A Critical Analysis of Major Kokinshu Themes
I believe that the two key elements of a poem that stands a good chance of winning a
poetry contest are the poem’s capacity to elicit an emotional response, as well as the creative use
of rhetoric or display of wit. Of the poems from the second autumn volume that concern falling
autumn leaves (primarily poems 286 through 305), poem 305 by Mitsune strikes me as
particularly creative and a strong contender for winning a poetry contest.
At first, the story Mitsune crafts around the picture may not seem particularly
meaningful; however, upon further inspection we can see that the speaker, who is about to cross
a river, deliberately stops his horse beneath a tree just to admire scarlet leaves falling. This
simple, yet powerful image embodies the Buddhist concept of impermanence. The ephemeral
beauty of falling leaves is something worth taking the time to appreciate. The specific verbiage
used also creates a sense that the speaker has somewhere to be, but that the falling autumn leaves
are worth waiting for. The emotional response this situation elicits is truly profound.
In the last two lines, we see the creative juxtaposition of two ideas that tie back into the
rest of the poem. Mitsune likens the falling autumn leaves to rain, but also states that “the waters
will not rise”. This, of course, refers to the river that the speaker was about to cross; rain would
make it much more difficult to cross the river, in which case there would be no time to stop and
admire the scarlet leaves. These two lines contrast not just with each other, but with the idea
brought up in the beginning of the poem: the beauty of the falling leaves is fleeting, but while
they may be transient, we can still take time to appreciate them. This in turn adds to the
emotional effect of the rest of the poem. It is also worth noting that while we are provided
context around this poem and not others (except for 297), which may prevent us from seeing the
creativity with which the other poems were composed, 305 is still well written when read
A beautiful commentary on the Buddhist idea of impermanence, poem 305 makes use of
rhetorical elements and creates a powerful emotion within the reader, giving it a strong chance of
winning in a context against any other poem from the second autumn volume.
In a general sense, the main themes of the first six volumes of the Kokinshu are
anticipation of the coming of a season, brief enjoyment/appreciation of the season, followed by
sorrowing over it, before the cycle repeats with the next season. We also see the Buddhist idea of
transience permeate throughout the six volumes of the Kokinshu.
The coming of spring is indicated by both the bush warbler, and the rising spring haze,
before the cherry blossoms are appreciated briefly, and then scatter-- a theme that is sorrowed
over. Just as the coming of spring is signaled by the bush warbler, the anticipation of summer is
related to the cuckoo. The midst of summer is defined by the dynamic between the speaker and
the cuckoo during the rainy season, before we sorrow over the short summer nights. The coming
of autumn is signaled by the wind. However, the anticipation of fall is shown through the story
of Tanabata, where the weaver and oxherd similarly await their annual chance to meet.
Consistent with the theme of the seasonal poems, they also have a very brief time in which to
enjoy it, before sorrowing in the fact that they must split apart once again. Much of the second
volume of autumn is sorrowing over the scattering fall leaves. This transitions into the frost and
dew of winter, which (similar to the brief summer volume) quickly transitions into the sorrow
over and anticipation of the coming season, tying together the seasonal cycle.
Each season of the first six volumes of the Kokinshu feature the anticipation of the given
season, whether it be signaled by an animal, or something less concrete as the wind. Brief
enjoyment is also a common theme of these volumes: the ephemeral beauty of the season is
briefly appreciated, such as the blossoming of flowers. The final major theme of the seasonal
volumes of the Kokinshu is the sorrowing over the passing of seasonal beauty. All of these ideas
reflect the Buddhist concept of impermanence: anticipation, enjoyment, sorrow, even the seasons
themselves are fleeting in nature; this is the core idea reflected throughout all six volumes.