Waning Moon

Another Autumn moon poem, but with an interesting twist:

なげけとて Nageke tote
月やは物を Tsuki ya wa mono wo
思はする Omowasuru
かこちがほなる Kakochi gao naru
わがなみだかな Waga nami dakana

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

“Lament!” does it say?
Is it the moon that makes me
dwell on things? —No, and yet,
look at the tears flowing down
my reproachful face!

This poem was composed by the Dharma Master Saigyō (1118-1190) a famous Buddhist monk and poet from the era. Saigyo’s story is interesting in of itself. In his youth, his name was Sato no Norikiyo and he was a promising young man in the Heian Court, and caught the attention of Emperor Toba, Emperor Sutoku (poem 77) and also Taira no Kiyomori, the most powerful man at the time and who later became a villain in the famous Tales of the Heike and a recent drama on Japanese TV.

However, Norikiyo grew disillusioned with the nasty politics and infighting in the Court, and abruptly decided to throw it all away. He left behind his career, his wife and children1 and became a wandering mendicant. He took on the Buddhist name Saigyo (西行) and stayed at the famous mountain-monastery of Koyasan for monastic training. Later, he returned to the capitol to find everything had changed. The Hogen Rebellion had destroyed much of the capitol, Emperor Sutoku was exiled (having lost), and Kiyomori ruled as a warlord. A few years later, Kiyomori and the entire Heike clan were utterly destroyed in the famous Genpei War which also spelled the Heian Court and the Heian Period. What might have happened had Norikiyo had stayed and followed his career, rather than leave the capitol?

In any case, with the new samurai government at Kamakura (the Kamakura Period), things settled down in Japan and Saigyo traveled around, devoting his life to writing poetry to lament the loss of his former patrons, beautiful nature in Japan, and about life in general. He finally settled down in the outskirts of Osaka, and passed away at the age of 73. It was said that when he passed away, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and that he died on the same day that Shakyamuni Buddha died (February 15th according to solar calendar).

He was also friends with Shunzei (poem 83), according to Professor Mostow.

Anyhow, this poem is, according to Professor Mostow, possibly inspired by a poem by famous Chinese poet Bo Juyi and is supposed the express the feelings of a resentful lover. Is the moon making him/her tearful? Maybe, maybe not, but gazing up at the moon brings them such sadness anyway.

Saigyo’s talent with poetry and his interesting life story have certainly helped him earn a place in the Hyakunin Isshu, but also inspired many later poets such as Basho and others. Basho the Haiku master, in his travels, went to visit places frequented by Saigyo among others.

Emperor Sanjo as depicted in Hyakunin Isshu “cards”.

This poem is something that touches on an important theme here on the blog, but first, let’s take a look:

心にも Kokoro ni mo
あらで浮世に Arade ukiyo ni
ながらへば Nagaraeba
恋しかるべき Koishikaru beki
夜半の月かな Yowa no tsuki kana

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Though it is not what’s in my heart,
if in this world of pain
I should linger, then
no doubt I shall remember fondly
the bright moon of this dark night!

This poem was composed by Emperor Sanjo (976-1017) who only reigned briefly for 5 years until his regent, Fujiwara no Michinaga, forced him to abdicate so that his own grandson could become Emperor (Emperor Goichijo). Fujiwara no Michinaga will be remembered as the main character of Lady Murasaki’s Diary, plus he employed a number of the female authors in the Hyakunin Isshu to be ladies in waiting for his daughter.

To make matters worse, Emperor Sanjo was frequently ill, and this added further pressure for him to abdicate.

The poem above, according to Mostow, is thought to have been composed toward the end of his reign when he was ill and considering abdication. Was he concerned that night about his illness, or about the prospect of losing the throne? What made him savor that moon so?

As mentioned in this post, the later poems of the Hyakunin Isshu reflect a more somber era when political scheming and such replaced the earlier enthusiasm of previous generations. By this time, the Emperors had lost much of their power to ministers (mainly from the Fujiwara family) and were increasingly isolated.

The Heian Period which spans the Hyakunin Isshu would end about 100 years later.

For those who are stuck in the dead of winter (or for readers in the Southern Hemisphere), I thought a Summer-type poem would be appropriate:

夏の夜は Natsu no yo wa
まだ宵ながら mada yoi nagara
明けぬるを akenuru wo
雲のいづくに kumo no izuku ni
月やどるらむ tsuki yadoruran

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

The short summer nights
while it seems yet early evening,
it has already dawned, but
where in the clouds, then,
does the moon lodge, I wonder?

The author of the poem, Kiyohara no Fukayabu, was a relatively well-known poet in his time, but it also turns out he is the grandfather of Motosuke (poem 42) and great-grandfather of Sei Shonagon (poem 62), so it seems poetry and literature run in the family. 😉 Then again, to be fair, the Hyakunin Isshu is full of poems involving members of the same family across multiple generations.

Anyhow, as Mostow explains, this poem was highly regarded at the time, but for readers in the 21st century, it has so many hidden cultural allusions, that it’s hard to see the significance at first.

As he summarizes, summer nights are short, and Fukayabu is saying that he is surprised that the moon is already dawning in the western sky. Since it’s cloudy, he asks where the moon might be lodging since it’s hard to imagine that it is already setting. It’s a clever, light-hearted poem exploring brief summer, moonlit nights in other words.

Interestingly, Mostow points out that despite the praise on this poem from antiquity, Fukayabu was not included among the Thirty Six Immortals of Poetry and his reputation suffered a major blow that didn’t recover until it was included in later anthologies.

It’s pretty amazing to think how a poem can really make or break a person in that era.

Sunrise in Southeast Alaska - NOAA

Hi all,

New year is here, and I guess it’s time to say “goodbye” to the old one. This poem is also happens to be about good-byes of another sort.

