Sunday, February 28, 2021

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 39 (Minamoto no Hitoshi)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 39

asajifu no
ono no shinohara
amarite nado ka
hito no koishiki


like the sparse grasses
growing under low bamboo
I try to hide my love
but it is too much for me –
why do I love you so?

Minamoto no Hitoshi (880-951)

A poem about "unbearable love." The first two lines are a common preface (jo) to the verb shinobu, "to love secretly." The  preface is connected by playing with sound, but also through imagery. There is a nice contrast in meaning between the "sparse reeds" hidden among bamboo grass, and "amarite," the overwhelming feelings of love mentioned in the next line. Note the conscious sound repetition.

This poem and the next two refer to "secret love." The speaker has stealthily fallen in love with a woman, but the affair is still in the early phase, before he has been able to reveal his feelings through an exchange of poems with the object of his affection.

asajifu: broad field of sparsely growing cogon grass (chigaya, Imperata cylindrica)
shinohara: field of bamboo grass
amarite: too much
nado ka: why?

The Poet
Minamoto no Hitoshi (880-951) was the great-grandson of Emperor Saga (r. 809-823). After serving as governor of several provinces, in 947 he was appointed Sangi (Counselor) with Fourth Court Rank. He has only four anthologized poems, all in the Gosenshu.

References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each, by Peter MacMIllan (Penguin Classics); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Chishiki Zero kara no Hyakunin Isshu, by Ariyoshi Tamotsu (Gentosha); Hyakunin Isshu Kaibo Zukan, by Tani Tomoko (X-Knowledge);  Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 

Photo 1: Arundinaria pumila, Kurt Stüber, GFDL via Wikimedia
Photo 2: Bamboos by Xu Wei, Freer Gallery of Art, public domain via Wikimedia

Hyakunin Isshu Index

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Haiku Travels (19): Buson and Konpukuji (Kyoto)

Haiku Travels

  Buson (Konpukuji)

when I am dead, too,

I want to lie by the monument

withered pampas grass

ware mo shi shite | hi ni hotori semu | kare obana




Konpukuji (Temple of Golden Bliss) stands in the north-eastern part of Kyoto, not far from Shisendo, in a quiet area which until not too long ago was countryside. It was founded (according to tradition) in the second half of the 9th century by Enchin (Jikaku Daishi), who enshrined a Kannon statue here. Later the temple fell into ruins until it was rebuilt in the 17th century by a priest called Tesshu. At that time it also became a Rinzai Zen temple. It is just a small temple, consisting of only one modest hall, but it is famous among haiku lovers for the Basho Hut (Basho-an) that stands on the low hillside at its back.

The irony is, that it is not certain Basho ever really came here. True, in 1670 he wandered around Kyoto and visited Arashiyama, Kiyotaki and Mt. Hiei. Tradition has it, that he also spent some time in a small cottage in the grounds of Konpukuji, and the above-mentioned priest Tesshu gave that humble dwelling therefore the name "Basho-an." With Rakushisha, it is therefore one of the two Basho-related huts in Kyoto.

The cottage had fallen into ruins when Japan's second great haiku master, Buson (1716-1784), paid a visit here in 1760. In 1776 he started to rebuild it, with the aid of the then priest, Shoso, a work that was only finished in 1781. From 1776 on, Buson would regularly come here in spring and autumn with his disciples, such as Gekkyo, Doryo and Hyakuchi, to hold haiku sessions.

[The Basho Hut ]

body and soul
here the new leaves
of the Basho Hut

ji-moku-hai-cho | koko ni tama maku | Basho An


This haiku is almost impossible to translate and certainly won't make it to any popular Buson anthology. The kuhi stands on the way from Ichijoji-Sagarimatsu (famous as a battle site from the Miyamoto Musashi lore) to Konpukuji, and at the same time serves as a signpost for visitors. "Ji-moku-hai-cho" literally means "ears, nose, lungs and intestines" and stands for "my whole being," or "body and soul." "Maku" is "curling up" and points at young, curled up leaves - so something new about to be born, or something burgeoning. That of course points at the meaning of basho as plantain - after all, Basho has a horticultural name - but the new, burgeoning leaves are also symbolic for the inspiring influence of the poet Basho. The message of the haiku is: from this (restored) Basho Hut, which deeply inspires Buson and his disciples, a new haiku poetry will be born... It was Buson's praise of the newly restored hut in 1776.

Buson also wrote a haibun about the hut, called "A Record on the Restoration of the Basho Hut in Eastern Kyoto." He expresses his longing for this "deeply hidden place," "where green moss has covered all traces of footsteps," but that at the same time is not completely cut off from the world, as one can hear dogs barking across the fence, and even buy tofu nearby. There is an echo here from Basho's Genju-an, a haibun about a hut near Ishiyama at Lake Biwa where Basho lived after his trip along the "Narrow Road."

At that time, Buson was already famous as both a painter and a poet. The cottage (even today still looking very new, so probably many times restored) stands on the hill at the back of Konpukuji. It sports a straw roof and is in fact quite spacious. It is a warm and sunny place, with dense vegetation even in winter. I would not mind spending some time here, studying haiku at ease...

[Buson's grave]

Beside the Basho Hut stands a stone monument dedicated to Basho, carrying on inscription that relates his life. This stele was put up by Buson. Higher up the hill is a cluster of graves, with the main one that of Buson himself. In the haiku cited at top of this page, Buson asks to be buried here, at the side of the Basho monument, near to the Basho-an in Konpukuji, a wish that was respected by his disciples.

Buson died on the 25th of December of 1784, after having been ill since the autumn. He was surrounded by his family and disciples and one of these, Kito, wrote a moving account of his last days. Even on his sickbed, Buson continued composing haiku and expressed his admiration for Basho, whom - he felt - he had not been able to equal. After dictating his three last haiku to one of his disciples, Buson passed on peacefully. His last haiku, which he entitled "The Beginning of Spring", was:

from now on
every night will dawn
with white plum blossoms

shiraume ni | akuru yo bakari to | narinikeri


After saying: "The time has come to leave this world - is the night still deep?" - he breathed his last. The haiku expresses the feeling that spring is coming, and from now on will adorn all early mornings with plum blossoms. Buson himself also sets out for another world that is graced with such plum blossoms, dazzlingly white.

Buson's grave lies in the shaded forest on the slope above the Basho Hut. It is quiet here and almost solemn, like in a cathedral. Nearby are the graves of disciples and other poets, who - just as Buson wanted to be near Basho - wanted to lie next to the great master.

[Stone Lantern in Konpukuji]

already downhearted
now make me feel lonely

uki ware wo | sabishigarase yo | kankodori


There is a tradition that Basho wrote this haiku when he visited Konpukuji, so this is a fitting place for this kuhi, all the more so as this spot of Basho veneration could not be without a haiku by the Master himself. The poem alludes to a waka by the priest-poet Saigyo (1118-1190), telling that the poet wanted to live alone in a mountain village and then heard the cuckoo and thought: "Who is it calling? I just wanted to be alone!"

