A Thousand Swift Swords: Poem Number 17

August 13, 2011

Autumn leaves 01

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

千早ぶる Chihayaburu
神代もきかず Kamiyo kikazu
龍田川 Tatsuta-gawa
からくれないに Kara kurenai ni
水くくるとは Mizu kukuru to wa

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Unheard of
even in the legendary age
of the awesome gods:
Tatsuta River in scarlet
and the water flowing under it.

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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