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