Wednesday, October 19, 2016

It will hold the spring sunlight

Musō Soseki (1275-1351) designed two of the great landscape gardens in Kyoto, both now UNESCO World Heritage Sites, neither of which I managed to get to on my all-too-brief visit to the city nearly twenty years ago.  Saihō-ji had fallen into disrepair when Musō was brought in to create a paradise garden.  It was when the garden fell into disrepair again in the nineteenth century that the moss began to grow which has become its most famous feature.   Musō cannot have anticipated this development, although acceptance of inevitable change is one of the essences of landscape design.  The temple of Tenryū-ji, was built by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji in memory of the emperor whom he had deposed.  Musō wrote a sequence of poems about the landscape garden he helped create there, 'Ten Scenes in the Dragon of Heaven Temple.'  Some of these scenes have survived the centuries, like the lake Sōgen-chi where moonlight still strikes the waters in the dead of night; others have gone, like Dragon-Gate House where Musō observed the most transient of images, two passing puffs of cloud.

A Nanbokucho-period artist, Musō Soseki, c. 1334-1392

I have been reading Musō's poetry in the translations W. S. Merwin made in collaboration with Sōiku Shigematsu. Rather than use quatrains, their versions of Musō split each line in three, giving twelve line verses that slow the reader and suggest the chanting style in which they would have sounded in the original Chinese.  Whilst it's not possible to quote a whole poem, here are some of those lines-broken-in-three, taken from different poems: nine landscapes fragments.

from 'Jewel Field'                         from 'Pine Shade'                           from 'Snow Garden'
All the soil now                            The green haze                               Flowers with six petals
   is beginning                                   so deep and dense                          have covered the whole ground
      to shed light                                   it keeps out the light                         and frozen everywhere

from 'Gem Mountain'                   from 'Spring Cliff'                             from 'It'
The rain beats upon it                  Even the withered trees                  The cold cloud full of rain
   the wind cuts it                             on the dark cliff                                passes above
      it only shines brighter                   are blossoming                                 the hollow of the mountain

from 'Gem Creek'                         from 'House of Spring'                   from 'East Peak'
Without ruffling its surface           Hundreds of open flowers              It will hold the spring sunlight
   look carefully                                all come from                                 year after year
      into the depths                               the one branch                                after year

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