The all-night lamp of youth

Today, a poem by Ryōkan:

一思少年時 I think of when I was a youth
読書在空堂 Reading in an empty hall
燈火数添油 Refilling the lamp, again and again,
未厭冬夜長 Untiring through the long winter night

There are a few sites discussing this poem in various languages on the web (notably this one, including explanation of how a Japanese reader would pronounce it and Steven D. Carter's translation from his excellent anthology Traditional Japanese Poetry). The work has great appeal to nerds, for obvious reasons.

But wait! Those four lines are only the second half of a two-poem set. They are preceded by this:

老朽夢易覚 Aged, I easily wake from my dreams
覚来在空堂 Waking, I am in an empty hall
堂上一盞灯 Here in the hall there is only one lamp
挑尽冬夜長 The lamp gutters out on this long winter night

So the second poem turns out not to be simply a golden remembrance of Ryōkan's bookish youth. It's also a variation on the first poem's theme: note that the second and fourth lines end exactly the same way in both verses. Not to deny the whimsy here, but that's only the surface. Underneath, Ryōkan's concerned with the rolling boulder of time, the ravages of age—let's not overlook the symbolism of the all-night lamp of youth vs the guttering-out lamp of age—and the disconnect between our childhood and adult selves. (Elsewhere he describes his formative years thus: "As a child I studied the classics, but failed to become a Confucian scholar; as a youth I practiced Zen, but didn't receive the light": 少小学文懶為儒, 少年参禅不伝燈.)

Anyway, the world's hardly hurting for more translations of Ryōkan—everyone loves the crazy zen monks best—but I thought other people who remembered him basically from Carter might be interested in this.

Popularity factor: 3

language hat:

But how do/did the poets themselves pronounce them? Surely not all Japanese poets who wrote poems in Chinese were fluent (or even very good) in the spoken language.


But how do/did the poets themselves pronounce them?

Not very well, apparently. I've heard a couple of different tales of Chinese and Korean visitors to Japan being appalled by the quality of the Japanese Chinese poetry they run into, and this was because the Japanese authors in question didn't have the right feel for the pronunciation to write poetry. Presumably this wasn't so bad when the Chinese words were first introduced but got progressively worse as a distinctly Japanese tradition of pronouncing them developed.

And of course most people probably wouldn't even have bothered to try to pronounce these poems in Chinese. They'd just have mangled the characters into a Japanese sentence instead, as demonstrated in my top link there.


I'm no specialist so take this with a grain of salt. Very few Japanese literates could speak Chinese. As a result some of them wrote badly for a Chinese standard, especially in verse. Because verse has lots of rules to respect one of which is intonations of words to finish a line, it's very hard for them. And yet some wrote well so as to impress Chinese, e.g. Natusme Soseki. As they couldn't speak Chinese, they mustn't have known the intonations of words but they wrote verse respecting the rules. They simply knew by heart the intonations.

In the Edo period, there were from time to time Korean emissaries sent to the Shogunate. It was a very rare occasion for Japanese literates to exchange Chinese verse with Koreans and get it corrected. Korea was seen to be a culturally advanced country at that time even tough they fear Japanese a bit militarily since Toyotomi Hideyoshi's campaign there.

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