Reginald Horace Blyth

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Blyth in 1953.

Reginald Horace Blyth (3 December 1898 – 28 October 1964) was an English author and devotee of Japanese culture.

Early life[edit]

Blyth was born in Essex, England, the son of a railway clerk. He attended Cleveland Road Primary School, in Ilford, then the County High School (later Ilford County High School).[1] In 1916, at the height of World War I, he was imprisoned at Wormwood Scrubs, as a conscientious objector, before working on the Home Office Scheme at Princetown Work Centre in the former and future Dartmoor Prison. After the war he attended the University of London, where he read English and from which he graduated in 1923, with honours. He adopted a vegetarian lifestyle which he maintained throughout his life.

Blyth played the flute, made musical instruments, and taught himself several European languages. He was particularly fond of the music of J.S. Bach. In 1924, he received a teaching certificate from London Day Training College. The same year, he married Annie Bercovitch, a university friend. Some accounts say they moved to India, where he taught for a while until he became unhappy with British colonial rule. Other scholars dismiss this episode, claiming it to have been invented by Blyth's mentor Suzuki Daisetsu. (Pinnington, 1997).

Korea (1925–1935)[edit]

In 1925, the Blyths moved to Korea (then under Japanese rule), where Blyth became Assistant Professor of English at Keijo University in Seoul. While in Korea, Blyth began to learn Japanese and Chinese, and studied Zen under the master Hanayama Taigi of Myōshin-ji Keijo Betsuin (Seoul). In 1933, he informally adopted a Korean student, paying for his studies in Korea and London. (Pinnington, 1997). His wife returned to England alone in 1934. He later followed her and they were divorced shortly thereafter, in 1935.

Japan (1936–1964)[edit]

Having returned to Seoul in 1936, Blyth remarried in 1937, to a Japanese woman named Kishima Tomiko (Pinnington, 1997), with whom he later had two daughters, Nana Blyth and Harumi Blyth. He moved to Kanazawa in Japan, and took a job as English teacher at the Fourth Higher School (later Kanazawa University).

When Britain declared war on Japan in December 1941, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, bringing Japan into World War II, Blyth was interned as a British enemy alien. Although he expressed his sympathy for Japan and sought Japanese citizenship, this was denied. During his internment his extensive library was destroyed in an air raid.

After the war, Blyth worked diligently with the authorities, both Japanese and American, to ease the transition to peace. Blyth functioned as liaison to the Japanese Imperial Household, and his close friend, Harold Gould Henderson, was on General Douglas MacArthur's staff. Together, they helped draft the declaration[2] Ningen Sengen, by which Emperor Hirohito declared himself to be a human being, and not divine.

By 1946, Blyth had become Professor of English at Gakushuin University, and tutored Crown Prince (later emperor) Akihito in English. He did much to popularise Zen philosophy and Japanese poetry (particularly haiku) in the West. In 1954, he was awarded a doctorate in literature from Tokyo University, and, in 1959, he received the Zuihōshō (Order of Merit) Fourth Grade.

Blyth died in 1964, of a brain tumour and complications from pneumonia, in the Seiroka Hospital in Tokyo. He was buried in the cemetery of the Shokozan Tokei Soji Zenji Temple in Kamakura, next to his old friend, D. T. Suzuki.

Blyth's tomb in Kamakura.

He left the following death poem:

Sazanka ni kokoro nokoshite tabidachinu
I leave my heart
to the sasanqua flower
on the day of this journey

Blyth and haiku[edit]

After early imagist interest in haiku the genre drew less attention in English, until after World War II, with the appearance of a number of influential volumes about Japanese haiku.

In 1949, with the publication in Japan of the first volume of Haiku, Blyth's four-volume work, haiku was introduced to the post-war Western world. Blyth produced a series of works on Zen, haiku, senryū, and on other forms of Japanese and Asian literature, the most significant being his Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics (1942); his four-volume Haiku series (1949–52), dealing mostly with pre-modern haiku, though including Shiki; and his two-volume History of Haiku (1964). Today he is best known as a major interpreter of haiku to English speakers.

