The poetry of death

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Akashi GidayuMostly unheard of in Western culture, where the document most commonly associated with death is a will—a binding legal document descriptive of property but little poetry, jisei, or death poetry, is a poem completed near the time of death; a profound, personal epitaph for a once in a lifetime event—suitably fitting farewell to one’s life.

While death as a theme in poetry is not uncommon; witness death as one of the main themes of Emily Dickinson:

More than the Grave is closed to me
More than the Grave is closed to me —
The Grave and that Eternity
To which the Grave adheres —
I cling to nowhere till I fall —
The Crash of nothing, yet of all —
How similar appears —

Emily Dickinson

or as sublime meditation on the nature of reality:

I and Death
My body saw death
Without fear.
My heart conquered death
With love.
My soul embraced death
With compassion.
I employ death
With no hesitation.

Sri Chinmoy

—a poem written to mark one’s own death, or more accurately, to uniquely commemorate a life lived, is a practise that reached its eventual refinement in Japan, in Zen Buddhism in particular. It was also common in China until the twentieth century.

Jisei by convention are written in a graceful, natural manner, and never mention death explicitly, using instead metaphoric references to nature, often in the form of sunsets, autumn or falling cherry blossoms:

When autumn winds blow
not one leaf remains
the way it was.

Togyu

As elsewhere in Japanese art, feelings of bitter-sweetness and impermanence dominate, a feature of the Zen Buddhist informed aesthetic mono no aware (a sensitivity to things), a conception of beauty virtually part of the national character.

While the popular image of jisei is as a part of ceremonial seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide), death poems were also written by Zen monks, haiku poets, and from ancient times literate people on their deathbed.

Poems were not always composed the moment before death; respected poets would sometimes be consulted well in advance for their assistance, and even after death one’s poem could be polished or even rewritten by others—a deed never mentioned lest the deceased’s legacy be tarnished.

Had I not known
that I was dead
already
I would have mourned
the loss of my life.

Ota Dokan

Yukio MishimaNormally highly poetic and somewhat oblique, jisei could also contain elements of a traditional will; not the mundane affairs of an estate to be settled, but for example reconciling differences between estranged relatives.

Prominent exponents of jisei include the famous haiku poet Basho; Asano Naganori, the daimyo (fuedal leader) whose forced suicide was avenged by the forty-seven ronin—now almost a national myth; and Yukio Mishima, prominent Japanese writer of the mid-twentieth century who inexplicably committed traditional seppuku in 1970:

Yukio Mishima’s Death Poem
A small night storm blows
Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
Preceding those who hesitate

Yukio Mishima

  1. Mar 25, 2008 6:26 am

    Exquisite blog!

    ;O)

    Lyra’s last blog post..Subversão

  2. Mar 25, 2008 8:30 am

    Thank you Lyra! I am beginning Spanish lessons right now so that I can return an informed compliment about your blog.

  3. Mar 29, 2008 12:35 am

    Hello again ;O)
    It´s ok, you can always start by reading my English post:
    http://alinguagemdocaos.blogspot.com/2008/03/fractal-poetry.html
    Greetings

    Lyra’s last blog post..A vida é…

  4. Mar 31, 2008 9:51 pm

    well said… suitably fitting farewell to one’s life.

    savannah’s last blog post..one monday in madrid

  5. Jul 30, 2009 6:13 pm

    I re-published Mishima’s Death Poem in my blog, I hope it’s not a problem. Yours is a very interesting space and I plan to follow it.

    ___

    I don’t think that Mishima committed seppuku “inexplicably”. His mind went through a personal hell during his adolescence and youth; his plays and novels announced a continuous, tiring hunger for destruction and rebirth, a longing for a romantic past that drove him to the dramatic, if not operatic, storming of the military headquarters where he and his favorite pupils committed seppuku.

