Ki no Tsurayuki

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Authors born between 800 and 1100 CE

[ Ki no Tsurayuki ] al-Biruni ] al-Ma'arri ] Samuel ha-Nagid ] Bilhana ] Omar Khaiyyam ] Anna Comnena ]

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Origins of Poetry

Categories of Poetry

Themes of Poetry

Early Japanese Poetry

Poetic Criticism

The Kokinwakashiu Anthology

Poetry Endures




Ki no Tsurayuki (884-946) was the principal compiler of the second great anthology of Japanese poetry—Kokinwakashiu, Collections of Poems Ancient and Modern. Tsurayuki also wrote the preface. This was so well done that it became the basis for Japanese poetics. Tsurayuki himself was a skilled poet and prose writer, and also an able administrator, becoming Governor of Tosa. Much of Japanese poetry is inspired by nature, and expresses a feeling of wistfulness or sadness. The two are brought together by the allusive technique frequently used. The verse below addressed to the Mikado Nontoku (313-399), for example, appears to be a nature poem; it is in fact an innuendo song. The poet points to the blossoms of spring and in doing so suggests that it is time for the winter discontents of the court to give way to a new fruitfulness.

In his preface to the anthology (also referred to as the Kokinshiu or the Kokin), Tsurayuki makes broad claims for poetry—it moves heaven and earth, softens the relations between men and women, and refreshes the heart of the warrior. Consequently he sees the anthology as preserving something special to humanity, in which people may forever take pleasure from the form of the poems and gain profit from their content. In his discussion of poets active in his era, Tsurayuki touches on some of the qualities of poetry essential for its effect: truth, feeling, substance, form, rich diction, lack of obscurity, power.


Origins of Poetry

1     Our native poetry springs from the heart of man as its seed, producing the countless leaves of language. Multitudinous are the affairs of men in this world—what their minds think, what their eyes see, what their ears hear they must find words to express. Listening to the nightingale singing amid the blossoms of spring, or to the murmur of frogs among the marshes in autumn, we know that every living thing plays its part in the mingled music of Nature.

2     Our poetry, with effortless ease, moves heaven and earth, draws sympathy from invisible demons and deities, softens the relations between men and women, and refreshes the heart of the warrior. Its origin goes back to the origins of heaven and earth, but its transmission to our time with regards to sunbright heaven began with the work of Shitateruhime and with regards to the earth, mother of metals, with the work of Susanowo no Mikoto.

3     Thus, the heart of man came to find expression in the various modes of speech for its joy in the beauty of flowers, its wonder at the song of birds, its tender welcome of the spring mists, its mournful sympathy with the evanescence of the morning dew. As step by step, from the first movement of the foot, distant journeys are achieved in the course of time, as grain by grain high mountains are piled up from the mere dust at their base until their peaks are lost in the drifting clouds of heaven, so has the verse of our land, little by little, become rich and abundant.


Categories of Poetry

4     In the poem to Nintoku, the first quintain is

In Naniha see

the plum-tree’s blossoms.

The captive Spring has slipped

through Winter’s bars to flaunt

its floral sprays.

This was the first example of poetry composed by royal command.

5     A later stanza asks

What heart as shallow

as Low Hill’s clear fountain

sparkling in sunlight,

what man’s heart, so shallow,

can inspire me with love, Sir?

Here we have an instance of a girl’s mocking flirtation; these two pieces are the father and mother of our poetry and still guide the earliest steps of young students of verse.

6     Now Japanese poetry may be arranged under six categories, just as Chinese poetry can. The Japanese categories are satirical or innuendo verse, descriptive pieces, figurative pieces, allusive songs, lyrical poems, and congratulatory odes.

7     In these days men are lost in sensuality, their aim is mere decoration, therefore, their verse is vain and trivial. In those circles where luxury alone is cultivated, true poetry is as hidden from knowledge as a log of fossil wood buried deep in the ground. In more elegant coteries, verse is indeed known, but is little better than the bloom of the so-called flower-reed that never produces an ear of grain.

     When we remember how poetry arose we see that this should not be its condition.

Themes of Poetry

8     In ancient days the mikados themselves, on blossomy spring mornings and moonlit autumn nights, called together their courtiers, and bade them compose verses on various subjects. Some would celebrate their wanderings in difficult places after the blossomy sprays of spring, others their unguided rambles in the darkness of the night to gaze upon the rising moon of autumn. The sovereign himself would examine their creations, and pronounce which were excellent and which were poor.

9     Nor were these the only themes. The tiny pebble and the vast mass of Tsukuba's hill were used as similes with which to honor the Sovereign. When the heart was overflowing with the happiness of existence and the pleasure of life, when love of one's fellow-men could be compared with the eternal fumes of Fuji, when the murmur of the cicada recalled sadly the memory of an absent friend, the pines of Takasago and Suminoye the pleasures of life-long wedded love, Wotoko's hill the vigor of past manhood, and when the ominameshi flower was seen the symbol of the briefness of the season of girlish bloom, it was in verse that they found relief.

10 Again, they were moved to verse when they saw the ground white with snowy showers of fallen cherry blossoms on spring mornings; or heard on autumn evenings the rustle of falling leaves; or year after year gazed upon the mirror's reflection of the doleful ravages of time, shown by gray hairs and wavy wrinkles; or trembled as they watched the passing dewdrop quivering on the beaded grass, or the river's flow flecked with perishing bubbles—symbols of their own fleeting lives; or noted the leaves in all their glory today perishing the next morning, or what had been admired yesterday regarded with indifference today.

