A Thousand Swift Swords: Poem Number 17

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One of the most famous and recognizable poems in the Hyakunin Isshu is poem 17:

JapaneseRomanizationTranslation
千早ぶるChihayaburuUnheard of
神代もきかずKamiyo kikazueven in the legendary age
龍田川Tatsuta-gawaof the awesome gods:
からくれないにKara kurenai niTatsuta River in scarlet
水くくるとはMizu kukuru to waand the water flowing under it.
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

The imagery of red, autumn leaves flowing along the river provides a very memorable contrast, and it is good reason that Ariwara no Narihara earned a place among the original Six Immortals of Poetry, followed by the later Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry. The talent for poetry runs in the family, as his older brother Yukihira, wrote poem number 16 of the Hyakunin Isshu as well. Originally this poem was published in the Kokin Wakashū anthology, number 294.

The Tatsuta River can be found in modern-day Nara Prefecture, and is a scenic, gentle flowing river. I’d love to see it someday.

Lastly, the opening line of this poem, chihayaburu, is a prime example of “pillow words” in Japanese poetry. It literally means something like “a thousand swift swords”, but really is an honorific epithet when referring to the gods, similar to how Homer used to use special epithets for each of the Olympian gods. Nevertheless, it’s a famous line, and can be found in Waka poetry written even in modern times, and is also the title of the popular manga exploring the Hyakunin Isshu card game.

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