A Short Parting: Poem Number 16

May 10, 2011

Japanese Pine Tree

A Japanese Pine Tree, courtesy of 'yeowatzup' at Flickr and Wikipedia

I thought this was a cool, simple poem:

立ち別れ Tachiwakare
いなばの山の Inaba no yama no
峰に生ふる Mine ni ōru
まつとしきかば Matsutoshi kikaba
今かへりこむ Ima kaeri kon

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Even if I depart
and go to Inaba Mountain,
on whose peak grow
pines, if I hear you pine for me,
I will return straightaway to you.

This poem is a great example of the word-play you often see in Japanese poetry of the time. The word “matsu” in the fourth line can mean a pine tree (松) or to wait (待つ), which are both applicable here. It even works in the English translation! You see this kind of thing a lot in Japanese because homonyms are so common compared to English. In particular the author is talking about the pine trees on Inaba Mountain (稲羽山) in Inaba Province as explained below.

As for the author, this was composed by Middle Counselor Yukihira (chūnagon yukihira, 中納言行平, 818-893) who was the older brother of Narihira, who composed the famous poem number 17 in the Hyakunin Isshu. Like all nobles who served in the Heian Court at the time, he was assigned to a post in a remote province for a term of service. In Yukihira’s case, he served a term as governor in Inaba Province (inaba no kuni 因幡の国) which is modern-day Tottori Prefecture, and this poem is his parting words.

The word “inaba” is a great example of a “pivot word” because it is both word-play and an central to the meaning of the poem. Inaba is the name of the province that Yukihira is assigned to, but it also means, according to Mostow, “(Even) if I leave”. Pretty clever.

Like many nobles of his time caught up in political intrigues, Yukihira was later exiled, and his exile along with his poetic association with pine trees became the subject of famous Nō dramas and in literature as well. According to Mostow, his exile was the inspiration behind part of the Tales of Genji.

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