Ono no Komachi

Chapter 2--Classical--ONO NO KOMACHI (fl. ca. 850)

My favorite Japanese poet is a woman who lived over a thousand years ago, Ono no Komachi.  In spite of that distance in time and place, she can very quickly introduce a modern reader to the tanka, the traditional form of Japanese poetry.  She is also an excellent representative of the Classical, or Heian, period (794-1185) of Japanese literature, for she is one of the best known, and most frequently quoted, poets of the Kokinshu (905), the first of a series of anthologies of Japanese poetry compiled by Imperial order.  The preface to that volume remarks that she lived "recently," which is all scholars have to go on in establishing her dates.  The assumption is that her life, which, in later legend, came to be presented as a long one, was totally contained within the 9th century.

The preface to the Kokinshu is also famous for the first statement of Japanese attitudes toward the function of poetry: to express feelings, often in response to nature, "about the bush warbler singing among the blossoms or the frog in the water. . . . lamenting the mist, or feeling the sadness of the dew."1  Most Japanese poets, from that time to this, including those in the Kokinshu, are true to this tradition.  Many of the 1111 poems were anonymous, but, among those where the authors were identified, eighteen were attributed to Ono no Komachi.  This is all of her work that we know for sure, a handful of poems that can be read in less than half an hour--then have been remembered for eleven centuries.

The form of almost all the Kokinshu poems, and all of Ono no Komachi's, is the tanka, almost the only pattern used in Japanese poetry until, 800 years later, the haiku became established-- by dropping the last two lines of the tanka.  If you have written haiku, you know that the form has a fixed number of syllables in three lines--5, 7, 5.  The tanka (frequently called waka) has two additional lines of seven syllables each--so 5, 7, 5, 7, 7.  Everyone at the Heian court was expected to be able to write tanka, which were often exchanged--as letters between lovers, for example.  Occasionally one might write 5, 7, 5, the other responding 7, 7.  In later centuries a linked-verse game played by poets developed on this principle--which led to the birth of haiku.  We might note in passing that such definition of form by syllable count is much more natural to the Japanese language--where each syllable is a "letter"--than it is to English.

As I have remarked, the Heian period is named for the imperial capitol of Japan at the time, Heian Kyo (now Kyoto).  The society at that court was one of the most sophisticated that ever existed anywhere in the world.  It was status based, not on military power, but on artistic refinement, particularly, it would seem, in the art of love.  It was also remarkable for the achievement of female writers, the ladies at court at the center of these love games.  Ono no Komachi was evidently one of these, early in the period, who then became legend.

The great classic in Japanese literature, by common consent, is The Tale of Genji, written by another of these court ladies, Murasaki Shikibu (978?-1015?), who lived close to 100 years later.  That novel, running to over 1100 pages in its English translations, and involving over 400 characters, whom their author knows very well, was probably composed in the ten years before and after the year 1000 (which provides a nice round number for the high point in Japanese literature).  It is not only the first great novel in world literature--it may still be the greatest.  Hundreds of tanka are incidentally introduced in Genji, as it is the natural medium used by the men and women at court to communicate with one another.  Genji, the hero, a son of the emperor (so, "the Shining Prince"), is the projection of a woman's ideal--poet, singer, dancer--definitely more lover than warrior.  And, in one of the most interesting episodes in the novel, he carefully cultivates a beautiful girl to be his own ideal wife.

Sei Shonagon, Murasaki's contemporary, was another court lady, whose The Pillow Book is the perfect companion to The Tale of Genji, for it reflects that same courtly environment as perceived by a very different temperament.  Since it is a form of diary, the author is the central character.  She has a strong sense of humor, so many of the experiences (and things she lists) are seen as comic, and important people at court are satirized--which is not a much more sober Murasaki's impulse.  But characters still often communicate with one another in tanka, and there are times when writing one may be assigned, perhaps by the prime minister.  There are also a number of other diaries of the period, many written by women, in most of which tanka are important.

But, while only 18 of Ono no Komachi's tanka survive, among these thousands of others, they are, for me, among the most memorable.  They use the form to generate both passion and philosophical insight.  The three I like best should give some idea of both form and content (the Japanese is given in Roman letters followed by the English translation):2

Thinking about him
Nureba ya hito no
I slept, only to have him
Appear before me--
Yume to shiriseba 
Had I known it was a dream
Samezaramashi wo
I should never have wakened.
           Donald Keene
Iro miede
A thing which fades 
Utsurou mono wa
With no outward sign
Yo no naka no
Is the flower
Hito no kokoro no
Of the heart of man
Hana ni zo arikeru 
In this world!
           Arthur Waley
Hana no iro wa
The flowers withered
Utsurinikeri na
Their color faded away
Itazura ni
While meaninglessly
Wa ga mi yo ni furu
I spent my days in the world
Nagame seshi ma ni 
And the long rains were falling
           Donald Keene
I present these in the order of my own preference, and in translations that I particularly like.  (I, personally, would need as much help in translating anything from the Heian period as I would in reading Beowulf in the original.)  The first and last translations are by Donald Keene, who expresses the content well and still keeps the same number of syllables per line--which is not easy.  The second, by Arthur Waley, is beautifully succinct, demonstrating that the content can frequently be expressed in fewer syllables in English--in this case 21 instead of 31--10 fewer!

