Withering Winter

The withering Winter and
The World is white –
The Sound of Wind

In the bleak Winter
When the World is one color
Is the Sound of Wind

Winter’s Solitude
And the World is one color –
The Sound of Wind

fuyugare ya    yo wa isshoku ni    kaze no oto

冬枯れ や 世は一色に    風の音

JP2492
Night Snow, Utagawa Hiroshige, circa 1833, The Met

Bashō‘s meaning

It is bitter cold, one can see nothing but white, and hear nothing but the sound of wind.

One could imagine Antarctica in the winter, or a Siberian scene in Dr. Zhivago. For me it was a “white-out” in eastern Colorado, early January of 2020.

I was driving my son’s ancient Camry from Ft. Collins, Colorado to Wichita. Being an intrepid soul, I avoided the quicker Interstate 25, and instead headed east early in the morning, driving through Windsor, Colorado, on to Highway 34, then picking up Interstate 76 to Fort Morgan, before switching back to US Highway 34, then south on lonely Colorado Highway 59, and finally, at Seibert, on to Interstate 70 for the majority of the trip.

Interstate 76 and 70 in the winter are both windy, but one has the company of other trucks and cars being buffeted about. If the snow and wind are too great, then the interstate is shut down and one stays in a hotel room if one can be found.

Out on the two lane Highway 34 and the side roads like Colorado 59, the experience is quite different. There are few trees, few towns, and few houses. In places where the land has been plowed for hay, or corn, or wheat, the winter brings on vast fields of snow that when the wind blows, makes the world one solid color of white. It is frightening to drive in such conditions.

Slowing down or stopping, one hears the sound of wind, a high pitched whistle, that along with the bitter cold cuts to the bone.

Notes on translation

fuyugare, 冬枯れ, is literally the withering winter. One can infer from this that Bashō was referring to the bleakness of winter or winter’s desolation or isolation. One could also use the cliche “dead of winter,” but cliche’s should be avoided. Some translators speak of winter’s solitude, and that works too. Solitude, however, may suggest serenity, and that is not what I choose to take away from my experience in eastern Colorado.

Ah, is not the beauty of poetry that it expresses something unique to each of us? Or does it depend on the moment? Dr. Zhivago is shivering away trudging through the snow, but quite happy in his frozen palace.

ya, や, is similar to “and” in English

wa isshoku ni, 世は一色に, is literally a world of one color, which, in this case, is white.

kaze no oto, 風の音, the sound of wind, or the voice of wind, if one wishes to hear the wind speak.

winter-snow-2
Evening snow on Hira mountains, Utagawa Hiroshige, Fitzwilliam Museum

 

The Guest’s Shadow is like Kageboushi

The banked fire
The guest’s shadow on the wall –
A silhouette.

Uzumi-bi ya/ Kabe niha kyaku no/ Kageboushi

埋火や 壁には客の 影法師

mountain-hiker

Meaning of Matuso Basho’s haiku

A banked fire is like the guest’s shadow, is like a silhouette. A silhouette, the essence of a human being reduced to its most basic form. A shadow without substance.

A banked fire, 埋火, literally, a buried ember. The banked fire is built around rocks or stones and protected from the wind. Thus, we find Matsuo Basho and his disciples on a cold winter’s night sitting around a fire with their backs facing the wall of the inn or the home, their face and hands warmed by the fire’s heat, until the flames die down and it is time to go to bed.

If the coals from the fire are protected, there will usually be enough heat in the embers to start a fresh fire the next day. The first character 埋 also implies the quality of being buried or hidden, a fire that lies within the embers.

Kageboushi, 影法師, literally “shadowman,” refers to a silhouette, and to Shadow Theater, and indirectly to Puppet theater which became popular during the Edo Period.

 

Basho’s New Year Haiku

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

Year after year, the monkey wears the monkey’s mask

Year after year, a monkey dresses up in a monkey face

Toshi doshi ya
saru ni kisetaru
saru no men

年々や     猿に着せたる      猿の面

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

1693 – 23 months and counting

Toshi doshi, year after year. Though he could not know it when he wrote this haiku, Matsuo Basho had but 23 months to live.

It was New Year’s, 1693. Matsuo Basho was now 49 years of age and no doubt, looking back on what he had and had not accomplished.Basho was living in Edo, he had one final trip to make. Written on the first day of the first lunar month, we may rightly call this “Basho’s New Year’s Haiku”.

Of this haiku Basho said, “I jotted down this poem because I was saddened to see people stuck where they were, struggling the same way year and year.”

Saru no men, 猿の面, could easily be translated as monkey face or mask. The phrase is phonetically similar to the idiomatic saru mane, 猿真似, “monkey imitation,” “monkey see monkey do”.

