leaves, some the wind scatters on the ground; so too the race of men.
– Iliad vi.146
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, paraphrasing the Illiad, vi146, in his Meditations, 10.34.
Matsuo Basho on Scattered Leaves
Let the universe be your companion, bearing in mind the true nature of things—mountains and rivers, trees and grass, and humanity – and enjoy the falling blossoms and scattered leaves.Matsuo Basho
Humanity, Basho observed, enjoys the true nature of things. Autumn leaves, falling leaves of red and gold, scattered leaves outside my window, written about in song and poem, a last hurrah, a winsome remembrance, before winter’s wind comes along.
Such things as these cherished tears coloring scattered maple leaves
尊がる涙や 染めて 散る紅葉 tootogaru namida ya somete chiru momiji
October 1, 1691, shortly before Basho, age 48, returned to Edo. Basho’s greeting to the priest Ryu at Menshooji temple 明照寺, (Meishōji), near Lake Biwa, in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture. WKD Matsuo Basho Archives
Let us write poetry! the moon over the mountains is rarely seen in Edo
Matsuo Basho is 33.
He has been living for four years in Edo’s fashionable and artsy Nihonbashi neighborhood. It is noisy, it is dirty, the lights obscure the moon. A autumn trip to his birthplace in Iga, Ueno provides an opportunity to see the harvest moon.
The last line, 山の月yama no tsuki, moon over the mountain. This refers to the Japanese custom of holding parties to see a full moon, called moon viewing. The most popular viewing is the harvest moon in mid-autumn, celebrated as Tsukimi.
kakitsubata – an iris brings to mind a hokku kakitsubata ware ni hokku no omoi ari 杜若われに発句のおもひあり
It is the fall and the iris blossoms though long gone, still bring to mind the memory of my grandmother, for it too was her favorite flower. For Matsuo Basho, flowers were an inspiration and he wrote of the kakitsubata, the blue water iris, at least three times. This one in 1685, following the death of his mother in 1683.
Basho’s haiku is based on the eighth century hokku and Noh play of Ariwara no Narihira.
In the play, a traveling monk seeing iris blossoms on the bank of a stream approaches to admire their beauty. It is strange to him how the flowers are incapable of knowing their own beauty. A young woman watching him studying the flowers approaches him. This place is called Yatsuhashi, she says, and it is famous for its irises. When he asks if they have been the subject of a poem, she tells him of the poet Ariwara no Narihira of the Heien Period who composed the poem, “Just as a karakoromo robe comfortably fits my body after wearing it a long time, I comfortably fit my wife. Alas, I came east, leaving her behind in Kyoto. It is heartbreaking to be so far apart.”
By 1685, Basho has become a tabi no kokoro 旅の心 literally “traveling heart”. His mother died in 1683 and the following year he left Edo on one of his first wanderings. In 1685, the year of this haiku, he presumably visited the famous Yatsuhashi Kakitsubata Gardens, which reminded him of the poet Ariwara no Narihira, who wrote a hokku (an introductory poem) and a Noh play based on the flower. The play is set in early summer, near Yatsuhashi (Eight bridges) in Mikawa Province, present Aichi Prefecture.
Kakitsubata, the hokku
Kakitsubata is a hidden word (the first two characters in the five lines) in the acrostic hokku (poem) by Ariwara no Narihira from Tales of Ise.
から衣 きつゝなれにし つましあれ ばはるばるきぬる たびをしぞ思
Ka-ragoromo kit-sutsu narenishi tsu-ma shi areba ha (ba)-rubaru kinuru ta-bi o shi zo omou
Notes on translation
Kakitsubata (Chinese, 杜若, Japanese, かきつばた) – one of three Japanese species of iris, is found along waterways and is usually purple or blue in color. In English it is sometimes translated as “rabbit-eared iris”. The kakitsubata is cultivate in the Yatsuhashi Kakitsubata Garden (八橋かきつばた園) at the Muryojuji Temple. It is also the place where Japanese poet Ariwara no Narihira was inspired to write his verse.
Hokku, 発句 – the opening stanza of a series of collaborative linked poems, renga.
Chiyo-Ni 千代尼 (1703-1775) was born in Matto, Kaga Province (now Ishikawa Prefecture), the daughter of a picture framer.
She began writing haiku at the age of seven, was apprenticed to two of Matsuo Basho’s disciples, and was quite popular as a poet by the age of 17. In 1720, she married into the Fukuoka 福岡某 family in Kanazawa, becoming the Lady Kaga no Chiyo, or Kaga no Chiyo Jo. Jo 女 meaning “woman”, signifying her status as poet. Within two years of her marriage, her infant son died, and then her husband. She returned home to care for her parents and run the family business.
In 1752 she became a nun and was henceforth known as Chiyo-Ni, Ni 尼 meaning “nun”.
