Poets in Exile: The Tale of Genji, Ovid’s Tristia, and Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape

tale of genji dennis washburn 51lpKmqt3yL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Tonight I’m writing about three books:  Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Ovid’s Tristia (Sad Things), and Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape. Don’t worry:  I shall connect them!

First, The Tale of Genji.  I skipped last week’s post on Genji. Sorry.  It is not that I’m not enjoying this eleventh-century romance  (often referred to as a novel) about court life in Heian Japan.  Quite the contrary.  It has vivid characters, and an intriguing, if rambling, plot:  Genji the womanizer has a lot in common with many literary seducers:  Vronksy (Anna Karenina) , Tom Jones, Byron, Count Dracula, and Ovid’s persona in his love elegies.

But most important, this long prose narrative was written by a Japanese woman at the Heian court.

Though women dominated the literature of the mid-Heian period in Japan (who knew?), Murasaki’s Genji is “the supreme prose masterpiece of Japanese literature,” says translator Edward G. Seidensticker.  I  am alternating between Edward G. Seidensticker’s  graceful translation (Knopf, 1976)  and the scholar Dennis Washburn’s solid, readable  one, which has excellent footnotes (Norton , 2015).

Shikibu’s long narrative is easy reading, once you get the hang of it (and a few hundred footnotes!).  She tells the story of Genji, the beautiful, brilliant son of the emperor’s favorite concubine.  Genji is a talented poet and musician who wins competitions in these arts at court.  Everyone respects him.  If only Obama would institute poetry contests in the U.S. government (though most of those senators don’t look too poetic)!

But, alas, Genji is not just a poet:  he is also the immoral seducer of innumerable women.  The love of his life is Fujitsubo, his own father’s consort (yes, astonishing! and isn’t that incest?).  She gives birth to Genji’s son,  and has no choice but to pretend the baby is the emperor’s. The stress and Genji’s badgering after she ends the affair drives  into a nunnery to escape his  attentions after the Emperor’s death.

As you can imagine, Shikibu, a woman writer, admires Genji’s charm but does not  approve the consequences for many of the women. (Heartbreak, pregnancy, trauma, infrequent visits or unwanted visits.)  Some of this is drama, some of this is satire.  There are occasional authorial comments, and she also allows us, in the course of a mostly impartial narrative, a few windows into the women’s minds.

The plot rambles wildly.  In one chapter, the narrative descends into a ghost story!  One of Genji’s most elegant but neglected girlfriends, the Rokujo lady, possesses the spirit of Genji’s sick wife.  A tale of possession!  Genji recognizes her spirit and communicates with her.  And his wife dies!  The Rokujo lady knows things have gone too far, and she follows her priestess daughter out of the city to a temple, despite Genji’s protestst of love.

And then it happens.  Genji is exiled!  Well, it is the result of a court intrigue, and not for anything serious, but he has always gotten away with everything.  He is having an affair with Oborozukiyo, the sister of the spiteful Kokiden, who is the wife of Genji’s late father and is the mother of the new emperor, Suzaki. Kokiden hates Genji and views him as a threat to Suzaki.  She uses his immorality as an excuse to bring him down.  She bullies her son, into stripping Genji of his rank.  Humiliated, Genji goes into exile at Suma.  Shikibu  describes  Suma as a site

 …in ancient times…where the nobility had built villas and estates. He heard, however, that it was now a desolate, deserted backwater dotted with a scattering of fishermen’s huts. He no longer wanted to stay on in a residence where throngs of people bustled in and out, and yet he knew he would certainly be anxious about his household affairs should he go far away from the capital. His predicament left him confused and indecisive.

Ovid the poems of exile 41PN5KVZB3L._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_As a classicist, I was also  reminded of Ovid’s Tristia, a long poem he wrote after he was exiled to an uninhabitable small island by the Emperor Augustus, who was trying to legislate morality,  for carmen et error (a poem and an error).  The island of Tomis was far wilder and unforgiving than Genji’s Suma.  The poem for which he was banished is thought to be Ars Amatoria, The Art of Love, a guide to seduction.