11 Then, too, their subjects might be the sound of the waves beating on the base of the pine hills, the solitary drawer of water at the moorland spring, the contemplation of the fall of the hagi leaf in autumn, the count of the times the woodcock preens his feathers in the red dawn, the comparison of man's existence to a kure bamboo joint floating down a river, the flood of Yoshino as symbol of man's varied fortunes in the world, dismay at news of the disappearance of Fuji's fumes or of the need to mend Nagara's bridge—in regard to all these subjects the making of verses brought composure to their minds.

Early Japanese Poetry

12 Thus from antiquity was poetry cultivated, but it was in the Nara period that the art flourished. Of that age, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro was the very prince of poets. Then appeared Yamabe no Akahito, and of the two it is hard to say which was the greater, which the lesser genius. In addition to these great poets, a number of men of talent distinguished themselves in the succeeding ages; the line was maintained, and did not come to an end.

13   Long before the present compilation was made, the Anthology known as the Manyoshiu appeared. Since that time more than ten reigns, more than a hundred years, have passed. At the present day in the Royal City of Kyoto those who are versed in the learning of antiquity or sympathize with the spirit of its verse are very few—they may be counted by twos and threes. Nevertheless, there exist some poets still; here and there men of merit are to be found, among many who do not progress beyond mediocrity.

    I cannot, of course, here speak of men of rank and office, but among others who have produced verse some may be mentioned.

Poetic Criticism

14   There is, first of all, Sojo Henjo, whose manner is successful, but his work is deficient in truth, like the picture of a beautiful woman that excites emotion, but to no avail. Then we have Arihara Narihira, very full of feeling but poor in diction; his poetry reminds one of a faded flower that yet preserves some of its perfume. Bunya no Yasuhide, on the other hand, is an artist in words; with him form is better than substance. He is like a peddler dressed up in fine silks. The priest of Mt. Uji, Kisen, is obscure, and his beginnings and endings do not chime; he is like an autumnal moon, bright in the evening, dim at dawn.

     As to Ononokomachi, she has pathos but lacks power, like a fair but feeble woman. Ohotomo no Kuronushi, lastly, has a pretty turn for verse, but his form is poor; he is like a faggot-bearing boor resting under a blossom-filled cherry-tree.

     Besides the above, many other versifiers are more or less known. The list of their names, indeed, would be as endless as a coil of kasura vine on a moor; they are as multitudinous as the leaves of a forest of thick-foliaged trees, but they intend poetry rather than accomplish it.

The Kokinwakashiu Anthology

15 Now in this his Majesty's gracious reign, when the four seasons had returned nine times, and the waves of his universal benevolence rippled beyond the Eight Islands, while the protective shadow of his broad and large favor had grown more spacious than that cast by vast Tsukubane's hill, amid the myriad cares of government he, our sovereign, still found leisure, without neglect of the multitude of matters before him. Therefore he did not forget antiquity, nor willed that the great past should be lost forever, but desired that its memory should be handed on to future generations. And so it came about that on the eighteenth day of the fourth month of the fifth year of Yengi [25 May, 905 CE] he charged the Chief Secretary, Ki no Tomonori, and the Privy Secretary, Ki no Tsurayuki, and others, to make a selection of ancient poems not contained in the Manyoshiu Anthology, with permission to add to these a few of their own composition.

     Some thousand poems were accordingly arranged in twenty books, to which we have given the title Kokinwakashiu—A Collection of Japanese Verse, Old and New. The themes dealt with are varied: the gathering of plum-blossoms in early spring for floral crowns, and the summer song of the cuckoo; the plucking of the ruddy sprays of autumn, and the contemplation of winter's snow; the crane and the tortoise (as presages of a long reign to his Majesty and long life to his subjects); the bush-clover and summer herbs, symbols of spousal love; Ozaka hill, where the prayers of travelers to and from the capital are offered; and, lastly, divers themes not drawn from the four seasons of spring and summer and autumn and winter.

16 So is our task ended, and an Anthology compiled, plentiful as the floods fed by the unfailing waters of the hills, as rich in examples as the seashore is in grains of sand. May its reception meet with none of the obstructions that bar the stream of Asuka. May the joys it affords accumulate, as dust and pebbles gather together to form a high mountain, into a rock formation of delight.

Lastly, as to our own style, any charm it may possess is but as the passing perfume of a spring blossom. To claim for our work the durability of an autumnal night would expose us to criticism as to form, while as to substance we are filled with shame. Yet, whether like a drifting cloud we move or rest—or whether like a bellowing stag we stand up or lie down—we always rejoice to have been born in an age when such a task as that we have sought to achieve has been imposed upon us by royal command.

Poetry Endures

17 Hitomaro has passed away—but shall the poetic art stand still? Things change with change of times, joys and sorrows come and go—but shall not the letter of these poems be preserved? For ever the willows shoot forth their thread-like branches, the needles of the pine-tree never fail, the coils of the creepers wander endlessly over the moors, the sea-fowl imprint their tracks upon the sandy shore; and for ever, we trust, shall men, taking pleasure in the form of these poems, and profiting by their content, revere the verse of ancient days as the moon in high heaven, and applaud the age which saw the production of this Anthology,



Adapted from Primitive and Mediaeval Japanese Texts translated into English by F. V. Dickins. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1906. pp 379-391.

                    Selection and adaptation © Rex Pay 2001