Izumi Shikibu Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Izumi Shikibu c. 974-c. 1034

Japanese poet and diarist.

Considered one of the greatest Japanese Court poets and the greatest female Japanese poet, Izumi is the author of the Izumi Shikibu nikki [The Diary of Izumi Shikibu] (1008?), a somewhat fictionalized account of an intensely passionate love affair with Prince Atsumichi. It is one of the principal court diaries of the Heian period (794-1186) in Japanese literature. Writing during the middle of this period—which has been termed the golden age of Court poetry, a time of leisure for many of those holding positions in the Court—Izumi and other poets took advantage of their opportunity and surroundings by cultivating and refining their craft to an extent previously unrealized. Throughout the Diary Izumi effortlessly shifts points of view, demonstrating both an original technique and thorough command of her art. Izumi composed more than 1500 poems, generally in the tanka form; consisting of 31 syllables arranged in five lines these often erotic writings concerning her many lovers brought her both praise and scandal. Since her lovers included two imperial princes, Izumi was the source of much Court gossip, but few challenged her ability as a poet.

Biographical Information

Uncontested facts concerning Izumi's life are scarce. Much of what is presumed about her comes from the Diary, which clearly contains some elements of fiction. Scholars generally accept that Izumi was born around 974, a time in which Japanese women poets were revered. The daughter of Oe no Masamune, a mid-level Court official and the Lord of Echizen, Izumi (who as a girl was perhaps called Omotomaro by her family) was raised in the Court of the Grand Empress Dowager Masako. Izumi was married in 995 to Tachibana no Michisada, who was Lord of Izumi, the source for her name; Shikibu is a title referring to her Court position. Together they had a child, Koshikibu, who was later to become a famous poet herself. Izumi separated from her husband, who died not long after, and became the lover of Prince Tametaka. Tametaka died not long after, in 1002. His death at age twenty-six resulted in Court gossip because it was believed that he fell victim to an epidemic, having become weakened by frequent night-time sexual visits to Izumi. In 1003 Izumi became the lover of Tametaka's half-brother, Prince Atsumichi. It is the affair with Atsumichi that serves as the basis for Izumi's Diary. Although their love affair was at first kept secret, eventually Atsumichi prevailed upon Izumi to move into his palace as one of his ladies. Outraged that Atsumichi lavished attention upon Izumi, the Princess deserted her husband by withdrawing for a long trip and scandal continued until Izumi left the palace in 1004. When Atsumichi died in 1007, Izumi mourned her loss of him in the composition of over one hundred poems. Izumi was later (possibly in 1009) called to Kioto to serve Empress Akiko as lady-in-waiting. In her court served another celebrated poet, Murasaki Shikibu, and the relationship between the two writers was at times strained. Izumi married a second time, to Fujiwara Yasumasa, Lord of Tango. Legend has it that Izumi spent her final years in a Buddhist temple.

Major Works

When Izumi was quite young the imperial anthology Shuishu included one of her poems in its selections. The next edition of the anthology, the Goshuishu, included sixty-seven of her compositions. The Diary of Izumi Shikibu is a romance consisting of 47 pages in the original edition, averaging about three poems per page, intermixed with prose. The work, which deftly interweaves the two forms, was "written with extreme delicacy of treatment," with "evanescent, half-expressed sentences," as translator Annie Shepley Omori has described it. In trying to capture this quality, Omori and other translators have rendered Izumi's poetry in third-person form. The Diary is not a diary in the sense commonly taken today; Janet A. Walker has explained that the term diary "did not necessarily indicate that it was a record of events set down on particular days by a single individual, but rather that it was arranged in a pattern which followed the flow of seasons and the yearly social events at the court." As Edwin A. Cranston has described it, the Diary contains "simultaneous or almost simultaneous scenes in different places, imagined conversations, and descriptions of the thoughts and feelings of different people." The Diary charts the ebb and flow of the Prince's desire for Izumi and her alternating shyness and boldness concerning their affair. Many unions or near-unions of the lovers are described, as are many periods of waiting; throughout there is an emphasis on the seasons and their relation to the moods of the lovers. Various collections of Izumi's other poems have been made; the most important of these is entitled the Izumi Shikibu kashu (date of compilation unknown). Many versions of it exist, as is the case with the Diary, and these editions, spanning hundreds of years, exhibit a wide range in the number of poems included. Izumi also wrote extraordinarily acclaimed religious poetry and was believed by many contemporaries to be searching for a transcendent truth.

Critical Reception

Izumi's talent was recognized in her lifetime but her reputation continued to grow after her death, and now she is considered one of the greatest poets of the golden age of female Court poets. Scholar Amy Lowell has stated that in Japan, Izumi's poems "are considered never to have been excelled in freshness and freedom of expression." Cranston has quoted an appraisal of her work found in a modern Japanese biographical dictionary: "Her poems are passionate and free, exploding with brilliance; the wealth of her imagination is like heavenly chargers coursing the void; and her freedom of expression is rare. She must be accounted the first poetess of our land." An area of some dispute in Izumi studies is the generally-criticized happy ending of the Diary. That the ending is written entirely in prose is radically different than what precedes it is not contested; the disagreement concerns Izumi's intent in rendering the ending in a different style. The question of authorship of the Diary has also been a recurring one. Earl Miner has explained that before 1233, there was no ascription of authorship. In 1233 Fujiwara Teika credited the Diary to Izumi. There the matter rested for seven hundred years until a hypothesis gained attention that a later writer had composed the work and had created a fictional diarist. Gradually over the following decades this notion fell out of favor and scholars now generally accept that Izumi was indeed the author of the Diary, although they disagree on the extent of its fictionalization. Miner has mentioned two main arguments against Izumi as author: that there is no clear mention of the Diary until the twelfth century and none of its poemsare found in an imperial collection in Izumi's time. Many critics find the question of authorship irrelevant, commenting that, whether Izumi wrote the Diary or someone else did, the work is incontrovertibly brilliant.