High ideals

In the West the Beau ideal of the poet, that cherished image we carry with us consciously or unconsciously, usually resembles Shelley or Keats -- often, particularly on the Continent, Byron -- or at any rate someone like them. We envisage their large liminous eyes and tossing locks, their aura of romantic melancholy. The blithe singer, his cohorts in purple on gold, comes to the mind. For centuries these men and their peers have been the sweet minstrels who have borne us on their wings, in spite of their dire popularity with examiners in English literature.

Here in this striking, memorable picture is a Japanese equivalent of these inspired visionaries, the poet Taira-No-Kanemori of the Heian period, who died in 990, and who is one of the "Thirty-six Immortals" of the Japanese. (These poets formed a favorite theme for Japanese artists, as well as a somewhate elastic one, since the individuals vary in every way.) The picture is an idealized portrait of the poet; it was painted during the Fujiwara (1185-1333) as a section of a handscroll, on paper in ink, white and light color, and is now mounted as a hanging scroll.

Taira-no-Kanemori, dressed in contemporary custom -- the Fujiwara starched robe and high headress -- is depicted at a moment of triumph: he has just won a poetry contest, an event of great significance during the Heian. The beautiful calligraphy (Chinese on the right, Japanese on the left) presents a brief biography of the victor as well as his poem, a highly stylized wakim of 31 syllables. The sadness of the verse and the fact that it is given here in both languages are consonant with Heian preferences. "As I count," it runs, "the years and months have piled on me. Why should anyone prepare for bidding farewell to one year and welcoming another?"

It is the sort of poem which, resting on the elegance of its phrasing and its ability to evoke a fleeting moment, is impossible to translate properly. By the time the picture was painted, Japan was no longer in tune with Heian sensibility -- a mood Gilbert would epitomize in his poet who says, "Look at me and think of faint lilies." New and more aggressive elements were thrusting the Heian ideals aside with their ancient exotic influences.

A native art mode called Yamato-e (Japanese picture) was coming into vogue. This was a decorative style with a dominant motive, its emphasis on patterns, color, form, texture. The brush line, so important in Chinese painting, and hence in Japanese, was now used frankly as a boundary without its old importance.

The Heian conservatives who lingered on into the Fujiwara thought the new ideas vulgar and barbarous, fit only for the narrative scroll they affected to despise. A cultural struggle was being waged in which the old aristocracy used its superior literacy as a weapon -- it could portray life in literary terms, and a poetry contest gave evidence of its intellectual powers. This scroll may have been painted by Nobuzane, a master of the Yamato-e, but whose heart was in the past. A court painter and the son of a court painter, he was aware of the limitations of the old traditions, yet found himself "an unwilling member of the new age," as he adopted elements of the new style into his work.

During the Heian the Japanese had adored Chinese poetry, from which they would quote extensively, while being themselves ardent and insatiable versifiers. Poetry was the medium for the ordinary interchange of notes, and promotions at Court as well as advancement in the civil service rested to a considerable degree on a proficiency in the art. Among the hundreds of thousands of resulting verses some were actually very good indeed.

Women were at least as adept as men in the quick composition of pertinent stanzas, and they too could aspire through this talent to court appointments, such as attendance upon the empress, a position that might enable the possessor to wield a certain influence. But they seem to have been indifferent to politics or the condition of the country -- what captured their imagination was the themes of nature, manners, and personal relationships which translated into plum blossoms, the first snow, sighs, and transience.

As everyone knows, the chief writers of the epoch were women: The Tale of Genji,m by Lady Murasaki, Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book,m and Lady Sarashina's As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreamsm are masterpieces which are still widely read. Through their deceptively slight but pungent comments the Helen lives for us with its courtly ceremonies, its hierarchy, and the posturings of the nobility. It was this world which the Fujiwara swept away, but even the viril warrior elite could not ultimately affect the inevitable fact that the pen is mightier than the sword.

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