During the Heian period, waka (Japanese poetry) was very prominent in society especially among women of the court. Most were written in kana (language used by women). Waka during this period often used the tanka style which is 5-7-5-7-7 syllables per line totaling 31 syllables for the whole poem. The tanka form was popular for people of every social class but it was especially popular among aristocrats and people of the court. In the courts, poems were used politically to increase one’s status or in competition with a rival from court. It was also commonly used as a form of courtship where you would try to win a girl over with a poem rather than by looks and appearance such as in today’s society. Therefore love poems were especially common during this period where lovers would send poems back and forth to each as a form of communication. Poetry can also be seen in a lot of works during this period such as in monogatari and nikki bungaku. Although many poems and stories during this period deal with love, among other things, very few of them deal with hope or end in happiness. The role that poetry served in these works was to serve as a way to express unhappiness and unfulfilled desires during the period which could be attributed to the strong and constant rivalry in the courts. For the purposes of this paper, I will only go over the monogatari and nikki bungaku found during the Heian period.
In monogatari, we see poetry used in a lot of the stories as well as the themes of love and unhappiness. Monogatari translates into “talk of things” which basically describes the storytelling of the ladies of the court during the Heian period. Some examples of poetry in monogatari can be found in Uta monogatari Tsukuri monogatari, giko monogatari, Rekishi Monogatari, Ise monogatari, and Taketori monogatari.
Taketori Monogatari tells the story of an old bamboo cutter that finds a miniature girl in a bamboo stalk. He brings her home and he along with his wife raises the girl as their own daughter, as they were unable to have children of their own. She grows at an extremely fast rate and becomes possible the most beautiful woman in Japan. She has a lot of suitors that she declines and we find out the reason for that is because she is from the moon. In the end, the people of the moon take her back leaving everyone that knew her, including the emperor himself, extremely unhappy and sad. Even from this story, often referred to as the first romance novel, it ends unhappily.
The Tales of Ise is a collection of verse written primarily by poet Ariwara no Narihira. In it, the stories are written with narrative prose in some parts and poetry in other parts. We see the recurring themes of love without happiness and the longing of unfulfilled desires. This is the very first poem followed by many more in The Tales of Ise. Young maiden-flowers of Kasuga, you dye my cloak; and wildly like them grows this passion in my heart, abundantly, without end. ...