Julian Alden Weir Autumn Rain

It’s been a while, but I wanted to start off with a nice, descriptive poem:

むらさめの Murasame no
露もまだひぬ Tsuyu mo mada hinu
まきの葉に Maki no ha ni
霧立ちのぼる Kiri tachinoboru
秋の夕暮 Aki no yugure

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

While the raindrops of
the passing shower have not yet dried from
near the leaves of the evergreens,
the mist is already rising, on
this evening in autumn.

This poem was composed by Dharma-master Jakuren (d. 1202) whose name was originally Fujiwara no Sadanaga before he took tonsure. He is a nephew of Shunzei (poem 83) and according to Professor Mostow a leading poets in the house of Mikohidari. He helped to compile the official poetry anthologies at the time, but died before completion.

Professor Mostow points out that Fujiwara no Teika, another member of the House of Mikohidari, didn’t praise this poem at first, and it made the “cutting floor” of the Imperial anthology that Jakuren helped compile, the Shin-Kokinshū, or in other anthologies. And yet, years later, it appears here in the Hyakunin Isshu by Fujiwara no Teika. The poem is generally viewed as a simple, straightforward descriptive poem, which is perhaps why it wasn’t as highly revered as other more subtle poems, or poems with more of a backstory.

Still, I think anyone can appreciate the scenery painted in this poem even today.

Interestingly, the poetic verse kiri tachinoboru (霧立ち上る) or “the mist is already rising”, was coined by Jakuren and was associated with him by later poets and commentators.

P.S. I’ve been away from the blog for a couple months raising our new little boy and keeping up with holidays. Now that things are finally quieting down, I hope to complete the final 7 poems (aside from this one). I’m still debating on further topics for this blog, and suggestions or requests are always appreciated.


Lean on Me: Poem Number 75

September 15, 2013

Artemisia princeps1

This is another autumn-themed poem, but with an interesting story behind it:

契りをきし Chigiri okishi
させもが露を Sasemo ga tsuyu wo
命にて Inochi ni te
あはれことしの Aware kotoshi no
秋もいぬめり Aki mo inumeri

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Depending with my life
on promises that fell thick
as dew on sasemo plants—
alas! the autumn of this year too
seems to be passing.

The author of the poem, Fujiwara no Mototoshi (1060-1142), was a leading poem of the famous Insei Period of Japanese history, along with his contemporary Toshiyori (poem 74).

According to Professor Mostow, this poem was written as a complaint to the former Chancellor and Buddhist novice (upasaka) named Tadamichi, the same man who composed poem 76. The reason for Mototoshi’s complaint is that his son, better known as Bishop Kōkaku of Kofukuji Temple wanted to be the official lecturer of the Vimalakirti Sutra, but was overlooked year after year. But what does this mean? Buddhism in Japan at this time was a highly bureaucratic system that tended to favor the noble families, and official lectures on certain Buddhist texts were held at key times of the year. The Lectures on the Virmalakirti Sutra, or yuima-e (維摩会) was one such important occasion. Being the lecturer was a competitive and prestigious honor. It wasn’t enough to have the right skills, having connections were important too. Unfortunately, Mototoshi’s son wasn’t so lucky, and his father wrote this poem on his behalf after the Chancellor failed to appoint him again.

The term sasemo is another way of saying sashimo, which in modern Japanese is the yomogi plant. In English, this is better known as the Japanese mugwort, pictured above. We saw the use of mugwort as well back in poem 51, though for a very different reason.

Sasemo plants inspired an earlier, more Buddhist poem, which Mototoshi alludes to:

なお頼め Nao tanome Still rely on me!
しめぢが原の Shimeji ga hara no for I will help those of
させも草 Sasemo-gusa this world for as long
わが世の中に Wa ga yo no naka ni as there are sasemo-plants
あらむ限りは aramu kagiri wa in the fields of Shimeji

This was attributed to Kannon, the Buddhist figure of compassion who promised to rescue all beings in the world. This poem was in the Shinkokin wakashū, number 1917.

