Session 2


Lecture 2
Lady Daibu:
Poetic Memoirs (c. 1174-1232 / c. 1260)

Anthology texts to read:

  • Lady Daibu (c.1157-1235): from Poetic Memoirs (1980)
  • from As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (1971)
  • Murasaki Shikibu: from The Diary of Lady Murasaki (1982)
  • Murasaki Shikibu: from The Tale of Genji (1976)
  • Sei Shōnagon: from The Pillow Book (1967)
  • from The Gossamer Years (Kagerō Nikki) (1964)
  • from Heike Monogatari (1180-85 / 1371 / 1988)


Such was the upheaval in our world at the time of Jūei and Genryaku that whatever I may call it – dream. illusion, tragedy – no words can possibly describe it. It was so confused that I cannot even say exactly what occurred, and in fact right up till now I have repressed all thought of it. What can I say, what am I to feel about that autumn when 1 heard that those whom I knew were soon to be leaving the capital? No words, no emotions can do it justice. None of us had known when it might happen, and faced with the actual event, we were all stunned, those of us who saw it with our own eyes and those who heard about it from afar. We could only feel that it was just some indescribable dream.

At that time, when all was in uproar and such disquieting rumors were reaching us, Sukemori was a First Secretary to the Emperor and seemed to have little time away from his duties. Moreover, those about me insisted that it was a hopeless, even scandalous affair, so we became more cautious than we had been earlier, and it was with a great deal of hesitation that we met.

On these occasions he would tell me, just as though it were a normal thing to say:

"These troubles have now reached the point where there can be no doubt that I, too, shall number among the dead. Then, surely, you will spare me just a little pity? Though you may not feel much for me, yet out of regard for the many years that we have been together, do not fail to pray that I may find light on the dark path that awaits me. Even if, perchance, my life is spared for a while longer, I am resolved in my heart not to think of myself as the person I once was. For if I once begin to feel emotion, to think with longing of time past, or to yearn for a particular person, there would never be an end to it.

"I cannot know how weak my spirit might be in spite of my determination, so I have renounced all attachments to this world. I have made up my mind not to send you even the briefest of messages from whatever distant shore I find myself upon. Don't think, however, that my love for you is weak merely because I send no word. In all that concerns this world , I have come to think of myself as one already dead. And yet, in spite of all, my former feelings will surely overcome me – to my intense regret!"

As I listened to him I knew how right he was, but what could I say? Tears were my only reply.

At the beginning of autumn news came at last of that dream within a dream – the flight from the capital. To what can I compare my feelings? Of course, there was not one person of sensibility who did not talk of and reflect upon this tragedy. But for me, among all the people that I knew, there was no friend to whom I could open my heart. So I spoke of it to no one, I brooded constantly, and when my feelings were more than my heart could bear, I could only turn to the Buddha and spend my days in tears,

Our lives, however, must go on for their allotted span; we cannot end them as we wish; and even my desire to enter holy orders was frustrated. since I could not flee the house by myself. How much it pained me that I had to go on living as I was!

Now that I have seen
Such miseries that I cannot know
Their like or their example,
A hateful destiny is this
That keeps me living as of yore!

My anxiety was indescribable as I watched the autumn draw on, and I felt more than ever that I could no longer endure this life. One bright, moonlit night as I gazed out, musing on the sadness of the scene – the sky, the shapes of the clouds, the sound of the wind – I could think only of what Sukemori must feeling as he journeyed to his unknown destination beneath a traveler's sky. I was overcome with tears of despair:

In what far place,
With thoughts of what sad things,
Will he be gazing
At the moon this night
And wringing out his tear-drenched sleeves?

At dawn, at dusk, no matter what I looked at, no matter what I listened to, how could I cease to think of him even for a moment? How I wanted, just one more time at least, to tell him how I felt! How sad that my wish was unlikely to be granted! It was too frightful for words to hear of him straggling from place to place:

Many, so many
Are the things
I wish I could say to him.
And now am I to die like this,
My longings vain and unfulfilled?

Large numbers of fierce warriors were leaving the capital for the west. Whenever I heard any rumors, I wondered in agitation what news would come next, and when. One night after I had cried myself to sleep with these gloomy thoughts, Sukemori appeared to me in a dream. He was as I had always seen him, wearing informal court dress. He gazed into the distance, as though lost in thought, while the wind raged violently about him. I awoke with a throbbing heart; I cannot even begin to describe my feelings. I wondered if he really was at that very moment exactly as he had appeared in my dream:

Adrift in the turmoil
Of wild winds and waves,
He is surely
Just as I saw him now,
No peace for his troubled mind.

Perhaps because I was so distraught, I fell ill with a fever for some time. I felt so wretched that I wanted to die:

Before I hear
Of yet more misery
To add to the misery I know,
Would that I might become
No longer of this world!

So I desired, but it was not to be; and as my life went on unchanged I felt crushed with grief:

Though I do not feel
That I can go on living,
Still I do not die.
What misery it brings
To have survived until this day!

The following spring a relative of mine invited me to accompany her on a pilgrimage. I was in no mood for any activity, but this outing had a religious intent, so I roused myself from my depression and went with her. On our way back she pointed out a place where the plum blossoms were unusually fine. She then entered the grounds, so of course I followed her, and the blossoms did indeed look far lovelier than the ordinary.

I listened as my companion talked with the hermit who owned the place. "Every year," he said, " a certain person used to come and ask to have the place roped off, so that he could enjoy the blossoms without being disturbed. But this year he hasn't come. What a shame, for now they will have bloomed and scattered all for nothing!"

