かささぎの 渡せる橋に おく霜の 白きをみれば 夜ぞぶけにける
I picked this one because I think Magpies are very cool birds!
Yakamochi (718-785) was born into a prominent family (the Otomo clan) and served as a prominent statesman. He apparently shared love poetry with “innumerable woman,” and so the tryst-y themes of this poem seem nicely typical of him. As governor of Etchu (now Toyama prefecture) he got to get up to a lot of sightseeing which contributed to his delicate nature poetry. After 751 he moved back to the capital and it seems he was too embroiled in politics to do much poetry writing, so I presume this poem would have been written earlier in his career, probably within the time frame of his innumerable love affairs. However, one website does mention his posting in Nara as Minister of Military Affairs allowed him to gather poems from frontier soldiers, which I presume went into the Manyusho.
Our book mentions his contribution to the Manyoshu, but does not mention how heavily represented he is in the book: 479 out of 4496, roughly 10%. The last few books especially function as a sort of poetic diary for him. Since he is especially present in those last few books, it suggests he was the last in a series of compilers. I wonder how much poetic clout he had to get away with so much self-insertion in such an important text lol.
Contents: The Tanabata Legend
The story for the Tanabata festival is inspired by the “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl” from Chinese mythology. Orihime/Weaving Princess (織姫) wove beautiful cloth by the banks of the milky way (天の川). Her father Tentei/Sky/Heaven/Universe King (天帝) loves the cloth. However, Orihime (in a typical Japanese fashion?) works so hard she fears she will never find a lover and she becomes sad. Tentei, fearing for his daughter, introduces her to Hikoboshi the cow herd (彦星) from the other side of the Milky Way. They fall in love and marry, but they enjoy it a little too much; she neglects her weaving and his cows wander all over the place. Tentei angrily separates them, but moved by his daughter’s sadness he concedes that they may meet once a year. When the fated day, June 7th, comes, they realize that even though they are allowed to meet there is no bridge to cross the river. Orihime starts to cry, but some magpies come to console her and promise to form a bridge for her. Neat final note pulled directly from Wikipedia because its too concise to paraphrase: ‘It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies cannot come because of the rise of the river and the two lovers must wait until another year to meet. The rain of this day is called “The tear of Orihime and Hikoboshi”.’
I have never heard of so literally star-crossed lovers! And the Wikipedia page on “Star-Crossed” doesn’t even mention them! It apparantly has similarities to a Mesopetamian legend, and was very popular in China and Japan already in Yakamochi’s period, but I don’t think there was a similar legend that Shakespeare could have heard when he coined his phrase for Romeo and Juliet, though now that I think of it, I am reminded of Proserpine (less for star-crossed and more for general plot points).
If any of you like star gazing, Orihime is Vega, the brightest star in Lyra, and Hikoboshi is Altair, the brightest star in Aquila.
There are 133 poems on this legend in the Manyusho. I presume this has more to do with the legend’s popularity than anything, but I wonder how that affected Yakamochi or how Yakamochi affected that, him being a compiler of the Manyusho.
The allusion to the Tanabata legend seems to provide most of the context for this poem. Perhaps it is a funny little reflection the poet had in the moment, on how as the night goes on the aristocratic lovers would be running out of time for their trysts and would be crossing their own little bridge (the steps in the palace) soon. An alternative I found is he is remarking upon a rendeveuz of his own. Since he’s still at the steps, maybe she didn’t show, and he laments how the night goes on as he is stood up. I think the unseasonality of the Tanabata reference furthers this–he is reminded of the bridge between lovers, but it is winter–they aren’t meeting right now, and he does not live in a legend. Or, alternatively, it is a comment on the persistence of love, and even in the winter the (metaphorical) magpies find a way (presumably for other love affairs he is thinking about vis-a-vis the first interpretation–had he met a lover I’m sure we’d have a different poem).
Trivia: Magpies are Cool
Magpies were only introduced to Japan from Korea in the 16th century, but they are common in China where the legend originates. They had the legend without actually knowing what the bird was! Maybe they thought it was a kind of heron (サギ). I think if I were a Nara period Japanese poem reader that would add a wonderful mystique to this poem.
The same source that mentioned the above also says that Magpie are often associated with frost in Waka poetry. This to me implies that the Japanese had an idea of what Magpies look like–I guess if they didn’t see magpie themselves that would just be a detail transmitted alongside the legend.
Classical Japanese, or, Me Taking Shots in the Dark with Grammar
A saw this comment chain a blog and that it was really good stuff so I’ll just copy it here since it’s short:
I am trying to understand the correct way to parse ふけにける in the last line. Is ける an attributive form of けり? If so, what’s the に doing in there?
Temca, the uploader of the poem, replied:
The ni に is the continuative form of the perfective affix marker nu ぬ, and indicates that the action of the verb is completed, or the state that it describes is in effect – in this case that night is in the condition of having come to an end. Keri 〜けり is in its attributive form keru 〜ける because of the earlier emphatic particle zo ぞ, which required sentences to end in the attributive form, through what is known as a kakarimusubi 係り結び (bound ending) relationship between a particle and sentence ending.
Tofugu and Imabi seem to have quite approachable articles on Kobun which I am slowly starting to work through as things come up.
I’ve been seeing a lot of adjectives like 白き. These are the ancestors of い adjectives from the /k/ being dropped. 白き is the attribute form. 白し would be the terminal/end of clause form. It seems those forms have fused in modern Japanese. Very simple, but it feels good to grasp even a simple thing from the old version of a language you are learning.
I hadn’t realized that izenkei+ば has any meaning besides “if.” It can also mean observation or conclusion. To me it felt like in this context it also had a circumstantial feeling. However, classical ば, compared to the modern provisional form with which we are familiar, seems to have a sense of less reality: ‘it was less “if P, then Q” and more “if P were, then Q would be”.’
That would mean the meaning is less circumstantial and more “If I were to see the frost, the night would be over.” However, I found one translation that goes: “Seeing the whiteness / Night, indeed, is over.” The circumstantial nature of that participle seems to fit better with the explanation in our book. I’m going to assume that this instance of ば is part of the “other uses” the source I was using to get the above description of ば mentions.
Maaaaaybe the use of the irrealis (a-vowel ending, but the etymology of the English word for the form helps me have a sense of its feeling) emphasizes the longing/melancholic mood of the poem? That’s just my thought after only briefly reading about Classical Japanese grammar, but I figured it was worth sharing.