He and she, she and he. Many haiku artists took up where Matsuo Basho left off with his death in 1694. One such artist was the Lady Kaga no Chiyo (Chiyo-ni, 1703 – 1775). She had taken up writing at the age of seven and was well-known by the time she was a teenager. Basho’s influence comes from the fact that she studied under two of Basho’s apprentices, but as seen in the following haiku, she spoke in her own unique voice.
Morning Glories Entwined in the bucket at the well So, I beg for water
Matsuo Basho, cooking his morning breakfast, observes:
Morning Glories, While cooking rice Am I a man, (I wonder)?
A moment in time
In a world of things, we strive to express our joy and wonderment in Nature’s beauty. Making his breakfast, Matsuo Basho watching the morning glory unfurl to catch the morning sun. Similarly, Chiyo-ni going to fetch water, finds that overnight the morning glory has wrapped its tendrils into the handle.
A word, a couplet, a line, a thought, nothing can compare with the actual moment in time for Nature’s beauty remains supreme.
Western translators have tried to fill out the meaning of the haiku adding words that were perhaps implied but not written. Dr. Gabi Greve, of the Daruma Museum, Japan, has given us many variations of Chiyo-ni’s haiku, adding neighbor to explain her solution to Chiyo-ni’s dilemma. While the English poet Edwin Arnold has expanded the original thought greatly:
The morning-glory Her leaves and bells has bound My bucket handle round. I could not break the bands Of these soft hands. The bucket and the well to her left, ‘Let me some water, for I come bereft.
This, I believe, has changed the game, for haiku was and is a game. The only rule being that the poet must express his or her thought in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, features an image, or a pair of images, expressing the essence of a moment in time.
Notes on Translation
Both poets use the flower name 朝顔, asagao, literally morning face.
It is a flower of the fields and and hedge rows, often entwined with briars and along a fence or gate. The flower was brought to Japan with the advent of Buddhism. The tiny blue or purple flower that bloomed each morning represented enlightenment.
Sen no Rikyū, the 16th century tea master, is said to have grown gorgeous morning glories in the garden by his teahouse. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537 – 1598), Japan’s “Great Unifier,” sought an invitation to tea so that he could see the flowers.
釣瓶,tsurube, a bucket for drawing water at a well.
貰い水, morai mizu, literally, received I water – 貰 morai, can also suggest a tip or beneficence . 水 mizu, water. This leaves us with the impression that Chiyo must go and beg for water, i.e. “receiving water as a gift”.
Even in Kyoto Longing for Kyoto Hearing the Cuckoo
Even in Kyoto Nostalgia for Kyoto – the Cuckoo
By Japanese reckoning it was the era called Genroku (元禄, meaning “original happiness” or perhaps “the beginning of happiness”). It was the third year of the reign of Emperor Higashiyama, 113th emperor of Japan.
That spring Matsuo Basho had completed his trip that would become in time his most famous travelogue, Oku no Hosomichi, Journey to the Far North. Not wanting to hurry back to Edo, where Basho had lived and written for the last 46 years, he decided to stay in Kyoto for four months in a modest hut called Genjuu-An 幻住庵, located on the grounds of the Chikatsuo Shrine.
Summer was approaching. In Kyoto’s trees, now full of green leaves, one could hear the plaintive cry of the cuckoo, “Kyoo-Kyoo.” Basho recalled his early days a student in Kyoto.
Matsuo Basho was 56 years old. Basho’s own death came in 1694.
Japanese and Pinyin
京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥 Kyoo nite mo, Kyoo natsukashi ya, hototogisu
Notes on translation
京 Kyoo, Kyoto, appearing at the beginning and repeated to imitate the sound of the cuckoo bird. Some say the birds call, “kyoo-kyoo,” is the cry of the dead longing to come back.
なつかし natsukashi, a feeling of nostalgia, a joy for the remembrance of the past. I have used longing.
時鳥hototogisu, The cuckoo bird. Basho leaves us with the image of a cuckoo bird and nothing more. Nothing else was needed since the cuckoo was a frequent subject of poets.
From Matsuo Basho’s journal, Oku no Hosomichi – 奥の細道
Station 18 – Sendai 仙台, Miyagi Prefecture, May 4th, 1689
Crossing the River Natori, I entered Sendai, on a day when traditionally irises bring us good luck.* There I found an inn, and decided to stay for four or five days. In this city, there was a painter named Kaemon (a disciple of the haiku poet, hajin, Michikaze Oyodo). I wanted to hear and know him, for he was said to be a spiritual man. One day he took me to several place which I might have missed without his help. First, we went to the plain of Miyagino, where fields of bush-clover were waiting to blossom in autumn. Then, to the hills of Tamada, Yokono, and Tsutsuji-ga-oka, covered with white rhododendrons in full bloom. In the dark pine woods called Konoshita, sun beams could not penetrate. This, the darkest spot on the earth, has been the subject of poetry for its dewiness. As an example, one poet says that his lord needs an umbrella to protect him from the drops of dew.
