There are a few unpleasant
characteristics in Sei Shonagon, things we can't understand today, such as snobbery
, because they seem to conflict
with the wonderfully touching
character that emerges from so much of her writing.
It was a clear, moonlit night a little after the tenth of the Eighth Month. Her Majesty, who was residing in the Empress's Office, sat by the edge of the veranda while Ukon no Naishi played the flute for her. The other ladies in attendance sat together, talking and laughing, but I stayed by myself, leaning against one of the pillars between the main hall and the veranda.
'Why so silent?' said Her Majesty. 'Say something. It is sad when you do not speak.'
'I am gazing into the autumn moon,' I replied.
'Ah yes,' she remarked. 'That is just what you should have said.'
Sei Shonagon was devoted to her imperial mistress
, but here you feel she loved silence
and the moon
Japanese ladies were expected to write poetry in pure Japanese, and were not supposed to know Chinese, which the men used liberally, as with Latin in Europe. Sei Shonagon did write exquisite and pure Japanese, but was proficient in Chinese. It is another of her charms that she can banter with the men as an equal. She understands the classical allusions and replies in kind.
It seems she was rather free with her sexual favours. It gives her a liberated feel to us reading now. In the Heian court it was perhaps another thing that made her a bit of an outsider, and disapproved of. But it was still within the mores of the period, and she wrote of her lovers.
She numbered three things that are near though distant: paradise; the course of a boat; relations between men and women.
She analyses forms of etiquette between lovers: such as the devotion of one who, on arriving home after spending a night with his beloved, carefully writes her a poem. She imagines the colours of their clothes and the silky bloom of them, the delightful disarray of their hair, the dew on the morning glory. There is no line between analysis, description, musing, short story. She loves having lovers in the moonlight, and stirring in those last moments before dawn. A gong from a temple, the cries of birds. Amid their own murmuring they share those muffled sounds outside.
I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.
Translations by Ivan Morris, in Penguin.
As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.