It is a quiet day when I come here, in late summer, and there are no cuckoos to make me feel lonely. On the contrary, Konpukuji and the Basho Hut exude a warm and friendly atmosphere. This is no place for melancholy, even not with the graves on the hill above me. I look out at the small formal garden next to the temple hall, with raked gravel and thick patches of moss. An old lantern sticks up its head from the bushes. Inside the temple, some materials related to Buson are on display. The door curtain flaps in a light breeze. In the hut above me, I imagine Basho listening to the cuckoo and, a century later, I see Buson with his disciples busily engaged in a haiku session...

[Hall of Konpukuji]

passing spring
bird's eye-view of Kyoto
from the graves

yuku haru ya | kyo wo hitome no | haka-dokoro


Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) also visited Konpukuji and was inspired by the view of Kyoto from here to write the above haiku. It was perhaps ironical (or fitting?) to have such a good view of the city from the place where the graves of Buson and his disciples are. Through the tall trees the city of Kyoto can be glimpsed. usually lying in a haze, and at the end of the view are the shapes of the Western Mountains. The hill above me is heavily forested, probably turning a blazing red in autumn, and now in summer providing welcome coolness.

[Entrance to Konpukuji]

The Haiku Stones:
The first haiku stone stands at the spot where the road from Ichijo-Sagarimatsu splits: one has to turn right here for Konpukuji. All other haiku can be found in Konpukuji. The Basho haiku stone stands next to the Basho-an, while the Kyoshi kuhi can be found in the area higher up the hill, where the graves are.

10 min walk (200 m SE) from Ichijo-Sagarimatsu-cho bus stop (bus 5 from Kyoto St).
9:00-17:00; Closed 1/16-31 and 8/5-20.

See about Buson: The Path of the Flowering Thorn, The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson, by Makoto ueda (1998, Stanford University Press).

The photos in this post are my own.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Lyric Poetry Around the World (2): Odyssey by Homer (Greece, 725-675 BCE)


sing to me of the man, Muse
the man of many devices
driven time and again off course
once he had plundered
the sacred citadel of Troy
many cities did he visit
and the minds of many nations he learned
many pains he suffered
in his heart, on the open sea
fighting to save his life
and bring his comrades home
but he could not save them from disaster
hard as he strove
the sheer folly of their own ways
destroyed them all
the blind fools
they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and Helios prevented them
from ever reaching home
launch out on his story, Muse
daughter of Zeus
start from where you will
sing for us, too

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσε·
πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ’ ὅ γ’ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
ἀλλ' οὐδ' ὧς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ·
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
ἤσθιον· αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.
τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.

[Odysseus and the Sirens, c. 480–470 BCE (British Museum)]

The Odyssey is an epic poem by the Greek poet Homer, who also wrote the Iliad. The work was probably written down in the late 8th or early 7th c. BCE. The approximately 12,000 lines of verse are divided into 24 books. The poem was intended for oral performance.

In the Iliad Homer related a phase from the tenth and final year of the Trojan War. The Odyssey deals with the last 6 weeks of the ten-year wanderings of the hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca - the inventor of the ruse with the "Trojan horse" - who has incurred the hatred of the sea god Poseidon. However, the goddess Athena continues to support him: she makes every effort to give Odysseus a safe return.

The Odyssey does not follow a linear chronology. The reader begins in the middle of the tale, learning about previous events through Odysseus’s retelling. The first four books are set in Ithaca where Telemachus is searching for news of his father. The second four books show how Odysseus is released from captivity by the nymph Calypso, who was so enamored of him that she detained him for seven years. He suffers shipwreck and lands on the island of the Phaeacians. In the next four books Odysseus tells the Phaeacians of his harrowing journey: such interesting episodes as those of the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops, the witch-goddess Circe (who turns half his crew into swine), a visit to the shades in Hades, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, and the sacred cattle of Helios. Finally, in the second half of the poem Odysseus is back in Ithaca, facing unexpected obstacles, as he is recognized only by his faithful dog and a nurse. His wife Penelope is resisting the importuning of more than a hundred suitors, who are staying in Odysseus’s house, eating, drinking, and carousing. With the help of his son, Telemachus, Odysseus kills them all and reestablishes himself in his home and in his kingdom.

[Mosaic depicting Odysseus, from the villa of La Olmeda,
Pedrosa de la Vega, Spain, 4th–5th c. CE]

As the Iliad is in fact mostly a story of blood-thirty warriors and their endless fights, I have always preferred the Odyssey, which is a beautiful adventure story. It also stresses the importance of having a safe home. But even more so than in the case of the Iliad, it is rather difficult to quote parts of this large narrative poem, so I have limited myself to the famous opening lines.

But some short quotes from the Odyssey have become famous, such as:

And may the gods accomplish your desire:
a home, a husband, and harmonious
converse with him – the best thing in the world
being a strong house held in serenity
where man and wife agree. Woe to their enemies,

joy to their friends! But all this they know best.
VI. 180–185 (tr. Robert Fitzgerald)

"My Name is Nobody"
‘Nobody, - Polyphemus bellowed back from his cave -
‘Nobody's killing me now by fraud and not by force!’
IX. 407–408 (tr. Robert Fagles)

Each man delights in the work that suits him best.
XIV. 228 (tr. Robert Fagles)

The Odyssey has had an even greater impact on the popular imagination in the West than the Iliad. In literature we find for example echoes in such diverse works as Dante's Inferno, James Joyce's Ulysses and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad. A famous opera is Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria by Claudio Monteverdi from 1640. The story has at least seven times inspired films, most memorably by Theo Angelopoulos as Ulysses' Gaze, and by the Coen Brothers as O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The above version is a composite based on various translations.

The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1997
Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. London (1919)
Translation by Samuel Butler at Gutenberg
Greek original at Wikisource

Vase with Sirens: English: Siren Painter (eponymous vase), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Mosaic Odysseus: Valdavia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lyric Poetry Around the World Index

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Great Poetry Around the World (10): Iliad by Homer (Greece, c. 750 BCE)


goddess sing the rage
of Peleus' son Achilles
the accursed rage
which brought the Achaeans countless agonies
hurling down into Hades
many mighty shades of heroes
making them the prey of dogs and birds
so that the plan of Zeus was fulfilled
sing from the time
the two men were first divided in strife,
Agamemnon, lord of men, and glorious Achilles

Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι· Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή·
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

(I, 1-7)

The generation of leaves

like the generations of leaves
so are those of humanity
the wind scatters the old leaves on the ground
but the live timber burgeons with new leaves again
in the season of spring returning
so one generation of men comes to life
while another dies away

οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίνεται ὥρη:
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.

