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By David Yamaguchi

AS WE HAVE BEEN DISCUSSING the Sun and the Moon, I would be remiss if I did not bring to the reader’s attention the tale of “Hagoromo,” a Noh drama that dates from at least 1524, and is based on a legend from the eighth century. Here, I excerpt the first two-thirds of the story—to the point where a heavenly maiden reveals her identity. The version is that of renowned British Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935). It employs Shakespearean English to convey the spirit of the Japanese performance to western readers.

Dramatis Personae: A Fairy. A Fisherman. The Chorus.Scene: The shore of Miho, in the province of Suruga, near the base of Fusiyama. [1]

Fisherman: As I land on Miho’s pine-clad shore and gaze around me, flowers come fluttering down from the ethereal space, strains of music are re-echoing and a more than earthly fragrance fills the air. Surely there is something strange in this.
Yes! from one of the branches of yonder pine-tree hangs a beauteous robe, which, when I draw nigh and closely scan it, reveals itself more fair and fragrant than any common mortal garb. Let me take it back to show to the old folk in the village, that it may be handed down in our house as an heirloom for all generations.
Fairy: Ah! mine is that apparel! Wherefore wouldst thou carry it away?
Fisherman: ’Twas found by me, forsooth, and I shall take it home with me.
Fairy: But ’tis a fairy’s robe of feathers, a thing that may not lightly be bestowed on any mortal being. Prithee leave it on the branch from which it hung.
Fisherman: What, then, art thou thyself a fairy, that thou claimest possession of this feathery raiment? As a marvel for all ages will I keep it, and garner it up among the treasures of Japan. No, no! I cannot think of restoring it to thee.
Fairy: Alas! without my robe of feathers never more can I go soaring through the realms of air, never more can I return to my celestial home. I beg thee, I beseech thee, therefore, to give it back to me.
Fisherman: Nay, fairly, nay, the more I hear thee plead
The more my soul determines on the deed;
My cruel breast but grows more heartless yet;
Thou mayst not have thy feathers: ’tis too late.
Fairy: Speak not, dear fisherman! Speak not that word!
Ah! know’st thou not that, like the helpless bird
Whose wings are broke, I seek, but seek in vain,
Reft of my wings, to soar to heav’n’s blue plain?
Fisherman: Chain’d to dull earth a fairy well may pine.
Fairy: Whichever way I turn, despair is mine:
Fisherman: For ne’er the fisher will her wings restore,
Fairy: And the frail fay sinks helpless evermore.
Chorus: Alas! Poor maiden… should have its own paragraph and begin with boldface.
Cluster the dews; the flow’rets thou didst twine
Amidst thy tresses languish and decay,
And the five woes declare thy fatal day! [2]
Fairy: Vainly my glance doth seek the heav’nly plain,
Where rising vapours all the air enshroud,
And veil the well-known paths from cloud to cloud.
Chorus: Clouds! wand’ring clouds! she yearns, and yearns in vain,
Soaring like you, to tread the heav’ns again;
Vainly she sighs to hear, as erst she heard,
The melting strains of Paradise’ sweet bird:
That blessed voice grows faint. The heav’n in vain
Rings with the song of the returning crane;
In vain she lists, where ocean softly laves,
To the free seagull twitt’ring o’er the waves;
Vainly she harks where zephyr sweeps the plain:
These all may fly, but she’ll ne’er fly again! [3]
Fisherman: I would fain speak a word unto thee. Too strong is the pity that overcomes me as I gaze upon thy face. I will restore to thee thy robe of feathers.
Fairy: Oh, joy! Oh, joy! Give it back to me!
Fisherman: One moment! I restore it to thee on condition that thou first dance to me now, at this very hour, and in this very spot, one of those fairy dances whose fame has reached mine ears.
Fairy: Oh, joy untold! It is, then, granted to me to return to heaven! And if this happiness be true, I will leave a dance behind me as a memorial to mortal men. I will dance it here, that dance that makes the Palace of the Moon turn round, so that even poor transitory man may learn its mysteries. But I cannot dance without my feathers. Give them back to me, then, I pray thee.
Fisherman: No, no! If I restore to thee thy feathers, thou mayest fly home to heaven without dancing to me at all.
Fairy: Fie on thee! The pledge of mortals may be doubted, but in heavenly beings there is no falsehood.
Fisherman: Fairy maid! thou shamest me:
Take thy feathers and be free!
Fairy: Now the dancing maiden sings,
Rob’d in clouds and fleecy wings
Fisherman: Wings that flutter in the wind!
Fairy: Robes like flow’rs with raindrops lin’d!
[The Fairy’s dance commences.]
Chorus: See the fairy’s heav’nly power!
This the dance and this the hour
To which our Eastern dancers trace
All their frolic art and grace….

Chorus: Now list, ye mortals! while our songs declare
The cause that gave to the blue realms air
The name of firmament. All things below
From that great god and that great goddess flow,
Who first descending to this nether earth,
Ordain’d each part and gave each creature birth.
But older still, nor sway’d by their decree,
And firm as adamant eternally,
Stand the wide heav’ns, that nought may change or shake,
And hence the name of firmament did take.
Fairy: And in this firmament a palace stands
Yclept the Moon, built up by magic hands; [4]
Chorus: And o’er this palace thirty monarchs rule,
Of whom fifteen, until the moon be full,
Nightly do enter, clad in robes of white;
But who again, from the full sixteen night,
One ev’ry night must vanish into space,
And fifteen black-rob’d monarchs take their place,
While, ever circling round each happy king,
Attendant fays celestial music sing.
Fairy: And one of these am I.
Chorus: From those bright spheres,
Lent for a moment, this sweet maid appears:
Here in Japan she lights (heav’n left behind)
To teach the art of dancing to mankind….”

1. This poem precedes the Hepburn Romanization of Japanese in use today, which dates from 1886. Originally printed in “The Classical Poetry of the Japanese” (1880), it persists at Google Books and elsewhere.
2. In the New Testament, “The Five Woes” are infractions that will induce punishment from God. They are gaining dishonestly by oppression, coveting and plotting to gain; using violence to gain, promoting debauchery (shameful acts), and worshipping idols (www.bibletools.org).
3. Zephyr, a gentle breeze.
4. Yclept, archaic for “named.”