Moro tomo ni kage wo naraburu hito mo areya tsuki no morikuru sasa no io ni
If only there were someone who would line up their shadow next to mine in this grass hut that the moon has filled with light.
– Saigyō (My translation)
The temperatures are falling every few days or so. It is really fall now, so poems about the moon are appropriate. So, here’s a poem I really like, written by Saigyo, a monk who lived at the end of the Heian period, a time in which the splendor of the imperial capital was crumbling as violence erupted even among monks affiliated with particular temples.
Saigyo, however, withdrew from the world, from both society at the capital and from other monks and temples. He lived alone, but he was not a complete hermit, either. After shaving his head, he lived for a while within walking distance of the capital, and although he later took many trips on foot across the country, he also maintained correspondences with various people, including other monks and members of court.
By virtue of being a poet, Saigyo and his poetry appear in various noh plays. One play that has caught my attention recently, Eguchi, elaborates an event captured in an exchange of poems between him and a female entertainer who refused him lodging. Although the play (and the two poems of the exchange itself) are suggestive of an amorous encounter, the fact that he was a monk who had rejected popular society at court makes me wonder about the nature of his relationships with other people.
It’s not surprising, however, that even someone who had chosen to be alone becomes lonely when they find themselves actually alone. What I love about this poem I posted is the double image it evokes of both Saigyo sitting alone in his small home, appreciating the moonlight streaming in and Saigyo’s imagined version of the same scene, in which another person is sitting next to him enjoying the same scene with him.
This second scene reminds me of the best moments in the best friendships, moments in which both people are quiet and perfectly content to share the moment with each other. Unfortunately, those moments are rare, but Saigyo shows that even when one is alone, one can still appreciate a beautiful moment, be it perhaps a little bittersweet.
Update: Poem translation corrected on September 17, 2017.