Ono no Komachi's PoetryVery little is known about this Japanese poetess, and most of it is legendary. She lived around 850 C.E. (b. 834?) during the Heian period. The story about her is that she was a woman of unparallelled beauty in her youth and enjoyed the attention of many suitors. She was, however, haughty and cruel, breaking many hearts. She was punished by living to an old age and dying as a destitute and ugly hag in loneliness. The legend is almost certainly false, but the passionate nature of her loves survives (minus the didactic ending) to this day. In fact, the town of Ogachi in Akita prefecture celebrates an annual Komachi Festival on the second Sunday of June (legend has it that she was born in the village of Ono in Ogachi). There is a shrine dedicated to her.
What is certain about her, however, is that she was a major poet. As Helen Craig McCullough put it, she would have been a major poet in any society, not just in the rarefied circles of the Heian aristrocracy. Komachi's status is due to her waka in the first Imperial Anthology, the Kokinshû (compiled around 900 C.E.), abbreviated below as KKS. She also figures in the 13th century collection Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, abbreviated OHI) and in imperial collection Gosenshû. Generally, the 18 poems in Kokinshû attributed to her are believed to be authentic, and the 4 in Gosenshû are also thought to be genuine. There is a later collection with 100 poems but the experts agree that they are of doubtful authenticity, almost certainly created long after her death. Finally, some poems appear in Ise Monogatari (abbreviated as IM), where they are given context missing from Kokinshû (and usually not quite flattering to Komachi). The "canon" thus consists of 22 tanka, on which Komachi's fame is based.
I have sometimes commented on certain poems because the variations in translation are
bewildering --- often changing the meaning of the original completely.
On such a night as this When no moon lights your way to me, I wake, my passion blazing, My breast a fire raging, exploding flame While within me my heart chars. (Tr. Earl Miner)
The flowers withered Their color faded away While meaninglessly I spent my days in the world And the long rains were falling. (Tr. Donald Keene)
A thing which fades With no outward sign Is the flower Of the heart of man In this world! (Tr. Arthur Waley)
Though I visit him Ceaselessly In my dreams, The sum of all those meetings Is less than a single waking glimpse. (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)
In waking daylight, Then, oh then, it can be understood; But when I see you Shrinking from those hostile eyes Even in my dreams: that is misery itself. (Tr. Earl Miner)
In this bay There is no seaweed Doesn't he know it -- The fisherman who persists in coming Until his legs grow weary? (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)
More heart-wrenching than To sear my body with live coals Against my flesh, Bidding farewell on Miyakoshima's shore As you part for the capital. (Tr. Sarah M. Strong)
Did he appear, because I fell asleep thinking of him? If only I'd known I was dreaming I'd never have wakened. (Tr. Jane Hirshfield and Aratani Mariko)
The autumn night is long only in name -- We've done no more than gaze at each other and it's already dawn. (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratani)
When longing for him Tortures me beyond endurance, I reverse my robe -- Garb of night, black as leopard-flower berries -- And wear it inside out. (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)
Since encountering my beloved While I dozed, I have begun to feel That it is dreams, not reality, On which I can rely. (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)
KKS:557 (Love)"Reply [to a poem, in which someone has referred to his tears as gems]."
Tears that but form gems on sleeves Must come, I think, From an insincere heart, For mine, though I seek to repress them, Gush forth in torrents. (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)
Yielding to a love That knows no limit, I shall go to him by night -- For the world does not yet censure Those who tread the paths of dreams. (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)
KKS:727 (Love)Translator's note: "the last two lines also mean `Why do you persist in saying that you are angry with me?'"
I know nothing About villages Where fisherfolk dwell; Why must you keep demanding To be shown the seashore? (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)
Now that I am entering The winter of life, Your ardor has faded Like foliage ravaged By late autumn rains. (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)
How bitter it is to see Autumnal blasts Strike the rice ears; I shall, I fear, Reap no harvest. (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)
This body grown fragile, floating, a reed cut from its roots... If a stream would ask me to follow, I'd go, I think. (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)
What men call love Is simply A chain Preventing escape From this world of care. (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)
His heart, grown cold, has become my body's autumn. Many sorrowful words may yet fall like the rustling leaves. (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratani)
I thought to pick the flower of forgetting for myself, but I found it already growing in his heart. (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratani)
Those gifts you left have become my enemies: without them there might have been a moment's forgetting. (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratani)
Submit to you -- could that be what you are saying? the way ripples on the water submit to an idling wing? (Tr. Burton Watson)
Sad -- the end that waits me -- To think at last I'll be a mere haze pale green over the fields. (Tr. Burton Watson)
The pine tree by the rock must have its memories too: after a thousand years, see how its branches lean toward the ground. (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)
The hunting lanterns on mount Ogura have gone, the deer are calling for their mates... How easily I might sleep if only I didn't share their fears. (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)
Since this body was forgotten by the one who promised to come, my only thought is wondering whether it even exists. (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)
This abandoned house shining in the mountain village -- how many nights has autumn spent there? (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)
If, in an autumn field, a hundred flowers can untie their streamers, may I not also openly frolic, as fearless of blame? (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)
While watching the long rains falling on this world my heart, too, fades with the unseen color of the spring flowers. (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)
Seeing the moonlight spilling down through these trees, my heart fills to the brim with autumn. (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)