Thanks to Professor Mostow for the double-translation this week. If you haven’t already, definitely show him some love and check out his excellent translations. 🙂

Rice Field.

Another great poem for Autumn:

夕されば Yu sureba
門田の稲葉 Kadota no inaba
おとづれて Otozurete
あしのまろやに Ashi no maroya ni
秋風ぞふく Akikake zo fuku

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

As evening falls,
through the rice-plants before the gate,
it comes visiting, and rustling
on the reeds of the simple hut—
the autumn wind does blow!

The poet, Dainagon Minamoto no Tsunenobu (1016-1097), had a number of poets in his family. He was the father of Toshiyori (poem 74) and grandfather of Shun’e (poem 85), contributed a number of poems to the official anthologies and had a rival or two in his time.

According to Mostow, this poem was composed by Tsunenobu when he was visiting the villa of his friend, Minamoto no Morokata. Unlike other poems of the era which are often composed for poetry contests, apparently he composed this while watching the view from the villa. The villa in question was in a place called Umezu (梅津), on the outskirts of Kyoto the capital. Nowadays, you can find Umezu within the suburbs of Kyoto now, but it’s interesting to imagine an earlier time when it was a country villa surrounded by rice fields, and to imagine a cold autumn wind blowing across them.

This poem catches the spirit of autumn better than many others, I feel. 🙂

Ceramic daylight (1910314548)

My favorite season, Autumn, is fast approaching so I thought this would be a good poem:

あらし吹く Arashi fuku
三室の山の Mimuro no yama no
もみぢ葉は Momijiba wa
龍田の川の Tatsuta no kawa no
にしきなりけり Nishiki nari keri

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

It’s the autumn leaves
of the hills of Mimuro,
where the tempests blow,
that are the woven brocade floating
on the waters of Tatsuta River!

The author, Nōin Hōshi (“Dharma Master” Nōin, b. 988) was originally Tachibana no Nagayasu until the age of 26 when he took tonsure. From there, he traveled the provinces, composing poetry and contributed to various anthologies at the time. Because he was not tied to a politically prominent temple, he had more freedom than other monks in the Capitol to roam the countryside and write in his travels.

Professor Mostow notes that this poem is unusual because it’s very straightforward with no hidden wordplay or anything. It’s just a nice, solid poem about Autumn.

As for the geography, Mimuro Mountain is in Nara Prefecture in Ikoma-gun, Ikaruga Village, while Tatsuta River. It was said in the old days that the gods would dwell at the mountain from time to time, and since antiquity. In fact, you might recall hearing this river mentioned before in Poem 17. 😉

In those days, travel to places like Mimuro Mountain were generally hard to do for people, even the nobility. A day-hike into the mountains to see such a river was an expensive and exhausting affair as one had to bring their retinue, plan for food and supplies, etc.

So, many poems in the Hyakunin Isshu express famous places like this even though few people from the Court actually went there. It allowed people in those days to at least imagine what it would be like to visit even if they couldn’t afford to actually see it in person. Like a poetic “guidebook” in a sense. Hence, while the description may be vivid and perhaps a little exaggerated, it helped to stir the imagination, just as it does for people living outside Japan. 🙂

P.S. For some reason, the last part of the Hyakunin Isshu has a lot of poems about Autumn in particular, so expect to see these soon amidst other things.

Shinto gohei

Hi folks, after a long break due to work obligations, I am back and happy to post this excellent poem by my favorite author in the Hyakunin Isshu:

このたびは Kono tabi wa
幣もとりあへず Nusa motori aezu
手向山 Tamuke yama
紅葉のにしき Momiji no nishiki
神のまにまに Kami no mani mani

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

This time around
I couldn’t even bring the sacred streamers
—Offering Hill—
but if this brocade of leaves
is to the gods’ liking….