Noh Theater

It is perhaps helpful but not necessary to know that mask were used in traditional Noh Theater. A monkey mask was one used for someone acting foolishly.

It is also helpful to be aware of Sarugaku, 猿楽, “monkey music”. This theater, popular during the 11th to 14th centuries, consisted mostly of acrobatics, juggling, and pantomime, sometimes combined with drum dancing, later including word play reminiscent of Basho’s own haiku.

banana-leaves

Why I am called Bashō

Autumn 1692

A banana leaf
Hanging on the pillar
And the moon over my hut

芭蕉葉   を柱に懸けん  庵の月     bashō ba o / hashira ni kaken / io no tsuki

banana-leaves

Why I am called Matsuo Bashō

“[T]he bashō’s useless nature is itself reason to admire it. The monk Huaisu lovingly followed the bark with his brush to learn its ways. The astronomer, mathematician and poet Zhang Heng watched the leaves unfold to inspire his studies. I am like neither. I rest in the shade of the bashō leaves, because they are so easily torn.”

Bashō, 芭蕉, in English, is the banana tree, not the yellow fruited kind we are familiar with, but of similar stature, tall and leafy. “Useless,”  Bashō called the tree, its flower plain, its stalk thick, but one no axe-man cares to fell.

A banana tree grows in Fukagawa

By 1680, Matsuo Bashō, having achieved some fame,  moved from Edo’s bustling city center across the Sumida River to the quiet and rural Fukagawa district. A disciple brought Bashō a banana plant as a gift and it thrived, growing tall and strong, sprouting other saplings. Bashō admired its resilience in the wind and the rain.

In time disciples took saplings to plant as a sign of respect.

In the spring of 1689, Matsuo Bashō tired of Edo and decided to take a journey north which would eventually become a book which would further enhance his fame. He sold his hut wrote a well-known haiku on his departure and left.

Bashō returned to Edo in the autumn of 1689. His disciples then built him a simple hut of three rooms near where the old one had been. It had a simple bamboo gate, a reed fence and a view of Mt. Fuji.  Pillars of Japanese conifer stood guard at the entrance. A single banana leaf was attached to one of the pillars.

New banana saplings were planted in the garden.

His disciples had take a bashō leaf and written eight haiku on its backside. This was then placed on the pillar at the entrance to the hut. Overjoyed by the gift and the thought, Bashō imagined watching the autumn moon through the swaying leaves of the newly planted bashō trees.

“What year did I come to nest in this area? … My new thatched roof hut, near my first one, fits me well with its three small rooms… I’ve transplanted five banana (bashō) samplings so that the moon when seen through the leaves will be beautiful and moving. The bashō’s leaves are over seven feet in length. When the wind rips the leaf to the leaf-spine, it is as painful as seeing a phoenix with a broken tail, as pitiful as a torn green fan…

Like the ancient mountain trees, the bashō’s useless nature is itself reason to admire it. The monk Huaisu lovingly brushed the bark to learn its ways. The astronomer, mathematician and poet Zhang Heng watched the leaves unfold to inspire his studies. I am like neither. I rest in the shade of the leaves, because they are so easily torn.”

Sources

Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō, selected haibun, page 135

 

Sleet

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857

On everyone
It sleets, you know, even the inn
Becomes cold

On everyone
It sleets, you know, even the inn
Is freezing

Hitobito wo
Shigureyo yado wa
Samuku tomo

人々を しぐれよ宿は 寒くとも

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857
Hiroshige (1797–1858), Meguro Drum Bridge, 1857

Winter of 1689

If this was (as I suppose it was) written in the winter of 1689 at a poetry gathering with Bashō’s disciples and friends in Ueno, Bashō’s hometown, then I suppose the general feeling was both warm and chilly as the winter sleet made even the inn where they had gathered cold. The timing of the gathering was the culmination of Basho’s celebrated Journey to the North. It was not a journey that Matsuo Bashō believed that he would survive, and no doubt the friends at the gathering were eager to hear the details.

So  much so that the sleet and the cold sharpened the tales that Bashō told.

Thoughts on English translation

Shigure 時雨 (しぐれ) may mean a driving rain, sleet. There is a thorough discussion on the World Kigo Database. The addition of the suffix yo is a nuanced “I say” or “you know”. The sleet, as you know, is so cold even the inns and houses feel it too.

Samuku tomo 寒くとも becomes cold, is freezing.

One is tempted to interpolate at this point. Shigure might also mean to figuratively shed tears at the coming together of the friends at the inn after Basho’s long journey to the north. One is also tempted to think of the symbolism of the quick winter rains as a metaphor for Thomas Hobbes’ (1588 – 1679) expression that life is “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Shiwasu – 師走の

Snow and more snow,
On this December night
Is there a beautiful bright moon?

