29 October 2012

Hyakunin Isshu: poem 89 (Princess Shokushi)

Nothing can be worse than living a moment longer when I cannot bear growing any weaker than I already have.


Princess Shokushi (a. k. a. Shikishi (Shikishi Naishinno), born in 1149 or 1150, died in 1201) was the third daughter of Emperor Go-Shirakawa*. At the age of nine or ten, in 1159, she was appointed to serve as sai'in (high priestess) at Kamo Shrines** and acted as one until she resigned in 1169, likely due to an illness.

Not much is known about Shokushi's life after she resined from the Kamo Shrines if not diaries of Fujiwara no Teika (Meigetsuki) and Minamoto no Ienaga*** (Minamoto no Ienaga nikki). After she resigned she studied poetry under Fujiwara no Shunzei**** and later his son, Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97).

She was an excellent poetess and even in her time, she was estimated as very talented. The love poems written by Princess Shokushi are believed to be too emotionally profound to be written simply for the sake of traditional poetic convention. She left a kashu and has 155 poems in imperial anthologies. In 1183's Senzai Wakashu Shunzei inlcuded nine of her poems. With the number of poems included in Shin Kokin Wakashu, she outnumbered even Teika.

In his diary Teika wrote that he first met Shokushi in 1181, when he was 19 and she was around 30. The diary also confirms that the two regularly exchanged letters and he greatly admired her poetry. In two years before her death, Teika visited Shokushi with great frequency. All of this has become a basis for suspicion of a love affair between them.

...and the Japanese Romeo and Juliet
In the first line of her poem she uses an expression that is translated as string of beads or jewelled thread (玉 - jewel, bead; 緒 - cord, strap) which is a metaphor for life. The same expression can be found in a poem by Fujiwara no Teika.

Though my feelings and dreams will never be realised, I only ask that you bear growing weaker than you already have.


Even though in Chouyaku Hyakuninisshu translations the metaphor is lost, the two poems still have connection.
Nothing can be worse than living a moment longer when I cannot bear growing any weaker than I already have. Shokushi

Though my feelings and dreams will never be realised, I only ask that you bear growing weaker than you already have. Teika

In Hiroaki Sato's one-line translations the metaphor is clear, though:

String of beads, if you must break, break. If you last longer, my endurance is sure to weaken. Shokushi
My thoughts, useless dreams in midair - even if you break, do not break, painful string of beads. Teika
"From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry", Columbia University Press, New York, 1986. Translations by Hiroaki Sato.

The two poems read together gives the feeling of a dialogue and only adds to suspicion of a love affair, yet the love that could be portrayed here is absolutely different from anything from the Hyakunin Isshu that was analysed previously.

This pair of poems could be believed to portray painful, tragic, almost Romeo and Juliet kind of love. Their positions were too different, the Fujiwara family's influence on the imperial family was already weakened, Shokushi was a previous high priestess at the Kamo Shrines and most likely in 1190s she took vows and became a Buddhist nun with an acquired name Shonyoho. These facts could either serve as a denial of a love affair between the two or create the image of a tragic love. A dead end of their love could be read out from Shokushi's poem. There she gives a little hint of an illness: when I cannot bear growing any weaker than I already have / string of beads, if you must break, break. Some sources mention that Shokushi died of an illness.

A Noh play titled Teika was written in fifteenth century, by then the love affair between Princess Shokushi and Fujiwara no Teika took a shape of a widely known fact and generated an image of a tragic love. The idea of Shokushi as an excellent poetess and a lover of Fujiwara no Teika has not collapsed until the modern era.

Today, in the world of karuta, this is one of 6 ta-cards: taka [たか, poem 73], taki [たき, poem 55], tago [たご, poem 4], tachi [たち, poem 16], tama [たま, poem 89], tare [たれ, poem 34].


Tama no o yo
Taenaba taene
Shinoburu koto no
Yowari mo zo suru

* 77th Emperor of Japan in traditional order of succession (1125-1192, reign 1155-1158).

** Kamo Shrine or Kamo Shrines is a general term for an important Shinto sanctuary complex on both banks of the Kamo River northeast of Kyoto. The complex in centered on two shrines which are independent but closely associated.

*** Minamoto no Ienaga (d, 1234) was a poet of Kamakura period. He was the Recording Secretary of the Court Poetry Bureau and also served as one of the compilers of Shin Kokin Wakashu. He is also one of the New Thirty-six Poetry Immortals.

**** Fujiwara no Shunzei or Fujiwara no Toshinari, 1114-1204, was a great poem and a judge of many poetry competitions. He was a father of Fujiwara no Teika and a grandfather of Shunzei's Daughter (as she is usually called), who was one of the greatest poetesses of her day, ranked together with Princess Shokushi. Shunzei is the author of the Hyakunin Isshu poem 83 and the compiler of Senzai Wakashu.