Blog post by Rebecca Newby
Next Meeting: Thursday 16 July 2020, 16.00 – 18.00, to be held via Zoom
Comtessa de Dia
c. 970 – 1030, mid-Heian Japan
Izumi Shikibu was a poet at the Japanese imperial court in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, the middle years of the Heian period (794-1185). As a member of Empress Akiko’s entourage, she was a low-ranking member of the court under Emperor Ichijo (r. 986-1011). Nonetheless, her contemporaries recognised her exemplary poetic ability and in her own lifetime she became one of the ‘thirty-six immortals’ of Japanese poetry selected by prominent bureaucrat Fujiwara no Kintō. She married twice and was a lover to both Prince Tametaka and later his brother, Prince Atsumichi, after Tametaka’s death. As was standard for women of this period, her name is a composite of her husband’s role as governor of Izumi and father’s position as secretariat or master of ceremonies (‘Shikibu’). Yet her life of love and passion earned her the nickname of ‘The Floating Lady’.
Torn between worldly ties and physical desire, Izumi Shikibu left a wealth of passionate love poetry, fueling rumors that purported that she was a femme fatale with numerous lovers besides her two husbands and two princely lovers.
Chieko Mulhern, Japanese Women Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook (Greenwood Press, 1994), p. 154.
She composed verse in the tradition of court love poetry, and often combined romantic and erotic longing with lamentation about the sorrow and transience of life, and later Buddhist contemplation.
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Unaware of my black hair in disorder I lay,
when, first, he parted it; he’s the one I miss.
Shikibu’s celebrated ‘diary’ or ‘pillow-book’, Izumi Shikibu Nikki, recounts her affair with Prince Atsumichi over nine months (1003-1004), as well as other episodes at court, and has been published in several translations (see bibliography). The memoir, written in the third person (she calls herself ‘Onna’ or ‘The Woman’), includes 140 ‘waka’ poems rather than short ‘tanka’ poems, meaning that each one contains thirty-one syllables in five lines (5 + 7 + 5 +7 + 7). Imagining the thoughts of those involved in her memories, she weaves together a narrative of ‘alternate ardor and indifference on the part of the Prince, and timidity and yearning on the part of Izumi’.[i] Other major themes include Izumi’s search for consolation for the death of her first lover with his brother, and their fear of court gossip. The poems, which tend to be inserted between the prose ‘entries’ in ‘call and response’-type pairs, prompt the reader to pause and reflect, and present the experience of love as fantastical and dream-like.
Because I planted
A cherry tree at a house
That nobody visits,
I now use the cherry flowers
To beautify myself.
The cherry tree
In my garden has blossomed,
But it does no good:
The woman, and not a tree,
Is what draws the visitors.
Izumi’s style and panache sustained her fame through the Middle Ages in Japan, making her a celebrity in the Muromachi period (1333-1568), and she continues to be regarded as one of the foremost poets of the Golden Age of Japan:
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.
Edwin A. Cranston, ‘The Poetry of Izumi Shikibu’, Monumenta Nipponica, 25.1 (1970), 1-11 (p. 1).
Qasmūna bint Ismā’il
c. 12th century (possibly 11th century), Andalusia
Qasmūna was an Arabic-language Jewish poet based in medieval Andalusia (Spain), and was most likely active during the twelfth century. She was one of the very few Arabic-writing women poets of the Iberian Peninsula whose work has been preserved, and her Jewish faith makes her unique in this group. Little else is known about her life. The fifteenth-century compiler as-Suyūtī records a few biographical details about Qasmūna, including her close relationship with her father, who apparently provided her with an education and consistently challenged her poetic wit and expertise. Her poetry also suggests that she was beautiful, and that she was unmarried. Only three survive. One of them appears to be an exchange between Qasmūna and her father, placed into rhyming couplets, in which he prompts her to ‘finish the verse’, and she turns his complaint about a woman into an ‘astronomical simile’:
I have a friend whose […] has repaid good with evil,
considering lawful that which is forbidden to her.[ii]
Just like the sun, from which the moon derives its light
always, yet afterward eclipses the sun’s body.
The offender in question has presumably overstepped the bounds pertaining to her as a woman. Here she is recast as an ungracious moon, who periodically obscures her generous benefactor, the sun, without whom she cannot shine. Qasmūna thus takes the old Arabic formula which commonly compared the face of the lover to the full moon and creates a new analogy that emphasises the moon’s dependence upon the sun.
In the preamble to her most famous poem, she reflects that she is beautiful, but laments that she is not yet married:
I see an orchard
Where the time has come
But I do not see
A gardener reaching out a hand
Towards its fruits.
Youth goes, vanishing; I wait alone
For somebody I do not wish to name.
The speaker imagines herself to be a fruit-bearing garden ripe for picking, suggesting a desire for romantic relations and perhaps also for children. As James Mansfield Nichols writes, the delicate imagery and formal properties of Qasmūna’s verse distinguish her from the ‘boldy amorous’ and ‘teasing’ poems of her Hispano-Arabic peers. She ‘expresses a consciousness of her own charms with modest indirection’, and her laconic poetry is infused with a profound sense of solitude and a longing for companionship.[iii] In fact, we find the word for ‘alone’ (mufrad) in the penultimate line of the poem above repeated in her contemplation of a wild deer, whose reclusive grace and beautiful eyes remind her of her own isolation. There is an emotional intensity to her work that speaks across the ages.
