Samurai and poetry

Samurai and poetry
Samurai and poetry

How is it, friends?

Man looks at cherry blossoms

And on the belt is a long sword!

Mukai Kyorai (1651 - 1704). Translation by V. Markova

From childhood, samurai were instilled not only with loyalty to military duty and taught all the intricacies of the military craft, but they were also taught relaxation, because a person cannot only do that and think about death or kill his own kind! No, they also brought up the ability to see the beautiful, appreciate it, admire the beauties of nature and works of art, poetry and music. Moreover, the love of art was just as important for the samurai as military skill, especially if the samurai warrior wanted to become a good ruler in peacetime. From his house, as a rule, a beautiful view of nature opened up, an unusual garden, for example, and if there was none, then the gardener should have created the illusion of a distant landscape in it with special techniques. For this, small trees and large stones were placed in a special order, combined with a pond or stream with a small waterfall. In his free time from military affairs, the samurai could enjoy music, for example, listening to playing the biwa (lute), and also songs and poems of some wandering musician who came to his estate. At the same time, he himself simply sat on the tatami and sipped tea, enjoying the peace and understanding that there is no past or future, but only one single "now". It was impossible not to know the poetry of famous poets, if only because, while performing seppuku, the samurai was simply obliged to leave his own dying poems. And if he could not do this, then it means … he was dying ugly, and "ugly" means unworthy!

Samurai and … poetry
Samurai and … poetry

Do you think these women are playing cards? No, they play … poetry! And this game remains a favorite among the Japanese to this day.

Therefore, it is not surprising that poetry is present in samurai tales, as in many other Japanese tales. By the way, a distinctive feature of Buddhist works, as well as Chinese treatises, is also the poems that their authors inserted in their key places. Well, since Japanese authors borrowed a lot from China, it is clear that it was from them that they borrowed this old rhetorical device. Well, as a result, both the samurai warrior and the poetry became just as practically inseparable from each other.

However, something similar was observed with the knights of Western Europe, and the knights of Russia. The songs of the minstrels were held in high esteem, and many knights composed ballads in honor of their beautiful ladies, or … dedicated their muse to Christ, especially those of them who went on crusades. At the same time, the difference was not even in the content (although it was also present in it), but in the size of the poetic works.


Like many other samurai, Uesuge Kesin was not only an excellent commander, but also a no less good poet. Color woodcut by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

In the 7th century, and some researchers believe that even earlier, Japanese versification was based on line lengths of 5 and 7 syllables. At first, their combination was used in an arbitrary way, but by the 9th century a rhythmic pattern that looked like this: 5-7-5-7-7 became the rule. Thus, the tanka, or "short song", was born and became very popular. But as soon as the tanka became the standard of versification, people appeared who proposed to "break" it into two uneven hemistichs - 5-7-5 and 7-7. Two poets took part in versification, each of whom composed his own hemistich himself, after which they were combined, and their order could change: first 7-7, and then 5-7-5. This form is called renga - or "connected verse". Then these two hemistichs began to be connected with each other up to fifty times, and thus even whole poems appeared, consisting of a hundred parts, and up to a dozen poets participated in their writing.

The easiest way to comprehend renga (that is, how to combine these semi-verses) is to imagine that you and your friend are playing… riddles, but only in verse; you say the first line, he speaks the second. That is, in fact, it is such a "word game". So, in "Heike Monogatari" there is a story about Minamoto no Yorimasa (1104 - 1180) - a samurai who killed a fantastic beast with a bow, who descended on a black cloud to the very roof of the emperor's palace and gave him nightmares. The emperor naturally thanked Yorimasa and presented him with a sword. This sword, in order to hand it over to Yorimasa, was taken by the Left Minister (and there was, of course, also the right one!) Fujiwara no Yorinaga (1120 - 1156) and went to him down the stairs. And then the cuckoo suddenly buzzed, thus foreshadowing the beginning of summer. The minister, without hesitation, commented on this in verses (5-7-5): "The cuckoo screams over the clouds." But Yorimasa did not blunder either. He knelt down and accordingly answered him (7-7): "And the crescent of the moon disappears."

It is interesting that if this poem was written by one poet, it would be called tanka, and the tanka would be simply wonderful. But the same poem, but composed by two different people, turned into a renga, while the play on words, of course, decorates it. Yorinaga was generally a renga master and a very observant person, as evidenced by many of his poems.

The fun of composing long renga at feasts arose, which in the 14th century became a true passion for many samurai. Accordingly, the rules of versification became more and more complicated, but despite this, this game continued to be very popular, even in the era of the "Fighting Kingdoms".

