Leaves of Impermanence, Colors of Time: Seasonal Imagery in Selected Nara Poetry
Fall Semester, 2008
Prof. Gustav Heldt
25 September 2008
Leaves of Impermanence,
Colors of Time: Seasonal Imagery in Selected Nara Poetry
As the leaves outside the dorm room finally begin to fall, hailing the end of this summer inferno without air conditioning, first year students everywhere glory in the coming of autumn. Much like these first year students, the Japanese poets of the Nara period give a special significance to the seasons and their transitions. In poetry, yearly times of change illustrate the stages of human life in many facets, altering the literary view of knowledge, growth, and beauty. In the poetry of Kakinomo no Hitomaro and his predecessor, seasons explain the phases of human life, investigate the transience of existence, and extend that discussion of transience to the political realm, finally providing a means to compare the individual’s relationship to society and time.
The Man’yôshü poets used seasons to expound on a reasonably wide range of topics but the most blatantly obvious imagery pertains to a discourse on the phases of human life. Every life begins in the youth of spring, continues strongly through the peak years of summer, and begins to fade away as the autumn brings winter in “an aesthetic of impermanence.” (65) In one of the earliest poems in the Man’yôshü the poet Lady Nukata answers the question as to which of the seasons, spring or fall, she prefers. Nukata admits that even she, a great noblelady, must “leave the green [leaves] with longing, and that is [her] only regret.” (66, lines 8-9) In other words, we all pass into phases, such as death, where we must leave behind former treasures, former ‘green leaves.’ The question really addresses Nukata’s degree of willingness to release her hold on the impermanent.
For an answer to the comparison between spring and autumn, Nukata first treats the greatness and the shortcomings of spring: the seasons of youth or strength in our lives. When we enter the spring seasons of life we enjoy many blessings, many ‘green leaves,’ but “the grass is so deep that nothing can be seen.” (66, line 4) If spring is youth or strength, Lady Nukata’s ‘deep grass’ can refer to the greatness of the opportunities and the freshness of the distractions before us that keep us from understanding and plucking substance out of our lives. The hindrance of the ‘deep grass’ finally moves Lady Nukata to choose the autumn hills in the last line of the poem. She writes that, in contrast to spring, the autumn season brings wisdom, the ability to “see the tree leaves/And pick the yellow ones with wonder.” (66, lines 9-10) As she inevitably leaves one phase of her physical lifespan to enter the door of another, she recognizes a need to understand and gather from each phase she enters.
While for Lady Nukata spring and autumn seasons point to evanescent phases, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro uses the seasons in his Yoshino praise poems to express power and control. The Empress Jitô has symbolically identified herself with her predecessors by visiting the Yoshino palace, and as she looks out from it onto the land, Hitomaro writes her a glory poem. Overall, it speaks using contrasting pairs to establish her legitimate reign over all areas of life, from the mountains to the rivers. The seasonal imagery arises as “the mountain gods present their offerings/bringing her blossoms in the spring/and yellow leaves when autumn comes…”(73, lines 7-9) This section serves a two-fold purpose. On one level, these can be read as praises of the Empress’s person. A woman gifted with ‘blossoms in the spring’ is physically blessed with the power and beauty of youth. Similarly, a woman who has picked the yellow leaves of autumn has gathered other features such as grace and wisdom. A person possessing both characteristics of spring and autumn makes a good ruler; she has everything needed to qualify her. Another purpose of these symbols is the element of homage. The mountain gods relinquish the spring and the autumn to Jitô. She controls both ends of the spectrum, from spring to fall, her power encompassing not only the extremes of time but also both sides of nature’s character. In this way, the seasons give insight into her reign.
The seasons come into play in a more intriguing way in Hitomaro’s poetry when it becomes difficult to reconcile the fragility of humanity with the god-like power assigned to human political leaders and governments. In his poems on Prince Karu’s hunting forays Hitomaro almost manages to move beyond the political praise. When Hitomaro compares “our lord who passed away” to “the autumn leaves” (75, line 3) he uses an incredibly commonplace comparison without elaboration or discussion on the emperor’s divine leaving, essentially saying that just like everyone else and the leaves, the emperor died. The near bluntness of this statement, placing the bygone emperor on a transient plane, not only illuminates the passing nature of political governments themselves but also brings the emperor down to the rest of humanity.
It can be argued that this reading of the text forces into Hitomaro’s poetry an egalitarian worldview that should not be assumed given the historical context. Point taken--however, in the next tanka Hitomaro continues, “the blaze can be seen rising…the moon has set,” (75, second poem) indicating that though the emperor has died there is a new power. Hitomaro supposedly writes the poem legitimizing the authority of the new prince, Karu, (74) and the sun rising represents this boy’s ascent to the throne. However, the sun will set again. The summer reign of the “peer of the sun” (line 6 of the first short poem, 75) can end in autumn leaves. There is always a higher power, says Hitomaro. He ends his poem series with a short tanka emphasizing the eternality of the dynasty by linking Karu to his predecessor using mixed tenses. “The time IS COMING,” Hitomaro writes, “when the prince who WAS the pier of the sun…/set out to hunt.” (emphasis mine, last tanka) This time confusion allows the life of the past emperor to describe what Karu will do in the future (75). Despite the projected confidence in the ruling political power, however, there is always the knowledge that the previous sun did set. There will always be a cycle. The government, centralized around one person, may establish a near-permanence in its god-like dynasty, but times will always continue to change as people pass on. The double-nature of the short poems on the hunting trip works because of the slightest seasonal symbolism. Remove the images of the autumn leaves and the sun, and you have a praise poem completely lacking any other interior meaning.
