‘Japanese Maple’ is one of several poems that Clive James published after learning about his terminal leukemia and emphysema diagnosis in 2010. He saw this poem and others as a way to say goodbye to the world while at the same time expressing his emotions about death and what he was leaving behind. The poem focuses on one a maple tree. James’s daughter gave him and its presence behind his home in Cambridge. He challenges himself to live to see its leaves change colors in autumn one last time.
Explore Japanese Maple
Throughout the five stanzas of this poem, James goes through some different emotions and ideas that he’s facing as he comes to terms with this death. He knows that especially compared to some others, his death is going to be painless. It might be uncomfortable, but he isn’t worried about that. It’s allowing him to see the world in a new way. Everything has been elevated in beauty since he realized that he’s going to die. This includes the Japanese maple tree his daughter gave him in his backyard. He wills himself, towards the end of the poem, to live until fall so he can see its leaves change colors again.
You can read the full poem here.
The major themes in Japanese Maple’ are beauty, nature, and death. These things come together, elevating one another, as James describes his change perceptively. He knows that his own death, and death for all living things, is unavoidable. This is something that only becomes clearer as he analyzes the natural images around him. He takes some comfort in the fact that he’s enjoying the rain now in a way he never has before and that it’s going to continue to fall after he’s gone. The image of the Japanese maple tree is one of the most beautiful in the poem. It is connected to his love for his daughter and his broader family, as well as the impact that he’s going to have on the world once he’s gone.
Structure and Form
‘Japanese Maple’ by Clive James is a five-stanza poem that’s separated into sets of five lines, known as quintains. These quintains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Readers should also note the similarities between the length of lines in the various stanzas. The first, second, fourth, and fifth lines are almost exactly the same length, while the third line is significantly shorter. It contains four syllables while the remaining lines have ten.
James makes use of several literary devices in ‘Japanese Maple.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, allusion, and caesura. The latter is a formal device that is concerned with the pauses that a poet inserts into the middle of lines. These are noted either by punctuation or by a pause in the meter. For example, lie four of the first stanza. It reads: “Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain”. There is another example in the third line of the fourth stanza. It reads: “Is life to see that. That will end the game”.
Both of these lines are also good examples of enjambment. This refers to the poet’s use, or lack thereof, of end punctuation. In the case of these two examples, the poet inserts a line break before the end of the sentence/phrase. This means that readers have to jump down to the next line in order to conclude the sentence. Some other good examples are the transitions between lines one and two of the second stanza and lines two and three of the fifth stanza.
An allusion is a reference to something that’s not explicitly stated in the poem. In this case, James is alluded to personal, real-life moments with his family, his own backyard, and his terminal diagnosis. It is possible to read and appreciate the poem without this knowledge, but it is far more rewarding when one understands where the poet was coming from.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
In the first stanza of ‘Japanese Maple,’ the speaker, Clive James, begins by describing his own coming death. He uses the second-person pronoun “you” to refer to his own experience. He tells himself that this “death” is near. but, luckily for him, it’s “an easy sort.” It is not going to be a very painful process. Instead, it’s a “fading out” that “brings no real pain,” at least of the physical sort.
More than painful, James sees his death as “uncomfortable.” He knows it’s going to become harder to breathe, and he’s going to notice a lack of energy. Depending on a reader’s understanding of death, it may or may not be a good thing that his “thought and sight remain.” One interpretation might suggest that his death is going to be more painful because he is still able to understand everything going on around him.
In this stanza, readers should take note of the use of enjambment and caesura. There are also samples of alliteration with “near now” and “So slow.”
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
In the second stanza, the poet takes the time to express the positive side of his oncoming death. Now that he knows he’s going to die soon, he’s able to see more beauty in the world than he ever has before. There is “So much sweet beauty.” One of the things he thinks of specifically is the “fine rain falls / On that small tree.” The world around him is elevated, as though he’s walking through the historical Amber Room or the mirrored halls of palaces like Versailles. There are also examples of alliteration and enjambment in this stanza as well.
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
In the third stanza of ‘Japanese Maple,’ the speaker goes on, focusing on the natural imagery that’s bringing him joy in the final days and months of his life. His back garden looks “Ever more lavish as the dusk descends,” and the air illuminates. He knows as all men and women do who are facing their deaths, that the rain he sees now will continue after he’s gone. For now, he says, he takes his share of the beauty.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
For me, though life continues all the same:
In the fourth stanza of ‘Japanese Maple,’ the speaker brings his daughter into the poem. This is where James starts to talk specifically about the Japanese maple in the title. He’s thinking about the tree, the fact that his daughter gave it to him, and how much he loves seeing its leaves change colors in the autumn. He tells himself that what he “must-do” is “live to see that.” He’s determined to live to the autumn and pass on once he’s accomplished that. Even though life “continues on all the same.” There’s sorrow in this line, but there’s also joy, knowing that the tree will continue to live on as a symbol of his presence on the earth and those he loved.
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
In the final five lines, the poet helps the reader see the tree more clearly. When he looks out the back double doors, it fills the entry way. It’s the “final flood of colors” that he’s going to see, and that will “live on / As [his] mind dies.” Just as he hopes his life will burn on until the last moment before he dies, he sees and imagines the tree doing the same. It’s going to be there until it’s not, just as he was.
Readers who enjoyed Clive James’s ‘Japanese Maple’ should also consider reading other related poems about death and/or nature. For example, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ by Dylan Thomas and ‘I Have a Rendezvous with Death’ by Alan Seeger. The former is perhaps Dylan Thomas’s best-known poem. Thomas wrote the poem after his father’s death and used it as an opportunity to address the universality of death and encourage the reader to remain strong until the end. Thomas’s imagery in ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight’ is similar in its force and power to James’s. In ‘I Have a Rendezvous with Death,’ Alan Seeger writes about his own perceptions of death as a soldier in the First World War. The speaker, a soldier, knows his death is coming. It’s unavoidable. He’s curious about what death is going to be like and determined to meet his death as it is his duty to do so.