Last Words: Poem Number 56

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This poem, the fifth in our series devoted to the women of the Hyakunin Isshu, is by one of the most famous women of her era, Lady Izumi:

あらざらむArazaranAmong my memories
この世の外のKono yo no hoka noof this world, from whence
思ひ出にOmoide niI will soon be gone,
今ひとたびのIma hitotabi nooh, how I wish there was
逢ふこともがなAu koto mo ganaone more meeting, now, with you!
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

Lady Izumi (born 978) was a very talented and passionate poet, but she also faced much tragedy and heartache as well. Apart from her skills with poetry, she was very famous for her public affairs with various men of the Court. Due to her unhappy marriage with Tachibana no Michisada, she left him and met Prince Tametaka, third son of Emperor Reizei. The ensuing affair was such a scandal that her husband divorced her for good and her father disowned her.

Sadly, Tametaka died soon after due to a plague, and Lady Izumi was devastated. She was later the subject of interest by Tametaka’s half-brother, Prince Atsumichi who was already married and slightly younger than her. Their affair was soon discovered, and Atsumichi’s wife was furious and left him. Undaunted, Izumi and Atsumichi moved in together and had a public relationship until Atsumichi died at the age of 27. This relationship is explained in 3rd person by Lady Izumi in her eponymous diary, izumi shikibu nikki (和泉式部日記, “Diary of Lady Izumi”).

At this time, Lady Izumi joined the inner circle of Empress Shoshi, and worked alongside other great women of her time including Lady Murasaki (poem 57) author of the Tales of Genji and Akazome Emon (poem 59). However, as Lady Murasaki’s writings show, the two definitely did not get along:

Izumi Shikibu is an amusing letter-writer; but there is something not very satisfactory about her. She has a gift for dashing off informal compositions in a careless running-hand; but in poetry she needs either an interesting subject or some classic model to imitate. Indeed it does not seem to me that in herself she is really a poet at all.
— trans. Waley, “Diary of Lady Murasaki”

Indeed Lady Izumi’s passion was her greatest strength and her greatest detriment. For all this and more, she’s been admired and remembered throughout the ages, and can be seen in young women’s comics in Japan even today:

Lady Izumi as depicted in a young women’s manga of love stories from the past.

Nevertheless, she eventually settled down, and her daughter, Koshikibu no Naishi, shared her tremendous talent for verses (poem 60), though Lady Izumi possibly outlived her.

This poem reflects the end of her life and her desire to see someone one last time. According to Professor Mostow, commentators disagree as to whether she wrote this to a dear friend she wanted to see once more, her husband, or a lover. Nevertheless, to me the poem is also a sobering reminder that all good things must come to and end.

2 responses to “Last Words: Poem Number 56”

  1. Congratulations Doug, for this beautiful work! Urayamashii! I teach Japanese literature and published a translation of Hyakunin Isshu in my own language (long time ago, when internet did not exist), but your work is the best I’ve seen (except for Prof. Mostow).
    I was happy to discover your blog.

    1. Hello and thank you, though I can’t take any credit really. This is professor Mostow’s translation. 🙂

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