The Lonely Season

Bashoan at Konpukuji

(Bashoan, Basho hut, at Konpuku Temple in Kyoto. Basho was a poet who lived more than four hundred years after Saigyo, but he considered Saigyo his greatest influence.)

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.

4 thoughts on “The Lonely Season

  1. Hi, I like your translation of Basho, It,s great. My favorite one of Basho is

    おもしろうて やがて悲しき 鵜舟かな

    I think you can understand this poem if you can get what is 鵜飼(ukai). Ukai is one of fhishing way and it,s very traditional style
    of Gifu pre. Enjoy !

    1. Dear Kumi,

      Thank you for the comment! I really like the Basho poem you posted. That’s exactly what 鵜飼 (ukai) is like, fascinating, but also sad, because the fascination is in watching fish being killed. There’s a Noh play about an 鵜飼 fisherman who ends up in hell for taking life, and it’s called 「鵜飼」.

      There is only one thing that I think I should say. Although the photograph in my post is of 芭蕉庵 at 金福寺, the poem that I posted was from Saigyo. I’m sorry for the confusion.


  2. In fact, Basho’s poem is based on a quotation from the Noh 「鵜飼」, if I remember it well!

    I read your blog with great interest. I lived in the Kyoto/Osaka area for 11 years, your tastes are similar to mine, and I really like the way you express your thoughts.

    At present I am translating GENJI MONOGATARI into Dutch – something which, stangely enough, has never been done before. The deadline is April 2012!

    Best wishes from Oxford, England –
    Jos VOS

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