Parting Ways: Poem Number 77

June 30, 2012

Mossman River and Gorge

In honor of my wife’s birthday, I thought I’d write about her favorite poem from the Hyakunin Isshu:

瀬をはやみ Se wo hayami
岩にせかるる iwa ni sekaruru
滝川の Takigawa no
われても末に warete mo sue ni
逢はむとぞ思ふ awan to zo omou

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Because the current is swift,
even though the rapids,
blocked by a boulder,
are divided, like them, in the end,
we will surely meet, I know.

This poem was composed by the retired emperor, Sutoku. Though his reign was long, and oversaw many poetry competitions, it ended poorly when he was forced to abdicate, and later became embroiled in a succession dispute with the regent Tadamichi (poem 76) that became the Hōgen Disturbance in 1156. Being on the losing side of the disturbance, he was exiled to Sanuki Province, lived a monastic life and died in 1164.

Coincidentally, the Hōgen Disturbance marks the beginning of the end of the Heian Court,1 and the rise of the samurai class, so legends existed that Sutoku’s angry spirit helped bring down the Court. A related legend is that while in exile, Sutoku lived a monastic life and sometimes sent poetry back to the Court, but the Court refused them on the grounds that they might be cursed. Sutoku was said to have taken great offense at this:

Vengeful Sutoku in Japanese art

Sutoku’s vengeful spirit in Japanese art

I mention all this because this poem on its own is quite lovely, and because it’s signed as “Retired Emperor Sutoku” it’s quite possible he wrote this while in exile. Was it rejected as the legend says? If so, it’s a tragic waste of great poetry, and fuel for supernatural speculation. But if not, then this poem is still a lovely read and a reminder that old friends and loved ones will reunite again someday.

Happy Birthday, honey!

1 This is reflected quite a bit in the “mood” of the later poems of the Hyakunin Isshu, especially in the 90’s onward. Some of them have a sense of lost glory as the Heian Period ends, and the Court nobles become utterly powerless to the samurai class.

2 Responses to “Parting Ways: Poem Number 77”

  1. Murasaki Lynna said

    Wow, that’s a great poem! I wonder if he possibly was writing it to someone specific he knew before he was exiled…

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