The poem is signed as Kanke (菅家), which is the Sinified (Chinese) way to read the Sugawara Family name (lit. “House of Sugawara”). You see similar names used for the Taira Clan (e.g. Heike 平家) and Minamono Clan (e.g. Genji 源氏) in later times. Anyhow, the author is none other than the famous poet/scholar Sugawara no Michizane who in later generations was deified as a sort of god of learning after he was wrongfully exiled through political intrigue.

The poem was composed by Michizane after going on an excursion with his patron, Emperor Uda, and because he had little time to prepare, he couldn’t make a propering offering to the gods for a safe trip. The term nusa (幣) means a special staff used in Shinto ceremonies. But Michizane, admiring the beautiful autumn scene on Mount Tamuke, hopes that this will make a suitable offering instead. Sadly Michizane would be disgraced and exiled only a short time later.

My interest in Sugawara no Michizane mostly comes because I admire him as a fellow scholar. I visited one of his shrines in Tokyo a couple times over the years, and usually try to pay respects. The real life Michizane was no god of learning, but his real-life contributions to poetry and Chinese literature in Japan helped the culture flourish at that time, and earned his place as a trusted adviser to the Emperor, despite his more humble background. This also helped explain his status centuries later as a god of learning. Every year in Japan in April, students pay respects hoping that they can pass entrance exams, and it’s nice to see his legacy carry on so many years later.

Avenue of trees against autumn sunset, Bosley Fields Farm - geograph.org.uk - 559377

My favorite poem related to fall in the Hyakunin Isshu is this one:

寂しさに Sabishisa ni
宿を立出て Yado wo tachi idete
ながむれば Nagamureba
いづこもおなじ Izuko mo onaji
秋の夕暮 Aki no yugure

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

When, from loneliness
I stand up and leave my hut
and look distractedly about:
everywhere it is the same
evening in Autumn.

The author of this poem is a monk named Ryosen Hōshi (良暹法師, “Dharma Master Ryosen) who supposedly composed it while doing austerities in a remote hut outside the capitol.

The notion of “Autumn Sunset” appears a lot in Japanese poetry, but apparently its meaning differs depending on the time and place. Ryosen Hoshi gives a more melancholy, almost Buddhist, tone implying that the world around him is declining into winter and possibly, metaphorically declining in a general Buddhist sense. However, Sei Shonagon (poem 62) also wrote about Autumn Sunset in her Pillow Book, but used it to describe crows and wild-geese flying

An Autumn Sunset means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it still is significant one way or another. For me, I tend to like Ryosen’s imagery the best, and it’s the one I imagine whenever I read this poem.

Gems P4061909

Another iconic poem about Autumn in the Hyakunin Isshu:

白露を Shiratsuyu wo
風のふきしく Kaze no fukishiku
秋の野は Aki no no wa
つらぬきとめぬ Tsuranuki tomenu
玉ぞちりける Tama zo chiri keru

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

In the autumn fields where the wind blows repeatedly
on the white dewdrops,
the gems, not strung together,
do scatter about indeed.

The author, Fun’ya no Asayasu, is the son of the author of poem 22, but is otherwise unknown.

The poem is something of an oddity in the Hyakunin Isshu because, as Mostow explains, it seems to be a relatively common poem. It uses a popular motif of dew as gems, comparing them to pearls or jewels, and you can find similar imagery in other poems of the time. So, why did Fujiwara no Teika select this poem for this anthology?

Mostow points out that this poem is featured in other anthologies as well, so for some unknown reason, it was highly prized, even though the significance is lost now.

Still, there is something beautiful about the idea of gems scattering in the Autumn wind in particular and perhaps that is what sets this poem apart from others from the same era.

Interesting garden building and entrance to Vine Cottage - geograph.org.uk - 521117

This is a poem a like a lot from the Hyakunin Isshu that vividly expresses the mood of Autumn:

八重むぐら Yaemugura
しげれる宿の Shigereru yado no
さびしきに Sabishiki ni
人こそ見えね Hito koso miene
秋は来にけり Aki wa ki ni keri

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

To the lonely house
where the weeds, eight layers deep,
have grown rank,
not a soul can be seen—
but autumn, at least, has come.

