts. It has been described as the central genre of Japanese poetry and many of the great tanka poets were women, including the Lady Murasaki, whose classic text, The Tale of the Genji, includes over four hundred such poems. Gautier was writing herself into an established tradition.

A tanka, meaning ‘short poem’ in Japanese, contains thirty-one syllables distributed across five unrhymed units in the format 5/7/5/7/7. In Japan it is traditionally printed as one unbroken line. Later-style tankas often break down into two parts, with a caesura after the third line. As in the sonnet, the transition between sections may involve a ‘turn’, based on a pivot word or image, where the poem’s initial subject matter is expanded upon or subjected to the poet’s personal response. Tanka, like sonnets, are also often produced in sequences.

Gautier takes the tanka form and creates a short 31-syllable poem in French, divided over five lines and following traditional French methods of syllable counting. Given the importance contemporary poets still paid to rhyme – Théodore de Banville described it as ‘l’unique harmonie des vers’ – it is no surprise to find that she introduces two rhymes, one ‘masculine’ and one ‘feminine’, in line with French conventions concerning the alternation of rhyme genders. The following poem, credited to the poet Sutok, illustrates Gautier’s deployment of syllabic metre, rhyme scheme and caesura at the end of the third line:

  Où donc s’en vont-elles, (five syllables, feminine rhyme)
Ces feuilles, en se suivant (seven syllables, masculine rhyme)
  Avec un bruit d’ailes. (five syllables, feminine rhyme)
C’est fini: le triste vent (seven syllables, masculine rhyme)
Seul de l’automne est vivant! (seven syllables, masculine rhyme)iv

(Where are they going / Those leaves, following each other / With the sound of wings? / It’s over: only the lonely autumn wind / Is sadly left alive).

Using such a restricted form across eighty-eight poems might have become monotonous. But Gautier carefully exploits nine different rhyme schemes, ranging from aaabb through other combinations such as ababa and aabba to abbba. In a few poems, such as one by Tsoura-Youki, she sticks to accepted practice on rhyme genders while concluding each line with the same sound – fil/fragile/péril/s’effile/pistil. And she varies her approach in other ways too – positioning poems on different parts of the page, providing a title in caps (‘A LA CAMPAGNE’) or a short contextual description (‘Les courlis [curlews] du rampart de Souma’), or even printing a phonetic transcription of the original Japanese text.

In some cases, the poem is presented as a response to events within a story. The page containing the poem ‘Sono répondit’, for example, contains a short prose text describing how at a gathering of Princess Nizio’s maids of honour the beautiful Sono asked for a pillow. Lord Tadaïé heard her through the partition and offered his arm as support, prompting the following poem:

  Ah! pour un vain rêve,
Que l’aube en naissant enlève,
  Faut-il désormais,
Après cette nuit trop brève,
Sans honneur vivre à jamais?

(Ah! for an empty dream / Which the breaking dawn will dispel / Must I henceforth / After this too brief night / Live for ever without honour?)

The poem ‘Sono répondit’

The content of the Poèmes de la libellule and their lyrical and intimate tone will be familiar to anyone with a knowledge of the original Japanese collections. There are poems describing unrequited or disappointed love, the pain of partings, and the resigned sadness caused by the inexorable passing of time and the fleeting beauty of life. The sounds and smells of flora and fauna are ever-present, as one might expect from the preface which speaks of loving the flowers, envying the birds, admiring Spring mists, and weeping with the dew (‘aimer les fleurs, envier les oiseaux, admirer les brumes printanières, pleurer avec les rosées’).

The interplay of humankind and nature is one of the enduring themes of Far Eastern verse, but in the transition from the prose transcriptions to her poems Gautier intensifies both sides of the equation. The night cry of the curlew becomes ‘monotonous’ and ‘sad’, Spring becomes ‘eternal’, skies ‘enchanted’ and rocks ‘numberless’. Human sorrow seems to be exacerbated, as vain hopes becoming ‘cruel’ and messages become ‘torments’.

The poet also dramatizes the relationship between humankind and the natural world in a way that appears alien to the original Japanese. The original prose translation of ‘O lune mourante’, for instance, reads:

‘Cette lune pâlissante que je contemple encore après une longue nuit d’attente, est le spectacle matinal qui charme l’amant heureux revenant de chez son amante’. (This fading moon which I continue to watch after a long night of waiting is the morning view that charms the happy lover returning from a visit to his beloved).

In Gautier’s poem, the moon is addressed directly by the poet as an active participant in the scene, its ‘dying’ mirroring the unmet hopes and anguished tears of the poem’s narrator.

  O lune mourante,
Qui vis mes pleurs douloureux
  Dans la nuit d’attente,
Tu charmes l’amant heureux
A l’aube quittant l’amante!

(O dying moon / Who saw my painful tears / During my night of waiting / You charm the happy lover / Leaving his beloved at dawn)

One of Yamamoto’s colour plates

Poèmes de la libellule is not without its flaws. As in Gautier’s earlier Le Livre de Jade, there are mistakes in the attribution of some of the poems and in the transliteration of some of the poets’ names, all highlighted by modern scholars. Such errors reflect, perhaps, the rudimentary nature of nineteenth-century Western scholarship on Japanese literature. Whether by mistake or design, one of the poems is repeated and a prose text at the back of the book is not transposed into verse. Nor did the book have the international impact of Le Livre de Jade, its luxurious format and high price making it primarily of interest to bibliophiles.

Nonetheless, Gabriele d’Annunzio was one of the poets to imitate Gautier’s translations, while the Symbolist aesthete Robert de Montesquiou claimed that her Japanese poems had introduced a new stanzaic form into French literature. And the book remains a source of pleasure today. A scanned copy can be viewed and downloaded on the Bibliothèque nationale’s site (, and the BnF and Hachette have co-published a facsimile of the first edition as part of their continuing project to make treasures from France’s national library more widely available (

David Hunter

My grateful thanks to Peter Read for his comments and suggestions on the draft of this blog.



i The spellings of Japanese names found in the book, which I have used in this blog, may differ from current spellings – for instance, Saionzi is more commonly written as Saionji. In Japan, the family name comes first.

ii Gautier kept in touch with Saionzi until the end of her life, sending him in 1904 and 1912 inscribed copies of her books Le Paravent de soie et d’or and Le Japon (Merveilleuses histoires).

iii Also called the ‘waka’ or ‘uta’.

iv The details of French syllable-counting and rhyming are beyond the scope of this blog. In brief, the so-called ‘mute e’ at the end of words such as ‘feuilles’ and ‘triste’ is included in the syllable count because it falls within the line, whereas similar syllables are disregarded in ‘elles’ and ‘ailes’ because these words fall at the end of the line. The presence or absence of a ‘mute e’ on the final word of a line also helps to determine whether a rhyme is considered ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’.

Posted on:Wednesday 3rd February, 2021