The print featured on this page was produced almost a thousand years after Ariwara no
Narihira (在原業平 or ありわらのなりひら: 825-880)
wrote a poem about maple leaves. That alone speaks volumes about the
Japanese sensibilities and their reverence for the past.
Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之 or きつらゆき: ca.
875-945) wrote in the introduction to the Kokinshū that Narihira was
"excessive in heart and deficient in words". This ambiguous, or should I say
ambivalent, assessment was not in reality faint praise. Rather it was a
straight forward appraisal of one of the giants of poetry of the Heian age -
at least as Tsurayuki saw it.
Narihira is a fascinating fellow. More is known about him
in myth than in fact. True he was a historical figure of royal descent and
an accomplished scholar and famous lover, but beyond that mostly what we
know of him is the poetry he left behind. Tsurayuki listed him among the six
poetic sage, the rokkasen (六歌仙 or ろっかせん) and Fujiwara Kintō included
him in his list of thirty-six of the most eminent poets, the
sanjūrokkasen (三十六歌仙 or さんじゅうろっかせん). Both lists were frequently
portrayed in ukiyo woodblock prints.
Another distinction for Narihira is his connection with
the Tales of Ise or Ise Monogatari (伊勢物語 or いせものがたり), a tale of
lovers and their trysts. For ages - I don't know how long - many people
believed that Narihira was the author, but scholars no longer see it that
way although many of the poems are by him. There is one poem which is often
cited where a lover approaches surreptitiously through a crack in a wall.
Centuries later the great haiku poet Bashō wrote a poem about a tom cat on
the prowl for love - an obvious allusion to Narihira who must have been some
kind of Japanese Casanova. Bashō also wrote a haiku about how the fragrance
of chrysanthemums made him think of the handsome man from Nara. Who else
could it be?
In the section below is the Narihira poem about viewing
maple leaves on the Tatsuta River. We are indebted to our great and learned
contributor Eikei (英渓 or えいけい) for his translation of this poem. Thanks 英渓!