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Tales of Ise (Ise Monogatari)

Translated by Helen Craig McCullough

Stanford University Press, 1968; Pages: 277

Review © 2001 Branislav L. Slantchev

This anonymous loose collection of poems with brief prose prefaces is the oldest work in the uta monogatari genre that it established. Although it almost entirely comprises waka (traditional Japanese short poems), the prose vignettes that serve to contextualize the poetic exchanges can be seen as precursors to the later literary works by Heian nobles. This collection, already a classic at the height of the Heian period (794-1185), has been immensely influential for the development of Japanese literature. Evidence is easily found in the frequent allusions to its waka, both in fictional works and personal diaries. It is not an exaggeration to say that together with Kokinshu, the imperially commissioned anthology of 905, Ise monogatari has formed the requisite cultural and literary foundation for generations of aristocrats, and has served as the arbiter of taste for centuries.

Despite some claims that the famous poet Ariwara Narihira (825-80) was the author, there is scant evidence to support this thesis. In its present form, Ise monogatari seems to be the result of centuries-long process of accretion as copyists and editors added explications, poems, and rearranged the structure of the existing ones. The present translation is based on a version that stems from the line established by Fujiwara Teika in 1234, which includes the first 125 episodes, augmented by another 18 episodes missing from that collection. There are 209 poems, including most of the known ones by Ariwara Narihira and Ono no Komachi.

Helen McCullough supplies a lengthy introduction, which outlines the most important features of Japanese court poetry, especially in terms of Chinese influences and indigenous developments. She also discusses the six poetic geniuses, Rokkasen, who worked between 830-80. Of these, two are the most prominent. The ubiquitous and legendary Narihira, whose mastery of the form, wit, and imagination have been widely admired and imitated. Several of his most celebrated (and oft quoted) poems:

Is not the moon the same?
The spring
The spring of old?
Only this body of mine
Is the same body...
If you are what your name implies,
Let me ask you,
Does all go well
With my beloved?
or, one of my favorites,
If this were but a world
To which cherry blossoms
Were quite foreign,
Then perhaps in spring
Our hearts would know peace.
Despite his status, usually overshadowing the lesser luminaries in the collection, Narihira is not the best poet in my opinion. This honor should doubtless be reserved for Ono no Komachi, whose passion, elegance, and strength are evident in just about every single of her waka. Although I am tempted to provide many illustrations (e.g. all of her poems), it will suffice to just give the ones that have left an indelible impression on me (the first one is from Kokinshu but is available in the appendix)
On such a night as this
When the lack of moonlight shades your way to me,
I wake from sleep my passions blazing,
My breast a fire raging, exploding flame
While within me my heart chars.
or the delightfully confusing and filled with double meaning
In this bay
There is no seaweed.
Does he not know it---
The fisherman who persists in coming
Until his legs grow weary?
No wonder McCullough says of her that "in any society Ono no Komachi would have been a major poet."

Generally, the majority of poems in Ise monogatari deal with love, or its outgrowth, like abandonment, jealousy, doubt, or rejection. Most of the fictional context provides an interesting twist to what otherwise would have been quite bland expressions. The terseness of the form sometimes makes these comments indispensable. The translation is superb, and is supplemented with copious notes, explanations, and alternative renditions. Together with the introduction, the machinery provided by McCullough complements nicely her excellent interpretive work. So much, of course, is expected from someone with her stature and talent.

This collection is a great read. Although many poems stand on their own, perhaps the greatest dividends will be paid off upon reading later literature. It is a delight to recognize the allusions, quotes, and borrowings from Ise without the help of the translator.

October 12, 2001

    title     = {Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan},
    author    = {Helen Craig McCullough},
    year      = 1968,
    publisher = {Stanford University Press},
    address   = {Stanford},
    isbn      = {0-8047-0653-0},
    note      = {Translated by Helen Craig McCullough, index; Pp. 277}