Though unaccustomed to a peculiar literary style — marked by omission of character names, usage of highly patrician language, and depiction of archaic Japanese cultural traditions — the enduring quality which, I believe, fostered my deep appreciation of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji lies in the unveiling of poetry as an embodiment of aesthetic sensibilities achieved in particular by the Japanese aristocracy.
In the novel, poems – either created presumably by the author or quoted from older collections of poetry – are deeply embedded in the narrative; presenting an unparalleled literary style, highly developed for its age. Poetry, enjoyed particularly by the Japanese aristocratic class, is revealed to be the highest form of art in 11th century Japan. Because of this, an examination of the role of poetry – present in the lived realities of Genji and other characters belonging to the nobility – shows trace of the aesthetic consciousness of the Japanese and serves to demystify the fascinating aspects of Japanese culture.
Japanese poetry, known as waka, occupies a central position in the imperial court as a revered art form and highly favored activity of the nobility. In Genji’s cultural age, both the emperor and crown prince are known to be “connoisseurs of poetry”. The fifth chapter in particular, titled The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms, demonstrates how princes and high courtiers are adept at composing Chinese poems, thus highlighting the active cultural borrowings and influences of the mainland in Japanese language and literature.
During this period, producing a Chinese poem is considered a difficult task but, for the author, it is described as “positive torture”, endured and enjoyed by a particularly narrow segment of Japanese society. Because of this, the classification of poetry as an aesthetic form in the Heian period, informs of art’s capacity to isolate the noble class from the rest of the society. With this, we are reminded to view Genji’s world as a narrow picture of the highly cultured life lived by Japan’s nobility, privileged for their literacy and exposure to traditional aesthetics.
Nevertheless, the incorporation of poetry in the novel reveals more than a division of class; for indeed, in examining the substance of these poems, the interrelation of human emotion and nature is harmoniously depicted in the literary form. In other words, the poems contained in the novel convey the relationship between our feelings and the natural world. For instance: the waves moaning our longings, the winds becoming messengers of our sorrow, the river of tears revealing our grief, the dews miming our tears.
These references to nature – present in one of their aesthetic concepts such as mono no aware or “sensitivity to things” – reflect the sensibilities of the Japanese in perceiving the natural world as part of the inner self. Nature, for the Japanese, exists in harmony with our thoughts and feeling. Poetry then, becomes an avenue where the natural world and the human life, express its unity and interrelatedness. Genji and other characters in the novel internalize, through poetry, the realities of the natural world and their inner world, consciously mindful of the transitory and evanescent qualities of life in general.
Another function of poetry, which perhaps contributes to its appeal among the aristocracy, is its capacity to conceal human emotions through highly eloquent and suggestive language. Japanese poetry is carefully tailored to not only express emotions about beauty and life, but also to allow intimate communication between a man and a woman.
It is through poetry, for instance, that Genji is able to convey his emotions towards his numerous lovers. Poetry is his weapon to initiate amorous affairs. Because of its highly suggestive nature, poems also become an allusion to the worldly desires experienced by Genji, and by his lovers. To demonstrate this, allow me to present a poetic exchange, particularly between Genji and Naishi – an aged but lewd aristocratic woman.
Their conversation starts with the old Naishi’s aggressive speech, which goes:
“Sere and withered though these grasses be,
they are ready for your pony, should you come”;
— to which Genji, known for his carnal nature, liberally replies:
“Were mine to part the low bamboo of your grove,
It would fear to be driven away by other ponies”.
Indeed, the exchange above, classic in its veiling the natural world and our worldly desires, is a testament to the poet’s might in depicting the impermanence of life and the immortality of art.