kokoro naki mi ni mo aware wa shirarekeri shigi tatsu sawa no aki no yūgure
Even a person free of passion
would be moved
in a marsh where snipe fly up.
[Quoted on Wikipedia - the translation is Burton Watson's.]
From the perspective of landscape writing what is most interesting about Saigyō are the poems that are almost pure description and those which record his extensive travels. The journeys he made in northern Japan were an influence on Basho, as I've mentioned here before, and this ideal of life spent as a wandering Buddhist poet was later taken up by the Beat Movement. Within half a century of Saigyō's death, local traditions had sprung up around places he apparently visited. In her autobiography (c. 1313), Lady Nijō mentions being inspired at the age of nine by reading one of his poems, on a mountain stream and scattering cherry blossoms:
'I had envied Saigyō's life ever since, and although I could never endure a life of ascetic hardship, I wished that I could at least renounce this life and wander wherever my feet might lead me, learning to empathise with the dew under the blossoms and to express the resentment of scattering autumn leaves, and make out of this a records of my travels that might live on after my death.'This quotation is taken from Gustav Heldt's introduction to his translation of the Saigyo Monogatari (see Monumenta Nipponica, Winter 1997). This work is a compilation of stories about the poet's life which emphasised his travels around Japan and there are various texts, the earliest dating back to the thirteenth century. It includes the famous poem I quote above, on snipe rising from a marsh in autumn. At that point Saigyō has just passed the plain of Togamigahara where 'from out of the drifts of mist covering the field, the wind carried the cries of a deer.' Afterwards, 'since he had no particular destination in mind, he followed where the moonlight led him...' At the end of the Saigyo Monogatari, the poet looks back on his life, fifty years spend wandering 'through the provinces, forsaking everything for the frugal life of a monk living in mountains and forests.' He dies surrounded by cherry blossoms and makes his final journey to the Pure Land.