Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Otomo no Yakamochi (718?--785 AD): a lament

I think I've said this before, but just in case I haven't, I'm always surprised as I read poems and stories from various cultures and times at the universality of certain themes. It's almost as if these were part of our DNA. In how many stories and poems that you have read have the themes of the following poem appeared? The shortness of life? The transitoriness of all around us? Nature as an exemplar?

A lament on the ephemerality of life

The life a man leads
is but a transient affair:
so it has been said
through all the generations
since the ancient time
when heaven and earth began.
Observed from afar
on the broad plain of heaven,
the radiant moon
sometimes waxes, sometimes wanes;
so, too, with treetops
in the foot-wearying hills:
when springtime arrives
they glow with blossom's beauty,
and in the autumn
their leaves of many colors
are touched by dew and frost
and scatter before the wind.
The life of a man
seems to be no different.
The pink flush of youth
fades from the complexion,
the raven tresses,
black as leopard-flower seeds,
take on a new hue;
the morning smile dies at dusk.
I am powerless
to hold back the tears that fall
like a flooding rain
when I think of man's transience,
of how he declines
with changes invisible
as a blowing wind,
with changes unremitting
as the flow of a river.


It is precisely
because all is transient
that even mute trees
put forth blossoms in springtime
and in autumn shed brown leaves.

When I contemplate
the brevity of man's life,
I am indifferent
to worldly things: how many
are the days I spend in thought!

-- Otomo no Yakamochi --

from Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology
Steven D. Carter, trans.

This poem was written some twelve hundred years ago in a different culture, but I don't think one needs a degree in literature to understand it completely.


  1. This line is beautifully written:

    "of how he declines
    with changes invisible
    as a blowing wind, "

    Isn't that the truth? It seems like one day I'm looking at my face in the mirror and I think, "Where did this line come from? Was it there yesterday?" It just happens, almost invisibly.

  2. Cheryl,

    Yes, I think the last five lines are the strongest lines in the poem.

    Change is part of life, even of that of a river. If it stops flowing and changing, the river is dead.