Public Scrutiny: Poem Number 18

August 1, 2012

Wave hitting rock on Finnish gulf

This was something many aristocrats in the old Heian court days probably faced:

住の江の Sumi no e no
岸による波 Kishi ni yoru nami
よるさへや Yoru sae ya
夢の通ひ路 Yume no kayoi ji
人目よくらむ Hito me yoku ran

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Must you so avoid others’ eyes
that not even at night,
along the road of dreams,
will you draw nigh like the waves
to the shore of Sumi-no-e Bay?

This poem was composed by Fujiwara no Toshiyuki Ason (? – 901) who was one of the Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry, and was an active participant of poetry contests in his day. Coupled with his long life-span, he has a great presence in poetry and calligraphy during his era.

In fact, this poem is part of a poetry contest held in 953, presumably under the theme of forbidden or another similar topic. The poem uses a clever pun for yoru. The first yoru in the poem refers to the waves visiting (寄る in modern day Japanese) the shore of Sumi-no-e Bay (modern day Osaka Bay, specifically Sumiyoshi).

The second yoru means night (夜). The author’s submission to the poetry contents laments that public scrutiny in the small, tightly-knit aristocracy of the Heian Period was so intense that his lover couldn’t even visit him even in his dreams. Professor Mostow points out that the poem can also be interpreted that he could not visit his lover in his dreams, as well.

Because it was such a closed and stratified society, gossip was rampant, and an embarrassing situation could destroy one’s career and family reputation. Forbidden love was something many in the Heian Court faced, and no doubt Toshiyuki’s poem resonated with such people.

2 Responses to “Public Scrutiny: Poem Number 18”

  1. FoundOnWeb said

    In some cases, the scrutiny reminds one of the attention paid to celebrities in our own time. This color commentary is from The Tale of the Heike:

    “Ashikaga no Matataro is attired in a coral damask undersuit, a suit of armor with dark-red lacing, and a high-horned helmet. At his waist, he is wearing a sword with gilt bronze fittings; on his back, is a quiver containing arrows fledged with black-banded white eagle feathers. He is holding a rattan-wrapped bow and riding a white-dappled reddish horse, whose saddle is edged in gold and decorated with a golden owl in an oak tree.”

    • Doug 陀愚 said

      Hello and welcome!

      Yeah, I think of the Hyakunin Isshu speaks to people’s lives now even though it’s a different time or place. People haven’t changed a whole lot.

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