A Bold Declaration of Love: Poem Number 20

November 24, 2012

Photograph of an old miotsukushi in Osaka, taken during the Meiji era (1868-1912), courtesy of Wikipedia

Hi everyone,

This poem has quite a story behind it and relates a little to the poem posted previously:

わびぬれば Wabi nureba
今はた同じ Ima hata onaji
難波なる Naniwa naru
身をつくしても Mi wo tsukushitemo
逢はむとぞ思ふ Awan to zo omou

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

now, it is all the same,
Channel-markers at Naniwa—
even if it costs my life,
I will see you again!

The poem’s author, Motoyoshi Shinnō (Crown Prince Motoyoshi, 890-943) was the eldest son of the mad Emperor Yozei (poem 13), but unlike his father, Motoyoshi was more stable and famous for being a lover of women.

According to commentaries, this poem was real and not part of a themed poetry contest. Motoyoshi, apparently, was in love with one of the hand-maidens of the retired Emperor Uda. The maiden, daughter of the powerful Fujiwara no Tokihira, had already given birth to 3 sons for Emperor Uda and was highly favored by him, but Motoyoshi persisted in his love, even if it cost him his reputation. Bear in mind that this was the same Fujiwara no Tokihira who was instrumental in getting Uda’s favorite advisor, Sugawara no Michizane (poem 24), exiled.

The main “pivot word” here is the phrase mi wo tsukushitemo, where miotsukushi (澪標) are famous water-markers in Japanese culture as pictured above. But the poem can also be read as 身を尽くしても meaning “even if it exhausts my life”. So, rather than the subtle romantic allusions your normally see in poetry from this era, Motoyoshi is going all-out and taking a big risk.

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