Brooding: Poem Number 99

Another patron of the arts, Victor Hugo, brooding in this photograph from 1853. Photo by Charles Hugo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Since I touched upon the end of the Court-era in Japanese history, I thought it would be fitting to post this poem:

人も惜しHito mo oshiPeople seem dear and
人も恨めしHito mo urameshipeople also seem hateful
あぢきなくAjiki nakuwhen vainly
世を思ふゆゑにYo wo omou yue niI brood about the world—
もの思ふ身はMono omou mi wathis self who broods about things.
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

The author of this poem was Emperor Go-toba (後鳥羽天皇 1180 – 1239), one of the most noteworthy Emperors in Japanese antiquity. Gotoba was responsible for a revival in Waka poetry. He commissioned Fujiwara Teika (poem 97), who compiled the Hyakunin Isshu, among others to make a new official anthology after the Kokin Wakashū centuries before, and this new edition became the Shin Kokinshū which is still an important part of Japanese literature.

Gotoba was a bold character, and sought to restore power which had recently been wrested from the Imperial family by the new samurai class based in Kamakura, Japan. So, he and his son (Emperor Juntoku, poem 100), organized a rebellion in 1221 called the Jōkyū Disturbance (or Jōkyū War) where he rallied the samurai back to his banner. Unfortunately, most didn’t want to lose their recent gains, and sided with the Kamakura government under the persuasion of Hojo Masako, the famous “Nun Warlord”.

Thus, the Jokyu Disturbance was a disaster and the Emperor’s forces were quickly destroyed. The young firebrand of an Emperor was then exiled to the Oki Islands and lived their for another 18 years.

This poem though, predates the rebellion and exile. According to Professor Mostow, it was composed as part of a series in 1212, which included Fujiwara no Teika, with the topic of “personal grievance”.

As to “who” he was referring to in the poem, that’s tricky. The word hito means “person or persons”, so it’s pretty generic. Mostow suggestions some traditional interpretations, such as those who oppose the Kamakura government, and those who uphold it (whom he detests), or another traditional interpretation was the common folk vs. those who opposed the rebellion (whom he obviously didn’t like).

We will never really know. But certainly after his exile, we can be sure he spent many days brooding.

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