(VI, 146-149)

The Night Sky

as stars in the night sky
round the moon's brilliance
blaze in all their glory
when the air is windless
and all the mountain peaks stand out
and the jutting cliffs
and the steep ravines
and down from the high heavens
bursts the boundless bright air
and all the stars shine clear
and the shepherd rejoices in his heart

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἐν οὐρανῷ ἄστρα φαεινὴν ἀμφὶ σελήνην
φαίνετ᾽ ἀριπρεπέα, ὅτε τ᾽ ἔπλετο νήνεμος αἰθήρ:
ἔκ τ᾽ ἔφανεν πᾶσαι σκοπιαὶ καὶ πρώονες ἄκροι
καὶ νάπαι: οὐρανόθεν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπερράγη ἄσπετος αἰθήρ,
πάντα δὲ εἴδεται ἄστρα, γέγηθε δέ τε φρένα ποιμήν

(VIII, 555-559)

[Attic Black-figure Neck Amphora "Two Warriors Fighting Over a Corpse."
Workshop of Exekias, ca. 540 BCE]

The Iliad is an early Greek epic attributed to the shadowy poet Homer (8th c. BCE), although scholars agree that this form of poetry was probably first transmitted orally and only later written down. The title is taken from Ilios or Ilion, the ancient Greek name for Troy, a city located in Asia Minor on the northwest coast of Anatolia. The Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans (Greeks) after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta.

The main theme of the book is not so much the whole war, as an incident during the last period of the war: the "resentment of Achilles." He had claimed a girl, Briseis, as spoils of war. The expedition leader, Agamemnon, however, ordered him to part with her because he had had to give up his own spoils of war. Achilles is so furious about this unfairness and rank-pulling that he isolates himself and refuses to fight any further in the war. Achilles remains out of the picture for most of the book as the fighting continues and the Greeks find themselves in a dire situation. Only towards the end, after Achilles learns that his friend Patroklos has been killed by the Trojan Hektor, does he rejoin the war to take revenge on Hektor. This will eventually allow the Greeks to achieve victory.

That victory itself is not described, but from the predictions of gods and warriors it is known what the fate of all the protagonists in the story is and how the battle will end. The Iliad ends when Achilles is relieved of his grudge thanks to Hektor's death.

[The Rage of Achilles by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1757]

Above I have cited three fragments which are often anthologized: the beginning of the epic, about Achilles' rage; the well-known simile in which Homer compares the life and death of humans with the effects that autumn and spring have on deciduous trees; and another simile about the bright moon in the night sky around which the stars are arranged as if around a leader. It is difficult to quote from a long narrative poem (reason why I skip Homer's other famous epic, the Odyssey), but these sections are deservedly famous.

Homer - to whom also the large epic The Odyssey has been ascribed - has grown into the Homeric Question: his name just serves as a label, we don't know anything at all about him (the view that he was a blind bard from Ionia, a region of central coastal Anatolia in present-day Turkey, is pure legend). Instead of having been written by a single poet of genius, it seems plausible that the Homeric poems were the result of a process of working and reworking by many contributors.

But the influence of the Homeric epics on Western civilization has been huge,  inspiring many famous works of literature, music, art and film - as regards the Iliad, starting with Aeschylus' trilogy Oresteia, and to Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, the opera King Priam by Micheal Tippett, and the Hollywood film Troy.

The above versions are my composite of various translations.

The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (Penguin, 1991)
The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1951)
Also at Wikiquote.
Links to translations and commentaries at Wikisource
Greek text from Perseus Digital Library.

Greek vase: Attributed to Group E (Workshop of Exekias), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Painting rage Achilles: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Great Poetry Around the World Index

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Great Poetry Around the World (9): Dhammapada (India, 3rd c. BCE)

The Twin Verses
(Dhammapada I)

all that we are is the result of what we have thought
all is founded on our thoughts
is made up of our thoughts
if one speaks or acts with an evil thought
suffering will follow
as the wheel of the cart follows the hoof of the ox

all that we are is the result of what we have thought
all is founded on our thoughts
is made up of our thoughts
if one speaks or acts with a pure thought
happiness will follow
like one's own shadow that never leaves

"he insulted me, hit me
he defeated me, robbed me"
in those who harbor such thoughts
hatred will never cease

"he insulted me, hit me
he defeated me, robbed me"
in those who do not harbor such thoughts
hatred ceases completely

for never here
does hatred cease by hatred
it only ceases by freedom from hatred
this is a perennial truth

others do not realize
that we must control ourselves
but those who realize this
their quarrels cease at once

if you live for pleasure only
your senses uncontrolled
immoderate in your food
idle and weak
Mara will certainly overthrow you
as the wind throws down a brittle tree

if you live looking at reality
your senses well controlled
moderate in your food
faithful and strong
Mara will not overthrow you
any more than the wind throws down a rocky mountain

if someone has not cleansed himself from defilement
and puts on the yellow robe
disregarding self-control and truthfulness
he is not worthy of the yellow robe

if someone has cleansed himself from defilement
well established in the precepts
endowed with self-control and truthfulness
he indeed is worthy of the yellow robe

those who see value where there is none
and don't see value where there is value
do not understand value
dwelling in the realm of wrong thought

those who see value where there is value
and don't see value where there is none
understand value
dwelling in the realm of right thought

as rain breaks through
an ill-thatched roof
passion will break through
an undeveloped mind

as rain does not break through
a well-thatched roof
passion will not break through
a well-developed mind

the evil-doer is sorry in this world and the next
he is sorry in both places
he is sorry and suffers
when he sees the evil of his work

the virtuous person is happy in this world and the next
he is happy in both places
he is happy and rejoices
when he sees the purity of his work

the evil-doer suffers in this world and the next
he suffers in both places
he suffers when he thinks of the evil he has done
and going to a bad place he suffers even more

the virtuous person is happy in this world and the next
he is happy in both places
he is happy when he thinks of the good he has done
and going to a good place he is even more happy

even if you can recite lots of scripture
if you are unaware and do not act according
you are like a cowherd counting the cows of others
not a sharer in the wanderer's life

even if you recite little scripture
but act according the Dhamma
having forsaken passion and hatred and delusion
possessing right knowledge and serenity of mind
not clinging either here or in the other world
you are a sharer in the wanderer's life

[The Mahabodhi Temple is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment]

The Dhammapada is a collection of 423 sayings in verse ascribed to the Buddha, divided into 26 chapters. It describes the wisdom of Buddha in the form of short verses, composed in the Pali language, and is one of the best loved works of Buddhist literature. It is regarded as the authentic teaching of the Buddha, spoken by him, memorized by his disciples, and compiled for oral transmission shortly after his death. "Dhammapada" means a "word or verse of the Dhamma" (in Sanskrit: Dharma). The oldest surviving manuscripts date from 1500 CE, but the work reached its present form by at least 500 CE, when an important commentary, the Dhammapadatthakatha, was written.

The language of the Dhammapada is clear and direct. The verses are divided loosely by theme, such as "awareness," "fools," and "old age." Chapter I, translated above, consists of "negative-positive" twin parallel verses. Rhyme is not used, but alliteration is frequent. The content, also, has an approachable quality. The book is widely used in Theravada countries as an accessible introduction to the Buddha's teaching (countries where the Theravada tradition survives are Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos). But not all verses in the Dhammapada are strictly Buddhist - on the contrary, the work contains many bits of folk wisdom which were not specific to Buddhism, but shared with Jain and Hindu literature.

