Three Women Poets: Reading Vidyā

Three Women Poets: Reading Vidyā


Classical Sanskrit Lyric

 The classical Sanskrit lyric is unique in a lot of different ways and it stands out against popular European poetry for many reasons. For example, in a lot of European poetry there is a heavy focus on “self”. Whether that be through first person perspective or each individual author’s expression of their personal thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Classical Sanskrit is far more subjective. The poets must use imagery, suggestion and universal themes to convey an emotion. According to The Norton, the Sanskrit lyric is called “Subhāsits” meaning “beautifully expressed language”. After reading several of these poems, I would have to agree.


Three Women Poets

The three most popular women poets in classical Sanskrit were Bhāvakadevi, Vikatanitambā, and Vidyā. There is not a lot of information about these women, but we do know that all three of them lived somewhere between the fifth and seventeenth centuries. Their work is very well known and while they definitely have their differences, there are a few similarities in their writing. For example, they all write about love, sex, and marriage. All three of them cover their topics using descriptive and suggestive language rather than using graphic language, especially when talking about sex. Using suggestion rather than a more direct approach is a common recurrence in their poems, and in classical Sanskrit lyrics in general.

It is interesting to me that women at this time has a space to write about sex at all. While they might not be taking a super aggressive approach to the conversation, it is still shocking to see women in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries openly writing about sex in general.



Similar to Bhāvakadevi and Vikatanitambā, Vidyā is one of the most famous and often quoted female Sanskrit poets. According to The Norton, only a few fragments of her work survived. Even with this somewhat limited knowledge, we know that she is best known for her beautiful love poems. This is an interesting note from The Norton, given that the one and only poem it provides us is about an adulterous rendezvous in the woods. Something that stands out in Vidyā’s poetry in contrast to Bhāvakadevi and Vikatanitambā is that almost all of her poems are set in the countryside. Which suggests that she is most likely more accustomed to or comfortable with villages rather than royal court. I think that the setting of her poems and the focus on more common and natural life makes her much more relatable than the other female Sanskrit poets at the time.


Reading poem 807

Good neighbor wife, I beg you

keep your eye upon my house a moment;

the baby’s father hates to drink

the tasteless water from the well.

Better I go then, though alone, to the river bank

dark with tamāla trees and thick with canes,

which with their sharp and broken stems

may scratch my breasts.

If you’re anything like me and poetry isn’t really your thing then it might take a couple reads and a little more attention to detail to get past the surface level of this novel. However, when you dig a little deeper, it is clear that there is a lot to unpack here and there are several ways to read it.

My first read of this poem: “Hey neighbor, my shitty baby-daddy is kinda pretentious, so I have to go get him water from the river. I’ll probably end up with scratches on my body because the journey is kind of dangerous, but as long as he’s happy”. Now like I said poetry isn’t really my thing. So I really thought that Vidyā was just commenting on the sacrifices we make for the people we love, even when they don’t deserve it.

But, as we pay a little more attention to what she is actually saying, it is clear that is NOT what is going on here. Upon a second read it is very clear that the speaker has a less than fantastic relationship with the father of her child. She only references him as “the baby’s father”, rather than “husband” or “lover”. She then makes an excuse to sneak away to the river bank, blaming it on her husband’s hatred of the tasteless water. She warns the neighbor that she may come back from the river with scratches on her body and is all too quick to blame them on the Tamāla trees and their pesky branches. First of all, can she be more obvious? She might as well come right out and say it… not very subtle Vidyā.

As previously mentioned a common technique used by classical Sanskrit poets was the use of dhvani or suggestion. She doesn’t come right out and say she’s cheating on her husband, but the language she uses helps us draw that conclusion pretty easily.

A natural instinct after reading this poem is to look for some kind of justification for her actions. What is her husband a jerk? Was he bad in bed? Was she bored? Did he not give her enough attention? Was their love as tasteless as the wretched well water? Vidyā kind of leaves this up to the reader, there is evidence to support almost all of these potential scenarios. But the way in which she approaches adultery in this poem stands out to me no matter how many times I read it. Personally, I have a hard time being mad at her or feeling even the tiniest bit bad for her baby’s father in this situation. The way this poem is written brings a sort of comical element to the story. It inspires more laughter than it does anger.