My companion must have asked who the person was, for he distinctly mentioned Sukemori's name, and at that my heart was thrown into a turmoil of painful emotions:

All that I feel,
Everything in my heart;
I shall confess to you,
O blossoms, if you too
But long for him I loved.

Among the ghastly and terrifying rumors J heard that spring came the painful and unspeakable news that great numbers of my close friends had been killed, and that their heads were being paraded through the streets of the capital. To hear people naming the dead was the most dreadful thing I had ever known:

Alas! Alas!
Can it be true?
I ask myself.
Or can it after all
Be no more than a dream?

When I heard that Captain Shigehira had been taken prisoner and had been brought back to the capital for a while, I thought dejectedly of how among all those I had known he had been especially close to me. He would say such amusing things, and even in the most trivial matters he used to be so considerate towards other people, He was indeed an exceptional person: what could he have done in a previous life to bring this upon himself? Those who saw him said that his countenance was unchanged, and they could not bear to look at him, I cannot describe how painful, how grievous it was to hear this:

By day, by night,
How often we would meet
In those days now long ago:
Never did I imagine
That it would come to this.

Over and over I imagined what was in his heart:

While yet not dead,
Still of this world,
But in how changed a state!
With what thoughts in your heart
Do you pass your days, your nights?

People were deeply distressed to hear that Koremori had drowned himself at Kumano. Whenever I meet anyone these days, I can only think what truly superior figures the Taira were. But Koremori was exceptional to a degree, both in appearance and in thoughtfulness; indeed among all the people have ever known, of old or in recent times, no one can compare with him. Who could fail to praise him whenever he appeared?

At the celebration in the Hōjūji Palace, when Koremori danced "The Blue Waves of the Sea," people remarked that they could not help being reminded of the Shining Prince Genji. I even heard them say that "the beauty of the cherry blossom itself must be eclipsed." Of course, I was bound to have fond recollections of him as he had been on such occasions, but I knew him so well that, distressed though I was at the deaths of all my friends who had perished, his death was a particularly heavy blow.

"Think of me as you do of Sukemori," he would say to me from time to time. "Oh, but I do!," I would reply. Then he would say, "That's what you say, but I'm not so sure!" I cannot describe the many pangs of grief that these memories aroused:

The vision of that face,
Which was once compared
To the beauty of spring blossoms,
Is withered now
Beneath the empty waves.

How wretched the dismal fate
That he has met!
Under the waves that wind
About the bay of holy Kumano
He has laid himself forever.

The news of Koremori's death particularly affected me because of my anxiety for his brother Sukemori. Naturally the news was distressing in itself. But when it was widely rumored that Koremori and his brother Kiyotsune had sought their own deaths, I could imagine how much more depressed Sukemori must have felt, alone as he now was. However, because of what he had said to me before leaving the capital, or perhaps for some other reason, he sent me not a single word. In the winter of the year he had left the capital, there had been the briefest of messages. All he had said was: "As I told you, I regard myself as no longer of this world, and I trust that everyone will think of me that way. Please pray for the good of my soul in the life to come." ...

- The Poetic Memoirs of Lady Daibu, trans. Phillip Tudor Harries (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980): 189-201.

Images of Feminine Empowerment?
Discussion Points

[Bonni Reid: Anais Nin: Come As Your Madness]

[Dark Angel (Jessica Alba)]

[Frida Kahlo]

[Pussycat Dolls]

[Simone de Beauvoir (Chicago, 1968)]

[The Tale of the Heike]

Workshop 2
The Tale of the Heike

“When they looked at the scattered blossoms of a spring morning; when they listened of an autumn evening to the falling of the leaves; when they sighed over the snow and waves reflected with each passing year by their looking glasses; when they were startled into thoughts on the brevity of life by seeing the dew on the grass or the foam on the water; when yesterday all proud and splendid, they have fallen from fortune into loneliness; or when, having been dearly loved, they are neglected ...”
– Ki no Tsurayuki, Preface to Kokinshu: Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems (905 A.D.).

After a brief discussion of the prescribed texts, followed by any seminars which have been scheduled for this week, we'll move onto your responses to the writing exercise below:

Exercise 2:
Get on the Waka

Medieval Japanese poets wrote almost exclusively in the form then known as “waka” (now “tanka”). Most tanka compare or contrast the speaker's emotion to a seasonal phenomenon:

Although I am sure
That he will not be coming,
In the evening light
When the locusts shrilly call
I go to the door and wait.

- from Kokinshu (905 A.D.)

In English the lines are generally constructed as follows:

5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables
7 syllables
7 syllables

Roughly, a haiku-like image in 3-lines, then a couplet which turns the feeling in some way: literal or metaphorical.

Many modern English tanka poets in English have discarded the syllable count, which (in any case) only imperfectly reflects the original patterning of the Japanese verse-form. Some have replaced it with a pattern of stresses: 2-stress / 3-stress / 2-stress / 3-stress / 3-stress. Fopr the purposes of this exercise, only the five-line patterning needs to be kept, though you can observe syllable or stress counts if you wish.

  • Go outside your house for ten minutes.
  • In that time, you must find three images.
  • Come back and record them as baldly and directly as possible.
  • Turn each one into a 5-line tanka, trying to portray the image itself as vividly as you can.
  • Each poem should convey a particular feeling: joy, sadness, humour – something you want to communicate through the image.
  • Now write a short paragraph above each one, describing its context and making any further remarks you feel are necessary to understand it.

NB: You can find further information on the tanka form here.

Next week:

Exercise 3: Writing a Journal Entry and Seminars on Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year due.

[Mass graves for plague victims in Venice]

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