Japanese Death Poems 辞世 Part 2 – Translated and analysed

Japanese Reading Difficulty

9/12 Could be read by 5th grade level student in Japan

Themes

Poetry, Death, Mortality, nature.

Text Type

Poem, Haiku

About Japanese Death Poems

Here is our second installment on Japanese death poems, this time we’re looking at a poem by Onitsura. These poems are messages from people writing on, or close to, their death beds.
I first came across these through a book Japanese death poems by Yoel Hoffman. I thought I’d try my own hand at some translations.

Death Poem byHiroshi Kuroshiki

鬼貫

Oni-tsura

Died 2nd August 1738, aged 78

Today’s poem is by a Onitsura. Another great name. Oni, means demon. It can also be used as a shorthand term for great power, something like “super”. Tsura, also read as Kan, is a unit of measurement. In it’s Kun-reading it can be tsuranuku, meaning to pierce or penetrate. So was the name meant as “

夢返せ

からすのさます

霧の月

 

Yume kaese

 

Karasu no samasu

 

Kiri no tsuki

 

Give me back my dream

 

Misted moon

 

That wakes with the crow

 

Explanation of the poem

Here is the second in our series looking at Japanese Death Poems. Today, we’re looking at a poem by Onitsura. Onitsura died in 1738 at the age of 78.

Like all of the poets we are looking at, Onitsura has a great name. Oni means Demon. It can also mean “super”, in its supernatural sense. Tsura can mean piercing through, it was also a unit of measurement.

So I’m not sure exactly what that the sense of this is meant to be. Perhaps it is of a “piercing demon”. Or maybe Onitsura was meant to be somebody was “piercing the demon” or

“has a demonic power that’s piercing”. Or perhaps someone that has a measure of supernatural power. I’m not sure. Somebody might be able to comment on that and shed some light.

Onitsura’s deaths poem goes:

 

夢返せ

からすのさます

霧の月

Yume kaese

Karasu no samasu

Kiri no tsuki

I’ve translated that as:

Give me back my dream

Misted moon

That wakes with the crow

In the the Hoffman translation he says:

Give my dream back,

Raven! The moon you woke me to

Is misted over.

Language Analysis

夢返せ

夢 Yume means dream and 返せ is the imperative form of to “return something” or  “give back”.

So this line is a demand “Give me my dream back!”

I think that’s a feeling that probably most people can identify with, that feeling of being asleep and then being rudely awakened. Indeed, we have the term “rudely awakened” in English talking about wanting to get back to some dream that you’ve been in. I think in this poem the “夢 Yume” has a has the dual meaning of the writer literally having been asleep at a moment close to death but also the idea that all of life is some kind of dream state, that you’re living out a story. I think of the line from the Edgar Allan Poe poem “all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream. This is a persistent idea through art, that the world is somehow a dream, in and of itself. 

The next line is 

からすのさます

さます is to awaken. It is the transitive version of the intransitive to wake 覚める. So here someone is being woken up. We have a からす crow, or a raven, or a black black bird and the poem ends with 霧の月.  I’m not a hundred percent clear whether the poet is being awoken by the cawing of the raven, or the cawing of the raven and the misty covered moon. Perhaps it is meant to be a combination of being awoken by that whole scene of a cawing raven and a mysterious moon and saying, “I just want to go back to sleep and get back to my dream, and maybe I want more time in my life to achieve the things that I wanted to achieve”. Apparently Onitsura did have some hardships as a poet, apparently, he was never given the standing or the title of a “Grand Master” poet. There is also some indication that he may have lived his poetic life somewhat in the shadow of the more famous Basho, who was 17 years his senior. Maybe he’s referring to the fact that he didn’t quite get to finish what he had started in his life.

An English Parallel

Now, to find a bit of a parallel in English, I’ve turned to the world of lyrics. As someone that’s very into songs and songwriting, I was thinking about how Bill Callahan often seems to talk about dream-like states. He has an amazing song called Eid Ma Clack Shaw, which is kind of a bit of gibberish verse. 

 

 

The words go: 

“I dreamed it was a dream that you were gone

I woke up feeling so ripped by reality

Love is the king of the beasts

And when it gets hungry it must kill to eat

Love is the king of the beasts

A lion walking down city streets

I fell back asleep some time later on

And I dreamed the perfect song

It held all the answers, like hands laid on

I woke halfway and scribbled it down

And in the morning what I wrote I read

It was hard to read at first but here’s what it said

Eid ma clack shaw

Zupoven del ba

Mertepy ven seinur

Cofally ragdah”

So, I think once again most people can identify with that idea of having a dream and feeling like you’ve had a major breakthrough, or you’ve had some kind of a revelation, that you figured something out and then you go to recall it, and it’s just on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t. It’s unattainable. Anyway, there’s just a little parallel for you. We will continue to look at more of these Japanese Death Poems.

Japanese poetry books

Japanoscope is a registered affiliate with several online shops and may receive a commission when you click on some of the links within content.

Who is behind this site?

I’m Peter Joseph Head. I lived in Japan for four years as a student at Kyoto City University of the Arts and on working holiday. I have toured the country six times playing music and speak Japanese (JLPT N1).

