🌸 🌲 Classical Japanese Poetry 🍁 ❄

:cherry_blossom: :evergreen_tree: Welcome to the Japanese Poetry Reading Club :maple_leaf: :snowflake:

This thread originally started as a question about a particular poem that I didn’t quite understand. As time went on, I realised it would be cool to have something dedicated to classical japanese poetry.

The goal of this thread is simple : sharing poems and helping each other with grammar and all the difficulties of translation.

I don’t know if it will have a lot of success but even if there are very few posts, I still wanted to make it.

Useful links

  • Kobun dictionary
  • Waka Poetry : this website has a lot of poems with the original japanese text, but be careful of the sometimes weird romanizations and translations.

Recommended books

Helen Craig McCullough. Kokin Wakashû - The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry : with ‘Tosa Nikki’ and ‘Shinsen Waka’. Stanford, CA : Stanford University Press, 1985, 400 p.

Helen Craig McCullough. Bungo Manual : Selected Reference Materials for Students of Classical Japanese. Ithaca, New York : Cornell University Press, 1988, 108 p.

Haruo Shirane. Classical Japanese : A Grammar. New York : Columbia University Press, 2005, 552 p.

Haruo Shirane. Classical Japanese : Reader and Essential Dictionary. New York : Columbia University Press, 2007, 280 p.

Haruo Shirane. Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons : Nature, Literature, and the Arts. New York : Columbia University Press, 2012, 336 p.

Laurel Rasplica Rodd. Shinkokinshû : New Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern. Brill, 2015, 918 p. (Brill’s Japanese Studies Library, 47).

Steven D. Carter. Traditional Japanese Poetry : An Anthology. Stanford, CA : Stanford University Press, 1991, 536 p.

Steven D. Carter. How to Read a Japanese Poem. New York : Columbia University Press, 2019, 344 p.

Yoel Hoffmann. Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. North Clarendon, VT : Tuttle Publishing, 2018, 368 p.

:snowflake:


Hello ! It’s my first post so i hope i don’t put this in the wrong category
I was trying to read a poem from the Kokin waka shû that I like very much, and even if I understood some parts (also with the help of online dictionaries) I still can’t get my head wrapped around a few words.

It’s the poem 98 :

hana no goto
yo no tsune naraba
sugushiteshi
mukashi ha mata mo
kaerikinamashi

I think I understood the two first lines but correct me if i’m wrong :
" goto " is this kanji : 如 it establishes a comparison, a link with the flowers (cherry blossoms here)
" yo no tsune " the Jisho definition is
世の常 “1. ordinary; run-of-the-mill; usual​”
but with the kanji “world”, I guess it means “the ordinary things of the world”, “the things in the world”
and naraba is “if”

but i don’t understand “sugushiteshi”. I searched a lot and apparently a version of the poem indicates this kanji : 過 " overdo, exceed, go beyond, error " (jisho)
I really don’t see the link with the rest of the poem.

I understand the 4th line (the past time would also…again) , but not the fifth.
It’s from “kaeru” which changes to “kaeri” in classical japanese if my dictionary is not wrong, but i don’t understand the “kinamashi” part ?

It would be so cool if someone helped me with this because i really want to be able to fully understand this poem in japanese :cherry_blossom: :dizzy:

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It’s too late at night here for my brain to process these questions, but if anyone else is in this thread and wanting to see the text in the original Japanese, most sites I’ve found transcribe it as follows:

花のごと 世の常ならば 過ぐしてし 昔はまたも かへりきなまし

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This is going to be a pile-up of auxiliary verbs – classical Japanese is even more agglutinative than modern Japanese. Starting at the end, the まし is part of a grammar structure ~ば~まし which means もし~ならば、~であろうのに, i.e. a counterfactual hypothetical.

The meaning of the poem in modern Japanese (according to this website) is

毎年めぐって来る花のように、この世が不変であるならば、過ぎてしまった過去もまためぐって来るものを。

so the ~ば~まし is doing the if… perhaps in “if this world was unchanging like the flowers that return every year, perhaps the past that is gone would return again”.

We can also deduce from the modern gloss that 過ぐしてし is modifying 昔 to give us “the past that has gone”.

To pull the rest of かへりきなまし apart I think it is

  • かへり = renyoukei (and historical kana spelling) of かえる (to return)
  • き = renyoukei of く (to come, i.e. modern くる)
  • な = mizenkei of ぬ (aux verb for completion of an action)
  • まし (see above)

I am only just beginning with study of Classical Japanese so the above may well contain errors; corrections appreciated!

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@Belthazar Thank you for putting the original text, I forgot to do it
@pm215 Thanks a lot for your answer ! there a lot of things that are new for me
So if i understand correctly, まし is the old way to express a counterfactual hypothetical, something that could have been but didn’t. Here, the past, something that is not like the flowers and who therefore cannot come back every year.

