No Refuge In This World: Poem Number 83

May 24, 2012

Sentokun

This is a well-known poem in the Hyakunin Isshu, and I felt worth posting here:

世の中よ Yo no naka yo
道こそなけれ michi koso nakere
思ひ入る omoi iru
山のおくにも yama no oku ni mo
鹿ぞ鳴くなる shika zo naku naru

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Within this world
there is, indeed, no path!
Even deep in this mountains
I have entered, heart set,
I seem to hear the deer cry!

The author, Fujiwara no Toshinari (1114-1204), or “Shunzei”, is the father of Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97) who compiled the Hyakunin Isshu anthology and was the foremost poetry expert of his time. Additionally, a surprising number of other poets in the Hyakunin Isshu were associated with (poem 81, 86 and 87), or studied under Shunzei (poem 89 and 98) or were directly in opposition to him (poem 79). Shunzei is probably the second most important person in the Hyakunin Isshu after his son of course. 🙂

This poem is both moving and technically strong. For example, according to Mostow, the phrase omoi iru is a “pivot word”, meaning that both the words before and after hinge on its double meanings: omoi-iru “to set one’s heart on” and iru “to enter”.

Again, as Mostow explains, the poem generates quite a bit of debate because it’s not clear what concerned him so much. Was it melancholy, a sense of his mortality, or was the state of society at the time (i.e. the decline of the Heian Period)?

Speaking of a deer’s cry, I found this video one of the famous “Nara deer”:

The Nara deer are more domesticated versions of the wild deer in Japan, but it gives you an idea what Shunzei must have heard deep in the woods 900 years ago.

P.S. Photo above was taken of a souvenir we received from a friend in Japan, celebrating the 1300th anniversary of the city of Nara. The little figure on the right is Nara’s mascot, Sento-kun. We’ve been to Nara too a couple of times. Here’s me standing next to one of the Nara deer in 2005.

P.P.S. See poem 5 for something similar.

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4 Responses to “No Refuge In This World: Poem Number 83”

  1. This is one of my favourite poems from the Hyakunin Isshu. We learnt it by heart when studying Japanese and I always thought it was about mortality and futility of dreams, that all things turn to dust…

    • Doug 陀愚 said

      Hi MarinaSofia and welcome,

      This is referred to often in other sections by Professor Mostow, so clearly Shunzei and this poem are well-known. 🙂

      But yeah, it’s discussed quite a bit in commentaries too. Good choice if you’re going to study Japanese poetry.

  2. Miriam Levering said

    I have little experience reading Japanese poetry. Can you help me out? What is his “heart set on”? Does “path” mean “Way,” as Confucius says in the Analects that when the Way prevails in the world, it is shameful not to be employed as a minister, but when the way does not prevail in the world, it is shameful to be so employed?

    Thanks, Miriam

    • Doug 陀愚 said

      Hi Miriam,

      Funny you should ask. Mostow explains that that statement “heart set on” has confused a lot of commentators and there tend to be 3 interpretations. One is just a general sense of melancholy, another is concern about social unrest and I forget the third. None of them had a meaning like the Way, but were more focused on personal anxiety or social anxiety. I should have mentioned that in the post. 🙂

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