ピータージョセフヘッドです。3年間京都市立芸大の大学院として、一年間ワーキングホリデーとして日本に住み、6回日本で音楽ツアーをし、日本語能力試験で1級を取得しました。要するに日本好きです。

Japanese Death Poems 辞世 Translated and analysed

Japanese Reading Difficulty

9/12 Could be read by 5th grade level student in Japan

Themes

Poetry, Death, Mortality, nature.

Text Type

Poem, Haiku

About Japanese Death Poems

Today we’re having a look at Japanese death poems. Now like the name suggests these are poems that people in Japan have written through the ages just before they die, or on their deathbed, and they’re fascinating little windows into a whole different world across time and space -windows on people reflecting on their lives in their final moments.
These poems have been around since around the 7th century.
I first came across these through this book Japanese death poems by Yoel Hoffman. It’s a fantastic little compendium of these poems and translations. So I thought I’d go through and introduce some of these but also give my own take. I’ll do some of my own translations, because there’s often quite a few different ways that these things can be done.

Death Poem byHiroshi Kuroshiki

A translation of an Instagram post from the artist

智輪

Chi-rin

Died 24 Dec. 1794

The first poem is by a poet called Chirin. All these poets have really fantastic names. 智 Chi means insight or wisdom, which comes from the Sanskrit, I believe, word prajna. So it’s a Buddhist Buddhist concept. 輪 Rin is like a circle, so this is this person’s name is actually a circle of prana insight

天地に

ちりなき雪の

麓かな

 

Ametsuchi ni

Chiri naki yuki no

Fumoto kana

 

Across the sky and land

Not a speck of dust

Behold the snow on the foothills!

 

Explanation of the poem

あめ in modern Japanese usually means rain but here it’s referring to the sky 天, to the heavens and has a different character to 雨

つち usually literally means dirt, but here it’s got a broader meaning of “land” and then ちりなき 

 

Literally means dust. I think both dust or chiri are very interesting words in either Japanese or English. There’s kind of this association between dust and garbage or rubbish. Probably people that have studied Japanese for a while probably would have come across people saying, you know, get some chiri officer off the floor it’s meaning that it’s dirty & dusty. Even in English we have this word “dustbin”. We don’t put generally don’t put dust in a bin. It’s more like rubbish that we’re putting in there. So there’s this association between things that are dirt or dirty and rubbish.

So ちりなき means ちりがない.

For my translation, I’ve gone with:

 

Across the sky land land 

not a speck of dust and the

 

But the other interesting thing about ちりなき is that we said that the poet’s name was chirin, so there’s actually a play on words, and this is something you find in a lot of these death poems. Often the poet will take their name and sort of try and work it into the actual poem either through the sound or through the meaning. So there’s this interesting play that they do, looking at the idea of their self and how that idea exists in the world. So chiri naki has a double meaning of no dust, but also no chirin, as in, he himself has disappeared. Or he’s about to disappear.

And then it comes to 

雪のふもとかな

Now this word かな is interesting as well. 

In modern japanese if you say kana it usually means that you’re not sure about something or you’re wondering about something.  So you might say come on 買い物行こうかな, I think I might go down to the shops. Or somebody might say to you そうかな if you’ve said something and now they’re doubting you. 

But you find in it’s poetic context it has a slightly different meaning. 

Here it’s used as a 切れ字 Kireji.

切る means to cut and 字 is a letter or a word. So these are special words that are put in either to divide up a section or phrase, or at the end to give a sense of finality.  “Kana” is usually expressing some kind of wonder, some sense of the numinous. When you think about it, even the modern idea of wondering about things, we wonder at the world, we wonder what’s happening. There is that connection in the same way that we said that ちり and dust and rubbish and garbage have this strange connection. There’s a connection between wondering in a numinous way and in a more prosaic way. 

So, the reason I put in “behold” the snow on this foothill is that I was trying to get that sense of wonder.  “Behold” I know is a very old sounding English word, but this is a poem from 1794, so I think that’s valid to say, “behold the snow in the foothills”

In Hoffman’s translation he went with:

In the earth and the sky

No grain of dust-

Snow on the foothills

So Hoffman hasn’t worried about putting the “behold” in. The かな gets lost in that translation but really there’s not really any great way of getting around that anyway.

Now, just a way as a way of finding a parallel between this poem and the world of English poetry I was thinking about poets that look at nature, appreciating snow and appreciating the natural world as it is in it in its “suchness”, to use a Buddhist term. 

So I was thinking about Robert Frost, because he does a lot of that sort of poetry and he’s got a famous one Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. 

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

And then it goes on from there. You get this sense of somebody by themselves in nature just appreciating snow. This makes me think of that famous koan that’s come into popular culture
“If a tree falls in the forest, and no one saw it fall, and no one heard it fall, did it really fall?”
Which is about just appreciating the suchness of things, and the fact that you can’t really explain the nature of reality in words.

Robert Frost also has another poem which refers to both dust and snow as well.

It’s called Dust of Snow:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Japanese poetry books

Japanoscope is a registered affiliate with several online shops and may receive a commission when you click on some of the links within content.

Who is behind this site?

I’m Peter Joseph Head. I lived in Japan for four years as a student at Kyoto City University of the Arts and on working holiday. I have toured the country six times playing music and speak Japanese (JLPT N1).

ピータージョセフヘッドです。3年間京都市立芸大の大学院として、一年間ワーキングホリデーとして日本に住み、6回日本で音楽ツアーをし、日本語能力試験で1級を取得しました。要するに日本好きです。