A Deer’s Cry in Autumn: Poem Number 5

September 5, 2012

Deer in an Autumn Forest

This is a very iconic poem about Autumn from the Hyakunin Isshu:

奥山に Okuyama ni
紅葉ふみわけ Momiji fumiwake
鳴く鹿の Naku shika no
声きく時ぞ Koe kiku toki zo
秋は悲しき Aki wa kanashiki

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

When I hear the voice
of the stag crying for his mate
stepping through the fallen leaves
deep in the mountains—this is the time
that autumn is saddest.

The poem was composed by one mysterious figure named Sarumaru, whom we know nothing about. Even in the kokinshū where this poem is first found, it is listed as anonymous, according to Professor Mostow, but seems to have been composed for a poetry contest in 893 hosted by Prince Koresada. Whoever Sarumaru was though, it earned him a place among the Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry.

Mostow explains that this poem is surprisingly tricky to interpret: who is walking through the leaves, the deer or the author?

Speaking of deer, deer have been an integral part of Japanese poetry since early times. This and poem 83 show how the deer’s cry is a popular poetic symbol of sadness or melancholy.

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