Ōtagaki Rengetsu is possibly Japan's most famous female poet of 19th Century, also known for her excellent skills in calligraphy and pottery. She wrote numerous tanzaku poem papers, which were later mounted by admirers and collectors as hanging scrolls. Trained in classical poetry, Rengetsu used the structure of a tanka, a Japanese poem composed in a 5-7-5-7-7 metre. Deeply infused by her vast literate knowledge, she often combined modern elements of humor with elements of the traditional poetry.
One of the signature characteristics of her poetical work is, however, that her poems are predominantly written in the Japanese syllabary (hiragana)
instead of using the complicated Chinese characters (kanji). This made her work widely accessible throughout all social classes and had a great impact on her popularity in the second
half of the 19th Century. At the same time, many layers of meanings and references to the large corpus of Japanese literature are hidden in here work.
In the presented work here, Rengetsu is paying homage to one of Japan's favorite classical stories and epitome for matrimonial love, long life and the appreciation of nature: Takasago. Especially known from the Noh play, the story about a pair of pines that share their roots to grow old together, gained large popularity in all forms of artistic expression within the Edo period. Rengetsu wrote:
"In Praise of the Pines"
Yearly refreshing their youth...
How long has she
Lived in this world?
On the shore of Suminoe.
While the famous Noh play itself is quoting classical literature from the Heian period, Rengetsu is also paraphrasing a poem from the Ise monogatari ("The Tale of Ise") which appears in the play: "A long time has passed, even from my perspective; how many generations has that princess pine on the banks of Suminoe been?" (われ見ても 久しくなりぬ住吉の、岸の姫松いく代経ぬらん).