The dates of the Buddha's life are contested. Theravada places the life of the Buddha from 623 BCE to 543 BCE, but most modern scholars date the Buddha's death (paranibbana) 150 years later, to around 400 BCE, so that he would have lived in the late 5th c. BCE - and that would then also be the period of time in which the canonical literature as the Dhammapada was born.

Pali is a Middle Indian language that served as a sort of lingua franca in ancient India; it was descended from Old Indian of which Sanskrit was a refined version (comparable to how Italian and French are descended from vernacular Latin, rather than from literary Latin). As an educated aristocrat the Buddha must have known Sanskrit, but he seems deliberately to have avoided using it so that his teachings could reach the widest possible audience. In contrast to the Theravada texts, the texts of Mahayana Buddhism were all written in Sanskrit.

[Seated Buddha (c. 475), Sarnath Museum, India. This pose refers to the Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath, where the figure was found]

The first two verses in the above translation address the problem of intention (kamma): it is the intention with which an act is performed that causes its consequences.

"Here" in the first line of Verse 5 refers to our world, i.e. samsara, the conditioned universe of kamma in which beings die and are reborn, and are exposed to their own particular way of suffering (dukka). Only Nibbana (Nirvana) is unconditioned and therefore means freedom.

"Mara" in Verse 7 is the demonic celestial king who tempted Prince Siddhartha by trying to seduce him with the vision of beautiful women. In Buddhist cosmology, he is associated with temptation and desire, with the forces antagonistic to enlightenment as he tries to bind beings to the world.

The "yellow robe" in Verse 9 refers to the yellow or orange robe worn by Buddhist monks.

"Right thought" in the last line of Verse 12 refers to the second element of the Eight-fold Path formulated by the Buddha which leads to freedom from suffering (right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration).

"A bad place" in the last line of Verse 17 refers to one of the four bad places of rebirth: among demons, animals, hungry ghosts, and the realm of hell. In the same way, "a good place" in Verse 18 points at one of the two good places of rebirth: among the gods and among human beings.

"According" in Verse 19 is "according to the Dhamma."

"A wanderer's life" in the last line of Verse 19 refers to "wandering spiritual seekers," and here is synonymous with bhikkhu, monks.

Dhamma in Verse 20 is the teaching taught by the Buddha, considered as perennial truth.

This wonderful anthology constitutes a perfect compendium of the Buddha’s teaching, comprising between its covers all the essential principles elaborated at length in the forty-odd volumes of the Pali Canon.

The above translation is a composite version based on various translations.

Word for word translation
with explanation of grammar
The Dhammapada, a new translation, by Valerie J. Roebuck (Penguin Classics) - recommended translation with excellent introduction and commentary. It draws on up-to-date scholarship and combines that with readability. Also my commentary borrows from it.
Translation by Max Muller at Wikisource
See for a list of other translations, the Dhammapada article in Wikipedia

Mahabodhi Temple: Bpilgrim, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
Buddha figure: พระมหาเทวประภาส วชิรญาณเมธี (ผู้ถ่าย-ปล่อยสัญญาอนุญาตภาพให้นำไปใช้ได้เพื่อการศึกษาโดยอยู่ภา่ยใต้ cc-by-sa-3.0) ผู้สร้างสรรค์ผลงาน/ส่งข้อมูลเก็บในคลังข้อมูลเสรีวิกิมีเดียคอมมอนส์ - เทวประภาส มากคล้าย, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Great Poetry Around the World Index

Monday, February 22, 2021

Great Poetry Around the World (8): Rig Veda (India, 1,700-1,000 BCE)

Hymn of Creation
from Rig Veda
(Mandala 10)

there was neither non-existence nor existence then
there was neither sky nor heaven beyond it
what covered it and where? what sheltered it?
was there a bottomless abyss of water?

there was neither death nor deathlessness
there existed no sign of night nor of day
the One breathed breathless by its own nature
there existed nothing else beyond that

at first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness
all was like water without shape
next the germ concealed by emptiness
arose through the power of heat

then first desire developed
from thought
the primal seed born of the mind
poets searching in their hearts with wisdom
discovered the bond between being and non-being

that cord was stretched across the void
did something exist below it? did something exist above?
seeds were sown and mighty powers arose
below was strength and above it was urge

who knows and who can here tell
from where this creation sprang?
the gods came later into being
so who knows from where it arose?

from where this creation came
whether it formed itself or perhaps not
the overseer of this world in highest heaven
only he knows it - or perhaps even he knows not?

[The Hindu deity Krishna playing the flute
15th c., Asian Art Museum of San Francisco]

The Rig Veda is the oldest of the four Hindu religious scriptures known as the Vedas. It is a collection of over 1000 Vedic Sanskrit hymns to the Hindu gods. The Rig Veda originated between 1700 and 1000 BCE, making it one of the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language. It was composed in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent.

The text is layered consisting of the Samhita (hymns to the deities, the oldest part of the Rigveda), Brahmanas (commentaries on the hymns), Aranyakas ("forest books") and Upanishads. The Samhita is the core text, and is a collection of 10 books (mandalas) with 1,028 hymns in about 10,600 verses. The hymns are dedicated to various deities, chief of whom are Agni, the sacrificial fire, and the heroic god Indra. Book 10 also contains the "Nasadiya sukta" which contains speculations about the origin of universe, and whether anyone can know the right answer - the text translated above.

It is interesting to see that according to this hymn there is no creator, but that the universe comes spontaneously into being (an idea also prevalent in Chinese Daoism and in the Japanese Kojiki) - something close to modern scientific ideas about the Big Bang. And just as in the case of the Big bang, the hymn states that we can not know what preceded the universe (if anything did).

The above translation is a composite version based on various translations.

Seven English versions collected at Creation Myths
Synthesized version by Stefan Stenudd at Creation Myths (also contains extensive discussion of the text)
Translation at Wikiquote (Ralph T. H. Griffith)
Translation at Embodied Philosophy (Wendy Doniger)

Big Bang: Pablo Carlos Budassi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Krishna: Marshall Astor, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Great Poetry Around the World Index

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Reading The Tale of Genji (7): The Safflower (Suetsumuhana)

Chapter 7 of the Tale of Genji, "The Safflower" covers about the same period as the previous chapter Wakamurasaki, the year Genji is 18, but there exists no narrative connection between the two chapters. "Suetsumuhana" is the ancient Japanese word for "safflower," which in modern Japanese is known as "benibana." It is the nickname of the female character in this chapter, because her nose is red - safflower is an orange flower which yields a red dye.

[The Safflower (Suetsumuhana) by Tosa Mitsunobu (active c. 1469-1522),
from the Harvard Museum]

There was an old ideal in the fiction of the period of a type of woman living in seclusion in an old mansion, like a hidden pearl, "a tragic princess who was ruined." So when Genji hears from Taifu no Myobu, a lady-in-waiting at court and the child of another of his old nurses, that the daughter of the late Prince Hitachi has been living in seclusion since her father's death, with no friend but her koto instrument, he is seized with curiosity.

