Matsuo Basho was well into his trip when he visited mountainous Yamadera, and the Buddhist temple of Risshaku-ji in northern Yamagata Prefecture. This was stage 26 of 43 recorded stops on his Oku no Hosomichi, Journey to the Northern Interior (奥の細道).
Ah, the Quiet, but piercing the Rocks — the Cry of the Cicada
閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声
Shizukesa ya/ Iwa ni shimiiru/ Semi no koe
Here he climbed over a thousand steps to the temple of Risshaku-ji (立石寺), founded in 860 AD by the priest Ennin, later known as Jikaku Daishi (慈覺大師). Ennin had studied in China during the Tang Dynasty. This was a literary connection for Basho who had an affinity for the Tang poet Du Fu and all poems of the Tang Dynasty.
On his way to the summit, clinging to the steep, forested, rocky mountain side, he composed this haiku.
For Matsuo Basho, I imagine the haiku means that poetry outlives the poet. It echoes down through generations, as solid as rock. This is similar to the Latin phrase Ars longa, vita brevis, which means either “Art lasts long, life is short” or “it takes a lifetime to learn a skill, life is short”.
Notes on Translation
Semi no koe, 蝉の声, the voice of the cicada. Whether the cicada cries or simply speaks, Gentle Reader, I leave to you.
Compare mizuno oto, 水の音, the sound of water. Unlike Matsuo Basho’s well known, old pond — frog jumps — splash, water’s sound, Basho here uses “voice” for “sound”.
Both haiku are good examples of Basho’s focus on wabi-sabi, 侘び 寂び. This Zen Buddhist concept can best be described as simple and quiet, but elegant, finding beauty in life’s imperfections. For example, a furry caterpillar crawls along a branch after having eaten part of a leaf.
Gentle Reader, how do you find beauty in this world?