A Broken Thread: Poem Number 89

Photo by Khairul Onggon on Pexels.com

For our fourth poem in honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought this was an excellent choice:

玉の緒よTama no o yoO, jeweled thread of life!
絶えなば絶えねTaenaba taeneif you are to break, then break now!
ながらへばNagaraebaFor, if I live on,
しのぶることのShinoburu koto nomy ability to hide my love
よはりもぞするYowari mo zo suruwill most surely weaken!
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

The author of this poem, Shokushi Naishinnō (式子内親王) was the daughter of Emperor Go-Shirakawa and was high priestess, or saiin (斎院), of the Kamo Shrine near Kyoto (office website, Japanese only). Because the Kamo Shrine was so central to the spiritual protection of the capitol, the high-priestess could only be the daughter of an emperor, and was expected to be a vestal virgin. She would serve as the high-priestess until such time as a new emperor was enthroned.

The daughter of Emperor Go-Shirakawa received a world-class education in poetry from none other than Shunzei (poem 83), and later by his son, Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97), the compiler of the Hyakunin Isshu. The Hyakunin Isshu Daijiten also alludes to rumors that Teika and Shokushi Naishinnō later had a romantic relationship. Further, researchers have noted that Teika frequently mentions her in his journal.

However, if the two had a romantic relationship, they never married. Shokushi Naishinnō became the high priestess and led a celibate life. According to one story, after Shokushi Naishinnō passed away, it is said that Teika’s strong feelings of longing for her eventually led to the sprouting of teikakazura flowers (Asiatic Jasmine, Trachelospermum asiaticum) around her grave.

Shokushi Naishinnō, in addition to being the high priestess, also left a considerable poetry collection in her own right. This poem belonged to another anthology under the subject of “hidden love”, according to Mostow. This was a popular subject of poetry contests and similar poems can be found in the Hyakunin Isshu as well.

One other note here is the imagery of strings of jewelry symbolizing one’s life, as in the first verse of the poem above. It seems to have been a frequent metaphor and there are example poems dating all the way to the Manyoshu that use similar imagery.

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