One moonlit spring night Genji proceeds with Myobu to the princess' mansion and secretly listens to her playing the koto. But he has a rival: his friend To no Chujo has also heard a rumor about the princess, and has followed Genji. They both write letters to her, as rivals for her affections. But although they wait a long time, the princess doesn't send any answers.

Genji then enlists Myobu's help again and once more goes secretly at night to Suetsumuhana's mansion. He now enters her chamber and spends the night with her. Although her koto playing is superb and she has a beautiful voice (that is all Genji can perceive in the darkness!), he is disappointed by her artlessness, squareness and naivete, so different from the court ladies he knows. So after he returns home, he has trouble writing the customary loving "morning after " note with poem, and it is fully evening before he is able to send it out.

Then some time passes because Genji is kept busy with the preparations for an Imperial Outing. But one snowy night he pays a long overdue visit to Princess Suetsumuhana. The next morning, in bright sunlight reflected off the fallen snow, he for the first time sees her face and discovers that her nose is rather long - something which goes against Heian esthetics, where very fine and thin noses were appreciated. Moreover, it is bright red, as if colored by safflower dye - undoubtedly caused by the cold weather, but this makes for a comic effect. The Safflower Princess is also pale, thin and very tall - the only positive note Genji can discern is that she has beautiful, extremely long hair.

And it is not only her outward appearance that is not perfect. The only daughter of Prince Hitachi, a member of the imperial family, the proud princess has received an an extremely antiquated education, and is completely "out of the loop" as regards witty conversation, or knowledge about modern fashion trends. She is also quite obstinate - a far cry from the vulnerable type of woman Genji likes.

But Genji feels pity for this lonely woman who has maintained the household of the late Prince, and he sympathizes with her poverty and the dilapidated state of her house. So he starts supporting her financially through various generous gifts (when she sends a return gift of clothing, this again is so terribly old-fashioned that Genji soon hides it, too embarrassed to show it to his ladies-in-waiting). Genji demonstrates the good side of his character by from now on providing for the Safflower Princess.

In Genji-e of this chapter we see Genji and his friend, To no Chujo, listening from behind a fence to the Safflower Lady playing the koto. Another is Genji's discovery, on a winter's day, of the red nose of the princess (the illustration at the top of this page). 


Seidensticker, Edward G. (1976). The Tale of Genji. 1 & 2. Tuttle Publishing.
Tyler, Royall (2001). The Tale of Genji. New York: Viking.
Waley, Arthur (1926-33). Tale of Genji: The Arthur Waley Translation of Lady Murasaki's Masterpiece with a new foreword by Dennis Washburn (Tuttle Classics)
Washburn, Dennis (2015). The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. W. W. Norton & Company; Unabridged edition
Yosano Akiko, Genji Monogatari in modern Japanese, at Aozora Bunko.
Original text in full at Japanese Text Intitiative (University of Virginia)

Bargen, Doris G (1997). A Woman's Weapon : Spirit possession in the Tale of Genji. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Bargen, Doris G. (2015). Mapping Courtship and Kinship in Classical Japan: The Tale of Genji and Its Predecessors (Hawaii U.P.)
Bowring, Richard (1985). Murasaki Shikibu, Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs: A Translation and Study (Princeton U.P.)
Emmerich, Michael (2013). The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature (Columbia U.P.)
Field, Norma (1987). The Splendor of Longing in the Tale of Genji. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Goff, Janet Emily (1991). Noh Drama and the Tale of Genji : The Art of Allusion in Fifteen Classical Plays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Harper, Thomas and Shirane, Haruo (2015). Reading The Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium (Columbia U.P.)
McKinney, Meredith (2006). The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon (Penguin)
McMullen, James (2019). Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji: Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford U.P.)
Morris, Ivan I (1964). The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. (Vintage)
Seidensticker, Edward G. (1984). Genji Days (Kodansha International)
, Haruo (1987). The Bridge of Dreams : A Poetics of the Tale of Genji. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Shirane, Haruo (2008). Envisioning the Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production. New York: Columbia University Press.
Tyler, Royall (2014). A Reading of the Tale of Genji.
The Tale of Genji, Scenes from the World’s first Novel, with illustrations by Miyata Masayuki, Kodansha International (2001).
Kano Shigefumi. Genji Monogatari no butai wo tazunete (Kyoto, 2011).

Reading The Tale of Genji


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Lyric Poetry Around the World (1): The Classic of Poetry (China, 840-620 BCE)

Guanju from The Classic of Poetry

translated by Ad Blankestijn

the sea swallows call each other
on sandbars in the stream
pure and fair is the
gentle maiden
a worthy mate for our prince

long and short the water lilies
we pick them left and right
pure and fair is the gentle maiden
he sought her awake and in dreams
seeking but not finding her
he sighed, awake and in dreams
tormented was he with desire
he tossed and turned from side to side

long and short the water lilies
we pluck them left and right
pure and fair is the gentle maiden
we welcome her with zither music
long and short the water lilies
we gather them left and right
pure and fair is the gentle maiden
we gladden her with bell and drum






[Illustrated Edition of the Shijing
Handwritten by the Qianlong Emperor, Qing Dynasty]

The Classic of Poetry, Shijing, translated variously as the "Book of Songs" or "Book of Odes," is the oldest collection of Chinese poetry, consisting of 305 poems dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BCE. It is one of the "Five Classics" traditionally (but incorrectly) said to have been compiled by Confucius, and has been studied and memorized by scholars in China and neighboring countries over two millennia.

The Classic of Poetry can be divided into two main sections: the "Airs of the States", and the "eulogies and hymns." The "Airs of the States" are short lyrics in simple language. They generally consist of ancient folk songs speaking of love and courtship, longing for an absent lover, soldiers on campaign, farming and housework, and political satire and protest. The poems were originally songs accompanied by tunes now lost. On the other hand, songs in the two "Eulogy" sections ("Lesser Ya" and "Greater Ya") and the "Temple Hymns" section (the Song) tend to be longer ritual songs, usually in the form of courtly panegyrics or dynastic hymns. These sections - which are concerned with life at the royal court and its ceremonies, including worship of the royal ancestors - are the oldest parts, while the youngest are the Airs of the States. 

Whether the various Shijing poems were folk songs or not, they all seem to have passed through the hands of men of letters at the royal Zhou court. In other words, they show an overall literary polish together with some general stylistic consistency. About 95% of lines are written in a four-syllable meter. Almost all of the "Airs" consist of three stanzas, with four-line stanzas being most common. The standard pattern in such four-line stanzas required a rhyme between the second and fourth lines. One of the characteristics of the poems in the Classic of Poetry is that they tend to possess elements of repetition and variation, probably due to their oral folk song origin.