Slender though her poetic legacy is, it is enough to establish Qasmuna as a distinct voice from twelfth-century Judeo-Muslim culture. She survives as a unique representative of her time and place: a cultured Jewish woman steeped in Arabic literature and writing on Iberian soil. Her poems show polish and give hints of an original mind capable of bending the old formulas to its own ends.
James Mansfield Nichols, ‘The Arabic Verses of Qasmūna bint Ismāʿil ibn Bagdālah’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 13 (1981), 155-58 (p. 158).
La Comtessa de Dia (Beatriz?)
c. 1175 – 1212, Occitan trobairitz (female troubadour)
Comtessa de Dia was a trobairitz or female troubadour in the Provençal region during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. She was in fact one of around twenty-one trobairtitz who participated in the literary culture of the troubadours during this period, who typically idealised their domna (courtly lady) through song.
In this light, we are extraordinarily fortunate to possess a group of songs that tell us what the normally silent domna of troubadour lyric actually said when she sang in her own voice.
Matilda Bruckner, ‘The Women Troubadours’, Speculum, 67.4 (1992), 865-891 (pp. 867-8).
The Comtessa seems to have moved in prominent circles. According to her vida (biography), she was married to William of Poitiers but her love poems appear to be addressed to Raimbaut d’Aurenga, although some scholars have associated her with his nephew of the same name, Raimbaut IV.[iv] Matilda Bruckner, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White have also found intertextual connections between the Comtessa’s lyrics and that of notable troubadours Bernart de Ventadorn and Azalais Porcairagues.[v] These songs, composed in the Occitan language or langue d’oc, are set to the music of the flute; four cansos (stanzaic love poem) and one tenso (debate) survive. A chanter m’er de so qu’ieu non volria / I must sing a song I’d rather not, in which she plays the part of a betrayed lover, is the sole cansos by a trobairitz to survive with its music intact in Le manuscript di roi (c. 1270) of Charles of Anjou:
I must sing of what I’d rather not,
I’m so angry about him whose friend I am
for I love him more than anything;
mercy and courtliness don’t help me
with him, nor does my beauty, or my rank, or my mind;
for I am every bit as betrayed and wronged
as I’d deserve to be if I were ugly.
It comforts me that I have done no wrong
to you, my friend, through any action;
indeed, I love you more than Seguis loved Valenssa;
it pleases me to outdo you in loving,
friend, for you are the most valiant;
you offer prideful words and looks to me
but are gracious to every other person.
The singer is angry with her lover because he has ‘wronged’ her, though she herself has given him no cause for this betrayal and loves him more than anything. Significantly, however, this betrayal does not seem affect the speaker’s sense that she is worthy of his love. She continues to praise her own perfect nobility and beauty, and repeatedly warns her lover that his excessive pride will only bring harm to him in the end. The speaker’s steadfast confidence in herself and her abilities might reflect the complex position that the trobairitz herself occupied in troubadour lyrics: as she sings, the usually silent lady moves into the position of the lover, but in the system of courtly values, she cannot full vacate the role of domna, since the male addressee cannot replace her without upsetting the normative hierarchy. Thus, the Comtessa develops a paradoxical portrait of a domna through her complaint as a lover, and shows that far from being shackled to tradition, the trobairitz had something altogether different to say from their male counterparts.
The women poets insistently refer to themselves as domna, but they allow that designation a range of variations that exceeds the troubadours’ desire to fix her in the positive mode of their hopes and desires or the negative one of their fears and complaints.
Bruckner, p. 877.
c. 1462 – 1500, Wales
Gwerful Mechain was a Welsh-language poet famous for her erotic and devotional poems, and her ‘cywydd’ to Jesus Christ is extant in at least forty-nine manuscripts.[vi] Katie Gramich observes that the survival of a substantial number of her poems testifies first to the ‘full participation’ of women in the dominant Welsh bardic tradition, not as a fringe group, but as a central part of the culture, but also to the perceived compatibility of religious devotion and jubilant sexuality during this period.[vii] Her body of work shows her engaging in poetic dialogues with her male peers, in which she often rebukes them for the exclusiveness of their gendered perspectives, and for their failure to appreciate the female body. In fact, perhaps her most deliberately provocative work is I’r cedor, or To the Vagina (c. 1480), in which she responds to Dafydd Llwyd of Mathafarn’s Cywydd y Gal, a poem in praise of the penis:
I proclaim that the quim is fine,
Circle of broad-edged lips divine,
It’s a valley, longer than a spoon or hand,
A cwm to hold a penis strong and grand;
A vagina there by the swelling bum,
Two lines of red to song must come.
And the churchmen all, the radiant saints,
When they get the chance, have no restraints,
They never fail their chance to steal,
By Saint Beuno, to give it a good feel.
