The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is not a book of poetry as such. Rather it’s a collection of notes, lists and thoughts that have poetry at their heart. The book is from the last decade of tenth-century Japan.
Shonagon is not the author’s real name, it means ‘minor counsellor’, and she was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako during the 950s. Very little is known about Shonagon’s life, her family and what she did after the Empress’s death in 1000. Instead we have the minutiae of daily life at court, notes on nature, likes, dislikes and prejudices of a fiery and witty woman.
She must have been the Alexis Colby of her day. In one early passage she whacks a young man with a stick. Shonagon is passionate and driven. In one of the rare bits of biography we have about her, her contemporary Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the Tale of Genji, writes in her diary:
Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so presumptuously scatters about the place, we find they are full of imperfections. Someone who makes an effort to be different from others is bound to fall in people’s esteem, and I can only think that her future will be a hard one. She is a gifted woman, to be sure. Yet, if one gives free reign to one’s emotions even under the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous. And how can things turn out well for such a woman?
But it is just this willingness to sample each interesting thing—her sensitivity, detailed observation and sense of pathos—that delights me in her writing.
I am also amused by her prejudices; she is sickeningly loyal to the Imperial family and intolerant to those below her station. She’d certainly have despised someone from my background.
Things That Should Be Short
A piece of thread when one wants to sew something in a hurry.
A lamp stand.
The hair of a woman of the lower classes should be neat and short.
The speech of a young girl.
Much as Alexis Colby also would have been an awful woman to meet, they both certainly make for some fun. Shonagon is as direct as a sparky Joan Collins, and downright combative, when it comes to men. The book is full of their comings and goings and how frequently she is disappointed in them.
Things That Cannot Be Compared
Summer and winter. Night and day. Rain and sunshine. Youth and age. A person’s laughter and his anger. Black and white. The little indigo plant and the great philodendron. Rain and mist.
When one has stopped loving somebody, one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.
In a garden full of evergreens the crows are all asleep. Then, towards the middle of the night, the crows in one of the trees suddenly wake up in a great flurry and start flapping about. Their unrest spreads to the other trees, and soon all the birds have been startled from their sleep and are cawing in alarm. How different from the same crows in daytime!
I have the 1967 Penguin Classics edition with a translation by Ivan Morris. Translation is difficult at best, let alone between languages as disparate as Japanese and English. Whilst the poetic form is lost, the meaning is clear and the writing flows, the book is amply and unobtrusively annotated. The arrangement of the Pillow Book is not chronological, much of it is not even datable, but this makes it such a treat to dip into. There is something of worth and humour on every page and the many short passages make this easy to do.
Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster
Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing.To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.
It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.
Shonagon inhabits a fully sensual world. Much as Shikibu says Shonagon gives ‘free reign’ to her emotions, it is the detail in anticipating, seeing, hearing, feeling and analysing these emotions that I appreciate in Shonagon’s writing. Much as she’s wrapped up in the disciplines of court life there is a strong individuality. Not one kicking to get out of that position but certainly one kicking those beneath and around her so as to be herself. Whilst not the Empress, certainly one often the centre of attention.
Features That I Particularly Like
Features that I particularly like in someone’s face continue to give a thrill of delight however often I see the person. With pictures it is different. If I look at them too often, they cease to attract me; indeed I never so much as glance at the beautiful paintings on the screen that stands near my usual seat.
There is something really fascinating about beautiful faces. Though an object such as a vase or a fan may be ugly in general, there is always one particular part that one can gaze at with pleasure. One would expect this to apply to faces also; but, alas, there is nothing to recommend an ugly face.
What I take from the book is how Shonagon finds meaning in the everyday things around her, something I do in my own work and something that I always find relevant in poetry. The poetic can be found in the beautiful as much as the ugly, the poetry is sometimes in the juxtaposition or conversation of the two. We live in a very different world from hers but delights, frustrations, pettiness and pleasures are unchanged.