The End of an Era: Poem 100

July 4, 2012

Ninomaru Palace, Kyoto, Japan - facade detail

This poem goes along with the previous one in our theme on the end of the Heian Court era:

百敷や Momoshiki ya
古き軒端の Furuki nokiba no
しのぶにも Shinobu ni mo
なほあまりある Nao amari aru
むかしなりけり Mukashi narikeri

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

The hundredfold palace!
even in the shinobu grass
on its old eaves
I find a past for which
I long yet ever more.

This poem was composed by Emperor Juntoku (順徳天皇 1197 – 1242) who’s father, Emperor Go-toba (poem 99) led the famous Jōkyū Disturbance in a last-ditch effort to wrest back power from the Samurai class in 1221. Like his father, Juntoku was exiled after the rebellion was crushed, but he was sent to Sado Island instead, and lived there for 20 years before his death.

This poem apparently was composed in 1216, five years before the war though, and recalls the glory days of the Imperial Court before the downfall in the late 12th century. As Professor Mostow points out, it’s a stark contrast to the bright and optomistic poetry in the early Hyakunin Isshu, written 400+ years earlier. Emperor Juntoku is reminiscing about the decline of the Imperial Family and the fall of the Court culture that once flourished around it.

Also, the phrase momoshiki is an interesting one. Apparently it’s borrowed from a much earlier poem in the Manyoshū:

ももしきの Momoshiki no
大宮人は Ōmiyabito wa
暇あれや Itoma areya
梅をかざして Ume wo kazashite
ここに集える Koko ni tsudoeru

This poem colorfully describes how people in the palace are decorating their hair with plum blossoms they’ve collected, and playfully suggests that life at the palace is well and carefree.

So, it’s really interesting to see how Emperor Juntoku revives this ancient phrase in a poem that conveys the opposite meaning. The sun has set on the Imperial Court, and the palace looks tired and worn now.

Also, even the phrase momoshiki is really interesting. Professor Mostow translates this as the Hundred-fold Palace which is as good a translation as any in English. But the kanji (chinese characters) are 百敷 or “hundred [something] laid out”, but alternatively, the characters are 百石城 meaning “100-stones castle”. Both meanings refer to the Imperial Palace or kyūchū (宮中) in Japanese, so either character is valid. The first word refers to a hundred mats laid out for sitting (i.e. many people attending the court), while the latter means 100 stones, implying a palace with firm foundations.

But it’s a poignant reminder that even mighty castles decline some day.

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