So I hope you feel well and truly told off,
All you proud male poets, you dare not scoff,
Let songs to the quim grow and thrive
Find their due reward and survive.
For it is silky soft, the sultan of an ode,
A little seam, a curtain on a hole bestowed,
Neat flaps in a place of meeting,
The sour grove, circle of greeting,
Superb forest, faultless gift to squeeze,
Fur for a fine pair of balls, tender frieze,
A girl’s thick glade, it is full of love,
Lovely bush, blessed be it by God above.
The two poets were apparently close friends, and this piece has the feel of a comeback in a playful conversation. Indeed, Gramich has managed to capture the humour, energy, and gleeful sexuality of Gwerful’s verse in her translation, as well as the structural patterns (including the rhyming couplets!). The poem is full of graphic praise of female genitalia, and Gwerful wonderfully admonishes ‘male poets’ for beating around the bush, for concentrating their compliments on the top half of the female form, and not below the waist (as they should). Gramich also notes that Gwerful’s erotic verse has a strong oral quality, and her metre seems to be full of deliberate ‘faults’ – a kind of formal rule-breaking to match her irreverent theme. Gwerful is certainly a far cry from the traditional idea of ‘the poetess’ who was expected to be delicate and modest and, whose poetry, in Germaine Greer’s words, was expected to be ‘deodorized, depilated and submissive’:
Fortunately, there is nothing ‘deodorized, depilated and submissive’ about Gwerful Mechain. Indeed, I would argue that it is her very lack of inhibition and her head-on engagement with the ‘gut truths of womanhood’ that has prevented most of her work from seeing the light of day until quite recently.
Katie Gramich, Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry (Cardiff: Cardiff University, 2005), p. 3.
All the more reason for us to read her now!
What do these poets have in common, if anything? What does this reveal about women poets of the medieval period?
What do the themes / subjects chosen by these poets reveal about the position of women (and their concerns) in the Middle Ages? Does anything surprise you?
How is the female psyche, voice, and body represented in these poems?
Are there any ways in which the ‘eastern’ poems differ from the ‘western’ poems, and vice versa? How so?
Does anything strike you about the form and structure of these poems? What do you think is lost when we read these poems in translation?
What are the rhetorical ends of these poems? How are they similar/different?
Aubrey, Elizabeth, The Music of the Troubadours (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000)
Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, eds., Songs of the Women Troubadours (New York: Garland, 2000)
Cartwright, Mark, ‘Izumi Shikibu’, Ancient History Encyclopedia (18 May 2017) <https://www.ancient.eu/Izumi_Shikibu/.> [last accessed 12 July 2020]
Cranston, Edwin A., The Izumi Shikibu Diary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969)
Cranston, Edwin A., ‘The Poetry of Izumi Shikibu’, Monumenta Nipponica, 25.1 (1970), 1-11
Gramich, Katie, Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry (Cardiff: Cardiff University, 2005)
Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi, The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, trans. by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani (New York: Vintage Books, 1990)
Keene, Donald, Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)
Marks, Claude, Pilgrims, Heretics, and Lovers: A Medieval Journey (New York: Macmillan, 1975)
Mulhern, Chieko, Japanese Women Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994)
Nichols, James Mansfield, ‘The Arabic Verses of Qasmūna bint Ismāʿil ibn Bagdālah’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 13 (1981), 155-58
Qasmuna bint Isma’il, ‘Seeing Herself Beautiful and Nubile’, trans. by Christopher Middleton and Leticia Garza-Falcón, in Arabic Poems: A Bilingual Edition, ed. by Marlé Hammond (New York: Everyman, 2014)
Qasmuna bint Ismal’il, ‘Ah, Gazelle’, in The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, ed. and trans. by Peter Cole (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007)
Thiébaux, Marcelle, The Writings of Medieval Women (New York and London: Garland, 1994)
Wallace, J. R., ‘Reading the Rhetoric of Seduction in Izumi Shikibu Nikki’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 58.2 (1998), 481-512
Whitney Hall, John, The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
 Seguin and Valensa are legendary lovers in a lost romance. The only other mention of this mythical couple is found in a song from the twelfth century by Arnaut de Marueil called Tant m’abellis e. m plaz.
[i] Edwin A. Cranston, The Izumi Shikibu Diary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969)
- 15, 17, 203, 205.
[ii] Nichols considers the missing word here to be a word denoting a woman of some kind.
[iii] James Mansfield Nichols, ‘The Arabic Verses of Qasmūna bint Ismāʿil ibn Bagdālah’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 13 (1981), 155-58 (p. 155).
[iv] Marcelle Thiébaux, The Writings of Medieval Women (New York and London: Garland, 1994); Claude Marks, Pilgrims, Heretics, and Lovers: A Medieval Journey (New York: Macmillan, 1975).
[v] Songs of the Women Troubadours, ed. by Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White (New York: Garland, 2000), p. 126.
[vi] Katie Gramich, Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry (Cardiff: Cardiff University, 2005), p. 3.
[vii] Gramich, p. 1.