Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The dew under the blossoms

"Not very festive" was the complaint I received when I attempted to read a few winter poems by Saigyō aloud to the family over Christmas.  Maybe it was the images of solitary life in lonely huts with all mountain trails cut off, or the bamboo bent under snow, frost-withered flowers, wind blowing over dead reeds...  I was trying to interest them in Burton Watson's beautiful translations, published twenty-five years ago by the Columbia University Press.  Saigyō (1118 - 1190) lived through tumultuous times at the end of the Heian dynasty and also through stylistic changes in court poetry which saw greater prominence given to nature description with a sabi aesthetic.  Watson says, in relation to the poem below, 'perhaps he and his fellow poets felt that the very drabness of such scenes, their dim half-light and autumnal sadness, more aptly reflected the age of social decline in which they lived than could any brighter and cheerier landscape.'
kokoro naki mi ni mo aware wa shirarekeri shigi tatsu sawa no aki no yūgure
Even a person free of passion
would be moved
to sadness:
autumn evening
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.

1 comment:

Martin Stankewitz said...

I want to take the opportunity to say thanks for your inspiring blogging on landscape not only during last year hoping that the journey will be continued for long.

with best wishes for you and your family for he new year!