I thought that it would be altogether fitting and proper to welcome spring in 2022 much like I welcomed spring in 2021. For this year’s spring-of-spring content, I turn to Henry P. Bowe’s 1911 study On the Laws of Japanese Painting, available on Project Gutenberg. Specifically, we will examine his section on the first tree to flower in the spring, the Japanese plum tree.
Bowe wrote of the plum tree:
The plum is the first tree of the year to bloom. It has a dejicate perfume. Though the trunk of the tree grows old it renews its youth and beauty every spring with vigorous fresh branches crowded with buds and blossoms. In old age the tree takes on the shape of a sleeping dragon. With no other flower or tree are associated more beautiful and pathetic folk-lore and historical facts. For these and other reasons Rennasei assigned to the plum its place as a paragon centuries and centuries ago.Henry P. Bowe
He noted that “[t]he tree branches with their interlacings reproduce the spirit of the Chinese character for woman” – evinced by the following plate included in the book.
Bowe described the above painting as follows:
The blossom (2) is painted on the principle of in yo, the upper portion of the petal line being the positive or yo and the lower being the negative or in side. This is repeated five times for the five petals of the blossom (3). The stamens (4) and pistils are reproductions of the Chinese character sho, meaning small. For the calyx (5) the Chinese character for clove (cho) is invoked.Henry P. Bowe
After describing the plum in traditional Japanese art, Bowe turned to literature. He explained that the 9th and 10th century scholar and poet, Sugawara no Michizane, was particularly fond of the plum and its role as a harbinger of spring. Bowe reprinted a translation of one of Sugawara Michizane’s plum poems:
Do thou, dear plum tree, send out thy perfume when the east wind blows; And, though thy master be no longer here, Forget not to blossom always when the springtime comes.
The “master” who Michizane referred to was himself. He was said to have composed and recited the poem before he left his favorite plum tree to go into exile. Michizane was leaving for the East, so his request that his tree “send out thy perfume when the east wind blows” referenced his hope that its scent would reach him. The humanities department at the University of California-Irvine provided a romantization of the original Japanese poem next to a different translation along with some helpful context that I used to inform my above analysis of the poem:
kochi fukaba nioi okoseyo ume no hana aruji nashi tote haru o wasurana
When the east wind blows let it send your fragrance, oh plum blossoms. Although your master is gone, do not forget the spring.
A site called Kansai Odyssey provided a different translation of the same poem:
When the easy wind blow, carry the fragrance along the wind, dear my plum tree. Do not forget to bloom just because your master is not there.
While I cannot attest to the technical merits of each translation, they all convey the same ideas. I find myself partial to the first of the three above translations that I re-printed. “Forget not to blossom always when the springtime comes” is a beautiful line. The sentiment, that no matter what happens the plum tree mustn’t forget what is most important, reminded me of the story behind the forget-me-not flower. The story of Michzane and his favorite plum tree spawned legends and traditions that continue to this day.
Spring has arrived – in the northern hemisphere at least. The plum trees will forget not to blossom, and they will be joined by many other flowers and trees over the coming weeks.
Shy violets tell me, as I pass, their buds are at my feet, And through the lengthening meadow-grass run murmurs soft and sweet. Oh! I thank God that He doth bring such daily joy to me, For even I can welcome spring, like happy girls who see. -Except from The Blind Girl and the Spring by Syndey Gray (article and poem)