You wrote ~ば~まし but I don’t understand where is the ば linked to まし ? Because in the second line I thought that the ば of ならば was concerning the 2 first lines :

If (ならば ) the things of the world ( 世の常) were like ( 如 ? ) the cherry flowers…

And I don’t understand how 過ぐしてし is modifying the meaning of 昔. The meaning of 過 in Jisho is “to overdo, to go beyond” ; so it would be like “beyond the past”, “the past long gone” ?
But there is also 過ぎる : 1. to pass through; to pass by; to go beyond​ 2. to pass (of time); to elapse​
Is this the modern form of 過ぐしてし ?

And why the き is needed ? If かへり already means “to return, to come back”, why adding the verb “to come” ?

I still have A LOT to learn on grammar (for both modern and classical japanese :sweat_smile: ) and I know that maybe it’s a little premature for me to go on “advanced level” readings like these but these poems help me to stay motivated so…

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It is exactly that ば. There is a verb (なり, meaning roughly the same as modern だ or である) which tells us how the noun phrases before it are combined together “this world is like the flowers”, and it is conjugated in a way that tells us how that combined phrase fits into the rest of the sentence (“if it were true that … then …”).

To retreat from Classical poetry to mundane modern Japanese for a moment, in this sentence borrowed from a decluttering self help book:

トレーニングウェアは三着あれば十分だ。 – If you have three lots of exercise wear that’s plenty.

Here あれば is the conditional form of ある. ある is doing its usual job and telling us the relationship between トレーニングウェア and 三着 (“you have three sets of exercise clothing” = トレーニングウェアは三着ある), but because it’s part of a larger sentence and not the main verb in its own sentence, it is also conjugated to fit into the larger pattern ~ば~ “if X then Y”.

In both Classical and modern Japanese, you cannot expect to always arrive at the meaning of a word by looking at the “meanings” of the kanji used to write it; you need to look up the words themselves. You can see this with modern 過ぎる, as you have found.

This is again going to be a pile up of a verb and auxiliaries (if in doubt assume that anything looking like a conjugated verb in Classical is really a stack of lots of single syllable auxiliary verbs). I think it is:

  • 過ぐし : renyoukei of 過ぐす, a transitive verb; the relevant sense here is 時を過ごす。年月を送る。
  • て : renyoukei of つ, an aux verb meaning “completion”; compare modern …てしまう
  • し : rentaikei of き, an irregular aux verb indicating past tense

and because our stack of verbs ends with something in the rentaikei form, we know it is modifying the following noun 昔.

(I think but am not sure that the use of a transitive verb means this is “the past that I, the author of the poem, have let go past me”, rather than the intransitive “past that has gone by” of the modern Japanese gloss.)

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Oh yeah, for this bit: in modern Japanese ~てくる and ~ていく are used a lot, and this is similar. In modern Japanese 帰る is simply to return home – you can 帰る to your home a thousand miles away from me. To 帰ってくる is specifically to return home in a direction towards the speaker; if you return home to somewhere far from where I am now I can’t say that. If you haven’t already studied these forms in modern grammar, start there.

In this poem, the past is (hypothetically) returning to the writer of the poem, not just coming back in a general way. You can see a ~てくる form in the modern gloss too, doing the same job: めぐって来る.

ETA: oh, and because this is a waka: the other thing the き is doing is making the syllable count of the final line 7 ! (That is, one could perhaps express a similar sentiment without it, but constraints of the form also affect choice of wording. Though I think the ~てくる is pretty natural here anyway.)

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Ok I think that I am beginning to understand now.

Just to be sure, would you also say that 如 is in this poem the kanji version of ごと ? I searched ごと on Jisho and it seemed the most likely option.

The distance between ば and まし seemed strange at first but now I understand, all the lines are really connected between each other.

So the reason why 過ぐしてし is here is to basically reinforce the meaning of 昔.

I knew about 帰る but it’s the first time I see 帰ってくる, it seems so logical now !

Thank you so much for all your explanations ! :cherry_blossom: :dizzy:

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You should really use a classical Japanese dictionary to look up words from classical Japanese texts; jisho is a modern Japanese dictionary by and large. Anyway, this ごと is indeed 如, equivalent to modern …のように/…のよう/…のようだ.

It’s definitely providing more meaning and nuance than that. It’s not just “if the world was like these flowers the past would come back”; it’s about the places and people and times that the writer once knew and are now definitely gone; that’s what the author is lamenting won’t be coming back.

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The link to the online dictionary is great, it’s the first time I see it but I will definitely use this one for classical texts now.