The Shijing has been a revered "Confucian Classic" since the Han Dynasty, and has been studied and memorized by centuries of scholars in China. The individual songs of the Odes, though frequently on simple, rustic subjects, have traditionally been saddled with extensive, elaborate allegorical meanings that assigned moral or political meaning to the smallest details of each line. The songs were seen as good keys to understanding the troubles of the common people - complaints against lovers were seen as complaints against faithless rulers. The Shijing was considered as a canonical collection of important moral truths and lessons.

According to the Shiji (Records of the Historian, early 1st c. BCE), Confucius would have selected 305 out of a corpus of more than 3,000 songs. Whether Confucius actually compiled the Shijing is more than questionable. Confucius and his direct followers have, however, regularly quoted from the Shijing, so it must have existed by the 6th c. BCE. It is said about him in the Lunyu (Analects): "The Master once stood by himself, and I hurried to seek teaching from him. He asked me, 'You've studied the Odes?' I answered, 'Not yet.' He replied, 'If you have not studied the Odes, then I have nothing to say.'" Confucius saw a guide for moderation in speech and action in the content and language of the Shijing.

Our poem, "Guanju" is the first poem from the Shijing, and is one of the best known poems in Chinese literature. It is thought to date from the seventh century BCE, making it one of China's oldest poems, though not the oldest in the Shijing. The title of the poem comes from its first line ("Guan guan ju jiu"), which evokes a scene of ospreys calling on a river islet. The poem is about finding a good and fair maiden as a match for a young noble.

The poem boasts a long tradition of commentaries. The earliest known one is contained in the Lunyu (Analects). Confucius praised "Guanju" for its moderated emotions: "The Master said, "In the "Guanju" there is joy without wantonness and sorrow without self-injury."

The Confucians were responsible for the tendency in orthodox criticism to regard not only the Shijing but all literature as morally edifying or didactic. In that way, "Guanju" was thought to contain a moral concerning the relationship between the genders. In the Mao school reading (which became the dominant one from the beginning of our era) "Guanju" was specifically read as a poem of praise of the queen of the founder of the Zhou dynasty, King Wen. It reads the images of picking water grasses as literal descriptions of the queen's activities in preparation for ritual sacrifices. "Thus "Guanju" takes joy in obtaining a pure young lady as a mate for the lord and is anxious to present her worth."

Although the allegorical interpretation is undoubtedly wrong (as the Airs of the States are indeed innocent folk songs), it is important to note that allegory is the way in which this poem was read for almost 2,000 years (as in the case of the Song of Songs in the Bible) - it is therefore a fundamental part of reception history.

The Shijing established the basis for the long and glorious tradition of Chinese classical poetry (shi), which was practiced continuously as the preferred form of literati verse until the previous century.

The above is my own translation.

An Anthology of Chinese Literature, by Stepen Owen (p. 30-31);
The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature by Victor Mair (p. 149-150)
The Book of Songs by Arthur Waley (p. 5-6)

Also see the Classic of Poetry at Chinese Text Project (although the Legge translation cited there is antiquated).

Lyric Poetry Around the World Index

Friday, February 19, 2021

Great Poetry Around the World (6): The Book of Changes (China, 1047-772 BCE)

Qian, the Creative, Heaven


grand treat
favorable determination


submerged dragon
do not use it


dragon appearing in a field
beneficial to see the great man


the superior man is creative all day
at night he remains wary
no misfortune


it may leap in the deep
no misfortune


dragon flying in the sky
beneficial to see the great man


dragon in a gully
there will be trouble


a flight of dragons without heads appears

Kun, the Receptive, Earth


grand treat
favorable through the determination of a mare
if the superior man is going somewhere
he will first go astray and later find a host
favorable to the west and south
one will find a friend
in the east and north one will lose a friend
quiet determination


when there is hoarfrost underfoot
solid ice is not far off


straight and square
big and not doubled up
there is nothing for which this is unfavorable


hold a jade talisman in the mouth
an acceptable determination
if one is engaged in the service of the king
there will be no completion
there will be an end


tie up a sack
no misfortune
no honor


a yellow skirt
very auspicious


dragons fight in the wild
their blood is dark and yellow


favorable in lasting determination


The Yijing or Book of Changes is not officially poetry, but many of the cryptic utterances do have poetical value (and they often have rhyme). Moreover, it is the best-known Chinese book in the world! The Book of Changes is counted among the Five Classics and to date, the book is used as an oracle or as a wisdom book.

The Yijing is one of China's (and the world's) oldest books. Originally it was a diviner's manual, used together with a type of divination in which stalks of the yarrow plant were manipulated in groups of four to arrive at a series of numbers that were keys to lines in the text. The text itself was probably orally transmitted and elaborated by many generations of diviners in the first two millennia BCE. It was first written down in the early years of the Zhou dynasty, somewhere between 1047 and 772 BCE. The oldest version of the text consists of 64 brief utterances associated with 64 hexagrams, each hexagram being one of 64 possible combinations of solid or broken lines. Every hexagram label is composed of a hexagram text and six (or in two cases seven) line texts. These texts are filled with a variety of omens and images, often in rhyme and involving word-magic.

Centuries later, in the Warring States period of the late Zhou dynasty and during the Han dynasty, commentaries were added by scholars to the original brief text to explain the meaning of what had become a very obscure and archaic work. These commentaries gradually found their way into the canon itself, adding a philosophical layer to the once simple diviner's manual. In fact, this sort of interpretation continued through the centuries, variously recasting the Yijing in a Daoist, Buddhist or Neo-Confucian framework.

[The mythical emperor Fuxi was traditionally regarded
as the inventor of the eight trigrams]

Above I have translated the original Yijing text, without commentaries, of the first Hexagram, Heaven, and the second hexagram, Earth. Qian is the symbol of Heaven, the pure yang principle, the active and creative; in contrast, the second hexagram, Kun, was the symbol of Earth, the pure yin principle, the passive and receptive.

The "Grand Treat" was a sacrificial offering. It is probably a reminder to the diviner handling the stalks to offer a sacrifice at this point.

The word "determination" already occurs on the Shang dynasty oracle bones with the meaning of "resolution of doubt" before a divination was made. It later evolved into a moral quality as "determination" or "firm resolution." Here the whole line means that it is favorable to be firm and determined.

Note that the dragon in China was not a dangerous beast as in the West, but an auspicious and powerful mythic symbol. It was thought to usually dwell in water.

The meaning if the utterances in the Yijing is often difficult to fathom - I read it therefore like a piece of modernist, avant-garde poetry!

My translation (and description of the Yijing) borrows from Richard A. Kunst in The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (Columbia U.P., 1994), pp. 6-9.

The Chinese text and (now superseded) Legge translation is available at Chinese Text Project. The translation by Richard Wilhelm is also antiquated. Just compare with the above version to see how much.

Great Poetry Around the World Index

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 38 (Lady Ukon)

 Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 38

mi woba omowazu
hito no inochi no
oshiku mo aru kana


forgotten by you,
for myself I do not care:
but I worry about your fate,
as you swore a solemn oath
before the gods!