Puchner, Martin, and Suzanne Conklin Akbari. “The Classical Sanskrit Lyric.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1057–1063.

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book

A painting of Shonagon on a blue gradient background. She is combing her long black hair and looking down.


Shonagon and Her Style

Shonagon was a woman of status, and thus carried authority and influence. Her writings deal primarily with the courtly events of women, and portray them with autonomy and personality, as opposed to the often more domestic depictions of women in literature at the time. Her writings show strong wit and personality, and are brimmed with sharp opinions and seemingly hypocritical statements in her passages about anyone who crossed her path. Though a shit-stirrer herself, she snubs those who stir shit in a way unfitting of their status. She served Empress Teishi, and it is thought that many of Shonagon’s digs at other people in the court were meant to raise the overall impression and favor of the Empress.

“Though capable of great tenderness, Sei Shōnagon was often merciless in the display of her wit, and she showed little sympathy for those unfortunates whose ignorance or poverty rendered them ridiculous in her eyes.” x

The Heian Period

The Heian Period lasted from 794 to 1185, and was described by Encyclopaedia Brittanica as follows, “The period was characterized by the flourishing culture of the court aristocracy, which actively engaged in the pursuit of aesthetic refinement, leading to new developments in art and literature.” It is also said to be ” the last division that makes up classical Japanese history.”


The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book itself was likely never meant to be published. She wrote it like a diary: short, unrelated pieces that depict the events of court from Shonagon’s perspective that highlight her cultural and personal values. The three types of entries in The Pillow Book, according to Kikan Ikeda, are lists, personal opinions and thoughts, and narrative stories of her time in court. There are several entries that are more ambiguous, which makes sense with the idea that the book wasn’t meant to be published. It was just a woman’s thoughts and opinions that got shared and has since given historians insight into the lives of women in court during the Heian period.


Works Cited

Wang Wei – The Painter Poet

Who is Wang Wei?

Wang Wei was born into a family of officials and went on to become an official for the government himself. A major factor in Wang Wei’s life was his time spent as a prisoner due to the uprising known as the An Lushan Rebellion. During his time in captivity Wang Wei was forced to work as an official for this rebellious government and was left disillusioned by this whole affair. Wang Wei was a prominent poet during the timeframe of the Tang Dynasty. He was in fact, one of the most popular poets in a time in which poetry was immensely popular. According to the Norton Anthology of World Literature, “Every educated Chinese during the Tang Dynasty was expected to be able to spontaneously dash off a poem with grace, or at least technical competence” (Puchner et al. 1109). This is not really an expectation in the modern age. For Wang Wei to be so popular in a time in which poetry is this big of a deal, really speaks to how impactful his works were. No doubt this is due to themes commonly represented in his works that mirror Buddhist ideas.

Cultural Significance in Paintings

Wang Wei’s poems are steeped in Buddhist ideology. In a country that has long been steeped in Confucian ideals, Daoism and Buddhism took root as an almost counter-culture. Rigid Confucian ideals of duty to family and state would no doubt cause a great deal of stress if left completely unchecked, and the inevitable result of this way of living was a subset of ideas that run contradictory to Confucian norms. Wang Wei’s poetry and many of his painting reflect ideas of emptiness and detachment. The Norton claims that, “Wang Wei often corresponds to the notion of the “emptiness” of things—the fundamental Buddhist conviction that all we perceive is illusion” (1114). This conviction is undeniably at the forefront of many of Wang Wei’s works. One of the things that sets Wang Wei apart from other poets are his paintings that unfortunately we have no originals of. We know these paintings were incredibly popular because while none of the originals have survived, many replicas exist. These paintings were known for the vast landscapes and “…monochrome painting, which uses black ink-wash on white paper; this technique allows the painter to depict landscapes dominated by white” (1113). Often these paintings depict snowy landscapes and vast empty spaces dominated by contrasting areas of white and black. These paintings give us another way to interact with Wang Wei’s poetry that we don’t usually have with poets. To be a multi-faceted artist like this is a unique talent and his popularity reflects this uniqueness. These landscapes tap into these ideas of emptiness and detachment by giving us a state that is naturally ephemeral. The landscape we view is one that is going to change in a matter of minutes, hours, and definitely drastically in the days to come. Snow is one of those things that never stays stagnant for any length of time. It collects and melts away just as soon as it arrived. The impermanence of everything and just how quickly our perceived reality can change is, in my humble opinion, the appeal of these paintings.