I was reading again the 古今和歌集 and I found a poem with the exact ~ば~まし structure, it was a great feeling to recognise it, it’s the 70th :

まてといふにちらでしとまる物ならばなにを桜に思ひまさまし

I used the kobun.weblio online dictionary to help me for some words and I tried to translate it. Even if I didn’t succeed at writing a perfect 5-7-5-7-7, I think I didn’t miss any important idea of the poem :

If I only had
to say “wait !” to prevent them
from falling,
would I cherish them more,
the cherry flowers ?

:cherry_blossom:

(the ressemblance between “cherish” and “cherry” was not wanted at first, I just tried to make a 7 syllables line :sweat_smile: )

It’s a beautiful poem so I wanted to share it here !

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I’m reading again the translation I did and I’m starting to have doubts about it… i don’t perfectly understand the 物 and なに .
I wrote “would i cherish them more” because I read in the dictionary that 思ひ can also express a feeling of love/affection (the only meaning I knew before was “to think”). But perhaps なに modifies the meaning of the poem, like “what else could I think about”…

This site gives a modern gloss of

もし、散るのを待てというと。散らないでそのままとまるものであらば、いったい何を桜以上に思うものがあろうか。

and a different site glosses it

「散るのを待て」と言って、本当に散らないで留まってくれるものなら、どうしてこれほど桜の花に思い悩むことがありましょうか。

Take your pick :slight_smile:

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It’s still hard for me to understand long sentences like these so correct me if I’m mistaken : the first site says " if cherry blossoms didn’t scatter when we say “wait”, what would be more pleasing / beautiful ? "

while the second one says “if cherry blossoms didn’t scatter when we say “wait”, we wouldn’t feel anxiety/trouble” ?

Ok I found a very useful commentary here : UVa Library Etext Center: Japanese Text Initiative

It clearly explains the possible interpretations, my translation was not faulty !

The 73th is more simple from a grammatical point of view, and just as beautiful as the 70th :

空蝉の世にもにたるか花ざくらさくと見しまにかつちりにけり

It feels really great to be able to understand it, I still remember the time where I couldn’t read hiragana, feels cool to see my progression :partying_face:

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I was reading the poem 57 of the 古今和歌集, written by Ki no Tomonori :

いろもかも
おなじむかしに
さくらめど
年ふる人ぞ
あらたまりける

(UVa Library Etext Center: Japanese Text Initiative)

and I was wondering about the めど part ? I did some research but I didn’t really found an answer…

For the ぞ, this particle is here to put emphasis on 人 ? And the two も in the beginning are here for an enumeration ?
But I am not sure to understand the に. I searched the possible uses of it in classical japanese and it feels to me that it’s used here to express a contrast between the first and the second part of the poem, to make a bridge between the beginning (the cherry flowers are the same as before) and the end (human beings inevitably change) ?

I think the kanji for あらたまりける is 改まりける, but it’s still hard for me to understand the grammar of it…

With the kanji I think the poem looks like this (it feels more easy to read) :

色も香も同じ昔に桜めど年ふる人ぞ 改まりける

I have seen ふる in other poems where it has multiple meanings : the passing of the years, getting old ; but also falling for the leafs, the snow and the flowers…

Homophony in japanese is really great and beautiful

@pm215 I was wondering if you can help me again with this one ? :laughing:

And by the way if other people want to share poems here feel free to do it :dizzy:

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I struggle to translate them on my own, but I am interested in this topic! Are you aware of this source:
November | 2023 | Waka Poetry The owner abruptly stopped in November after years of clockwork posting which makes me sad. There are many beautiful waka with images of the calligraphy and English translations. Edit: interesting - when I wrote this in January there were no entries for December, but now in February there are entries in December. It is still continuing

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I do know this website, it’s really great, but I didn’t know that the owner stopped :confused: but still there are already a lot of poems and sometimes it helps me with the kanji (on the UVirginia website, sometimes there are a lot of hiragana and very few kanji).

Yeah it’s still very hard for me to understand them, but some poems are easier than others and it’s a great satisfaction when you finally get it in its original language. It’s the main reason that motivates me to learn japanese.

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I don’t quite have time to give a complete answer to all of your questions right now, but I have found some answers in the following link: 古今和歌集の部屋
A brief summary is that the めど part is actually split into 咲く らめ and ど where らめ comes from らむ (「らむ」 - 古典文法) and the ど is “but”.
As far as I can tell, the ぞ is for emphasis on 人, as it is often used in old poetry, and the two もs are just showing you how much the flowers have stayed the same year after year.
The 昔に appears to be an artistic choice to emphasize looking back into the past, as a more common expression would be 色も香も昔と同じに.
As for the あらたまりけり, the website said something about how if we are going from the present to the past, our shadow is being replaced every year (with an older and older shadow), whereas going from past to present, it is the year that gets “replaced.”
I only had around 20 minutes so sorry for the sloppy explanation (and please correct me if I made any mistakes).

