Moodboard – Poetry: No. 9: Departing For The East, The Tales Of Ise

DT10749
A painting of a scene from The Tale Of Ise. I’m guessing this one is paying homage to the Yatsuhashi scene where they sit on the marsh overlooking the irises.

Long ago, the man was overwhelmed by feelings of futility, and he thought, ‘I can no longer remain in the capital; I will look for a suitable place in the provinces of the east.’ Then he departed, taking a few of his old friends with him. Unsure of their way, they wandered along in a desultory fashion. Eventually they arrived at a place called Yatsuhashi in the province of Mikawa. The location was known as Eight Bridges because the river there fanned out into eight channels like the legs of a spider, with a bridge across each one.

They dismounted in the shade of the tree by the edge of the marshland to eat some dried rice. In the marsh,  there were beautiful irises in full bloom. One of the party said, ‘Compose a poem on the topic “journey”, using the letters I-R-I-S, one for the beginning of each line of the poem. The man’s poem:

In these familiar, lovely robes I’m
Reminded of the beloved wife
have left far behind, stretching far –
Sadness, the hem of journeys.

Everyone wept, swelling the dried rice with their tears.

Continuing on their journey, they reached the province of Suruga. At Mount Utsu, the path was overgrown with maples and ivy and very dark and narrow. Just as the group was fearing that they might meet a terrible fate, they encountered a mendicant monk. ‘Why are you travelling on a path such as this?’ he asked them. On hearing him speak, the man realized that the monk was someone he knew. So he composed a poem to his beloved and gave it to the monk to take to the capital.

Here by Mount Utsu
in Suruga so far away,
I cannot meet you
in the real world,
nor even in my dreams.

Then when he looked up and saw Mount Fuji, he noticed that even though it was midsummer, snow still covered the peak.

Mount Fuji,
knowing not the seasons,
which one do you think it is?
Snow still covers your peak –
the dappled coat of a fawn.

Compared to the mountains at the capital, Mount Fuji was like Mount Hie piled twenty times as high in the shape of a great mount of salt.

The man and his friends continued their journey and came to a large river on the border between Musashi and Shimosa. It was called the Sumidagawa. They rested together on the bank and though forlornly about how far they had travelled. But the ferryman shouted, ‘Get on board quickly! It’s getting dark.’ As they boarded the boat, they were all filled with sadness, for there was not one among them who had not left behind a loved one in the capital.

Just at that moment, a white bird about the size of a snipe, with red legs and beak, frolicking on the water while gulping down a fish. As it was a bird that they had never seen in the capital, no one knew what it was. They asked the boatman what its name was, and he replied, ‘Why, it’s the “Bird of the Capital!”.’ Hearing this, the man recited a poem.

Bird of the Capital –
if true to your name
then let me ask you
of the one I love;
is she still alive and well?

Everyone on the boat broke down in tears.


Fun fact: in the commentary, this poem is credited with inspiring the Noh play Kakitsubata by Komparu Zenchiku, which indirectly inspired James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

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