Snowing
This winter’s night
So much for the full moon

Yuki to yuki/  Koyoi shiwasu no/  Meigetsu ya

雪と雪 今宵師走の 名月か

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857
Hiroshige (1797–1858), Meguro Drum Bridge

Winter’s Night, 1684

In the Japanese calendar, the Japanese refer to the 12th lunar month as shiwasu. At a renga party where poets compete to form haiku with complementing verses, not everyone has arrived. Meanwhile, the conversation centers on the snowy weather and who is late.

Should they start reciting haiku? After all, there is a lot to do before the Lunar New Year arrives.

Matsuo Bashō begins:

I run, you run, the days are brief, so we all run, shiwasu, even the priests run to complete their tasks.

Snow and more snow,
On this December night
Is there a beautiful bright moon?

Notes on English translation

Yuki to yuki (雪と雪) snow and more snow, snow upon snow, something approaching a blizzard.

Koyoi (今宵) tonight, this evening

Shiwasu (師走の), the 12th lunar month, December. Literally, it means “priests run”, implying that even Buddhist monks and Shinto priests also have to run around, as they are very busy for the yearend.  Shiwa (師走) may also refer to a teacher or master, meaning that Bashō is also running at this time of year.

Meigetsu (名月) often refers here to a bright moon or to a full moon, which according to the old Japanese lunar calendar, appeared on the fifteenth night of each month. This is similar to the Roman “ides”, marking the first appearance of the full moon.

Source

As always, there are many good translations of Basho’s haiku, but one of the best is: Basho’s Haiku, Selected Poems by Matsuo Basho, no. 147.

evening snow at kanbara
Evening Snow at Kanbara

Oku no Hosomichi – Introduction

Matsuo Basho’s introduction to Oku no Hosomichi is well-known and often quoted. And thus, often translated. Those translations changing a word here and there, and sometimes subtly altering the meaning. Here is my crack at it.*

It begins…

 

月日は百代の過客にして、行かふ年も又旅人也。舟の上に生涯をうかべ馬の口とらえて老をむかふる物は、日々旅にして、旅を栖とす。古人も多く旅に死せるあり。

The months and days are eternal travelers. The years that come and go are too. Those who pass their lives afloat on boats, or face old age leading horses tightly by the bridle, their journey is their life, their journey is their home. And many are the old men who meet their end upon the road.

And I myself, moved by the wind driven clouds, am filled with a strong desire to wander.

To be continued…

予もいづれの年よりか、片雲の風にさそはれて、漂泊の思ひやまず、海浜にさすらへ、去年の秋江上の破屋に蜘の古巣をはらひて、やゝ年も暮、春立る霞の空に、白河の関こえんと、そヾろ神の物につきて心をくるはせ、道祖神のまねきにあひて取もの手につかず、もゝ引の破をつヾり、笠の緒付かえて、三里に灸すゆるより、松島の月先心にかゝりて、住る方は人に譲り、杉風が別墅に移るに

 

草の戸も住替る代ぞひなの家

面八句を庵の柱に懸置。

Notes on translation

* I confess to reading other translations. I do not confess to being the best, I do not claim to be entirely original. And should we disagree, then fine.

We all possess the same poetic license.

Matsuo Basho, perhaps, understood better than others the difficulty in conveying life’s experiences into language. His famous poem about the frog and the sound of water is a good example. Not everything has a linguistic expression. It is a Zen thing. Just experience the moment, like a sunset, or waves crashing on the rocks, a crow perched upon a withered branch, or a horse pissing on the ground next to where you are sleeping. To truly know what the moment was like, “You had to be there.”

Context is important too. “Summer grass and warriors dreams” makes more sense if one knows the fate of the Fujiwara clan. It is also interesting to note that Basho, fearing bandits upon the highways, had expected to meet his end upon the journey. The journey might be uncomfortable at times, but it was also full of interesting characters and wonderful surprises.

Then too, there is more than one way of looking at something. Take the first two characters of Basho’s introduction – 月日, literally month and day, but collectively time or figuratively, years.

Sadly, though we can approach some understanding of Basho’s haiku, we can not truly appreciate the beauty of the language which has to be rendered into English, loosing something thereby in translation.

Alas!

The 325th Anniversary of Matsuo Bashō’s Death

November 28, 2019

He was not old by Japanese standards of the 17th century. The Tokugawa shogunate had established peace and tranquility throughout the land. One could expect live to a Biblically allotted time span of 70 years.

But Matsuo Bashō died young, at the age of 50, perhaps worn out by his many travels, the journeys that made him famous.

In this early death, he resembled other famous writers including the Chinese Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, who died at 58; English playwright, William Shakespeare, who died at the age of 52;  or the American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who also died at the age of 58. She, explaining in a poem the nearness of death, wrote that:

My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light!

