The emotions that leap from these fragments of verse are startling in their modernity. But they were written 1200 years ago in eighth-century Japan.

They are in From the Morning of the World, poems from the Manyoshu, the first anthology of poetry in Japanese, translated by Graeme Wilson (Harvill, 1991).


Is he back? Is he back? I asked them:

No-one seemed to know.


I ran outside to look for him

As fast as I could go,

Into an empty courtyard

And the sibilance of snow.


Anonymous (eighth century)

            DEAR LADY

You seem, dear lady, to have been

Living in Eternity.


Where but in that Timeless Land,

Could you thus have grown to be

More young than when, long years ago,

Last you deign to dazzle me?


Otomo no Miyori (died 774)


The fence, I said, may need repair:

New bindings, fresh bamboo.

I’ll just go down and check, I said,

What one may need to do.


That’s what I said. I went, of course,

In hope of seeing you.

Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785)


That I might not forget her

This lonely autumntide,

The fringed pinks which she planted

In the beds on either side

Of the stone-paved walk are all in bloom

As though she had not died.

Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785)