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Thanks a lot for your answer, 咲く makes more sense, I was completely wrong when I put the kanji 桜 for さくらめど. I have already seen 咲くin another poems but I had completely forgot it.
Ok I think I understand better あらたまりけり now, but I can’t go to the website that you linked it’s weird, I tried one time and my antivirus said no, and the second time it’s “404 Not found” :sweat_smile: I will try again later.

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Yeah the 咲く part is the hardest to parse I think because much like けり, らむ is not used in modern Japanese (and 桜 easily comes to mind when looking at the hiragana).
The website is over 20 years old and might be only accessible in Japan, so I’ll see if I can post the contents of it below:

Website Details (Copy and Pasted Dense Japanese) 色も香も 同じ昔に さくらめど 年ふる人ぞ あらたまりける

花は色も香りも昔と同じに咲いているようだけれど、年を重ねた自分の方は新たに老いてしまった、という歌。

“さくらめど” は、「咲く+らめ+ど」で、「らめ」は推量の助動詞「らむ」の已然形である。咲いているようだけれど、という意味。詞書にも「さくらの花のもとにて」とあるので、 “さくらめど” には 「桜」が込められていると考えてよいだろう。ただ、その場合、「人に知られぬ 花や咲くらむ」という 94番の紀貫之の歌や、「うづきに咲けるさくらを見てよめる」という詞書を持つ136番の紀利貞の「春におくれて ひとり咲くらむ」も同じか、というと微妙である。

ちなみに古今和歌集の物名には、「かにはざくら」(=カバザクラ)や 「うめ」はあるが、「さくら」だけの歌はない。また、同音ということだけで言えば、 “さくらめど” の中には、445番の文屋康秀の「花の木に あらざらめども」と同じ 「めど」(=メドハギ)があるが、それならば 97番の読人知らずの「花のさかりは ありなめど」などの歌は全部そうなのか、ということになってきりがない。無理な理屈をつけずに、何となくこの友則の歌には 「桜」が入っている感じがする、ということでいいのではないだろうか。

詞書も、歌の “年ふる人” も、この歌が友則が老いを感じる歳になってからの歌であることを示していて、歌をざっと読むと 「花は同じだが人は老いぼれる」という一般的なテーマのように思えるがよく見ると少しわかりづらい。

まず “同じ昔に” というのは、「昔と同じに」という意味だろうが、「色も香も同じに咲く」という中に 「昔」という言葉を割り込ませているかたちである。それを 「昔」の強調と見れば、「昔と同じで今も」というより、現在から昔を覗いているようにも受け取れる。

そのタイムトンネルの中では、春ごとに同じように咲いている花があって、その下に毎年たたずんでいる自分の影があるが、桜に比べ自分の方はどんどん若さが失われ年老いてゆく、という幻想の風景が見えているのではないだろうか。 “年ふる人ぞ あらたまりける” とは、その複数の自分の影のことで、現在から過去方向へ逆行すれば文字通り 「新たまる」ということであり、過去から現在に向けて見れば、年が 「新たまる」ごとに老けてゆく、と見える。

もちろん、909番の「松も昔の 友ならなくに」という藤原興風の歌と同じく、桜を見にくるメンバーが年々老けてゆく、あるいは数が減ってゆくと解釈することは可能だが、それだと “あらたまりける”
と言う感じとは少し違うような気もする。 「年ふる」という言葉を使った歌については、「経(ふ)」の歌をまとめた 596番の歌のページを参照。

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Thanks again everyone for the help, WK community is great :dizzy:

We are deep in winter now, the trees have all lost their leaves, and the flowers that were once so bright seem today like a dream. The contemplation of the seasons make us meditate about the brievity of our lives, the fugacity of all things… something that, perhaps, we don’t think about enough when we are taken in the grind of daily life. But the reality is that, as the days flow one after the other, death is always one step closer. We don’t like to look at her, but death can help us to appreciate so much more our living time.

And yet, even the people who contemplate their mortality are still surprised the day it finally comes, like in this poem that I was reading ; the 861th of the 古今和歌集, written by なりひらの朝臣 :

つひにゆく
みちとはかねて
ききしかど
きのふけふとは
おもはざりしを

I have already read several translations of this poem but I still looked up the words I didn’t know in the kobun dictionary, and then I tried to understand it to finally reformulate a translation in my words :

At the end of life
I have heard there is a path
that we all follow ;
but yesterday I never thought
I would need to go today…

For me one of the most beautiful poems of the Kokinshû, very touching. We all know that we are mortal beings, we all know that we will need to die one day… but is anyone really prepared for the day it finally comes ? We can’t (unfortunately ?) procrastinate with our demise. And I think it’s useful to regularly remind ourselves this fact. Death can help us to live, and to fully enjoy every unique moment…

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