Lady Ukon (dates uncertain)

[The poet Ukon, by Kuniyoshi]

The meaning of this poem changes according to the supposed circumstances of writing it. If it was sent from a woman to a lover who has deserted her (as is the situation in the Tales of Yamato, in which this poem first appears), it can be read as criticism of the fickle lover's behavior - perhaps with a touch of humor.

But when it is read as a private expression of grief (doku'ei) it changes into an expression of real concern about the man's safety from the wrath of the gods. This seems to be the interpretation that Hyakunin Isshu compiler Teika followed. "Chikai" is a solemn pledge invoking a divine witness.

In the first interpretation the woman is strong, jokingly warning her ex-lover for divine vengeance; in the second reading she is weak, almost hypocritically worrying about the fate of her lover after he has left her in the lurch. In my view, the first interpretation is the preferred one, as it was common to exchange poems in Heian times, and women in that age were stronger and more independent than in later times.

Ukon belonged to the Fujiwara clan and was a lady-in-waiting to Lady Onshi, 
consort of Emperor Daigo. Her father was Fujiwara no Suenawa, Ukon no Shosho, "Lesser Captain of the Left Bodyguards" (as was usual in that period, her sobriquet is derived from her father's position). Ukon seems to have been active as a poet for a period of at least 30 years: in 933 she composed a poem for the coming-of-age celebration of Princess Koshi, and in 960, 962 and 966 she took part in poetry contests at court. She exchanged poems with a large number of other poets from the age and was often engaged in liaisons with them (such as Fujiwara no Atsutada, Morosuke, Asatada, and Minamoto no Shitago).

References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).

Hyakunin Isshu Index


Lyric Poetry Around the World (4): Song of Songs (Israel, c. 300 BCE)

Song of Songs (Part 7)


 Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
     the work of the hands of a skillful workman.
Your body is like a round goblet,
     no mixed wine is wanting.
Your waist is like a heap of wheat,
     set about with lilies.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
     that are twins of a roe.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
     Your eyes are like the pools in Heshbon by the gate of Bathrabbim.
     Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon which looks toward Damascus.
Your head on you is like Carmel.
     The hair of your head like purple.
     The king is held captive in its tresses.
How beautiful and how pleasant you are,
     love, for delights!
This, your stature, is like a palm tree,
     your breasts like its fruit.
I said, “I will climb up into the palm tree.
     I will take hold of its fruit.”
Let your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
     the smell of your breath like apples,
Your mouth like the best wine,
     that goes down smoothly for my beloved,
     gliding through the lips of those who are asleep.
I am my beloved's.
     His desire is toward me.
Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field.
     Let us lodge in the villages.
Let's go early up to the vineyards.
     Let's see whether the vine has budded,
     its blossom is open,
     and the pomegranates are in flower.
     There I will give you my love.
The mandrakes give forth fragrance.
     At our doors are all kinds of precious fruits, new and old,
     which I have stored up for you, my beloved.

[Song of Songs (Cantique des Cantiques)
by Gustave Moreau, 1893]

The Song of Songs ("Shir-HaShirim") is one of the books in the Hebrew Bible. According to the title line, it is by King Solomon, but modern theologians argue on linguistic grounds for a later dating, after the exile or even in the Hellenistic period.

The Song of Songs is unique within the Hebrew Bible: it shows no interest in Law or Covenant or the God of Israel, nor does it teach wisdom like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes; instead, it celebrates sexual love, giving the voices of two lovers, praising each other, yearning for each other, proffering invitations to enjoy. The two are in harmony, each desiring the other and rejoicing in sexual intimacy.

In modern Judaism the Song of Songs is read on the Sabbath during the Passover, which marks the beginning of the grain-harvest as well as commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. Jewish tradition reads it as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel, Christianity as an allegory of Christ and his bride, the Church. The canonicity of the book was once disputed within the Jewish tradition. The great Torah scholar Rabbi Akiva (50-135 CE), however, committed himself to maintaining it in the canon, arguing the mystical meaning he attributed to it.

But, of course, it is nothing else but pure and very beautiful love poetry.

The above translation has been quoted from the "World English Bible" (also known as WEB), a public domain translation of the Bible. It is based on the 1901 American Standard Version, the Greek Majority Text, and the Hebrew Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Link to the World English Bible at Wikisource.

Painting Moreau: Gustave Moreau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lyric Poetry Around the World Index

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Great Poetry Around the World (4): Psalm 23 (Israel, c. 1000-300 BCE)

Psalm 23

The lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want,
he causes me to lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside still waters.

He restores my soul,
he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake,
even when I walk in the valley of darkness,
I will fear no evil for you are with me.

Your rod and your staff,
they comfort me,
you set a table before me,
in the presence of my adversaries,
you anointed my head with oil,
my cup overflows.

May only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the lord for ever.

[Good shepherd. Russian icon, 19th c.]

The Book of Psalms is the third section of the Hebrew Bible, and a book of the Christian Old Testament. Psalm 23 is used in both Jewish and Christian liturgies and has often been set to music. It is considered as the best-known of the psalms for its universal theme of trust in God.

The theme of God as a shepherd was common in ancient Israel and Mesopotamia. For example, King Hammurabi, in the conclusion to his famous legal code, wrote: "I am the shepherd who brings well-being and abundant prosperity; my rule is just.... so that the strong might not oppress the weak, and that even the orphan and the widow might be treated with justice." This imagery and language was well known to the community that created the psalm.

The first verse of the psalm ascribes authorship to King David, said in the Hebrew Scriptures to have been a field shepherd himself as a youth. However, modern scholars do not agree with this attributed authorship, and hypothesize various other possibilities, commonly dating it to (much later) the post-exilic period.

Psalm 23 portrays God as a good shepherd, feeding and leading his flock. The "rod and staff" are also the implements of a shepherd. The "table" may refer to the old oriental shepherding practice of using little raised tables to feed sheep. Similarly, oil was poured on wounds of the sheep, and used to repel flies. "Goodness" and "kindness"  are like two loyal sheepdogs following the flock.

On the other hand, the table (and mentioning of adversaries) may also refer to the dinner before major battles - in other words, King David acknowledges God's protection in expeditions and in battles.

In Judaism, Psalm 23 is traditionally sung during the third Shabbat meal. It is also commonly recited in the presence of a deceased person, such as by those keeping watch over the body before burial, and at the funeral service itself.

Psalm 23 in the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 23 in BibleGateway.

The above translation is a composite version based on various translations.

Photo Good Shepherd: anonymous, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Great Poetry Around the World Index

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Great Poetry Around the World (3): The Pyramid Text of Theti (Egypt, c. 2333 BCE)

The Pyramid Text of Teti

    Oho, oho, rise up,
    o Teti,
    take your head,
    collect your bones,
    gather your limbs,
    shake the earth from your flesh,
    take your bread that rots not,
    your beer that sours not,
    stand at the gates that bar the common people.