Painting with Poetry

Wang Wei’s paintings are no doubt a feature of his work as a whole, but Wang Wei’s poetry paints images for us in its own way. The poem “Lake Yi” plays with these themes of illusion and perception in similar ways to how many of his paintings do. The poem states, “On the lake with one turn of the head: mountain green rolls into white clouds” (Wei 1115). The poem shows the reader how easily our perception of reality shifts with little more than a slight shift in perspective. At one moment we can be viewing green mountains, capped with trees and wildlife, and the next moment we’re viewing white rolling clouds, ever changing in their shape and composition. The way we perceive reality is but a moment away from changing at any time and this lends itself well to Buddhist ideas of detachment from well, everything. If we accept that reality is ever changing then it makes sense that there’s no point in attaching oneself to any particular component of our perceived reality. This applies to family, state, office, or any other component of what often drives human lives. It’s a different worldview from Confucian ideals and even quite different from our own American ideals. Both cultures value ideas of industriousness and elevating yourself through hard work but poetry like this reminds us that while we certainly can do all of this, it is all ultimately ephemeral in nature. It reminds us to be in the moment, because things can shift so quickly.


Ultimately that’s what makes Wang Wei’s work so powerful. It encourages people to detach themselves from the stressors of their lives and that’s something a lot of people really need. It does this in a unique, multimodal way that you don’t get with a lot of poets by combining poetry with painting to present a literary canvas that presents us with insight into Buddhist culture we might not have had access to otherwise. In a way it’s even poetic that none of Wang Wei’s original paintings have survived, as this further accents the ephemeral nature of all things that he wants us to consider. Even his own works have shifted and changed over time through adaptations and replicas being created to model his work. Even his poetry, translated and transcribed into other languages doesn’t hold the same form it originally did. The way we perceive his poetry is an illusion just as much as the way we view his paintings. That’s really the charm of Wang Wei for me.

Works Cited

Wei, Wang. “Lake Yi.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. edited by Martin Puchner et al., 4th ed., vol. B, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1113-1115

Wei, Wang. “Snowy Stream.” China Online Museum.            wang-wei-snowy-stream.php



The Kebra Nagast


Origins and Significance

The Kebra Nagast is a literary work from the 14th century that tells the story of the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, Bayna Lihkim, and how the Ark of the Covenant was moved from Israel to Ethiopia. One part of its significance lies in the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites to the Ethiopians, as this is believed to have been a shift in God’s favor and blessings. Through this, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe it to be accurate and highly important.

The Kebra Nagast was originally written in Ge’ez, an ancient language once spoken widely in Ethiopia. Ge’ez is used in Ethiopian churches to this day. The Ethiopian church still claims to house the original Ark of the Covenant in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, pictured above.

Characters and Story

Rendition of the Queen of Sheba

As mentioned, in the Kebra Nagast we follow the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, and their son Lihkim. The Queen of Sheba, who is actually commonly referred to as Makeda in modern Ethiopia but as Sheba in the Kebra Nagast, and King Solomon’s love story is a major component in the work. To the left is a rendition of Sheba. 

