Skylarks, Frogs and River-drenched Robes: Reality, Formality and Poetic License in the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds

22nd Feb 2017


The ‘Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds’ (Roppyakuban uta’awase) (1193-94) is the largest extant Japanese poetry competition judged by a single judge, Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204). Shunzei has been described as the greatest premodern critic of poetry, and  taken together his judgements  in Roppyakuban uta’awase form one of the largest and most detailed statements of critical appreciation of poetry of the time. The value of the competition is increased, however, by the existence of an extensive Chinjō (‘Appeal’) written by one of the participants, Kenshō (?1130-?1209), in which he provides detailed rebuttals of Shunzei’s negative judgements of many of his poems. 

Shunzei’s judgements, and Kenshō’s appeals, are based upon differing assessments of the key criteria for uta’awase poetry: adherence to the essential meaning of the set topic, including use of appropriate diction; appropriate formality; and ease of aural apprehension. Consideration these debates, therefore, has much to tell us about the formation of formation of critical opinion, the weight given to different types of evidence, and how aesthetic value was assigned to individual poems. 

This paper will consider a number contentious rounds in the competition: Spring II: 18 on Skylarks, Spring III: 22 on Frogs and Love IX: 19 on Love and Clothing. Shunzei, and the opposing team, are highly critical of Kenshō’s poems in these rounds on the grounds of his understanding of diction, grasp of the topic and resulting lack of formality. Kenshō responds with detailed poetic and real-world evidence to negate these criticisms. Through the interplay between these opposing views we can see the assertion of differing visions of poetic value and quality – visions which would become increasingly entrenched as poetic opinion became increasingly polarised in the thirteenth century.

Speaker Biography

Dr Thomas McAuley is a Lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Sheffield. His main research interests lie in the areas of premodern Japanese poetry, poetic criticism and translation. His poetry translations can be accessed online at or received via Twitter from @wakapoet.

Date: 22 February 2017Time: 5:05 PM

Finishes: 22 January 2017Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: Khalili Lecture Theatre

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