Watching Rain – Brief poems by Ono no Komachi

Ono no Komachi drawn by Kikuchi Yōsai (1781 – 1878)

Ono no Komachi (小野 小町, c. 825 – c. 900) was a Japanese waka (now known as tanka) poet. Very little is known of her life other than a broad date of birth and that she was active in the mid-9th century. Despite extensive research attempting to discover her place of birth, her family and her life, she remains a mystery and a legend. Some believe that she was a lady-of-the-bedchamber in the service of Emperor Ninmyō, others believe that she was a low-ranking consort of the emperor. She had romantic entanglements with various men and these poetic exchanges are preserved in the Kokin Wakashū,  a collection of “Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times”, an early anthology of the waka poetry dating from the Heian period. Her poetry is so well regarded that she is listed among the Rokkasen (Japanese Poetry Immortals), as well as in the introduction to the Kokin Wakashū, which contains her only surviving works. She is also one of the Sanjūrokkasen (the Thirty-six Immortals of Poetry) and the Nyōbōsanjūrokkasen (Thirty-six Immortal Lady Poets).

She was famous for her beauty and passion; she likely served at the court of Emperor Ninmyo, and her poems were a success in her own lifetime. The legends that have developed about her life have eclipsed the historical Ono no Komachi. One such legend is that concerning her harsh treatment of her admirer Fukakusa no Shosho, a high-ranking courtier. Komachi warned her suitor that he would have to visit her every night for 100 nights before she would submit to his charms. Fukakusa set about his task with determination and turned up each evening at Komachi’s house in all weathers. Tragically, though, the strain proved too much and Fukakusa died on the 99th night. Further legends tell of an aged Komachi living to be one hundred, forced to wander in ragged clothes, her beauty faded and her appearance so wretched that she was mocked by all around her, as punishment for her earlier mistreatment of her lovers. Another legend concerns her dying in poverty, her skull lying in a field; when the wind blows through the skull’s eye socket the sound evokes Komachi’s anguish. The true facts may never be known. 

The poetry, however, continues to endure. She is, arguably, the earliest and best example of a passionate woman poet in the Japanese canon commencing a tradition continued by Izumi Shikibu in a later age and Yosano Akiko in the modern one. Those poems, usually sad, deal with such subjects as lost love, unrequited love, loneliness, and the passing of time symbolised by changes in nature, especially fading blossoms and the changing colour of leaves in autumn. In his book, Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, translator, critic and literary historian Donald Keene said that The intensity of emotion expressed in Komachi’s poetry not only was without precedent but would rarely be encountered in later years. The poetry of the Kokinshu was usually pitched in a lower key, and the ingenious use of language was a mark not of overpowering emotion but of a kind of intellectuality. Komachi’s poetry, however extravagant in expression, always seems sincere. 

The poetess Ono-no Komachi in the rain by Utagawa Toyokuni II.

TRANSLATORS

Helen Craig McCullough (1918 –1998) was an American academic, translator and Japanologist, best known for her 1988 translation of The Tale of the Heike. Her translations are included in Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (1985)

Donald  Keene (1922 –2019) was an American-born Japanese scholar, historian, teacher, writer and translator of Japanese literature. While staying at Cambridge, after winning a fellowship for Americans to study in England, Keene went to meet Arthur Waley, one of whose translations is included below, who was best known for his translation work in classical Chinese and Japanese literature. For Keene, Waley’s translation of Chinese and Japanese literature was inspiring, even arousing in Keene the thought of becoming a second Waley. He discusses the poetry of Ono no Komachi in his book, Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century (see above).

Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) often regarded, much to his disdain, as one of the central Beat poets was also a prolific reader of Chinese  and Japanese literature. Some of the translations below are from his collection One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. Oddly there are two translations of one poem: a translation he did with his collaborator, Ikuko Atsumi, and one credited only to himself. I prefer the latter. More of his Japanese translations are available on the Kenneth Rexroth post on this blog.

Jane Hirshfield is an American poet, essayist, and translator who has received lay ordination in Soto Zen at the San Francisco Zen Center. Her poetry reflects her immersion in a wide range of poetic traditions, both Asian and Western. She has edited and co-translated, with Mariko Aratani, a collection of the work of the two foremost women poets of classical-era Japan: The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990). Through these, and other translations, she was instrumental in bringing tanka  to the attention of American poets.

Michael R. Burch is an American, poet, columnist, essayist, and editor who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He also edits The HyperTexts  a literary website which has been online for two decades and currently gets around 1.5 million page views per year. On this site he includes translated poetry from Old English and numerous other languages into modern English. One page on his site is devoted to the poetry of Ono no Komachi where he offers numerous translations of her brief poems. More of what he calls “loose translations” of Ono no Komachi are available on the Michael R. Burch post on this blog.

Brief Poems by Ono no Komachi

花の色はうつりにけりないたづらにわが身世にふるながめせしまに

Hana no iro wa
utsurinikeri na
itazura ni
wa ga mi yo ni furu
nagame seshi ma ni

Alas! The beauty
of the flowers has faded
and come to nothing,
while I have watched the rain,
lost in melancholy thought.

Translated by Helen Craig McCullough

***

The flowers withered
Their colour faded away,
While meaninglessly
I spent my days in brooding,
And the long rains were falling.

Translated by Donald Keene

***

While watching
the long rains falling on this world
my heart, too, fades
with the unseen color
of the spring flowers.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani

***

Without changing color
in the emptiness
of this world of ours,
the heart of man
fades like a flower.

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and  Ikuko Atsumi 

***

Watching the long, dismal rains
inundating the earth,
my heart too is washed out, bleeds off
with the colors of the late spring flowers.

