The age is ours!

Sam Sacks

  • The Tale of the Heike translated by Royall Tyler
    Viking, 734 pp, $50.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 670 02513 8

The decline and fall of the Heian nobility, which is chronicled in The Tale of the Heike, provoked much lamentation among the poets of Japan. At the start of the 13th century, the court poet Kamo no Chomei was passed over for a prestigious post and left the imperial capital of Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto). He took the tonsure, and lived henceforth as a grouchy hermit in a hut. There he produced his masterpiece, the verse-essay Hojoki, which translates as ‘Writings from a Place Ten Feet Square’.[*] A charmingly disenchanted blend of Thoreau and the Prophet Jeremiah, the work takes a bitter satisfaction in looking back at his nation’s fall from glory. Chomei describes an age visited by fire, drought, famine and plague. Corpses are piled in the streets of the capital and citizens loot temples and chop up Buddhas for kindling. Noble families have passed into obscurity: ‘Decorously dressed folk/in hats and gaiters,/went from house to house,/frantically begging.’ From his mountain seclusion he recalls a brief spell of collective repentance after a devastating earthquake in 1185:

there was talk
of the vanities of this world,
and people seemed to be rid
of the sinfulness in their hearts.
But days and months went by,
then years,
and no one spoke of it again.

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[*] Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World, translated by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins (Stone Bridge Press, 1996).