We also stopped at the shrines of Yakushido and Tenjin on our way home.
Saying good-bye, this refined painter then gave me his own drawings of Matsushima and Shiogama, and two pairs of straw sandals with laces dyed in the deep blue of the iris, representing most clearly the meaning of this man.
Irises blooming On my feet, Straw sandals laced in blue.
ayamegusa ashi ni musuban waraji no o
*Fuku Hi, ふく日
The thatched roof of a Japanese cottage often contained a crown of irises. In May we can picture these flowers gently waving in the wind. Little boys, being boys, pretending that the leaves were swords, engaging in mock sword play. In his journal, Basho refers to あやめふく日也, Ayame Fuku Hiya, that is Irises on Good Fortune Day.
From “Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field” – Matsuo Basho left Edo with man named Chiri as a companion and aide, on a trip in the eighth month of 1684. He had barely begun his journey, when, crossing the Fuji River, he heard the wail of a small child.
“I was walking along the Fuji River when I saw an abandoned child (捨子, sutego, foundling), barely two, pitifully weeping. Had his parents been unable to endure this floating world, wave-tossed as these rapids, and so left him here to wait out a life, brief as the dew? He seemed like a bush clover in autumn’s wind (秋の風, aki no kase, autumn wind)that might scatter in the evening or wither in the morning.
I tossed him some food from my sleeve and said in passing:
Hearing the monkey’s howl, Or an abandoned child’s crying in the autumn wind
– Which is worse?
You, who listens to the monkey’s cry, What of the abandoned child Weeping in the Autumn Wind?
Basho consoles himself we these words:
Why did this happen? Were you hated by your father, neglected by your mother? Your father did not hate you, your mother did not neglect you. This simply is from heaven, and you can only grieve over your fate.
Not a flattering picture.
To me, Basho comes across as uncaring, but what is a poet to do? Especially one who follows the tenets of Buddhism. But then, did not Buddha say, “However many holy words you read or speak, what good do they do if you do not act on upon them?” (A paraphrase of verses 19 and 20 from the Dhammapada.)
Going to Kasajima – How much of this fifth month On this muddy road?
Kasajima wa izuko satsuki no nukari michi
In the footsteps of Matsuo Basho
For no particular reason other than, now in the year 2020, it is the fifth month, May (五月 satsuki). It has been raining steadily here. The park where I walk the dogs is full of muddy paths (ぬかり nukari). The going is difficult. Mud cakes my shoes, making the walk arduous and slow.
So, let us join Matsuo Basho on his Journey North.
Basho had hoped to visit the burial site of Lord Sanekata of the Fujiwara family in Medeshima-Shiote. From Okido, and its Barrier-gate, to Medeshima-Shiote was about 30 miles and one could reasonably cover that distance in a little more than ten hours. It was not to happen, for the rain made the path impossible, and he would only make it to Iwanuma, about 20 miles short of his goal.
In the words of Matsuo Basho:
“The first day of the fifth month passed. I stopped at Iizuka and took shelter at an inn, a filthy place with rough straw mats spread out on the earth. I could not get a wink of sleep for the storm that came upon us at midnight.
The next day I rode on horse back towards Kori, and arrived at the barrier-gate of Okido in Date
Passing through the castle towns of Abumizuri and Shiroishi, I arrived in Kasajima Province, where I asked the way to the mound of Lord Sanekata of the Fujiwara family. I was told that I must turn right in the direction of the villages of Minowa and Kasajima visible at the foot of the mountains in the distance, and that the mound was still there by the side of a shrine, buried in deep grass. I wanted to go that way, of course, but the muddy road after the early rain of the wet season and my own weakness stopped me. The names of the two villages were so befitting to the wet season with their echoes of raincoat and umbrella that I wrote:”
A mushroom, ha!
or, some unknown tree,
with a clinging leaf
A mushroom, or an unknown tree with a clinging leaf
matsudake ya / shiranu konoha no / hebaritsuku
松茸や 知らぬ 木の葉の へばり付く
A new species of mushroom with a leaf for a cap or an unknown tree?
The beauty of all poetry and haiku in particular lies in the fact that simple words are capable of multiple interpretations. Poetry is sensation and emotion, and emotions are felt, differently according to our gender, age, culture, and experience.
The mycophagist (one who studies mushrooms) looks at the mushroom with a scientific eye. The cook eyes the mushroom for its texture and aroma. The child loves the mushroom for its mysterious appearance among the decaying leaves in the forest floor.
Mushrooms grow throughout the year but are most plentiful in fall. Shiitake are common, but the matsutake are prized. Has Matsuo Basho come across one? Is it the marvelous matsudake, with its intense aroma and pine-like flavor? He doesn’t know.
Surprise, this mushroom has a leaf on its cap.
Notes on translation
Matsudake ya, a mushroom, hmmm; ah, a mushroom! or, a mushroom?