Past Her Prime: Poem Number 9

March 1, 2012

Hamilton Hamilton Falling Apple Blossoms

For the first poem for March’s “women only” theme, I chose this poem, one of the earliest by a female author (after Empress Jitō, poem 2), but also one of the most famous:

花の色は Haru no iro wa
うつりにけりな Utsuri ni keri na
いたづらに Itazura ni
わが身世にふる Waga mi yo ni furu
ながめせしまに Nagame seshi ma ni

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

The color of flowers
has faded indeed
in vain
have I passed through the world
while gazing at the falling rains.

The author, Ōno no Komachi (小野小町), is one of the most celebrated women of Japanese antiquity for both her reputed beauty and her poetry. She is one of the original Six Immortals of Poetry and the later Thirty-Six Immortals, and many legends circulated in medieval Japan about her good looks and her cruelty to men. In one famous story, she promised to love a certain suitor if he visited her 100 nights in a row. He completed 99 visits, but failed one night to visit her, and was so distraught that he fell ill and died. Ono no Komachi’s life and legends grew to become the subject of many Nō plays and art.

Nevertheless, reading this poem is something of an intimate look at the fear many women face then as much as now: the fear of getting old and losing one’s youthful looks. For someone who was beautiful as Ono no Komachi, the loss may have been even more distressing. A reminder that even today’s supermodel will be past her prime someday.

Mostow describes this poem as a “technical tour-de-force” as well. The third line, meaning “in vain”, could technically modify either the previous line, or the one after, or both. Also, the poem uses word-play around furu which could mean to either “fall (as in rain)” or “to pass time”, while nagame could mean both “to gaze lost in thought” or “long rains” (長雨, naga-ame as Mostow explains).

The poem has been the object of much debate because of all the possible ways to interpret it, and is one of the most iconic in the anthology both for its technical prowess, but also it’s poignant message.

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