Bashō’s Final Journey

Today, November 28, 1694, marks the 325th anniversary of the death of Japan’s greatest haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō. He must of anticipated his death for he made a final  journey home in the fall of 1694. Having spent time in Ueno, his birthplace, and Kyoto, where he spent time as a student,  he arrived in Osaka, where he took ill.

One final haiku:

Stricken on my journey
My dreams will wander about
On withered fields of grass

Tabi ni yande/ Yume wa kareno wo/ Kakemeguru
旅に病んで 夢は枯野を かけ廻る

Bashō’s Final Illness

The news of his illness had spread to friends and students. And they gathered around his bed as his spirit left to wander this world. The image was one that was familiar to Basho, for he had often attended the Noh (能) theaters in Edo and, no doubt, in Kyoto where he learned the art of haiku as a student. Noh theater is a peculiar Japanese art form, popularized by Zeami Motokiyo, that includes only male actors who wear masks to represent emotions and typecast figures. Noh drama includes music, physical expression, and dance. The stories often relate to dreams, supernatural worlds, ghosts and spirits.

Life is a lying dream, he only wakes who casts the world aside.
Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443).

Bashō’s Dream

In an earlier haiku (June 29, 1689), Bashō alluded to a well-known Samurai figure, Minamoto no Yoshitsune who was treacherously killed in battle by the last Fujiwara lord, and the subject of a Noh play,

summer grass
and a warrior’s dreams
are what remains
natsukusa ya/ tsuwamono domo ga/ yume no ato
夏草や   兵どもが   夢の跡

 

Bashō’s Burial

Matsuo Bashō wanted companionship on his wanderings in the spirit world; and in accordance with his last wishes, his body was taken to Gichuji Temple, near the banks of Lake Biwa, where he was buried next to the famed Samurai Minamoto no Yoshinaka.

Yasuraka ni nemuru
安らかに眠る

Rest in peace!

banana-trees

Autumn Wind – aki kaze

From East to West
Oh, the Feeling is One
Autumn Wind

(Autumn wind – a cold, biting wind that brings rain and loneliness)

higashi nishi  / aware sa hitotsu / aki  no kaze

東西    あはれさひとつ      秋の風

Hiroshige-Atake-detail

Autumn 1688

This is a repeat post.

Written by Matsuo Bashō in the autumn of 1688, on hearing of the death of Mukai Chine 向井千子, the sister of Bashō’s friend and disciple Mukai Kyorai 向井去来. She too was a poet who died at the young age of 25.  Higashi is Bashō in the East (Edo, the east capital) – nishi is Kyorai in the West (Kyoto, the western capital, and Nagasaki, his far western home).

Kyoto is home to two Buddhist temples, Nishi Hongan-ji  and Nishi Hongan-ji.

Notes of translation

Bashō’s introductory greeting, higashi nishi, parallels the traditional greeting made in Kabuki theater, Tozai, tozai, “to” meaning east, and “zai” meaning west. Aki no kaze is the biting cold autumn wind that brings loneliness.

Who’s that knocking at my door?

great crested grebe

this lodging has a door
unknown
to the call of the kuina (water rail)

this lodging
is not even known
to the kuina’s knock

this hut
can the water rail find
its door

kono yado     wa kuina mo shiranu      toboso kana

この宿    は水鶏も知らぬ       扉かな

great crested grebe

Late Spring and early Summer, 1694

“Tyick, tyick, tyick,” who is that knocking at my door? Death would come knocking for Matsuo Bashō, but not until until November.

In the spring of 1694 Matsuo Bashō set out on his last journey to visit friends, making a trip home to his birthplace at Ueno, to Kyoto where he spent time as a student, and around beautiful Lake Biwa visiting shrines.

This haiku was supposedly written to Kosen (Fujimura Izu?), a Shinto priest who lived on the outskirts of Otsu, and, we may presume from the haiku, in a marshy area near Lake Biwa. The house was so remote it was unknown even to the marsh bird, known as kuina in Japanese, translated into English as a water rail.

The courtship cry of the kuina is a tyick-tyick-tyick, like the sound of one tapping (tataku) on a wooden door. The breeding season dates from late March into June.

Source, Matsuo Basho Archives

Notes on Japanese and Pinyin

Language can be an in-artful thing.

Arriving late and greeting his host, Kosen, Matsuo Bashō might have  apologized by composing this haiku, explaining that he heard the familiar tyick-tyick-tyick of the kuina bird, but couldn’t discover its secretive nest, i.e. his host’s lodgings somewhere along the shore of Lake Biwa.

The sound of “kono… kuina… kana” imitates the kuina’s call to its mate.

Shiranu 知らぬ , not knowing, as in the proverb, Shiranu ga hotoke (知らぬが仏), meaning ignorance is bliss, literally,  not knowing is Buddha.