In Gilbert Highet’s brilliant book, Poets in a Landscape, he observes, “Immoral Ovid was, but he had high standards of art.”  Even Augustus laughed at Ovid’s humorous poems about love.  But suddenly…

Ovid was accused of high treason and sent ln to exile for the rest of his life. Aged fifty, he was banished to the remote frontier post of Tomis, now Constanta, on the Romanian coast of the Black Sea.   He lingered there for nearly ten years, writing pathetic letters home, begging the emperor for mercy, protesting his partial innocence; then he died, still unforgiven.  No one to this day knows why the most popular and distinguished poet in Rome was suddenly arrested and expelled from life.  He himself knew, but did not dare to say.

Here is an excerpt from Ovid’s Tristia, III. X, translated by A. S. Kline and posted online.

If anyone there still remembers exiled Ovid,

if my name’s alive in the city now I’m gone,

let him know that, beneath the stars that never

touch the sea, I live among the barbarian races.

The Sarmatians, a wild tribe, surround me, the Bessi

and the Getae, names unworthy of my wit!

While the warm winds still blow, the Danube between

defends us: with his flood he prevents war.

And when dark winter shows its icy face,

and the earth is white with marbled frost,

when Boreas and the snow constrain life under the Bears,

those tribes must be hard-pressed by the shivering sky.

Snow falls, and, once fallen, no rain or sunlight melts it,

since the north wind, freezing, makes it permanent.

So another fall comes before the first has melted,

and in many parts it lingers there two years.

The power of Aquilo’s northern gales is such

it razes high towers, and blows away the roofs.

Men keep out the dreadful cold with sewn trousers

and furs: the face alone appears of the whole body.

Often their hair tinkles with hanging icicles,

and their beards gleam white with a coat of frost.

Wine stands exposed, holding the shape of the jar,

and they don’t drink draughts of mead, but frozen lumps.

Shall I speak of solid rivers, frozen by cold,

and water dug out brittle from the pools?

The Danube itself, no narrower than lotus-bearing Nile,

mingling with deep water through many mouths,

congeals, the winds hardening its dark flow,

and winds its way to the sea below the ice:

Feet cross now, where boats went before,

and horses’ hooves beat on waters hard with cold:

and across this new bridge over the sliding flood

barbarous wagons are pulled by Sarmatian oxen.

I’ll scarcely be believed, but since there’s no prize

for deceit, the witness should be given due credit:

I’ve seen the vast waters frozen with ice,

a slippery shell gripping the unmoving deep.

Seeing was not enough: I walked the frozen sea,

dry-shod, with the surface under my feet.

NOTE:  Alas, Genji got to go home, but Ovid had to stay at Tomis for life


4 thoughts on “Poets in Exile: The Tale of Genji, Ovid’s Tristia, and Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape

    • Yes, it’s nice to have a summer project. NYRB reissued Highet’s book a few years ago. I love Highet, a brilliant writer and classicist who smoothly integrates his personal love of poets with background and criticism. I have an old hardback copy, but it is a blessing that NYRB published this.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I loved Poets in a Landscape. Gilbert Highet’s work was useful for me when I taught, and this one was the kind of meditative literary criticism I used to seek out and dwell in. Margaret Drabble whose biography on Bennett I mentioned in another comment for another of your wonderful blogs this summer has one on landscape in British (she means English) literature. How sad were Ovid’s last years .How desperate. It was not the torture of solitary confinement in a prison (in US prisons this is inflicted as a regular thing on huge numbers of people, repeatedly scientists demonstrate this is torture, and no one moves to end the practice) but I know how he could feel. Joke alert: he needed to have available and read and see Peter Cameron’s The City of Your Final Destination and the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala movie made from it. An old blog of mine on the movie and book:


    in a small way I know what he feels from my experience this 3rd summer of widowhood. Ovid is often presented as this frivolous poet and this hardly does justice to him.


    • Ellen, Highet is a great writer! I have an old hardback copy, but NYRB has reissued it, and I am so grateful it’s in print.

      Drabble is one of my favorite writers, but I don’t have her book on British landscape. It used to be very expensive, but perhaps the price is lower now that so many sell online.

      Poor Ovid! He was a brilliant comic poet, but was multi-faceted. Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto were both written in exile, and they have a different flavor from the other poems.


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