The Role of Poetry in Narrative Prose of the Heian Period

Prose is often used as a source of entertainment that can include elements of fiction and nonfiction. They are used in myths and legends that tell stories, of why things are and how they were meant to be. Meanwhile, poetry is largely used as a medium to express the writer’s innermost feelings. Inspirations for such poems can range from the poet’s past experiences, breath-taking scenery, or the passage of time. Poetry is often used in prose as a mechanic to show a character’s own thoughts and feelings; most of the characters’ poems never coincide with the writer’s own thoughts, except for rare cases. However, poetry can also be used as convention to add depth to the story. Those types of poems are simpler and do not have to be heavily contemplated to understand their meaning. Izumi Shikibu Nikki, Tosa Nikki, and Taketori monogatari all used poetry intermixed with prose and have shared, yet distinct properties.

The many poems shared between the Prince and the lady in Izumi Shikibu Nikki reflects normal exchanges between two lovers at the time. The first exchange between the Prince and the lady shows that they are interested in one another: “Sooner would I hear your voice--, Is it the same as his . . . Had I not recklessly, Opened my heart to you, And brought upon myself this pain . . .” (Izumi 132). As the story progresses, the poems begin to look similar to one another, as the lady and the Prince begin to constantly exchange poems following their first “meeting.” The two deeply loved each other, but they constantly expressed doubt towards the other: “When shall I hear, The muted singing . . . So strange a way of love: To meet, yet be unmet, All night long” (137). The poems were a clear sign of courtship, but circumstanc...

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...nt in prose, as they tend to focus on a single topic. Love and romance dominated most of the poetic themes in Izumi Shikibu Nikki and Taketori monogatari, while Tosa Nikki used poems to illustrate the writer’s despair of loosing his daughter but also included miscellaneous poems composed by others that “fit” a given situation. Although poems may serve different functions, they are integral in the art of storytelling and did have an enormous role in Japanese prose.

Works Cited

Keene, Donald. “Anthology of Japanese Literature.” 82-91. New York: Grove. 1955. Print.

Shikibu Izumi. “The Izumi Shikibu Diary; a romance of the Heian Court.” Translated by Edward A. Cranston. Cambridge: Harvard University. 1965. Web. 12 February 2011.

Taketori monogatari. Translated by Donald Keene. Laulima. Web. 12 February 2011.
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