    The gatekeeper comes out to you,
    he grasps your hand,
    takes you into heaven,
    to your father Geb,
    he rejoices at your coming,
    gives you his hands,
    kisses you,
    caresses you,
    sets you before the spirits,
    the imperishable stars.

    The hidden ones worship you,
    the great ones surround you,
    the watchers wait on you,
    barley is threshed for you,
    emmer is reaped for you,
    your monthly feasts are made with it,
    your half-month feasts are made with it,
    as ordered done for you by Geb your father.
    Rise up, o Teti,
    you shall not die!
    (Utterance 373)


[The Pyramid of Teti in Saqqara, Egypt]

The Pyramid Texts are the oldest ancient Egyptian funerary texts, dating to the late Old Kingdom. The first king to have these texts engraved on the walls of the burial chamber of his pyramid was Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty (c. 2350 BCE). They were carved onto the subterranean walls and sarcophagi of pyramids at Saqqara from the end of the Fifth Dynasty, and throughout the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and into the Eighth Dynasty of the First Intermediate Period. Unlike the later Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead, the Pyramid Texts were reserved only for the pharaoh and were not illustrated.

[Engraved texts of the Burial Chamber
(detail with the cartouche of Teti)]

The spells, or utterances, of the Pyramid Texts were primarily concerned with enabling the transformation of the deceased into a new existence. The spells of the Pyramid Texts are divided into two categories: sacerdotal texts and personal texts. The sacerdotal texts mainly consist of offering spells. The personal texts (such as the one above) are concerned with guiding the spirit out of the tomb, and into new life.

The first pyramid texts were found in 1881 in the pyramids of Unas, Teti, Pepi I, Merenre and Pepi II. The Pyramid of Teti is a smooth-sided pyramid located at Saqqara. It is the second known pyramid containing pyramid texts. Excavations have revealed a satellite pyramid, two pyramids of queens accompanied by cult structures, and a funerary temple. The pyramid was opened by Gaston Maspero in 1882 and the complex explored during several campaigns ranging from 1907 to 1965. The preservation above ground is very poor (just resembling a small hill), but below ground the chambers and corridors are very well preserved.

The Pyramid Texts are chiefly concerned with preserving and nurturing the soul of the sovereign in the afterlife. In the period of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2181–2055 BCE) they were replaced by the so-called Coffin Texts, which were directly written on coffins and not solely the right of pharaohs anymore. Third in line is the well-known Book of the Dead, written on papyri and placed inside the coffin or burial chamber. Like the earlier funerary texts, the Book of the Dead contains magic spells to assist a dead person's journey through the underworld and into the afterlife. It was written over a period of 1,000 years, between 1550 BCE) to around 50 BCE. But as the Book of the Dead is similar in content to the Pyramid Texts, I have not included it in this series.

[Pyramid of Teti: burial chamber and sarcophagus in the foreground]

Text cited from Wikipedia (Pyramid texts) and Wikiquote (Pyramid texts). Translation by Lichtheim, Miriam (1975), Ancient Egyptian Literature. 1. (University of California Press), pp. 41-42.

Pyramid of Teti: Wknight94 talk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Inscription: Daniel Csörföly, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Burial chamber: Leon petrosyan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, February 15, 2021

Great Poetry Around the World (2): Epic of Gilgamesh (Sumer & Babylonia, c. 2,100-900 BCE)

From Epic of Gilgamesh

Two dramatic passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh from Babylon
(2000 - 3000 years ago) - the oldest epic ever written - , emphasizing our mortality.

Who is there my friend can climb to the sky?
Only the gods dwell forever in sunlight.
As for man, his days are numbered,
whatever he may do it is but wind.

(Tablet III of the Old-Babylonian version)

What should I do, and where should I go,
a thief has taken hold of my flesh,
for there in my bed-chamber death does abide,
and wherever I turn there too will be death.

(Tablet XI)

[Hero mastering a lion.
Relief from the facade of the throne room,
Palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin), 713–706 BCE]

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia that is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about Bilgamesh (Sumerian for "Gilgamesh"), king of Uruk, dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BCE). Presumably these early stories were handed down orally and recited by bards at the royal courts. They were put in writing at the time of King Šulgi of Ur (Third Dynasty), who had also established a library. This cycle was translated into Akkadian with the result that as early as the 18th century BCE. a coherent epic consisting of five to eight tablets and 2,000 verses came into being. Fragments of it have been found in excavations in Central and South Mesopotamia.

Source: both poems cited from Wikiquote

Photo: Louvre Museum , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Great Poetry Around the World Index

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Great Poetry Around the World (1): A Hymn to Inanna (Sumer, 3,500-1,750 BCE)

A Hymn to Inanna

A wonderful eulogy of the "earth mother" from Sumer, 4000-5000 years ago.

    Oh mistress, let your breasts be your fields,   

    Inanna, let your breasts be your fields,

    your wide fields, which pour forth flax,

    your wide fields, which pour forth grain,

    make water flow from them,

    provide it from them for mankind,

    make water flow and flow from them,

    keep providing it from them for mankind.

[The goddess Inanna
terracotta plaque from circa 2,000-1,700 BCE]

Inanna was the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, fertility, war, and justice. She was known as the "Queen of Heaven" and was the patron goddess of the Eanna temple at the city of Uruk, which was her main cult center. She was associated with the planet Venus and her most prominent symbols included the lion and the eight-pointed star. She was later worshiped by the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians under the name Ishtar.

In Inanna, life and death, order and chaos come together. On the one hand, Inanna is portrayed as a timid virgin, on the other as a voluptuous whore. On a terracotta plaque from 2,000-1,700 BCE Inanna is depicted as a naked goddess, winged like a bee, and with a typical headdress made up of six or seven thick open rings, of which the pleated front sides are slightly upwards. They look like bull horns. Furthermore, she has feet like the claws of a vulture with which she stands on top of a pair of lions. In each of the raised hands this figure holds an infinity loop. She is flanked by owls, who later in Greek mythology will also turn out to be the symbol animal of the wise divine virgin Pallas Athena.

Many temples erected in the worship of Inanna are still found along the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The Eanna temple complex near Uruk contains the largest of these. This 5000 year old temple complex has been rebuilt regularly. The temple wall was lined with red, black and white cones, pressed into the soft clay. The columns had a height of 3 meters and were made in the shape of palm trees.

Inanna is a so-called "mother goddess", a symbol of creativity and fertility. Although she has a definite personality in myths, she has roots in the more generalized, cosmogonic "earth mother," the eternally fruitful source of everything. Such figures can be found all around the world, dating from the Stone Age. A good example is the so-called "Jomon Venus," a clay female figurine from the Middle Jomon period (3,000–2,000 BC), discovered in Chino, Nagano Prefecture, Japan. Its shape is thought to resemble a pregnant woman: broad hips, prominent breasts and an enlarged belly.

[Jomon Venus, Japan]

Source of citation: Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (, Oxford 1998- . ( I have changed the interpunction and also made a small change to the translation.
Photo of Inanna statue: British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Jomon Venus: Takuma-sa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Great Poetry Around the World Index