Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Of rain soaked flowers and...

Poem 133 of the Kokin wakashuu, from the last book of Spring poems.


yayohi no tsugomori no hi, ame no furikeru ni, fudi no hana wo worite hi ni tukaha shikeru
nuretsutsu zo shihite woritsuru toshi no uchi ni haru ha ikukamo araji to omoheba
Ariwara Narihira

On the last day of the 3rd month, attached to broken off wisteria flowers soaked with rain

The flowers are soaked / and have been torn asunder / as I'm wondering / how many days of spring yet / linger this year, I think of...

Ariwara Narihira


There are two aspects of Narihira's poem I'd like to talk about today: the first is the metaphorical meaning of the poem and the other is the classical Japanese calendar and the seasons.

Let's start with the poem itself. It's grammar is pretty straightforward, as is the vocabulary. The metaphorical implications of the poem lie in it's unfinished thought. The poem ends with the verb 思へば (omoheba) which is conjugated such that ba can be affixed. The peculiar aspect of this conjugation is that ba, in classical Japanese (and similar to that of contemporary Japanese), can indicate causation, temporal condition, contrast, or although. Obviously, something is supposed to come after the clause. Clearly, the thought is not finished--something is left unsaid, which leads us to the metaphorical implication of the poem. In wondering how many days of spring are left in the year, Narihira is also wondering how many springs he has yet to see. (The editors of the volume even go so far as to suggest that he is wondering how many happy springs of youth he has left.) In my translation, I've tried to leave the thought unfinished as in the original, but I felt it necessary to add an additional clause to the end ("I think of..."). In the Japanese, the ba clearly indicates an strong relationship between the remaining days of spring and the unfinished thought. As such, I wanted to lead the reader down a similar train of thought, without spelling anything out too explicitly.

There are some more interesting aspects of the poem, but first we need to talk about the classical Japanese calendar. As noted in The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature, like an number of older civilizations, the Japanese calendar was lunar with months of 29 or 30 days and the occasional extra month added to keep the calendar in place with the actual time of year. So when we read in the head note that the poem was written in the third month, it does not necessarily mean March. Additionally, each month had an animal associated with it, as with the Chinese zodiac. Of greater interest for this poem is the seasons: the first through the third months were spring, regardless of the amount of snow on the ground. Additionally, as the editors note, it's a bit odd to ask how many days of spring are left on the last day of the third month as it's also the last day of spring. They suggest that it could be Narihira's way of complaining about his declining fortunes, due to some complications with court politics, but that's not exactly clear. (One interesting bit of evidence they supply is his mention of the wisteria [藤] which is read as fudi or fuji like that of the Fujiwara family [藤原], to whom he had requested a promotion.)

Thus, Narihira is wondering about the future of himself and spring. He is also, simultaneously, indicating their decline--like that of the wisteria flowers overwhelmed and broken by the heavy rains that accompany the end of spring.

Ariwara Narihira is the famed poet of Ise monogatari, as well as being one of the six poetic geniuses (rokkasen) named in the Kana Preface of the Kokin wakashuu by Ki no Tsurayuki. He is famed for both his poetry and his romantic exploits--including the alleged "conquest" of the high priestess of Ise. The Princeton Companion indicates that he was born in 825 and died in 880.


Sorry this post is a day late! It's Golden Week in Japan, and I've been a little off. I should be back tomorrow with another poem, this time from a new collection!

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