The poet, Egyō Hōshi (恵慶法師, Dharma Master Egyō), was a Buddhist monk active during the last half of the tenth century, and as Professor Mostow explains, was closely associated with other poets who frequently met at the Kawara Mansion on the banks of the Kamo River. According to Mostow, these included Yoshinobu (poem 49) and Motosuke (poem 42) among others.

The poem was given as an entry to a poetry contest about the coming of autumn to a ‘dilapidated house’ according to Mostow, but he points out that the “house” in question was probably mean to the Kawara Mansion itself.

Given that Egyō is a Buddhist monk, and well-versed in the Buddhist teachings of the effervescence of life, it seems reasonable that he used the house and the seasons to give the poem a bit of a Buddhist theme. Spring gives way to Summer, Summer to Fall, Fall to Winter and so on. In the same way, things rise and fall, and Egyō wanted to remind his audience that “Autumn” comes sooner or later.

Nishimura Shigenaga - Four Seasons – Autumn Moon above the Reception Room

The Hyakunin Isshu is full of poems about Autumn as we’ve seen so far, and this is another example:

月見れば Tsuki mireba
千々に物こそ Chiji ni mono koso
悲しけれ Kanashi kere
わが身ひとつの Waga mi hitotsu no
秋にはあらねど Aki ni wa aranedo

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

When I look at the moon
I am overcome by the sadness
of a thousand, thousand things—
even though it is not Fall
for me alone.

The author, Ōe no Chisato, is the nephew of Yukihira (poem 16) and Narihira (poem 17) and boasted a famous collection of his own called the Kudai Waka.

Similar to poem 22, this poem has influence from Chinese Six Dynasties style, but as Mostow explains, the poem reflects a change where Chinese poetic style is adapted into more native Japanese style. Mostow explains that the poem may allude to a famous poetic line by Bo Juyi.

As mentioned before, the moon plays a really important role in the Hyakunin Isshu, and poetry in general. But also, it’s a source of festivities too. In Japan, the 15th lunar day of the 8th month (harvest moon in the West), marks a fun time called o-tsukimi or “moon-viewing”. More on that in the other blog coming soon.

As for the poem, it kind of expresses a quiet humility too, I think, which is why I always find it one of the most memorable. The Moon inspires a lot of deep feelings, but this poem reminds us that it does not shine just for us.

Happy Moon Viewing everyone!

A Good Harvest: Poem Number 1

September 14, 2012

Wheat harvest

This is another iconic poem about Autumn and also happens to be the first poem in the Hyakunin Isshu:

秋の田の Aki no ta no
かりほの庵の Kariho no io no
苫のあらみ Toma no arami
わが衣出は Waga koromo de wa
露にふりつつ Tsuyu ni furitsutsu

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

In the autumn fields
the hut, the temporary hut,
its thatch is rough
and so the sleeves of my robe
are dampened night by night with dew.

This, the opening poem of the Hyakunin Isshu, was composed by Emperor Tenji (626-671) who was also helped oversee Taika Reforms as Crown Prince. This poem is unique in the anthology because it deals with subjects that related to peasant life, rather than life in the Court, and later commentators explain that this was because of Emperor Tenji’s image as a benevolent ruler. It’s also possibly because of this image, that Fujiwara Teika chose this as the first poem.

In any case, the poem gives a window into the life of the peasants in Japan during this era. Like elsewhere in the world, the harvest was a very important time of the year, and in each village, someone had to guard the grain overnight from theft or from animals. They would often stay in small thatched huts, and stay awake overnight. As night fell, the temperatures would get cold and their sleeves wet with dew, while the smell of dried grains permeated the air.

Outside the aristocratic court, this was the life that many led to feed their family and it was this labor that Emperor Tenji sought to praise.