A merchant named Tamreen serviced Sheba. The text tells us he was incredibly successful with hyper-specific measurements, such as him being able to house 520 camels, and owning precisely seventy-three ships. Tamreen went to King Solomon, given the task of acquiring materials to build God’s Temple. He was so amazed by King Solomon, Tamreen spoke of him endlessly to Queen Sheba upon his return to her. He told her, mostly, of his incredibly wisdom. He explained how Solomon treated all ofKing Solomon | My Jewish Learning the people in his employment, how wealthy he was, and of how notably gracious and kind he was. She listened to him but was hesitant to make the journey to Solomon, pictured to the right, as it was long and treacherous. Sheba eventually concedes, getting her house in order before making the difficult journey to Solomon. She presents him with many gifts, and he returns the favor. We see the return of specific measurements and exorbitant wealth, as he gifts her almost incomprehensible amounts of food.

The Queen of Sheba is convinced by Solomon’s wisdom and devotion to God, promptly declaring to only worship the God of Israel. She also swears that all of her descendants and people under her rule will worship this god. Notably, later on, Sheba makes Solomon swear an oath not to take her by force in a sexual manor. He uses his… “wisdom,” to trick her into breaking this oath, and then proceeds to sleep with her presumably against her will. She has his child, Lihkim as she is traveling back to Ethiopia. Lihkim is the spitting image of Solomon and pesters his mother when he grows up to meet his father. While the identity of his father is no secret, Sheba is hesitant to send him to Israel because the journey is quite difficult.

While he is visiting his father, Lihkim is impressed just as Sheba and Tamreen were. When Solomon is to return to Ethiopia, Solomon sends with him the eldest sons of the lords of Israel, in hopes toThe Ark of the Covenant | Live Science mirror his own court. These sons set out to take the Ark of the Covenant, as they were denied a piece of the cloth. Azariah is the leader in this plot, and is reassured by an angel of God that what they are plotting is right. The Ark of the Covenant must be moved because the Israelites have fallen out of favor with God, and therefore cannot be trusted with something so precious. Chapter 48 of the Kebra Nagast ends with an explanation of how the ark was stolen, hidden, and how they would be safe during the travel back due to an angel protecting them.


A Closer Look

One aspect of the text I found extremely interesting was the portrayal of King Solomon and Queen Sheba’s relationship. The overall treatment of Queen Sheba is quite curious as well. Of course, given historical context, it makes more sense that Queen Sheba’s unwillingness in having sex with King Solomon is shown as an obstacle to overcome. Solomon’s wisdom is what helps him in tricking Sheba, though it seems as though she is happy with the gifts bestowed upon her afterwards. Still, she had clearly said earlier in the chapter that her being visibly pregnant would cause her great hardships. It is odd to me how we are supposed to just brush over her protests, as he ‘outwitted’ her by making her thirsty with the food he chose to serve, and then depriving her water. The fact that he had planned those dehydrating dishes for the queen ahead of time also implies that Solomon knew the queen would deny him and was prepared to deceive her to get his way.

The general treatment of Queen Sheba is noticeably different than that of Solomon. She is said to be just as successful, giving many gifts to Solomon and others throughout the story. However, she is seen as a lesser queen and even revokes her own queenship later on in the tale. The Kebra Nagast has a noticeably negative view towards women, noting their supposed weak composition.

On a separate note, I find the specificity of a lot of the measurements of success quite interesting. We are given exact numbers and amounts, though there is no real need. This could perhaps be an attempt to make the story seem more historically accurate and truthful so as to cement it as the real events. These details are shown with the description of Tamreen the merchant, of Solomon’s gifts to Sheba, and of the specificities of the Ark.

Wrapping Up

Overall, the Kebra Nagast is both intriguing as a story on its own, and fascinating as a piece of religious history. It gives us insight into how women were viewed in that culture, and what was seen as successful. I think it speaks to how the tale was constructed that I was invested despite having no interest in religion! Through reading the Kebra Nagast gave me a better understanding of both western Christianity and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, and the text itself was quite an interesting story. 


References In Order Shown

The Norton Anthology of World Literature, by Martin Puchner et al., B, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 578–597.