Although tanka poetry continued to be popular, the ability to convey traditions in it was also very important. So, in 1183, fleeing from the army of the Minamoto wedge, the Taira clan fled from the capital to the west, taking with them the young emperor Antoku (1178 - 1185). At the same time, one of the commanders of the Taira army - Tadanori (1144 - 1184) returned only to say goodbye to his mentor, Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114 - 1204), who taught him poetry. Heike Monogatari says that upon entering Shunjia, he said, “For many years you, teacher, have favorably guided me along the path of poetry, and I have always considered it the most important. However, the last few years in Kyoto unrest, the country was torn to pieces, and now the trouble has touched our home. Therefore, without in any way neglecting training, I did not have the opportunity to come to you all the time. His Majesty left the capital. Our clan is dying. I heard a collection of poetry was being prepared, and I thought that if you would show leniency to me and include one of my poems in it, it would be the greatest honor of my whole life. But soon the world turned into chaos, and when I learned that work was suspended, I was very upset. When the country calms down, you are destined to continue compiling the imperial assembly. If in the scroll that I brought you, you find something worthy and deign to include one poem in the collection, I will rejoice in my grave and protect you in the distant future."

More than 100 poems were recorded on his scroll. He pulled it out from behind the carapace breastplate and handed it to Shunzei. And he really included in the anthology "Senzai shu", on which he worked at the behest of the emperor, one single poem by Tadanori, and without specifying his name, because he, albeit already dead, was considered an enemy of the emperor. So what was it about? About the life and exploits of a samurai warrior? About the confusion of feelings at the sight of how fate itself suddenly turned away from his clan? About the suffering of people in the bloody clan war? Not at all. Here it is:

Whitefish, the capital of babbling waves, is empty, but the cherries in the mountains remain the same *.

This poem itself was just a response to the events of 667, when Emperor Tenji (626 - 671) from the city of Shiga moved the capital to the city of Otsu, that's all! Translated from Japanese allegories, Shiga is “deeds of bygone days,” but despite its brevity, it has a deep philosophical meaning: the capital, created by human labor, is abandoned, but natural beauty is eternal. That is, in Shunzeiu's opinion, this was Tadanori's best poem, while all the others were also written within the framework of plots and language that were considered decent court poetry. That is, Shunzei's demands on imagery, style and content were exceptionally great!


In this engraving (Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1886), a samurai in full armor is playing a biwa.

Another similar poem was written by Hosokawa Fujitaka. And it is very topical, although old:

In a world that has remained unchanged since ancient times, word leaves keep seeds in the human heart **.

And it was written by him in 1600, when the castle was surrounded by superior forces of the enemy. He sent this poem to the imperial court, and he wrote everything he knew about the "secret meaning" of the famous imperial anthology of Japanese poets "Kokinshu". It was compiled at the beginning of the 10th century and was full of all sorts of omissions and hints, the meaning of which by that time people had already begun to forget, and so Fujitaka, although he was a warrior, wrote about all these interpretations and discrepancies to the emperor, that is, he conducted a kind of complex and thorough content analysis. Emperor Goyozei (1571-1617), famous for his scholarship, was greatly saddened when he learned that such a connoisseur of ancient texts should perish; moreover, he decided to save Fujitaka, and he succeeded (although not without difficulty). The fact is that at first Fujitaka refused to surrender, but the emperor, through his messengers, managed to convince him to give up his samurai honor.


The commandments of the secrets of success in life, compiled by Tokugawa Ieyasu. From the collection of the Tosegu Temple.

But the important thing is this: the poem, although it was written under completely extraordinary circumstances, was devoid of even the slightest hint of a military theme. It is impossible to assume that it was written by a samurai, and even besieged in his own castle! That is, this warrior saw in poetry something more than a means to pour out his soul in poetry, or just tell the whole world about his misadventures! Although, of course, as in any society, there were much more dashing swordsmen, drunkards, and people who were not too noble and worthy among the samurai than there were much more talented poets, art connoisseurs and true "masters of the sword".

Many Japanese generals were also good poets. For example, Uesuge Kenshin decided to give his warriors some rest after taking the castle of Noto. He ordered to distribute sake to them, gathered the commanders, after which, in the midst of the feast, he composed the following poem:

The camp is cold and the autumn air is fresh.

Geese fly by in succession, the moon is shining at midnight.

Mount Etigo, now Noto has been taken.

All the same: returning home, people remember about the trip ***.

