The End of an Era: Poem 100

Ninomaru Palace, Kyoto, Japan, photo by Daderot, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The very last poem in the anthology goes along with the previous one in our theme on the end of the Heian Court era:

百敷やMomoshiki yaThe hundredfold palace!
古き軒端のFuruki nokiba noeven in the shinobu grass
しのぶにもShinobu ni moon its old eaves
なほあまりあるNao amari aruI find a past for which
むかしなりけりMukashi narikeriI long yet ever more.
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

This poem was composed by Emperor Juntoku (順徳天皇 1197 – 1242) whose father, Emperor Go-toba (poem 99), led the disastrous Jōkyū Disturbance in a last-ditch effort to wrest back power from the new samurai military government in 1221. Like his father, Juntoku was exiled after the rebellion was crushed, but he was sent to Sado Island instead, and lived there for 20 years before his death.

This poem, though, was composed in 1216, five years before the war, and recalls the glory days of the Imperial Court before the downfall in the late 12th century. When we look at the lengthy history of the poetry included in the Hyakunin Isshu anthology, spanning 400+ years, you can see how much poems like this one contrast with the upbeat, optimistic ones from earlier generations. By the time that Emperor Juntoku had assumed the throne, the capitol of Kyoto was already a shadow of its former self, and his reign a greatly diminished one.

In fact, in the Hyakunin Daijiten, the book points out that the Hyakunin Isshu begins with a poem by an Emperor (poem 1) writing on the harvest, a prosperous subject, and ends with another Emperor longing for bygone times. Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97), the compiler of the anthology obviously knew what he was implying.

Also, the phrase momoshiki is an interesting one. According to Professor Mostow, the phrase is borrowed from a much earlier poem in the Manyoshū:

ももしきの Momoshiki no
大宮人は Ōmiyabito wa
暇あれや Itoma areya
梅をかざして Ume wo kazashite
ここに集える Koko ni tsudoeru

This poem colorfully describes how people in the palace are decorating their hair with plum blossoms they’ve collected, and playfully suggests that life at the palace is well and carefree.

So, it’s really interesting to see how Emperor Juntoku revives this ancient phrase in a poem that conveys the opposite meaning. The sun has set on the Imperial Court, and the palace looks tired and worn now.

Further, Professor Mostow translates momoshiki as the Hundred-fold Palace which is as good a translation as any in English. But the Chinese characters (kanji) are 百敷 or “hundred seats laid out”, but alternatively, momoshiki can be written as 百石城 meaning “100-stones castle”. Both meanings refer to the Imperial Palace or kyūchū (宮中) in Japanese. The first word implies a hundred mats laid out for sitting (i.e. many people attending the court), while the latter means 100 stones, implying a palace with firm foundations.

But it’s a poignant reminder that all things decline some day.

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