Despite the courtiers' belief that life cannot be properly lived away from the city (and therefore, away from court life itself), the natural world still holds an extremely powerful place within Heian court culture. The natural world is considered to be endlessly beautiful and inspiring, and, as such, all the characters try constantly to emulate it. They do this by writing poetry using imagery pulled from nature or, in the case of court women, dressing in layered robes of different colors that when combined referenced seasonal events, such as cherry blossoms in the spring or grass poking through snow. With this, The Tale of Genji situates nature as something that is, at times, even more powerful than the court culture in which the characters live—the natural world is, in many ways, what makes the culture what it is in the first place.
For the characters in Genji, the changing seasons overwhelmingly dictate their moods, customs, and oftentimes, when plot points happen within the narrative. As Genji goes about his romantic endeavors and engages in court escapades, this often means that for him and others, autumn is a melancholy time of reflection (and not incidentally is often when he's sad about unsuccessful romances), while spring is a time of renewed vigor and rebirth (and is, notably, the time of year when he first meets Murasaki). This shows how the seasons influence events on even a structural level within the text. In turn, this provides evidence for the power of nature to dictate more than just the characters' lives—this reverence for nature was a part of the world in which Murasaki Shikibu inhabited as well, and as such fundamentally influenced the way in which she crafted her narrative.
The way the characters use poetry also reinforces the power of nature in a way that goes beyond pure admiration. While plenty of their poems comment on the beauty of the natural world, this also allows the writers to use nature to speak for them and amplify different meanings. Little girls, for example, are referred to as "young grasses," while distraught lovers note their "sleeves dripping with sea water," or tears.
Further, natural imagery and the veiled meanings a poet conveys through it aren't the only things available for admiration and decoding in the case of written poetry. An individual's handwriting was, at that time, thought to signify nobility or good breading, and Genji constantly remarks on the find writing of his female companions—so much so that often a woman's handwriting has the power to either elevate Genji's opinion of her or cause him to justify neglecting her because of a poorly-written poem. In the same vein, the paper that one chooses to write a poem on, and the trappings with which it's then ferried to its recipient, also add to the effect. Genji often chooses moodier or subdued papers in sad times, while he chooses brightly colored and perfumed papers when he's wooing women. To complete the effect, he also sometimes sends his poems with branches or flowers that signify particular emotions, adding even more meaning to his poem and suggesting nature as a language unto itself.
It's also important to note that Genji is spoken of as being an exceptionally handsome and affecting person, something that's heightened even more by his proximity to the natural world. As Genji's journey takes him outside the city and into nature more often, his beauty regularly moves his companions to tears, particularly when it's placed in relation to the beauty of the natural world. In this way, the novel is able to signify Genji's personal exceptionalism by conflating his beauty with that of nature.
his is most apparent when Genji is exiled in Suma and Akashi, something that is considered capable of ending one's hopes of ever being important at court again. However, in Genji's case, he manages to remain hopeful that he will be able to return to court in part because he devotes himself to studying, writing about, and painting the natural world, thereby accepting its power over his life. After Genji's return to court, his paintings from his time in exile move fellow courtiers to tears and help his team win an art contest that bestows a degree of political power upon the winner. Essentially, the novel suggests that when one interacts with the natural world in the proper ways as dictated by Heian beliefs and customs—that is, by writing poems, admiring nature, and accepting its power over humans—nature can, in return, bestow greatness and power upon those who admire and use it.
Nature, Poetry, and Beauty ThemeTracker
Nature, Poetry, and Beauty Quotes in The Tale of Genji
Once more there was malicious talk; but the prince himself, as he grew up, was so superior of mien and disposition that few could find it in themselves to dislike him.
Because she was of such high birth (it may have been that people were imagining things) she seemed even more graceful and delicate than the other. No one could despise her for her inferior rank, and the emperor need not feel shy about showing his love for her.
The priests did not know who he was. They sensed something remarkable, however, and felt their eyes mist over.
She did not seek to hide her distress, and her efforts to turn him away delighted him even as they put him to shame. There was no one else quite like her. In that fact was his undoing: he would be less a prey to longing if he could find in her even a trace of the ordinary.
The hand was very immature indeed, and yet it had strength, and character. It was very much like her grandmother's. A touch of the modern and it would not be at all unacceptable.
To no Chujo was a handsome youth who carried himself well, but beside Genji he was like a nondescript mountain shrub beside a blossoming cherry.
Fujitsubo was tormented by feelings of guilt and apprehension. Surely everyone who saw the child would guess the awful truth and damn her for it. People were always happy to seek out the smallest and most trivial of misdeeds.
They lived precarious lives, completely dependent on Genji. So lonely indeed was their mansion that he could imagine the desolation awaiting it once he himself was gone...
He thought that he could hardly be expected to visit her. She had her own ideas. She knew that rustic maidens should come running at a word from a city gentleman who happened to be briefly in the vicinity. No, she did not belong to his world, and she would only be inviting grief if she pretended that she did.
Though she saw little of him, the lady was completely dependent on him; but she was not of the modern sort, given to outpourings of resentment. He knew that she would not make him uncomfortable. Long neglected, her house now wore a weirdly ruinous aspect.
Her soft voice, trailing off into silence, was very pleasing. He sighed, almost wishing it were not the case that each of his ladies had something to recommend her. It made for a most complicated life.