Then he selected warriors with good hearing and ordered them to sing these verses! Moreover, it can even be said that not a single significant event in the history of Japanese samurai could do without poetry. For example, the killer of Japan's unifier, Oda Nabunaga, did his job after a competition in versification, and he discovered his secret intention in fears, although at that moment no one understood their secret meaning. But after the magnificent funeral arranged by Oda Nobunaga after his death, a renga competition was again arranged in his honor, in which each of the participants wrote on the following line:

Dyed black evening dews on my sleeve.


Both the moon and the autumn wind grieve over the field.


When I return, crickets sob bitterly in the shadows.

Shoho ****

Well, and then the Japanese decided: why are there a lot of words if “brevity is the sister of talent”? So they reduced the renga to just one "opening stanza," and that's how the hokku (or haiku) poetry was born. In the Edo period (17th century), hokku was already an independent poetic form, and the term "haiku" itself was suggested to be used by the poet and literary critic Masaoka Shiki at the end of the 19th century, so that the two forms could be distinguished. True, this time fell on the decline of samurai as a social institution, but the samurai themselves did not disappear anywhere, and many of them involuntarily became poets, trying to feed themselves at least by selling their own poems.


Great battle. Utagawa Yoshikazu. Triptych of 1855 Pay attention to what truly huge kanabo mace is fighting its central character. It is clear that such warriors could be glorified both in painting and in poetry.

But was Japanese poetry so different from European poetry? And if the samurai wrote poetry, preparing for suicide, or even just for the sake of entertainment, then did the knights of Western Europe not do the same? After all, there were also poets and singers there, and it is known that some of them were so masterful in the art of versification that they traveled around the castles of Europe and earned their living by reading their poems when visiting this or that count or baron. And in the end they received for this shelter, and hard cash, or even the gratitude of the noble lady, the owner of the castle! All this is so, however, comparing their poetry, you involuntarily notice that, although love in Europe and Japan was sung about the same (although the Japanese were not as verbose as Europeans!), The samurai in poetry especially were not distributed. Whereas in the West, poems in which chivalric valor were glorified were in high esteem. But what, for example, poems were written about knightly battles by the poet Bertrand de Born:

The ardor of battle is a mile to me

Wine and all earthly fruits.

Here is the cry: “Forward! Be brave!"

And the neighing, and the knock of horseshoes.

Here, bleeding, They call their own: “Help! To us!"

The fighter and the leader in the dips of the pits

They fly, grabbing the grass, With a hiss of blood over the smut

Runs like streams …

Bertrand de Born. Translation by V. Dynnik

Verses of religious content for the glory of Buddha, not to mention the glory of Christ, were not typical for samurai either. Or, for example, those in which the experiences of a knight-crusader were painted, preparing to go to Palestine to recapture the Holy Sepulcher. So none of the Japanese samurai poets glorified Buddha in a lofty syllable and did not say that "without him he does not like the world." Samurai simply did not allow such a “soulful striptease”! But their European brothers in the sword - yes, as much as necessary!

Death has done me terrible harm

Taking away Christ.

Without the Lord, the light is not red

And life is empty.

I have lost my joy.

All around is vanity.

Would come true only in paradise

My dream.

And I seek paradise

Leaving the homeland.

I set off on the road.

I hasten to help Christ.

Hartmann von Aue. Translation by V. Mikushevich


O knights, get up, the hour has come!

You have shields, steel helmets and armor.

Your dedicated sword is ready to fight for the faith.

Give strength to me, oh God, for new glorious slaughter.

A beggar, I will take a rich booty there.

I don’t need gold and I don’t need land, But maybe I will be, singer, mentor, warrior, Heavenly bliss is forever awarded.

Walter von der Vogelweide. Translation by V. Levik


This color woodcut of Migata Toshihide depicts the famous military leader, Kato Kiyomasa, in the tranquility of his own home.

Now look at the examples of poetry from the Edo period, the era of the world (although they are not much different from those that were written, for example, during the Sengoku period!), And without exaggeration - the heyday of Japanese culture. For example, these are the poems of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), a recognized master of renga and creator of the genre and aesthetics of hokku poetry, who was born, by the way, in a samurai family.

On a bare branch

the crow sits alone.

Autumn evening.


Like a banana groans from the wind, As drops fall into the tub, I hear it all night long.


Women drink tea and play poetry. Artist Mitsuno Toshikata (1866 - 1908).

Hattori Ransetsu (1654 - 1707) - the poet of the Basho school, about whom he spoke highly, was also born into the family of a severely impoverished samurai, at the end of his life became a monk, but wrote excellent poems in the hokku genre.

Here the leaf fell

Here is another leaf flying

In an icy whirlwind *.

What else can I add here? Nothing!

**** Hiroaki Sato. Samurai: History and Legends. Translation by R. V. Kotenko - SPB.: Eurasia, 2003.

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