Category Archives: Katsushika Hokusai

As if I asked a common alms

Teahouse at Koishikawa, 1890, Katsushika Hokusai
Background Image: Teahouse at Koishikawa, 1890, Katsushika Hokusai

Emily often writes about writing, such as in “Have you got a Brook in your little heart“, and “Flowers – Well – if anybody“. Here she is wondering about where inspiration comes from and she uses the image of “my wondering hand” which conveys the sense of wonder she feels when she imagines a beautiful image – perhaps something as exotic as the “Orient” (I understand this is now seen as a racist term) – but there is also the sense that her hand is wandering about the page and there is a “stranger” pressing her “hand” to create the image.

Her use of the word “Orient” not only conveys a sense of the far-east (the exotic in 19th century vernacular), but also as in position the way one would orient themselves towards something. This word pivots the poem from her imagining an exotic, beautiful landscape and her hoping she has the ability to capture this in her poetry, to actually creating the image in the final four lines of the poem of a “Dawn” when the sun floods over the dark and “purple” landscape playfully like a young woman lifting her dress in a dance (or perhaps even more provocatively).

The “purple” could also be a reference to the “stranger” in that whomever is pressing her “hand” is a sort of king or royal figure who holds majesty over her, but she connects this to the natural landscape and thus implies that it is the beauty of nature which presses her “wondering hand”. Thus as her “hand” (and her mind) wonders at the beauty of the natural world, her mind and her hand become like a “flood” as the ink pours out of her as she is inspired by the light not just of the dawn but also of pure imagination as she crafts a poem about a sunrise. In this way she equates the “Dawn” of the day with the dawning of creation – both artistically and perhaps spiritually and even religiously.

Very clever poem; very modern, too. And one other remarkable aspect here is that she is both humble – she asks for “common alms” and she is “bewildered” by the process as if it comes from somewhere outside of her – yet she has also written a dazzling poem whose imagery jumps off the page and, I believe, she was aware that while she might be in awe of her skill, she also enjoyed it, the way a young woman might kick up her dress and show off, which she does here.