Poem by Fujiwara no Norinaga on Paper Decorated with Butterflies

Hon'ami Kōetsu (Japanese, 1558–1637)

Momoyama period (1568–1615)
early 17th century
Handscroll fragment mounted as a hanging scroll; ink on paper with mica
Image: 9 5/8 x 13 3/4 in. (24.5 x 35 cm)
Credit Line:
Collection of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto
  • Description

    Aki no uchi wa
    aware shiraseshi
    kaze no ne no
    hageshisa sōru
    fuyu wa ki ni keri

    While autumn lingers,
    sadness in the sound
    of the howling winds
    signals that winter
    is already on its way.

    —Trans. John T. Carpenter

    Silver-micaed butterflies are perched on stems of grass. They face to the right—the opposite of the movement of the calligrapher’s brush, and of the reader’s eye. Impressed on age-mellowed pale gray paper, the bright, ethereal butterfly motifs would normally be reserved for springtime. Pretty as they are, the image clashes with a poem that begins with the Chinese character for autumn, aki (秋), written with the two parts of the character reversed as a calligraphic flourish. The poem, by the courtier-poet Fujiwara no Norinaga (1109–1180), is from the imperially commissioned Collection of Japanese Poems of a Thousand Years (Senzai wakashū). The work is a section from a longer handscroll; the calligrapher’s black square seal, reading “Kōetsu,” would have marked the end of the scroll.