‘The Tales of Ise’ by Anonymous

There are more transcendently beautiful things without category, I think, than there are such beautiful things within one. Or perhaps I am misreading Aristotle. Anyway, one more such thing to me is about 1,100 years or so removed from clipping. : the Heian court poems in the Tales of Ise (伊勢物語, Ise monogatari). Each of the Tales is a short story… technically. But the stories are each little frames for a single classical Japanese waka poem. Confusingly, thirty of the poems in this volume also appear in another Heian period anthology, the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集).

This poem is in both—though I recommend reading it in the Penguin translation of Ise for the framing story, and also to get a feel for how different translations of this kind of poetry are. I love waka poetry from the Heian period especially, because, like many of the speculative fiction shorts above, it evokes a whole world with so very little. I am currently learning some modern Japanese, and am not particularly talented at it, but I hope to persevere to be able to stumble though some of these poems and their frame stories in the original Late Old Japanese someday.

There is incidentally a beautiful illuminated copy of Ise from the 16th century at the British Library, which is fully digitised, though of course, it is much later than the period of the poems’ composition, and the illustrations reflect the Sengoku-period of the manuscript’s manufacture rather than the Heian one of the text.

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