Li Bo

Who is Li Bo?

Li Bai | Chinese poet | Britannica

Li Bo has been said to be one of the most important Tang poets. Although, with such a great title, Li Bo did not make it there without his fair share of struggles. Li Bo, aka Li Po and Li Bai, lived from 701-762 CE during the Tang dynasty. During this time, Li Bo chose to not take the civil service exam. Due to his connections he was still able to get a government job at the Hanlin Academy. However, the position was a short lived 2 years. Li Bo was fired due to his drinking habits and unusual behavior. After losing this position he decided to join the An Lushan Rebellion. This rebellion was an attempt to establish independent regime in southeast China. However, once again the misfortune followed him and he was later arrested for treason. At this point, Li Bo was sentenced to exile, but was pardoned. He died not much later. The rumor exists that he died by drowning while trying to embrace the moons reflection on the water. Many disagree due to the amount of talk of the moon in his poetry. However, due to what we know of Li Bo’s drinking problems this could be true.

History of Tang Poetry:

The Tang dynasty ranged from 618-907 CE. Chinese literature began with the folk songs and ritual ballads, we see collected in the Classic of Poetry. The poems had stanzas of four to six lines with four to six characters with end rhymes for each couplet. During this dynasty there was a change in the way that poetry was written. Poetry was written in lines of five or seven characters and displaying more melodious and flexible rhythm. During this time poetry was added into civil service exam. More change was also seen during the Tang dynasty when poetry became regulated. There are two basic forms Jueju, four lines, and lüshi, eight lines. The spread of Buddism in the first millennium helped spark the development of regulated poetry. There was also an emphasis on couplets within poetry which allowed for more poets to showcase parallelism in this form of poetry. Tang poetry can be seen to have artfulness hidden amongst the natural imagery that it is known to have. During this time many poets would also write their poetry couplets with calligraphy.

Chinese Poetry]. Calligraphic Manuscript of Chinese Poetry. Du lu | Lot #93161 | Heritage Auctions

The Poetry:

Li Bo’s poetry is known for taking the readers beyond the natural world. His stories are written with encounters of immortals and and cloud climbing through the heavens. Li Bo’s poetry, of the thousand-ish poems we have are written in old verse. This is a form that was written in before the rise of regulated poetry. Many people called Li Bo “the banished mortal”. He took on this title for his ability to look at the world from fresh eyes. Considering him a “heaven-dwelling being exiled for a lifetime in the world of mortals as punishment for some extravagant misdemeanor”.  In his poetry Li Bo seems to be able to take on different personas or different outlooks of the world around him to create poetry like I have never seen.

Image of Tang Dynasty Poet Li Bai - Photos of Li Bai

To single in and focus in on a work that I think truly embodies who Li Bo is Drinking Alone with the Moon found in The Norton Anthology. In this poem he talks about drinking and spending time with the moon. In this he speaks of the moon as if it his old friend, saying “Still sober, we exchange our joys. Drunk- and we’ll go our separate ways”. He seems to know that the moon does is not able to interact with him talking about how the moon does not know how to drink with him, but still says things along like him being able to speak with the moon. There are many poems of Li Bo’s that have him speaking to or of the moon. Another poem to look into is Question and Answer in the Mountains. In this poem we see the reference of their being other worlds. The poem being a short 4 lines says a lot. A strength that can be seen in a lot of Li Bo’s work is his ability to give a lot of life to simple and short poems. This poem gives an illusion of a man living alone being content with the life he lives.


All in all Li Bo was an important poet during the Tang dynasty. Despite his many short comings and possibly his questionable character, he created poetry that is unlike any others. For Li Bo to be called “the banished mortal” is probably one of the most accurate names that can go to man like this. His ability to write about the moon and the relationship he presents them to have is unlike any poet during or after his time. Li Bo used the way he viewed the world (and possibly his drinking illusions) to create works that are far beyond what any poet could do for his time.

Works Cited:

The Norton Anthology of World Literature, by Martin Puchner et al., B, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1116–1123.