A Lame Excuse: Poem Number 62

Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

As a final poem in March to honor women poets in the Hyakunin Isshu, I wanted to post a humorous, witty poem by Sei Shonagon, author of the Pillow Book:

夜をこめてYo wo kometeAlthough, still wrapped in night,
鳥の空音はTori no sorane wathe cock’s false cry
はかるともHakaru tomosome may deceive,
よにあふさかのYo ni Osaka nonever will the Barrier
関はゆるさじSeki wa yurusajiof Meeting Hill let you pass.
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

Sei Shonagon, along with Lady Izumi and Lady Murasaki, is one of the most famous female authors of her generation and Japanese history as a whole. She’s best known as the author of the Pillow Book, which is a book of observations regarding court life, nature, art, etc. Whereas Lady Izumi was a hopeless romantic, and Lady Murasaki was melancholy, Sei Shonagon’s writings show she had a sharp, often haughty wit. She had the misfortune of serving Empress Teishi, who fell out of favor after her father died, and the 2nd wife, Empress Shoshi, eclipsed her. Lady Izumi and Lady Murasaki served the latter, and by that time Sei Shonagon was a bit of a has-been.

This poem demonstrates Sei Shonagon’s wit at her finest though. According to the back-story, she was visited by one Yukinari, the First Controller, came to visit Sei Shonagon among other things, but left early in the night, because he had to be back to the Palace before the rooster crowed. Then Sei Shonagon receives a letter from him the next day, stating that he would have loved to stay longer, but then uses the famous example of a Chinese legend about the Lord of Meng Chang who supposedly tricked the guards at Han Ku gate to open it by imitating a rooster crow at night so that they would believe it was morning.

However, Sei is not convinced by his eloquent excuse and sends this snarky poem back that basically says that no one at Ōsaka Gate (Meeting Hill) would be fooled by it.

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