有明の Ariake no
つれなくみえし tsurenaku mieshi
別れより wakare yori
暁ばかり akatsuki bakari
うきものはなし uki mono wa nashi

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

There is nothing so depressing
as the break of day and
leaving you after
having seen the heartless
morning moon.

The author, Mibu no Tadamine, is one of the Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry and was the father of Tadami (poem 41). He was also one of the official compilers of the official anthology, the Kokinshū along with Ōshikōchi no Mitsune (poem 29).

By all accounts, this appears to be another famous “morning after poem”, similar to the one seen in poem 50. The term, ariake (有明) is a poetic term for the last-rising moon, in the last-half of the lunar cycle, which you can still see in the morning. On the other hand, as Professor Mostow points out, the fact that the moon was heartless could also imply lover who spent all night waiting to see his lover but was never received and finally went home at dawn.

Either way, the morning moon seems to carry a lot of significance for romantic types back then.

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!

Andries van Eertvelt - Two Ships at Anchor - WGA7476

This next poem in our series devoted to women of the Hyakunin Isshu anthology is by one of the most famous women authors in Japanese history, Lady Murasaki:

めぐりあひて Meguri aite
見しやそれとも Mishi ya sore tomo
わかぬ間に Wakanu ma ni
雲がくれにし Kumo-gakure ni shi
夜半の月かげ Yowa no tsukikage

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

As I was wondering
whether or not I had seen it
by chance,
it became cloud-hidden,
the face of the midnight moon!

Professor Mostow explains that the headnote for this poem describes an experience one night when Lady Murasaki had seen someone she had known long ago as a child, but she only saw them briefly in passing as they raced by. But there are many interpretations as to who that person had been. Many propose it was a fellow female acquaintance while others wonder if it was a male lover. Unfortunately we can’t be sure.

Lady Murasaki, known as murasaki shikibu (紫式部) in Japanese, was a somewhat unusual figure in the 11th century Heian Court, both for her talents and her personality. Compared to other women of that era, like Lady Izumi (poem 56) who was very passionate, and Sei Shonagon (poem 62) who was very bold and witty, Lady Murasaki was more withdrawn and sullen and prone to be alone, or exchange letters with other women who shared her frequent melancholy.

Lady Murasaki was among those rare women at the time who learned to read Classical Chinese, which normally was used by men of the Heian Court for official purposes, Buddhist liturgy, and of course Chinese-style poetry and literature. Women generally did not learn it, though the women listed above were exceptions. Indeed, Lady Murasaki’s father, Fujiwara no Tametoki, was said to have lamented that Lady Murasaki was born a woman, because her talents for literature was outstanding. In any case, it was Lady Murasaki’s talents that led her to being recruited as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shoshi along with other dynamic women of her generation. She is often depicted in Japanese art like the painting below (she is at the bottom-right):

Empress Shoshi and son

Unfortunately, we know very little about Lady Murasaki today, apart from her writings: the Tales of Genji, her poetry, and of course her eponymous diary which covers a year or two of her life while serving the powerful Fujiwara no Michinaga. I’ve explored her diary in my other blog at length, so we need not cover it here. We don’t even know her real name. The term murasaki (紫, “purple”) refers to one of her characters in the Tales of Genji, of which several drafts circulated the Heian Court and people started to call her by that name.

Nevertheless, Lady Murasaki’s reputation has always endured throughout Japanese history as an author and poet of the highest caliber, and has a following even among Western audiences as well. She is celebrated and revered throughout the generations, and like Lady Izumi, enjoys a following in Japan among younger generations of women today. This page is a tribute to her as well.

P.S. For the photo above, think “two ships passing in the night”. 🙂

Moon over cumulus

The Moon is not surprisingly one of the most powerful images in the Hyakunin Isshu anthology, but the myriad ways it is used as imagery shows a remarkable variety and depth. There are 43 poems in the Hyakunin Isshu that cover topics of love and romance, but only 12 that pertain to the Moon. However, within those twelve poems, and in Japanese Waka poetry as a whole, the moon itself is a very popular subject and expressed in many ways. As one book on the subject points out, the Moon expresses different themes depending on the situation:

  • Being separated from home (poem 7)
  • Waiting for one’s lover (poem 21)
  • Melancholy (poem 23)
  • Parting one’s lover (poem 30) in the morning
  • The cool moon in Summer (poem 36)
  • The moon on a clear, beautiful Autumn night. (poem 79)
  • Two people passing in the night (poem 57)
  • Loneliness of a heart-broken women (poem 59)
  • The effervescence of life (poem 68)
  • Early dawn moon and the cuckoo’s call (poem 81)
  • Human grief (poem 86)

This is only for the Hyakunin Isshu of course. For larger anthologies like the Kokinshū and the vast corpus of Chinese poetry, the Moon is a persistent symbol of so many aspects of human emotion.

But also in Japanese language, many poetic terms for the moon and its phases have arisen over time:

  • ariake (有明) – moon visible during sunrise, appears in the latter half of the lunar cycle
  • shingetsu (新月) – new moon
  • tsugomori (つごもり) – last day of the moon (i.e. new moon)
  • mikazuki (三日月) – crescent moon (lit. “third-day moon”)
  • mangetsu (満月) – full moon
  • mochiduki (望月) – full moon, 15th day of the old lunar calendar.
  • izayoizuki (十六夜月) – moon on the 16th day, just after full moon.
  • tachimachizuki (立待月) – moon on the 17th day of the cycle.
  • fushimachizuki (臥待月) – waning half-moon
  • nemachizuki (寝待月) – another term for waning half-moon

A lot of these terms are pretty obscure (some I couldn’t find in a common dictionary), while a few like mangetsu and mikazuki are used in standard Japanese.