Translated by Michael R. Burch

Aki no yo mo
na nomi narikeri
au to ieba
koto zo to mo naku
akenuru mono o

Autumn nights, it seems,
are long by repute alone:
scarcely had we met
when morning’s first light appeared,
leaving everything unsaid.

Translated by Helen Craig McCullough

***

The autumn night
is long only in name—
We’ve done no more
than gaze at each other
and it’s already dawn.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani

***

Autumn nights are “long”
only in verse and song:
for we had just begun
to gaze into each other’s eyes
when dawn immolated the skies!

Translated by Michael R. Burch

Hito ni wan
Tsuki no naki ni wa
Omoiokite
Mune hashiribi ni
Kokoro yakeori

This night of no moon
there is no way to meet him.
I rise in longing:
My breast pounds, a leaping flame,
my heart is consumed by fire.

Translated by Donald Keene

***

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.

Translated by Earl Miner

***

You do not come
On this moonless night.
I wake wanting you.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart burns up.

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth 

***

He does not come.
Tonight in the dark of the moon
I wake wanting him.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart chars.

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and  Ikuko Atsumi 

***

When I cannot see him
In the dark of a moonless night,
Fire rises in me—
Leaping in my burning breast,
Charring my heart with its flames.

Translated by Steven Carter

***

Nights when the moon hides
All hope of seeing you leaves me
Desire lies smoldering
Within my breast flames burn wild
Fire scorching my sleepless heart

Translated by Charles Cabell

***

On nights such as these
when no moon lights your way to me,
I lie awake, my passion blazing,
my breast an inferno wildly raging,
while my heart chars within me.

Translated by Michael R. Burch

わびぬれば身をうき草の根をたえて誘ふ水あらば去なむとぞ思

Wabinureba
mi o ukikusa no
ne o taete
sasou mizu araba
inamu to zo omou

In this forlorn state
I find life dreary indeed:
if a stream beckoned,
I would gladly cut my roots
and float away like duckweed.

Translated by Helen Craig McCullough

***

So lonely am I
My body is a floating weed
Severed at the roots.
Were there water to entice me,
I would follow it, I think.

Translated by Donald Keene

***

This body
grown fragile, floating,
a reed cut from its roots . . .
If a stream would ask me
to follow, I’d go, I think.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani

***

Wretched water-weed that I am,
severed from all roots:
if rapids should entice me to annihilation,
why not welcome their lethal shoots?

Translated by Michael R. Burch

色見えでうつろふ物は世中の人の心の花にぞ有りける

Iro miede
Utsurou momo wa
Yo no naka no
Hito no kokoro no
Hana ni zo arikeru

The flowers and my love
Passed away under the rain,
While I idly looked upon them
Where is my yester-love?

Translated by Yone Noguchi

***

A thing which fades
With no outward sign—
Is the flower
Of the heart of man
In this world!

Translated by Arthur Waley

***

How invisibly
it changes color
in this world,
the flower
of the human heart.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani

***

Imperceptible
It withers in the world,
This flower-like human heart.

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth

***

Two things wilt without warning,
bleeding away their colors:
a flower and a man’s heart.

Translated by Michael R. Burch

思ひつつぬればや人の見えつらむ夢としりせばさめざらましを

Omoitsutsu
Nureba ya hito no
Meitsuramu
Yume to shiriseba
Samezaramashi wo

Thinking about him
I slept, only to have him
Appear before me—
Had I known it was a dream
I should never have wakened.

Translated by Donald Keene

***

Was it then because
I fell asleep with yearning thoughts
That he appeared to me?
Had I known it was a dream
I never would have awakened.

Translated by Edwin A. Cranston

***

Was it that I went to sleep
Thinking of him,
That he came in my dreams?
Had I known it a dream
I should not have wakened.

Translated by Geoffrey Bownas

***

I fell asleep thinking of him,
And he came to me.
If I had known it was only a dream
I would have never awakened

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth

***

Did he appear
because I fell asleep
thinking of him?
If only I’d known I was dreaming,
I’d never have wakened.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani

***

I nodded off thinking about you
only to have your appear in my dreams.
Had I known that I slept,
I’d have never awakened!

Translated by Michael R. Burch

いとせめてこひしき時はむばたまの夜の衣をかへしてぞきる

Ito semete
Koishiki toki wa
Mubatama no
Yoru no koromo o
Kaeshite zo kiru

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.

Translated by Helen Craig McCullough

***

When love presses me
Relentless in the glistening night
I take off my robe,
Then lie down to sleep again,
Wearing it inside out.

Translated by Edwin A. Cranston

***

When my desire
grows too fierce
I wear my bed clothes
inside out,
dark as the night’s rough husk.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani

***

I feel desire so intensely
in the lily-seed darkness
that tonight I’ll turn my robe inside-out
before donning it.

Translated by Michael R. Burch

LINKS

The Ono no Komachi page on the Waka Poetry site with links to poems in original Japanese.

Ono no Komachi: Modern English Translations by Michael R. Burch.

Japanese and English quotations from the poetry of Ono no Komachi.

Jane Hirshfield discusses the poetry of Ono no Komachi.

An e-text of her poems (in Japanese).

Ono no Komachi and the Standard of Japanese Female Beauty.

Ono no Komachi: A Waka Poet Renowned for her Beauty.

Burning in the Fires of Longing: The Kokinshu Poetry of Ono no Komachi, an essay and translations by Charles Cabell.

Summoning the Spirit: Poems of Komachi

The Wikipedia page on Ono no Komachi.

4 thoughts on “Watching Rain – Brief poems by Ono no Komachi

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