Introductory Note

Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari), in its most familiar versions, is a collection of 125 uta-gatari (or uta-monogatari: literally, "poem tale[s]") presented as episodes in the life of Ariwara no Narihira (820-885), a nobleman celebrated as the greatest male poet of his age. Within a decade or so of his death, Narihira had become the legendary anti-hero of early Heian court society, exemplar of an ideal of sacrificing political favor, fortune and propriety for love and poetry. The legend of Narihira flourished for centuries and assured Tales of Ise a place -- equaled only by Kokinshū, The Tale of Genji, and Hyakunin isshu -- among the most-read and quoted classics of Japanese literature.

The term utagatari, as used in The Tale of Genji (where it is first attested), refers to an account of the circumstances of the composition of a memorable poem, typically a waka in the 31-syllable form. For Heian courtiers, among them the author of The Tale of Genji and her contemporaries, poetry was an indispensable medium of verbal expression: nothing of intense or sincere feeling could be adequately expressed in prose. Without poetry, one could hardly speak convincingly of love, resentment, delight or regret. It was a matter of much interest, therefore, to know not only the texts of outstanding poems of the past but something of their contexts, and this is what poem-tales meant to supply.

In this sense, poem-tales have something in common with the epigraphs or headnotes (kotobagaki) to poems in Kokinshū. The differences are telling, though, and are of interest because of the close relationship between Tales of Ise and Kokinshū: all 30 poems by Narihira in this anthology also appear in Tales of Ise, and the kotobagaki to about a third of these are among the longest in Kokinshū. Even the most extensive, though, are more concise than the respective utagatari in Tales of Ise, and since nothing distinctive is added to what appears in the respective episodes in Tales of Ise, the simplest assumption is that the editors of Kokinshū were quoting from a version of Tales of Ise which, as of around 905 (when a near-final draft of Kokinshū was likely published), already included those 30 poems and, arguably, no more. On this hypothesis, the source of poems by Narihira in Kokinshū was a much shorter text than the later 125-episode version of Tales of Ise, and the editors of Kokinshū cited poems from this and not from a version of Narihira's personal waka collection.

A majority of the poems of Narihira anthologized in Kokinshū are preceded by the kind of terse kotobagaki employed elsewhere, as a rule, to identify the "topic" (dai) of a poem. (That kotobagaki in Kokinshū are meant to specify a "topic" can be inferred from the fact that when no kotobagaki is given, the absence is noted by the term dai-shirazu [topic unknown].)  The term "topic" is used in an inclusive sense by the Kokinshū editors to cover both fixed and conventionalized topics of the kind prescribed in advance for participants in poetry matches (utaawase), and terse accounts of the circumstances under which an occasional poem was composed. The most extensive of the latter may look like would-be "poem-tales" pared down for the purposes of an anthology organized carefully by topical categories and sub-topical sequences. The differences are significant. For Ki no Tsurayuki et al., editors of Kokinshū, deviations from a conventional treatment of a prescribed topic which mark the singular occasion of composition more often than not must be glossed over to bring the poem into conformity with the demands of the topic and the precise placement of the poem in the anthology, sometimes to the extent that the original topic of a poem was altered (by taking a love poem as a seasonal poem, or vice versa, for example) to assure its fit in the context of Kokinshū. The kotobagaki of poems anthologized in Kokinshū, including those by Narihira, were meant to impose topical and esthetic order on the serendipity (if not chaos) of impromptu and often ad hoc compositions. Poem-tales, to the contrary, underscored just those deviations from convention which raised a poem above mere exemplification of a topic.

The question is why Tsurayuki and his co-editors departed from the rule of economy governing kotobagaki in Kokinshū to include such extensive prose headnotes for a fair number of Narihira's poems (most strikingly, KKS nos. 410, 411, 418, 632, 705, 747, 884, and 970). One explanation, noted above, would be that the Kokinshū editors are drawing upon an early version of Tales of Ise in circulation by the late 9th century. The relation between the kotobagaki in the Kokinshū and the present texts of Tales of Ise tends to support this hypothesis (although it has also been argued that the Ise authors are quoting and amplifying Kokinshū). In that case, Tsurayuki et al. may have felt obliged to quote at length from a text which had already achieved a reputation in its own right, especially when prefacing some of Narihira's most familiar poems.

Recalling Tsurayuki's characterization of Narihira's poetry in the Preface to Kokinshū by "a surplus of sense and deficit of words" (kokoro amarite kotoba tarazu), we may also wonder whether the exceptionally long kotobagaki were meant to make up the deficit with a supplement of prose. Whatever the explanation, the exceptional treatment accorded these poems in Kokinshū attests to the power the Narihira legend had acquired within two decades of his death.

Each of the episodes in Tales of Ise is composed, at the least, of an incipit -- most frequently the phrase "In the past, a man..." (or "A man of old...": mukashi otoko) -- followed by a brief account of a situation in the life of the hero (who is only intermittently identified as Narihira), and a poem composed impromptu and addressed to one or more persons who may or may not be present. The poem may be followed by a continuation of the narrative with one or more poems in response. Several episodes conclude with a brief comment which purports to be the work of an editor. Throughout, an esthetic rule of reticence dictates that the prose be restricted to what is necessary to account for the motives of the poetry, its immediate effects on those addressed, and nothing more; hence some of the difficulties of reading Tales of Ise as continuous narrative.

The first episode in most versions of the text recounts the coming-of-age of the hero and the last presents his death poem (jisei no uta), with the suggestion that the organizational principle of the text is biographical if not autobiographical. No external evidence remains to support this suggestion, and nothing certain is known of the authorship or genesis of the text. It appears to be based on a small core of poem-tales possibly authored by Narihira, but since much of the received text cannot have been composed before the 3rd or 4th decade of the 10th century, the most plausible guess is that texts edited in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, which are the basis of the most widely circulated versions of 125 episodes, were the result of an accretional process in which various editors added material to a late-9th century core text over a period of several decades, drawing on poems attributed to Narihira and supplementing these with poems and poem-tales by other authors.

For the most part scholars of the past two or three centuries have, on the evidence of the editorial comment which concludes the first episode, taken the unifying theme of Tales of Ise to be miyabi, a complex of esthetic values often translated as "elegance." Etymologically, miyabi derives from the word miya (palace), a metonym for the capital, and implies a privileged (more hereditary than cultivated) level of urbane sophistication sharply opposed to hinabi (rusticity, boorishness). The theme of miyabi is recurrent but hardly dominant, and apparently serves recent commentators as a euphemism for irogonomi (devotion to sensuality, eroticism) which, in coordination with a distaste for social and political proprieties, more aptly epitomizes the motives of the hero of Tales of Ise. The 14th century medieval exegetes who asserted in their esoteric commentaries on this text that Narihira, avatar of a Bodhisattva, had sexual relations with 3,733 women (all of them purportedly enlightened as a result) may have gone astray in their assessment of the soteriological realities, but perhaps came closer than many recent scholars to an appreciation of the effects of his poetry.

Lewis Cook
Queens College
City University of New York
New York City

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