Ise Monogatari

Ise Monogatari
(Tale of Ise)
(ninth century)
   Ise Monogatari is a ninth-century HEIAN Japanese collection of 125 short, sequential episodes. Each episode contains both prose and poetry that illustrate the life and times of an unnamed ideal man, perhaps Ariwara no Nirihira, a middle-ranking bureaucrat of imperial descent who died in 880. The collection begins with an anecdote about a young nobleman recently come of age, who has his first youthful infatuation with two sisters. This elicits his first famous love poem: The man caught a glimpse of them through a fence. His heart was taken immediately by the fact of such beauty going to waste in such an outdated place.He knew not what to do.Tearing off the sleeve of his hunting garment, he used it to write a poem to send to the ladies. He was wearing a pattern of disordered leaves and ferns:
   “Like young shoots of murasaki growing on
   the Kasuga Plain,
   I suddenly come upon you;
   My heart is as confused and unknowing as
   The random pattern of my sleeve.
   Is it hiding something?
   (Keene 1955, 67–68)
   As a fictional autobiography of an amorous hero, the work is an important formative step in the creation of Japanese prose fiction. The life portrayed is expressed through emotion, and thus Ise is not a biography or a diary, but an evocation of the moods and sentiments that represent the exemplary male aristocratic lifestyle in the Middle Heian period. Important themes of the work include how to achieve courtly elegance, how to be a successful lover, and how to be a good poet. Considerable critical debate exists about authorship of the work. Despite claims for Narihira, critics now generally agree that the work in its present form represents the accumulated labors of several authors (including Narihira, his sons, and his friends) who drew their materials from existing poetry collections and orally circulating tales. An interesting theory speculates that one of Narihira’s lovers, the poet and priestess Ise, either wrote or heavily edited the text.What is certain is that in its present form, Ise Monogatari is the result of a centuries-long process of accretion as copyists and editors added explications and poems, and rearranged the structure of the existing ones. Ise Monogatari, a classic from the time it was written, has been enormously influential in the development of Japanese literature by serving as a touchstone for Japanese taste for centuries. In addition Ise has provided the subject matter for numerous illustrations and decorative motifs throughout the history of Japanese painting.
   ■ Keene, Donald, ed. Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century. New York: Grove Press, 1955.
   ■ Konishi, Jinichi. A History of Japanese Literature. Translated by Aileen Gatten. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.
   ■ Vos, Fritz. A Study of the Ise-Monogatari with the Text According to the Den-Teika-Hippon and an Annotated Translation. The Hague:Mouton, 1957.
   Cynthia Ho

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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