Basil Bunting

from Chomei at Toyama (1932)

(Kamo-no-Chomei, born at Kamo 1154, died at Toyama on Mount Hino, 24th June 1216)

Swirl sleeping in the waterfall!
On motionless pools scum appearing

Eaves formal on the zenith,
lofty city Kyoto,
wealthy, without antiquities!

Housebreakers clamber about,
builders raising floor upon floor
at the corner sites, replacing
gardens by bungalows.

In the town where I was known
the young men stare at me
A few faces I know remain.

Whence comes man at his birth? or where
does death lead him? Whom do you mourn?
Whose steps wake your delight?
Dewy hibiscus dries: though dew
outlast the petals.


My grandmother left me a house
but I was always away
for my health and because I was alone there.
When I was thirty I couldn’t stand it any longer,
I built a house to suit myself:
one bamboo room, you would have thought it a cartshed,
poor shelter from snow or wind.
It stood on the flood plain. And that quarter
is also flooded with gangsters.

One generation
I saddened myself with idealistic philosophies,
but before I was fifty
I perceived there was no time to lose,
left home and conversation.
Among the cloudy mountains of Ohara
spring and autumn, spring and autumn, spring and autumn,
emptier than ever.

The dew evaporates from my sixty years,
I have built my last house, or hovel,
a hunter’s bivouac, an old
silkworm’s cocoon:
ten feet by ten, seven high: and I,
reckoning it a lodging not a dwelling,
omitted the usual foundation ceremony.

I have filled the frames with clay,
set hinges at the corners;
easy to take it down and carry it away
when I get bored with this place.
Two barrowloads of junk
and the cost of a man to shove the barrow,
no trouble at all.

Since I have trodden Hino mountain
noon has beaten through the awning
over my bamboo balcony, evening
shone on Amida.
I have shelved my books above the window,
lute and mandolin near at hand,
piled bracken and a little straw for bedding,
a smooth desk where the light falls, stove for bramblewood.
I have gathered stones, fitted
stones for a cistern, laid bamboo
pipes. No woodstack,
wood enough in the thicket.

Toyama, snug in the creepers!
Toyama, deep in the dense gully, open
westward whence the dead ride out of Eden
squatting on blue clouds of wisteria.
(Its scent drifts west to Amida.)

Summer? Cuckoo’s Follow, follow—to
harvest Purgatory hill!
Fall? The nightgrasshopper will
shrill Fickle life!
Snow will thicken on the doorstep,
melt like a drift of sins.
No friend to break silence,
no one will be shocked if I neglect the rite.
There’s a Lent of commandments kept
where there’s no way to break them.


Thought runs along the crest, climbs Sumiyama;
beyond Kasatori it visits the great church,
goes on pilgrimage to Ishiyama (no need to foot it!)
or the graves of poets, of Semimaru who said:
Somehow or other
we scuttle through a lifetime.
Somehow or other
neither palace nor straw-hut
is quite satisfactory.

Not emptyhanded, with cherryblossom, with red maple
as the season gives it to decorate my Buddha
or offer a sprig at a time to chancecomers, home!

A fine moonlit night,
I sit at the window with a headful of old verses.

Whenever a monkey howls there are tears on my cuff.

Those are fireflies that seem
the fishermen’s lights
off Maki island.

A shower at dawn
like the hillbreeze in the leaves.


Bunting’s note:

Kamo-no-Chomei flourished somewhat over a hundred years before Dante. He belonged to the minor nobility of Japan and held various offices in the civil service. He applied for a fat job in a Shinto temple, was turned down, and next day announced his conversion to Buddhism. He wrote critical essays, tales and poems; collected an anthology of poems composed at the moment of conversion by Buddhist proselytes (one suspects irony); and was for a while secretary to the editors of the Imperial Anthology.

He retired from public life to a kind of mixture of hermitage and country cottage at Toyama on Mount Hino and there, when he was getting old, he wrote the Ho-Jo-Ki in prose, of which my poem is in the main a condensation. The careful proportion and balance he keeps, the recurrent motif of the house and some other indications suggest to me that he intended a poem more or less elegiac but had not the time nor possibly energy at his then age to invent what would have been for Japan, an entirely new form, nor to condense his material sufficiently. I have taken advantage of Professor Muccioli’s Italian version, together with his learned notes, to try to complete Chomei’s work for him. I cannot take his Buddhism solemnly considering the manner of his conversion, the nature of his anthology, and his whole urbane, skeptical and ironical temper. If this annoys anybody I cannot help it.

The earth quaked in the second year of Genryaku, 1185.

Passages of ‘Chomei at Toyama’ appeared in Poetry 42 (1933), pp. 301-07. The version in the Oxford UP Complete Poems runs to 324 lines. That volume, edited by Richard Caddel, is in print and available in the UK here. Other Bunting work in print includes Peter Makin’s recent edition of Basil Bunting on Poetry (available in the UK here, the US here), the Oxford UP Collected Poems (available here) and Uncollected Poems, edited and introduced by Caddel (here), and Briggflatts (here).

The Italian version of Hojoki that Bunting mentions in his note was translated by Marcello Muccioli and introduced by Takeo Yamada (Lanciano: Carabba, 1930). I am unaware of scholarship that attempts to trace Buntings Chomei to other earlier translations but, for the record, in addition to Muccioli four others in European languages existed in 1932: James Main Dixon, A Description of My Hut (Yokohama: Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, 1893); Daiji Ichikawa, Eine klein Hütte, Ho jo ki (Berlin: Schwetschke, 1902); F. V. Dickens, Ho-jo-ki, Notes from a Ten Feet Square Hut (London: Gowans & Gray, 1907); and A. L. Sadler, The Ten Foot Square Hut . . . “The Hojoki” (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1928), which also included a version of Heike monogatari.

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