Hyakunin Isshu No. 3: If I’m to sleep alone

By: Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (662 – 710)                 柿本人麻呂

On a mountain slope                                                        あしびきの
The copper pheasant’s tail                                            山鳥の尾の
Just flows and flows –                                                      しだり尾の
So long, like this night                                                     ながながし夜を
If I’m to sleep alone                                                          ひとりかも寝む


Legend has it that poet gained his name because he was found at the foot of a kaki, or persimmon, tree as an infant and subsequently adopted. As an attendant of Emperor Monmu, the grandson of Empress Jitou (the poet of No. 2), Kakinomoto no Hitomaro had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his poetic prowess.  He definitely showed off his skills, because he became known as one of the great poets of early Japan, and after his death was deified as a god of Poetry, complete with temples dedicated to his name.

In this tanka, the translation notes merely say that the night will seem to be as long as the tail of the copper pheasant if he cannot be with his lover tonight.  However, the fourth line can be interpreted as also ‘To drift, like my life’ instead of ‘So long, like this night’.  If you add that interpretation into the poem, then instead of just being just a pining lover in the night, the poet could be instead yearning for a companionship in his life of solitude.

Copper pheasant | Internet Bird Collection

Copper pheasant | Internet Bird Collection

Even though both interpretations are about longing for a lover in a relationship, I personally like the second interpretation about drifting in life.  Because it’s true.  If a person lacks companionship, whether it be a lover, or a partner, or a friend, or family, then regardless of how introverted a person may be, life will seem long and dreary.  Without anyone to share with, or any person to rely on, nights would seem long, and life would drift like and flow just like the tail of a copper pheasant, in solitude as it follows unquestioningly the pheasant, without its own purpose, without its own meaning.

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