The Tale of Genji from Princesses to Pop


The lives of Heian elites, while filled with privilege, were constrained by the formalities of court etiquette and culture. Aristocratic women and men held distinct roles and inhabited separate realms. Although the women of the Heian court were highly educated and led lives of artistic refinement and leisure, they resided in closed quarters screened from view by anyone but their fathers and husbands. Courtship, whether clandestine or formal, was conducted entirely through poetry. Hence, poetry plays a vital role in the narrative of Genji.

The winding Tale is an erudite text filled with poetic reflections on the transitory beauty of nature, ruminations on the fragility of human life and love, and layered references to the literary and philosophic traditions of China and Japan. Containing more than 700 Waka poems, the fluid language of the Tale is an exercise in “miyabi” (courtliness) and an exploration of the Heian aesthetic of “mono aware” (the sadness or pathos of things).

As expressed by the literary scholar Haruo Shirane, “it is not fulfillment or frustration of desire that becomes the focus of the narrative so much as the elegant and elaborate process of courtship: the poetry, the carefully chosen words, the calligraphy, the choice of paper, the evocative scent, the overheard music. … Almost every aspect of social intercourse [in the Tale] is transformed into a highly refined aesthetic mode.”

In the works displayed here, we see examples of the beauty of Japanese paper, the delicacy of the calligrapher’s hand, and the relationship between poetry and the visual arts. Furthermore, we see the continued importance of poetry in imperial life, as the oblong and square poem cards were written by the imperial princesses as gifts for their tutor, Elizabeth Gray Vining (Class of 1923). 

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