Ōtagaki Rengetsu is perhaps Japan's most famous 19th century poet, who was also known for her excellent skills in calligraphy and pottery. She wrote numerous tanzaku poems, which were
later mounted as hanging scrolls by admirers and collectors. Trained in classical poetry, Rengetsu used the structure of a tanka, a Japanese poem composed in 5-7-5-7-7 meters. Deeply imbued with
her vast literary knowledge, she often combined modern elements of humor with elements of traditional poetry.
One of the distinctive features of her poetic work, however, is that her poems are predominantly written in Japanese syllabary (hiragana) rather than the complicated Chinese characters (kanji). This made her work accessible to all social classes and had a great impact on her popularity in the second half of the 19th century. At the same time, these works contain many layers of meaning and references to the vast corpus of Japanese literature.
In the present work, Rengetsu pays homage to one of Japan's most beloved classic stories and the epitome of marital love, long life and appreciation of nature: Takasago. Best known from the Noh play, the story of a pair of pine trees who share their roots to grow old together gained great popularity in all forms of artistic expression during 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).