As some of you know, identifying obscure motifs and solving demanding inscription puzzles is one my fortes. Sometimes, however, you have to throw the towel, or put the issue on the back burner for a while. I would like to introduce such a case here.
To be clear, it is not about the motif of the object in question, which you will see is relatively easily identified. It is about the inscription. Now, we are talking about a tsuba in the collection of The Met. It is a work of Ōkawa Teikan (大川貞幹, born 1828) and depicts the elderly couple of the auspicious Nō play Takasago (高砂). With broom and rake, the couple (seen in a print below) sweeps the area under a pine which is referred to as Takasago Pine, after the town of the same name located in present-day Hyōgo Prefecture. This pine is paired with the Suminoe Pine growing in distant Suminoe (住之江), present-day Ōsaka, and together the two trees are called Aioi-no-matsu (相生の松 , Wedded Pines or Paired Pines).
Except for little more than an indicated shore line, the reverse of the tsuba is undecorated. However, it bears the following inscription, which I have difficulties with bringing in line with the depicted motif:
Taezu Hōōzan no shimoji sude ni, shūfū wa musai, kaiha wa samui. [Reading uncertain, corrections welcome.]
“The shadowy road under the Phoenix Mountain, where the autumn winds are endless and the sea waves are cold.”
This inscription is actually a poem, which goes back to the hand of Chinese poet Yuán Hàowèn (元好問, 1190–1257). And this is where the mystery starts. How is this old poem connected to the Nō play Takasago? Is it at all? Why is it inscribed on this tsuba?
Now, the above mentioned poem is actually half of one of two couplets in which Yuán Hàowèn references, in his own words, to a humble painting of pines in the wind. Maybe that’s it, i.e., Ōkawa Teikan using Yuán Hàowèn’s half couplet referring to pines as a reference to the Paired Pines in the Takasago play? I do feel, however, that this explanation attempt might be too far-fetched. That is, although references and allusions are highly sophisticated in Japanese art, I think that Taikan using that half couplet, which does not even have pines in it, as starting point for you to connect the dots and arrive at Yuán Hàowèn preface, and this being the reference to pines is just one step too much if you know what I mean. Also, although Yuán Hàowèn’s poems were fairly popular during the late Edo period, the two couplets in questions are buried in an anthology of Hàowèn’s works that consists of 45 volumes, the volume in question alone containing more than 200 poems. So, we are not talking about THE lines that Hàowèn is most famous for. In addition, there are far more famous poems by Hàowèn that reference pines.
Another approach of explaining this conundrum would be to see if Yuán Hàowèn is known for a long and loving marriage, or being separated from his wife as that is the major theme of the Takasago play. Well, Hàowèn had an eventful life, but again, he is not THE symbol of long-standing marriage or of a husband being separated from his wife. However, practicing due diligence, I want to do more research in this direction.
The next approach would be talking the poem literally, that is, is the play Takasago known for a shadowy road, fierce autumn winds, and/or cold waves? Not really, I would argue. Well, in the play, a priest does travel by sea from Takasago to Suminoe (see map), but there is no mention of rough seas or of particularly cold temperatures. In the opposite, the play is set in pleasant spring weather. So, I would rould out this approach for the time being.
Last approach, for now: Maybe the artist, Ōkawa Teikan, just had a fondness for Yuán Hàowèn and was well familiar with his poetry? Or, his client was, and had Teikan engrave that very poem on the tsuba? Well, we will very likely never be able to confirm any of that, if it is the case at all.
This is where it stops, for now, and if I ever find out what the context here is, I will post a follow-up of course.