WILD GEESE AND GREAT POET

by Abellio

Milan, 7 December 2018

I wrote in the previous post about my wife and I visiting a museum dedicated to the Japanese woodblock artist Utagawa Hiroshige, in preparation for our walk along the Nakasendo Way. That same museum also happened to be holding an exhibition dedicated to Katushika Hokusai. Many of Hokusai’s woodblock prints were of course on show, and it was certainly a pleasure to be given the opportunity to study and admire them up close.

But actually it’s a painting of Hokusai’s that has remained with me in the intervening weeks. I sneak in here a photo that I took of it – I’m not sure I was allowed to take photos and I looked around stealthily before whipping out my phone and snapping this shot. I have cropped the photo to eliminate the silk wall hanging in which it is incorporated; I want the reader to focus on the painting, and I find its silken frame a distraction to the eye.

Its title is Wild Geese and Great Poet, and indeed we see a man of certain means sitting on the ground, his elbow resting on that typical Japanese arm rest, the kyousoku. His head rests on his hand, and he is watching with a look of wistful melancholy at a flock of geese flying away into the distance.

I immediately felt that there was a story being told here. I saw the drawing in of winter, with the geese flying south from Siberia to overwinter in Japan, and of the poet meditating on the drawing in of his own life as old age beckons: the kind of pessimistic thinking which I enjoy, especially now that I am a pensioner, and which makes my wife roll her eyes and sigh loudly. I felt that Hokusai was surely taking his cue from a Japanese or possibly Chinese poem on the subject, and I resolved to track the poem down.

Well, five weeks have passed, and I can’t say that I have yet found the poem in question. Everyone agrees that flying geese were often used as symbols of the passage of the seasons and of time in Japanese and Chinese poetry, but one particular poem where the writer uses this imagery to meditate on his approaching old age I have not found. Fearing that the task I have set myself will meander on inconclusively before petering out ignominiously, I have resolved to stop here, draw a line under my research, and report back on the results of my increasingly dispirited internet surfing.

The best fit I have found is a poem from the Songs of Chu, an anthology of Chinese poems which tradition says were written in the late 200s BCE, during the Warring States period. This particular poem is attributed to the poet Song Yu. I read into this poem a story, so typical of Imperial China, of the bureaucrat who has somehow fallen foul of his master, has lost his position, and is now wandering the land, an exile, wondering if he will ever get his old life back.

Alas for the breath of autumn!
Wan and drear: flower and leaf fluttering fall and turn to decay;
Sad, forlorn: as when on journey far one climbs a hill and looks down on water to speed a returning friend;
Empty and vast: the skies are high and the air is cold;
Still and deep: the streams have drunk full and the waters are clear.

Heartsick and sighing sore: for the cold draws on and strikes into a man;
Distraught and disappointed: leaving the old and to new places turning;
Afflicted; the Emperor’s servant has lost his office and his heart rebels;
Desolate: on his long journey he rests with never a friend;
Melancholy: he nurses a private sorrow.

The fluttering swallows leave on their homeward journey;
The forlorn cicada makes no sound;
The wild geese call as they travel southwards;
The partridge chatters with a mournful cry.

Alone he waits for the dawn to come, unsleeping;
Mourning with the cricket, the midnight traveler.
His time draws on apace: already half is gone
Yet still he languishes, nothing accomplished.

As for the Japanese side, the best I’ve managed to find is a number of haiku. Here is one from the Manyōshū, a collection of Japanese poems compiled sometime after 759 AD.

The inlet of Okura is echoing;
To the fields of Fushimi
The wild geese are passing.

This one instead is by Matsuo Bashō, master haiku composer whom I mentioned in my previous post and who lived in the second half of the 1600s.

The sea darkening –
The voices of the wild geese
Crying, whirling, white.

And finally, there is this haiku, written in 1953 by Takaha Shugyo

Wild geese pass
Revealing
The whole of heaven

A certain continuity is revealed, I think, over this nearly 1,000 year period.

Well, since it was a visit to a museum dedicated to Hiroshige that led me to the painting by Hokusai, I feel it is only fair that I should finish with a woodblock print by Hiroshige, Full Moon at Takanawa, where geese are the star players.
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Hokusai, Wild Geese and Great Poet: my photo
Hiroshige, Full Moon at Takanawa: https://www.musubi.it/en/biblioteca/haiku/477-mp-haiku?showall=1