Katsushika Hokusai
Poem by Chūnagon Yakamochi
1835, spring

Signed: Zen Hokusai, artist’s seal: manji (very faded); Publisher’s seal: Eijudō (Nishimuraya Yohachi); censor’s seal: kiwame; ōban, yoko-e, 25.5 x 36.4 cm; nishiki-e with fukibokashi

From “One Poem by A Hundred Poems as Explained by the Nurse through Pictures”. A Chinese junk with an outboat is anchored before a bizarre, rocky coastline. On the upper right, in the poetry box (shikishi), is the name of the poet Chūnagon Yakamochi (8th c.) and his poem (Hyakunin-isshu No.6), telling of how unattainable a distant love can be and of one’s own mortality in an allusion to the old Chinese legend of the “Magpie Bridge”. The interpretation of the verse and its adaptation by Hokusai are both extremely ambitious.

Frank Lloyd Wright(?); Seal of the Old Prints Society, Tōkyō; R. G. Sawers, London (July 1970)
Riese Collection #132

This is a curious print. The poem, which is very well-known, reads:

Kasasagi no
As I watch the white

wataseru hashi ni
of fallen frost

okushimo no
on the bridge the only

shiroki o mireba
magpies cross

yo zo fukenikeru.
Night turns to day.

The Magpie Bridge is a staircase in the Imperial Palace in Kyōto. The poem seems to say that the poet loves someone in the palace, but since they can never hope to meet across the Magpie Bridge, he can only stand and watch the frost fall as his own head becomes white with age. The Magpie Bridge was also the bridge that magpies formed with their wings so that two stars, the Herdsman and the Weaver, could meet one another on the 7th day of the 7th month, across the Milky Way.

As I look at the picture, the red glow in the sky and on the tops of the strange hills at the left looks like sunrise. The birds at the right may be magpies. The odd box-like construction of the boat at the centre of the print suggests a staircase and the image is reinforced by the piles of what looks like lumber in the hold: the staircase which only the magpies can cross. The four men are all looking off into the distance, and to them the white, still surface of the water might look like fallen frost. And perhaps the cliffs at the left, which strangely float and seem to have no weight, although we realise their ragged edge is meant to be the beating sea, represents the bridge of magpie wings arched lightly across the sky to allow the loving stars to meet.