First snow and
the daffodils leaves bend
the daffodil leaves bend
suisen no ha no tawa
Today we call them prompts. A word or a phrase that elicits a response.
The prompt is followed by an attempt to sketch a scene in a few words. The goal is to capture the pure essence of an action or emotion. Matsuo Basho and his disciples used such devices to write haiku. From Basho’s frequent use of 初雪や, hatsuyuki ya, or “first snow and” in Basho haiku, we learn that snow was often the subject. There are for example first snow and the great Buddha, first snow and the crow, and many others, including the one above about daffodils.
Daoism teaches us the paradox of the Way – those who know do not need to speak to show that they know.
How to say a lot in a few words
Haiku are meant to be self-explanatory. Like a sunset or a rainbow, the smile of child, the smell of spring, the first snow of the year when the daffodil has already bloomed.
If not, they should be rewritten. For this reason, Basho often rewrote haiku if he found that it was misunderstood by the common people that he associated with. I apologize for using the term “common people”. It is not a term Basho was likely to use. He was the great equalizer, recognizing that we all have value, that we are all struggling to understand the life we live and find our way in this world.
Knowing the unknowable
Having said that no explanations should accompany a haiku, I will nevertheless try to explain this one as I see it. Others have, sometimes ad nauseum, why not me?
First of all, it is important to understand that “first snow” means the first snow of the lunar New Year. Better to think of this as an early snow in March, one that accompanies the blossoms of the cherry trees, or the flowering of daffodils. When winter has been to soon forgotten…
Next, understand that, although Basho has only spoken of the leaves of the daffodil and not the flower, he is intending both. We learn this from a painting Basho later made to go with the haiku, on that displayed the white daffodil flower drooping in the white snow.
Finally, we are presented with the Kireji (切れ字, “cutting word”), the final three characters, むまで, mu ma de, literally “to the utmost”. The conundrum, which Basho intended, is that a literal translation does not capture the true meaning. Basho uses the character む, mu, which is intended to be an indefinable nothingness.
Words do not help.
Instead we are left with the vision – daffodils struggle with the weight of the snow bent until blossom and snow become one.