    To me it was perfectly logical and beautiful.
    .-= Carlos Mal Pacheco´s last blog ..EL POEMA DE DESPEDIDA DE MISHIMA =-.

  6. Jul 31, 2009 10:25 pm

    Thanks for the comment Carlos, and for reading. You may have inspired another post on the topic, so, selfishly keeping a substantial reply to myself for now, I’ll keep my words and comments brief. Would it be rude of me though to ask for a link back? Believe it or not I did actual offline research to discover Mishima’s death poem—reading books something of a strange concept these internet generated days. I may even publish his second death poem one day…
    .-= Jaitra´s last blog ..Short Black Temper =-.

  7. Aug 1, 2009 12:05 pm

    Mr. Jaitra, I supposed you had dug up that death poem from books and actual research, because yours was the only effective result I got after searching for Mishima’s jeisei, and that’s why I asked your authorisation for to publish your finding.

    I would love to read more about Mishima, keep it up!
    .-= Carlos Mal Pacheco´s last blog ..EL POEMA DE DESPEDIDA DE MISHIMA =-.

  8. Sep 14, 2009 2:06 pm

    Like your poetry. I love reading poetry and writing it. Lately I’ve been posting a lot of love poems on http://www.unitedworldpoets.com. The site is running a free poetry contest this month that has a cash prize I’m hoping to win, wish me luck. Writing poetry is how I release my emotions.

  9. Sep 14, 2009 2:21 pm

    While I have my doubts that you are a real person ilovepoetry, flattery is a sure fire way to publication on this blog, even if said poems are not actually by myself.
    .-= Jaitra´s last blog ..The Zen of the Hubble Deep Field =-.

  10. Jul 8, 2010 5:51 am

    This is very, very interesting – I hadn’t heard of jisei before. I’ve bookmarked the post; Ota Dokan’s statement/poem is something I really need to put in my journal, and the Togyu poem is terribly wonderful.
    .-= ashok´s last blog ..Emily Dickinson- “It is an honorable Thought” 946 =-.

    • Jul 8, 2010 6:28 am

      @ashok

      Thanks for visiting Ashok. I will keep an interested eye on your fine journal, as I’ve barely even scratched the surface of this particular topic or said poets.

  11. Jun 4, 2013 7:20 am

    Dear Jaitra,

    Would it be possible to know the translator’s name if Yukio Mishima did not write the above verse in English? Often translator’s names go uncredited yet it is their copyright, as they create a new work in their translation language of choice, from the original work.

    kindest regards,

    Alan

    • Feb 9, 2016 9:33 am

      @Alan Summers

      Hi Alan,

      I’ve checked my original source for this poem, “Mishima’s Sword” by Christopher Ross, and unfortunately the translator doesn’t appear to be credited. Which is a shame because I now have enough Japanese myself to know how subjective translation can be!

      Regards,
      Jaitra

  12. Jan 4, 2016 11:38 pm

    Hi Jaitra,
    I don’t know if you maintain this blog anymore, but I just wanted to let you know that what you have as Mishima’s death poem is not remotely like the original.
    Here is the real one

    ??????????????? ???????????

    Masurao ga
    Tabasamu tachi no
    sayanari ni
    Ikutose taete
    Kyo no hatsushimo

    The sheaths of swords rattle
    As after years of endurance
    Brave men set out
    To tread upon the first frost of the year

    Regards.
    Paul

    • Feb 9, 2016 9:22 am

      @Paul

      Thanks so much Paul. I’ve been inactive for a long time here, but still no excuse for incorrect information — I’ll correct it now.

      I got my version of the death poem from “Mishima’s Sword”
      by Christopher Ross, which at the time was the only place (in English) I’d ever seen it, but although entertaining I doubt this book is an academic authority.

  13. Feb 9, 2016 9:28 am

    Update — further research reveals that (again according to Christoper Ross) Mishima wrote a second death poem, which is the poem I quoted originally. Here is Ross on the topic:

    View post on imgur.com

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