Thursday, July 17, 2008

"The greatest period of women writers in the history of any literature"

So says Kenneth Rexroth about Heian Japan, 794-1192. This is the period of Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji, Sei Shonagan's Pillow Book, and a quantity of poems that is hard to fathom, almost all of them in the five-line tanka stanza. How do specialists in the period keep them all straight?

Here is one of Lady Murasaki's poems, from the late 10th century:

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.

Yes, well, easier said than done.

If I skip ahead to the 17th century, when the haiku makes its appearance, not only are there no shortage of poems by women, but two of the best known haiku are by little girls. This one was written by Den Sute-Jo when she was six. Yes, as per A. A. Milne, when she was six:

A snowy morning
Everywhere II, II, II
The tracks of clogs.

That's pretty clever.

So what were women writers up to in the West during the classic period of Japanese literature? That's a trick question - what was anyone up to? It was the Dark Ages, for pity's sake. At least there's the example of Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century.

I'm with Virginia Woolf - the centuries of waste of women's talents is an indictment of Western civilization.* Make yourself a timeline. Start with Sappho in the 6th century B.C.E. Hildegard is next, I think, a gap of 1,700 years. We need another 200 years to get to Christine de Pisan. Things start to improve a bit in the 16th century - Marguerite de Navarre, Gaspara Stampa, Mary Sidney, St. Teresa de Avila. Not exactly parity, but real change. Who do we have in the 17th century? Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Madame de La Fayette's The Princess of Clèves, Madame de Sévigné. Aphra Behn, I guess, although I think she was a hack.

Meanwhile, in Japan, 6 year old girls were writing classic poems.

Translation are by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi, Women Poets of Japan, also published as The Burning Heart.

* Western civilization also has its good points.


  1. The roof is on, the new windows are in, and I have finally caught up on your postings. Enjoyed your photos and comments about Senegal.

  2. I'm very much enjoying The Pillow Book right now -- it's interesting to see just how important those poems were in their culture.

  3. "The Pillow Book" sounds like a must read, too. It's a different world there isn't it?

  4. We can fill that Hildegard-Cristina lacuna, somewhat! There's Marie of France, and Heloise. The Low Countries had a flourishing of influential women religious writers in the 13th century: Hadewijch of Antwerp, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Beatrijs of Nazareth, Marguerite Porete.

    There's St. Angela Foligno's revelations. Later you have St. Bridget of Sweden, which brings us up to Cristina's time.

    I would say Marie and Heloise are probably the most accessible to the lay-reader. The mystics require a bit more dedication. Some historical background regarding the Beguines and tertiary orders goes a long way towards having an understanding of their works.

  5. Implicitly, in an exercise like this, I am screening out writers in the category I think of as "for graduate students only," but sometimes mere existence is sufficient. Thanks for mentioning these writers. It has been interesting to read a little bit about them.

  6. Good point; though since they are not many, I am inclined to be inclusive. Nongraduates can handle Marie; one of the Lays is a werewolf tale.

    A couple other writers came to mind: Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, who were contemporary with Christine de Pisan.

    In the earlier lacuna, there is Egeria, who recorded her 380s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and Vibia Perpetua, who wrote a fascinating diary during her imprisonment in anticipation of her martyrdom (203). The latter might be the best bet for the lay-reader; family conflict, psychologically extreme states, dream-visions, all that thrilling stuff.

  7. Marie de France was a real oversight. Schoolkid stuff in France, junior high level (in modern translation).

    If we extend the West east just a bit, several medieval Byzantine writers could be included, too, not that I have read them. The Alexiad sounds readable.

  8. I read The Alexiad a few years ago. It's pretty readable - includes the first crusade, and shows the basic issues which were to dog the Byzantine Empire for the rest of its existence. Of course, she only took to writing because she suddenly had a lot of enforced time on her hands after her plot to murder her brother and stick her husband on the Byzantine throne was uncovered.