by Tōson Shimazaki in Wakanashū (lit. Anthology of Young Herbs)
初恋 (島崎藤村 『若菜集』)
When I saw you under the apple tree
with your hair combed up for the first time,
I thought you were a ravishing flower
from the flower comb in front of your head.
You gently stretched out your fair hand,
and gave me an apple.
At the sight of the reddish autumn fruit,
feelings of love rose up within me for the first time in my life.
Unconsciously, I breathed a sigh
that touched your hair.
With your tender kindness, you were serving me
the joys of love as if it were wine in a cup.
Under the tree in the apple orchard
lay a narrow path trodden out by our steps.
How even more enchanting of you to deliberately ask me,
“Who could have made this road?”
One wonder of poetry is its potential to give the mind more room to roam than media like prose and dramas, which are generally more fleshed out. It is even asserted that once a poet has released her work, readers are free to take it out of its context and spin off interpretations that fit their own times, cultures, experiences, moods and imagination, however incongruent with the original artistic intention. Such an exercise is often more difficult with other literary forms and broadcast narratives, which typically work within clearly defined agenda and themes.
In Shimazaki’s “First Love,” the poet laid down a simple story that is nevertheless capable of carrying various layers and shades of meanings. While a common textbook approach is to treat the progression of the stanzas as a depiction of the development of romantic love (encounter of two people→commencement of love→intensification of love→accomplishment of love), it is possible to think of the poem as symbolism of early life mentors and influencers, emotional growth and general transition from adolescence to adulthood. Japanese drama Les Gouttes de Dieu focused on the mention of a path, explored the unwritten development of the plot and applied the poem as a metaphor for the journey of life: first love, it noted, may be saccharine but frequently culminates in a breakup, yet we recall it with fondness; in a parallel fashion, as its wine connoisseur character counselled his sons through a poem riddle that led to a bittersweet wine, life is a series of stages among which mingle bitterness and sorrow but happiness lies at the end of those tribulations.
Still, regardless of the diverse ways poems can be interpreted and expanded, the power of motifs they utilize cannot be ignored. It is the potency of the images conjured up by the motifs and the ability of these literary devices to resonate with people and hold their hearts captive that attract wordsmiths and readers who explore and build on their significance. In the case of Shimazaki’s poem, the motif is that of a love many individuals apply as a benchmark for subsequent romantic relationships, relive in their minds in times of disillusionment and which subjects they try to track down through various social media networks. This is a motif so immortal and universal that literary and performing artists across generations, continents and genres have turned to it at one point or another in their careers.
What explains the lasting, captivating power of first love? While the psychological impact of first impressions probably plays a large role in its appeal, part of it may also be tied to the age of innocence first love more often than not presents itself in. First relationships are mostly forged during early periods in life, between two relatively unguarded souls who love each other for no more reason than the other party being the person (s)he is. It is often with regrets that individuals give up these romantic bonds for factors as prevalent and (arguably) non-person specific as parental pressure, academic ambitions, divergence in life paths and simple inexperience with handling friction in relationships. Sadly, adult relationships, with their more affected and calculating (or, at best, jaded and indifferent) partners, frequently cannot hold a candle to those young romances, or so it is sometimes perceived.
However, such simultaneous longing for first loves, on one hand, and dissatisfaction with adult romances, on the other, when widely prevalent, give rise to a rather strange state of affairs. They imply that the adult partner one is unhappy with may be a precious first love to someone else, who is hunting him/her down, whereas, as unthinkable as it may be, the first love one reminisces about is likely letting some other person down. Indeed, the trajectory of life possibly underlying those observed shifts in interpersonal relations with age can perhaps be found throughout much of society, and it makes little sense for too great a number of people to presuppose that one or another group of contacts forms the exception. Many people begin life as relatively unadorned, artless and even bright-eyed youths, who would sprint to a friend suddenly emerging in a wheelchair at the drop of a hat, never mind any possibility of hoaxes on his part or that any damage (and aid) have already been done. As life takes its toll and societal perils become more apparent, though, youthful idealism gives way to hard-edged pragmatism and stonily disenchanted realism. Individuals—whichever stage in life we first know them—come to put up facades to defend themselves and, at times, manipulate acquaintances more callously to get what they need.
Yet, while attitudes change, memories prevail. All things equal, beliefs in the values of basic virtues, friendship and genuine love are no more gone in new adult friends than in first loves who manage to stick with each other or reunite later in life. It may just be that people generally trust and/or feel attached to those they meet later in life less than folks they befriend in childhood or adolescent life. Open an adult acquaintance’s heart, nudge out the original self (s)he has kept locked inside and granted access only to selected companions of yore, and we may find that (s)he is as capable of loving someone as unconditionally and as deeply as a first romantic partner does. How that can be best accomplished for each freshly-acquainted person is a weighty challenge that calls for as much imagination as poetry appreciation—thankfully, the answer, too, is not set in stone.