Love’s Lonely Vigil

I never saw her, yet I travelled;
Faithful as the cock who marks each day the dawn,
I carved my marks on the bench.
I was to come a hundred times;
There lacked but one…
(from Sotoba Komachi, trans. Arthur Waley)

In the Irish ballad “She Moved Through the Fair,” on which St. Matthews Fair is based, a young woman promises to marry her admirer, then disappears.  Here is one version of the lyrics:

Botticelli, Venus and the Graces (detail)

My young love said to me,
My mother won’t mind
And my father won’t slight you
For your lack of kind.
And she laid her hand on me
And this she did say:
It will not be long, love,
Till our wedding day.

As she stepped away from me
And she moved through the fair
And fondly I watched her
Move here and move there.
And then she turned homeward,
With one star awake,
Like the swan in the evening
Moves over the lake.

The people were saying,
No two e’er were wed
But one had a sorrow
That never was said.
And I smiled as she passed
With her goods and her gear,
And that was the last
That I saw of my dear.

Last night she came to me,
My dead love came in.
So softly she came
That her feet made no din.
As she laid her hand on me,
And this she did say:
It will not be long, love,
‘Til our wedding day.

Steadfast devotion to a woman only once seen, or for some other reason utterly unavailable, is a trope of Western medieval literature, pervasive in the songs of the troubadours and enshrined in Western consciousness by Dante and Petrarch.  The troubadour Jaufre Rudel was so fervent in regard to a woman whom he had never met that she finally took pity and allowed him to die in her arms.  Thus the dreamer in “She Moved Through the Fair” might be said to have literary antecedents.

In classical Japanese literature, it is almost always the woman who waits.  Even during the Heian period, when for hundreds of years female authors dominated literary culture, the social order was such that a man could essentially take a woman by force (perhaps while uttering fashionable protestations of fidelity), then leave her to wait behind her screen, in anxiety and hope, for him to come the next night, or on any future night.  For a woman to decline a man’s attentions after receiving his perfumed letter of intent was reckoned by a Heian courtier an act of the most uncommon cruelty.  The Heian poetess and legendary beauty Ono no Komachi wrote verses like these, which appeared in the first and most revered of the imperial poetry anthologies, the Kokinshu :

Kano Tanyu, Ono no Komachi

Did you come to me
because I dropped off to sleep
tormented by love?
If I had known I dreamed
I would not have awakened
(Kokinshu 552, trans. HelenCraig McCullough

and

Since encountering
My beloved as I dozed
I have come to feel
that it is dreams, not real life,
on which I can pin my hopes.
(Kokinshu 553, trans. Helen Craig McCullough)

There are many Noh plays–notably Matsukaze (The Wind in the Pines), Izutsu (The Well Curb), Kinuta (The Fulling Block), and Nonomiya (The Shrine in the Fields)–in which a woman is afflicted forever by recollections of a man she has loved and lost.  However, Komachi herself is associated with a story in which a man dies while waiting for the promised favors of a woman.  In the Noh play Sotoba Komachi, an aged Komachi is haunted by the ghost of her former suitor, Major General Fukakusa, whom she had forced to demonstrate his love by spending one hundred nights in succession outside her gate.  He died after the ninety-ninth night.  In Kayoi Komachi, the ghost of Komachi appears before a Buddhist priest, seeking salvation.  As the priest begins to pray for her, there emerges a second ghost, that of ShoSho (Fukakusa), who demands that the priest desist!  By the time he and Komachi confront each other in the liminal world, he has waited a very long time for his ardor to be satisfied.

Tsukioka Kogyo, Kayoi Komachi

Kayoi Komachi is one of the few phantasmal Noh plays in which there is dramatic conflict between two main characters on the stage, in story time.  ShoSho seizes Komachi by the sleeve and refuses to let her pass into eternity until the two of them—together–have told the story of how she tested his love.  And suddenly, in what is another unusual turn of events in a Noh play, there is a moment of enlightenment inspired not by the recitation of a Buddhist sutra, but by Komachi’s confession (delivered by the chorus but attributable to Komachi) that she, too, had yearned for him during those long, dreary nights.  Liberated from anger and doubt by his beloved herself, ShoSho is carried at once back in time and forward to a moment in which his depleted soul is restored:

The longed-for day has come! (from Kara Kabuki no Miryouku, 1974)

Thus did I waste
And exhaust my heart.
When I tallied up
The notches on the shaft bench,
There were ninety-nine nights.
Only one more now–
How happy I am!
The longed-for-day has come!

I’m sure she must be waiting!

(from Kayoi Komachi, trans. Donald Keene)

Komachi and ShoSho receive absolution and dissolve into Buddhahood together.

A modern play about Komachi, Komachi Fuden (Komachi Told by the Wind) by Shogo Ota, was performed by the Theatre of Yugen in 1986, with founder Yuriko Doi in the role of Komachi.

Yuriko Doi as Komachi, in Shogo Ota’s Komachi Fuden

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