Japanese poetry, Saigyo, Japanese literature, Buddhist poetry, Medieval Japan


The late Heian-period poet/monk Saigyō (西行1118-1190) has long been considered one of the most talented of Japan’s waka poets. His poetry and his legend have found their place in elite and popular culture, spanning social class as well as multiple fields of cultural production, such as poetry, travel literature, painting, woodblock prints, nō and kabuki, and Buddhist tales, to name a few. This study aims to present the reader with a critical analysis of Saigyō, his poetry, and his legend by answering several key questions. Who was the historical Saigyō that lived from 1118 to 1190? How did he become the famous monk and poet? What was it about his poetry that made him famous? How did his life influence his poetry? How did his poetry influence his life? Why did Saigyō become such a popular cultural figure after his death? What were the mechanisms of this process of mythologizing? What role did both his life and his poetry play in this process?

In part one of this dissertation, I provide a biographical sketch of Saigyō’s life. Part two is an analysis of Saigyō’s poetics. Here I identify the major elements of Saigyō’s style. I also illustrate the relationship between Saigyō’s life and his poetry. In part three, I illustrate the relationship between Saigyō’s poetry and the development of his legend. The weaving of poetry and life, poetic expression and spiritual journey, into a tapestry was begun by Saigyō himself. Saigyō provided the overall pattern for the tapestry of his life and his poetry. Japanese scholars have failed to recognize Saigyō’s hand in the determination of what the tapestry of his life and poetry would eventually become. Later generations of poets, monks, painters, and authors filled in the spaces, elaborated the patterns, and wove new and more colorful threads into this tapestry. It was always the intersections of the warp of the poet and his life, and the weft of the poems themselves, upon which later weavers tied their colorful threads of story.

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Dissertation, Columbia University (2005)

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Columbia University






Asian and Near Eastern Languages

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Graduate Student