Lovely Maidens: Poem Number 12

May 30, 2012

The Gosechi Dance (五節舞) by Hokusai

Speaking of moments that we don’t want to end, I thought this poem was an interesting read, and is also one of the more famous ones:

天つ風 Ama tsu kaze
雲のかよひ路 kumo no kayoiji
吹きとぢよ Fuki toji yo
乙女のすがた Otome no sugata
しばしとどめむ Shibashi todomen

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

O heavenly breeze,
blow so as to block
their path back through the clouds!
For I would, if but for a moment,
detain these maidens’ forms.

This poem was composed by Sojo Henjo, (816 – 890, 僧正遍昭 “Bishop Henjo”), who served in the Heian Court until the death of Emperor Nimmyo. It was then that he took tonsure as a Buddhist priest. He is one of the original Six Immortals of Poetry as well as the Thirty-Six Immortals.

The poem was composed during the time that Henjo was in the service of the Emperor (and not yet a priest). The occasion for this was the famous Gosechi Dance or gosechi no mai (五節舞) which was a dance that took place in the Imperial Court during the eleventh month of the old Japanese calender to celebrate the harvest, called niiname no matsuri (新嘗祭) which is still observed today in the form of Labor Day in Japan.

The Gosechi dance is a very famous dance, involving 4 maidens from noble families, and is mentioned by Sei Shonagon (poem 62) in the Pillow Book:

[87] At the time of the Gosechi Festival somehow everything in the palace, even the people you see every day, becomes simply delightful. There’s the unusual sight of the bits of coloured fabric that the groundswomen wear in their ceremonial hair combs, rather like abstinence tags. When they seat themselves along the arched bridgeway from the Senyōden, the dapple-dye pattern on the ribbons that bind up their hair stands out beautifully, and the whole effect is somehow quite marvelous. It’s perfectly understandable that the serving women and those who attend the dancers should find it all a splendid honour.

–trans. Meredith McKinney

And from Lady Murasaki’s own diary:

The Gosechi dancers arrived on the twentieth….I knew full well how hard the young dancers had prepared this year in comparison to normal years when things were worse it must have been for them this year, I thought; I was both apprehensive and eager to see them. As they fully stepped forward together I was, for some reason, overcome with emotion and felt dreadfully sorry for them….And with all those young nobles around and the girls not allowed so much as a fan to hide behind in broad daylight, I felt somehow concerned for them, convinced that, although they may have been able to deal with the situation both in terms of rank and intelligence, they must surely have found the pressures of constant rivalry daunting; silly of me, perhaps. (pg. 39-40)

–trans. Richard Bowring

For Henjo though, he was so mesmerized by their dance, he compared them with heavenly maidens, and hoped that the breeze would keep them on the earth a bit longer. As Professor Mostow notes, the Gosechi dance had a legendary origin involving Emperor Temmu who beheld heavenly maidens in the sky one night, so Bishop Henjo isn’t just making this up.

However, his playful simile has lasted through the ages.

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