The World Moves On: Poem 93

Grand stairway at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū in Kamakura, Japan – the scene of Sanetomo’s assassination. No machine-readable author provided. Abrahami assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

I was reminded of this poem recently and felt like sharing it with readers. It is one of the most poignant in the anthology, I think:

世の中は Yo no naka wa
つねにもがもな Tsune ni mo ga mo na
なぎさこぐ Nagisa kogu
あまの小舟の Ama no obune no
綱手かなしも Tsuna de kanashi mo

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

If only this world
could always remain the same!
The sight of them towing
the small boats of the fishermen who row in the tide
is touching indeed!

This poem was composed by Minamoto no Sanetomo (1192-1219), who was the third shogun of the new Kamamura Shogunate. Sanetomo even studied poetry under Fujiwara no Teika, the compiler of the Hyakunin Isshu anthology and contributed to many Imperial anthologies as well.

Sanetomo lived at a time when the old Heian court (which included most of the authors in this anthology) had been reduced to a shadow of its former self. The power had shifted away from the Imperial Court to the eastern city of Kamakura, and the country was still rebuilding itself after war. Sadly, the new center of power was unstable, and Sanetomo was assassinated at age 28 by his nephew at the place shown above: Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine. A great ginkgo tree (shown in this photo from Wikipedia on the left) stood near the spot he was supposedly killed, but the tree fell over in March of 2010 due to age disease.

Sanetomo, though Shogun and the most powerful person in Japan at the time, was miserable. He knew people within his own family were plotting against him (his fears were not unfounded), and powerless to stop it, he lapsed into alcoholism. This poem reflects his melancholy as he views the shores of Kamakura, and wishing this peaceful scene would always remain, in contrast to the troubled life he lived.

Politics and power are a dangerous thing.


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