It withers in the world,
This flower-like human heart.
(Translated by Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, New Directions Press)
Ono No Komachi is a female Japanese poet of the ninth century, and the subject of several paintings, plays and stories. These focus on two things: her legendary beauty as a young girl – so legendary, in fact, that her name is synonymous with beauty in Japanese; and her despair as an old crone as she lamented the passing of her legendary beauty.
In fact little was known of her life. The translator, the great American poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth, surmises that all the stories about her were elaborate glosses on her poems, many of which took as their subject the transitory nature of beauty and of life. Still, sometimes nice to suspend disbelief. Here’s what Edo period artist, Kikuchi Yosai thought she might have looked like:
What is Komichi talking about here? She is talking about something ‘imperceptible’, not something noticed by others around her. She is not, despite her reputation, talking about the fading of a girl’s beauty. Nor does she seem to be talking about the fading of love itself – she writes of the human heart fading, not love for one person. This poem seems to be much more about the fading of inner resolution or joie de vivre in the travails of life – ‘it withers in the world’, after all.