The first describes a common experience in love, the desire to dream eternally about the absent loved one, and might come from any time and place.  The others are perhaps more philosophical.  The second comments on mortality, the loss of the flower of youth.  The metaphor of the flower as essence is everywhere in Japanese literature.3  It is best known to us, perhaps, in the use of the cherry blossom to symbolize the ephemeral quality of beauty, and the way the centuries-old art of flower arranging, ikebana, is honored in Japan.  But here the slow fading of the flower of life is emphasized--if anything a more universal theme.

That theme is presented again in the last poem.4  But what I like most about it (particularly in the Keene translation) is the last line, which compares human mortality to the immortality of the falling rain.  If that poem is not the story of my life, I don't know what is.  Sometimes, as I lie in bed listening to the falling rain, it runs through my mind.  I know that Komachi heard the long spring rain falling in Japan--as I have--and, pleased to think she still does, I respond with the following tanka:

        The long rains falling
        Provoked you to consider
        Your mortality--
        Listening to the same rain
        Provokes me to think of mine

I find other Japanese poems memorable, certainly, but hers are among my favorites, and I do not find them peculiarly Japanese in statement at all.

Komachi also serves as an excellent connecting link to the Medieval period which follows, and to later Japanese literature.  Part of the reason I remember these poems so well is that I have a strong sense of the woman who wrote them, generated by the legend of Ono no Komachi developed by short stories, and then a series of five noh plays.  This legend dates, for the most part, from the later, or Muramachi, half of the Medieval period (1333-1600, which, you may have noted, I have otherwise omitted), when the Noh drama flourished.

In these plays Komachi is a character still more legendary than historical, since so little about her life is known.  Still, the authors of those Noh plays were not given to making up their stories, so perhaps there is more historical substance than we suppose--as with Shakespeare's Cleopatra.  I like to think so.  They present her as a court beauty who was quite disdainful of her lovers.  One of these was Shii no Shoshu, a captain that she required to keep vigil outside her home for a hundred nights.  He was doing this when he died on the last night (according to one version).  Then, in ironic poetic justice, Komachi became poor, ugly, crazy, and despised as an old woman, haunted by the ghost of Shii no Shoshu in two of those noh plays.

But another part of the legend has it that, under certain circumstances, she had the power to recapture the hypnotic beauty of her youth and exercise it over a young man.  This is the part Mishima Yukio focuses on in retelling the medieval legend as one of his Five Modern Noh Plays,5 setting the action in a park in Paris, where Komachi is an ugly old woman picking up cigarette butts, and the young man a poet who accuses her of invading the realm of lovers--until she casts her spell over him.  This is my Komachi.  I like the literary quality of this idea, affirming the power of the imagination over aging and mortality--over love--and Mishima does a remarkable job of echoing the Medieval play.

So I have a real sense of knowing Ono no Komachi, grounded in those few poems and the legend they provoked.  I think of them as having been written by a fascinating woman.  I recommend her to you, though you should feel free, for your part, to find Sei Shonagon, or the male poet-lover Ariwara no Narihira of The Tales of Ise, more to your taste among these Heian period writers.  Or you may decide to engage the great book itself, The Tale of Genji (in either Arthur Waley's supremely readable English, or Edward Seidensticker's more recent translation, noted for staying closer to the original Japanese), and begin to become acquainted with the totally fictitious Genji, the ultimate shining prince, who defines that amazing period (with a new woman in almost every chapter).

        1Roy E., Nicholas J., and H. Rebecca Teele, in Appendix A to Ono no Komachi: Poems, Stories, Noh Plays (Garland Publishing: New York & London, 1993), p. 221.

        2All taken from Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature (Grove Press: New York, 1955), pp. 78-81.

         3This is the poem by Komachi most frequently quoted by later Japanese writers, according to Roy E., Nicholas J., and H. Rebecca Teele, in Ono no Komachi: Poems, Stories, Noh Plays (Garland Publishing: New York & London, 1993), p. 2.

        4Probably her best-known poem today (Teele, 7), perhaps because it is the one that represents her work in a favorite card game involving matching the first three and last two lines of tanka by 100 different poets.

        5Mishima, Yukio, "Sotoba Komachi," one of Five Modern Noh Plays, translated by Donald Keene (New York, 1960), pp. 3-34.