Hitomaro continued to milk the seasons of political uses in his Poems On Passing the Ruined Capital of Ömi, this time extending the idea of human transience from emperors to apply to societies. This time the complication arises in acknowledging a capital that has fallen out of favor. The Ömi capital had once housed the emperor Tenchi, held in high esteem by the ruling Yamato court, but on the other hand it had housed the enemies of the current regime. (79) The reconciliation or appeasement of the Ömi court spirits occurs when Hitomaro recognizes the beauty and power of the court throughout the beginning of the poem and then uses seasonal imagery to show that the political transitions were natural and inevitable.
Hitomaro acknowledges then that the “divine sovereign,” Tenchi, (line 13) chose to rule at Ömi, but then moves on from his description of the rocky, “barbarous” landscape (lines 11-12) to speak of an appropriate replacement. Spring always ushers in the new, and in lines 16-17 we read, “Here were his glorious halls/Now all is overgrown by the spring grass/And clouded by the haze of the spring sun.”(80) The new ‘sun,’ and the new emperor, cloud over the glory of the old regime. The spring has come, conquering the cold environment, and the new courtiers and new actions of the court have overgrown and overtaken the old. The spring transition emphasizes not merely the transience of the old regime, but also the greatness of the new. At the same time, however, Hitomaro continues to say in the final line that “we are filled with sadness,” illuminating his nostalgia of the passing phases that society must inevitably leave behind. Only the use of the seasons can express the necessity of forward motion while touching so tenderly and naturally on that which came before. Entire capitals, like emperors and humans, fade into the past to give way to a greater future.
Court society, however transient, held a bond over Hitomaro that he recognized. His poetry did not necessarily come voluntarily; the government commissioned him to write praise poems and undoubtedly kept him separated from his family. The seasons in his Poems on Parting With His Wife At Iwami illustrate the special human conflict with time and society’s consuming demands by fleshing out the speaker’s internal struggle with his desire for his beloved and his timed duty to court.
The speaker speaks of his time with the girl in summer terms. She felt to him like a warm sea, and Hitomaro puts forth many beach and seaweed metaphors in the first lines to illustrate the pleasure the lovers experience together. (81-82) The speaker’s time with his beloved is cut short, however, by his requirements to the court and ultimately to society. He thinks of her “wilting with sorrow/like the summer grass” (82, line 13). The heat of their love and the passion they feel in separating themselves leaves the girl wilted. As time moves the seasons on, so time has cut short their moments together in the name of the court. The girl must move on from the summer they both feel inside as the speaker leaves her “like the dew and the frost.” (line 7) The separation quickly creates a winter. There is limited contact from afar in Hitomaro’s day, and the two feel keenly the cold cruelty that time has inflicted on them. The memories together become like dew and frost, like cold transparencies, as the summer grass wilts.
The speaker is separated from his girl by autumn, the parting that brings the pair from summer together to winter apart. “Through the yellow leaves as they scatter/I cannot see my girl waving her sleeves” (83, 12 line on page) Yellow leaves are autumn’s messangers, the servants and soldiers of time that take us away into the future and obscure our connections with the past and present. They are the driftings and partings in life that interrupt as the winds of time pass. They are the commitments that take the speaker away and fly between the lovers. The speaker must move forward, away from the summers he spent with his girl, on to the winter of court life, through the parting of autumn.
However, even as the yellow leaves force the speaker from summer to winter, they themselves are also passing away on the wind. “Yellow leaves, falling on the autumn hill/ Stop scattering for just a while/So I may see the village of my girl,” requests Hitomaro. (84) The scattering need not continue forever. The wind may die down. The changing of the seasons continues unchangeably, and by using the seasons to describe his departure Hitomaro offers hope that the speaker may return. He poignantly requests in this last stanza that he be allowed to rejoin or at least see his beloved, in the hope that the court, like weather, is not permanent. Interestingly enough, Hitomaro uses similar yellow-leaf language to address the death of the woman in a later poem (84). Using the seasons always indicates that if a current situation is unsatisfactory, it may alter itself over time. Perhaps even death possesses a seasonal quality, hints Hitomaro’s usage.
Seasons illustrate human transience. Hitomaro took this idea and extended it in his poetry, analyzing this transience in respect to the emperors he praised to remind his readers of a humanity that came hand in hand with their ‘godhood.’ He used the seasons to praise his clients, but also showed that their position as humans came with a fading quality. This fading quality does not limit itself to the human individual, he pointed out, but to entire societies. The individual has hope, and indeed, value because the society above him is transient. When the master limps, the servant has more equal footing. While society may work as an agent of time to move us forward, we all have the hope that in the even further future we may stand on our own terms again. Just as autumn follows summer, spring follows winter, and our lives are most valuable when we can take the most insight and internal beauty out of the time we have been given. Hope, then, is the knowledge that we may pick the autumn leaves that keep us from our dreams and discover that beyond them there may be a greener field.