Present-day attitudes to Blyth's work vary: On the one hand, he is appreciated as a populariser of Japanese culture; on the other, his portrayals of haiku and Zen have sometimes been criticised as one-dimensional. Many contemporary Western writers of haiku were introduced to the genre through his works. These include the San Francisco and Beat Generation writers, such as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg,[3] as well as J.D. Salinger. Many members of the international "haiku community" also got their first views of haiku from Blyth's books, including American author James W. Hackett (born 1929), Eric Amann, William J. Higginson, Anita Virgil, Jane Reichhold, and Lee Gurga. Some noted Blyth's distaste for haiku on more modern themes and his strong bias regarding a direct connection between haiku and Zen, a connection largely ignored by modern Japanese poets. (Bashō, in fact, felt that his devotion to haiku prevented him from realising enlightenment.[4] In addition, many classic Japanese haiku poets, including Chiyo-ni, Buson, and Issa were Pure Land rather than Zen Buddhists.) Blyth also did not view haiku by Japanese women favourably, downplaying their substantial contributions to the genre, especially during the Bashō era and the twentieth century. In just over 800 pages of text in his two volume History of Haiku, Blyth devotes a total of 16 pages to haiku by women, and even these pages are run through with negative comments about women as writers of haiku. "Women are said to be intuitive, and as they cannot think, we may hope this is so, but intuition, like patriotism, is not enough."[5] With respect to a verse ostensibly by Chi-yo he wrote, "Chiyo's authorship of this verse is doubtful, but so is whether women can write haiku." [6]

Although Blyth did not foresee the appearance of original haiku in languages other than Japanese when he began writing on the topic, and although he founded no school of verse, his works stimulated the writing of haiku in English. At the end of the second volume of his History of Haiku (1964), he remarked that "The latest development in the history of haiku is one which nobody foresaw...the writing of haiku outside Japan, not in the Japanese language." He followed that comment with a number of original verses in English by Hackett with whom Blyth corresponded.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, The Hokuseido Press, 1942. ISBN 0-9647040-1-3 (Online copy(with paid subscription))
  • Haiku, 1949–1952, in four volumes, Volume 1: Eastern Culture. Volume 2: Spring. Volume 3:Summer-Autumn. Volume 4: Autumn-Winter. The Hokuseido Press, ISBN 0-89346-184-9
  • Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, The Hokuseido Press, 1949 ISBN 0-8371-2958-3
  • Japanese Humour, Japan Travel Bureau, 1957
  • Japanese Life and Character in Senryu, 1959.
  • Oriental Humor, 1959.
  • Zen and Zen Classics, in five volumes, Volume 1: General Introduction,from the Upanishads to Huineng.1960.ISBN 0-89346-204-7. Volume 2: History of Zen,1964. ISBN 0-89346-205-5. Volume 3: History of Zen. 1970. Volume 4: Mumonkan.1966. Volume 5: Twenty-Five Zen Essays.1962. ISBN 0-89346-052-4. The Hokuseido Press.
  • Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies, 1961. The Hokuseido Press.
  • A History of Haiku in two volumes. Volume 1: From the Beginnings up to Issa.ISBN 0-9647040-2-1. Volume 2: From Issa up to the Present.ISBN 0-9647040-3-X.1963.The Hokuseido Press.
  • Games Zen Masters Play : writings of R. H. Blyth, 1976.
  • A Survey of English Literature.
  • Humour in English Literature: A Chronological Anthology.
  • Easy Poems. Vol 1 and 2.
  • How to Read English Poetry.
  • Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals (With Introduction and Footnotes).
  • A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River (Shortened,with Introduction and Notes).
  • Buddhist Sermons on Christian Texts, Heian International, 1976, ISBN 978-0-89346-000-6


Further reading[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Genius of Haiku - Readings from R H Blyth, The British Haiku Society, 1994, p3 ISBN 0 9522397 0 1
  2. ^ Dower, John (1999). Embracing Defeat. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. p. 310. ISBN 978-0-393-32027-5. 
  3. ^ Suiter 2002, pg. 47
  4. ^ As documented in Makoto Ueda's Literary and Art Theories in Japan (Press of Western Reserve U., 1967).
  5. ^ RH Blyth, A History of Haiku, (Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1963) paper, 1984, v. 1, p.207.
  6. ^ Blyth, History, v. 1, p.223.

External links[edit]