An Old Acquaintance: Poem Number 57

Momoyama-period Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu by Kanō Takanobu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This next poem in our series devoted to women of the Hyakunin Isshu anthology is by one of the most famous women authors in Japanese history, Lady Murasaki:

めぐりあひてMeguri aiteAs I was wondering
見しやそれともMishi ya sore tomowhether or not I had seen it
わかぬ間にWakanu ma niby chance,
雲がくれにしKumo-gakure ni shiit became cloud-hidden,
夜半の月かげYowa no tsukikagethe face of the midnight moon!
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

Professor Mostow explains that the headnote for this poem describes an experience one night when Lady Murasaki had seen someone she had known long ago as a child, but she only saw them briefly in passing as they raced by. But there are many interpretations as to who that person had been. Many propose it was a fellow female acquaintance while others wonder if it was a male lover. Unfortunately we can’t be sure.

Lady Murasaki, known as murasaki shikibu (紫式部) in Japanese, was a somewhat unusual figure in the 11th century Heian Court, both for her talents and her personality. Compared to other women of that era, like Lady Izumi (poem 56) who was very passionate, and Sei Shonagon (poem 62) who was very bold and witty, Lady Murasaki was more introverted and sullen and prone to be alone, or exchange letters with other women who shared her frequent melancholy.

Lady Murasaki was among those rare women at the time who learned to read Classical Chinese, which normally was used by men of the Heian Court for official purposes, Buddhist liturgy, and of course Chinese-style poetry and literature. Women generally did not learn it, though the women listed above were exceptions. Indeed, Lady Murasaki’s father, Fujiwara no Tametoki, was said to have lamented that Lady Murasaki was born a woman, because her talents for literature was outstanding. In any case, it was Lady Murasaki’s talents that led her to being recruited as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shoshi along with other dynamic women of her generation. She is often depicted in Japanese art like the painting below (she is at the bottom-right):

Empress Shoshi and son
Tokyo National Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, we know very little about Lady Murasaki today, apart from her writings: the Tales of Genji, her poetry, and of course her eponymous diary which covers a year or two of her life while serving the powerful Fujiwara no Michinaga. We don’t even know her real name. The term murasaki (紫, “purple”) refers to one of her characters in the Tales of Genji, of which several drafts circulated the Heian Court and people started to call her by that name.

Nevertheless, Lady Murasaki’s reputation has always endured throughout Japanese history as an author and poet of the highest caliber, and has a following even among Western audiences as well. She is celebrated and revered throughout the generations, and like Lady Izumi, enjoys a following in Japan among younger generations of women today. This page is a tribute to her as well.

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