A Crow Upon a Withered Branch

Upon a withered branch
A crow has stopped this
Autumn evening

Kareeda ni/ Karasu no tomarikeri/ Aki no kure

枯枝に烏のとまりけり秋の暮

detail of image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Autumn 1680

Matsuo Bashō has by the autumn of 1680 now achieved fame. Moreover, he has just moved from Edo across the Sumida River to the Fukagawa neighborhood where he lives in a simple hut with a new banana tree, a gift from a student. A bridge had yet to be built across the river.

At the age of 36 Bashō was experiencing what we would call a Mid-Life crisis, he was cut off, dissatisfied, and lonely. In a couple of years he would begin his epic journey to the North. But for now, he took up the practice of Zen meditation, but it seems not to have calmed his mind.

This haiku has more than 30 published and hundreds of online translations. Why so many variations? Why so many attempts?

Zen

The answer, I suppose, lies in Zen’s ineffability. For Zen’s essence is to understand directly Life’s Meaning, without being misled by language. Life is what we view directly, no more, no less.

Bashō sees a crow perched upon a withered branch. It is autumn, more precisely, an autumn evening as the dusk settles in and darkness descends. The air is still or perhaps there is a gentle breeze. Then a crow stops upon a withered branch. Its crow and tree become one color against the ever deepening blue of the evening sky.

Bashō, like the crow, stops for a moment. And in that suspended moment this haiku is formed.

The Crow, , Karasu

Do I need to say that the crow is a bad omen? In Japan, there is a belief that if a crow settles on the roof of a house and begins cawing, a funeral will soon follow. Did the gloomy Bashō foresee his own death? Did Basho in his own unique way presage Yates who wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick.” Is there not a little of Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven to be heard tapping at one’s door?

A melancholy thought, for which I have little to add other than that I love the repetition of the “k” throughout the haiku which must bring to mind the cawing that Bashō must have heard.

Notes

  1. I see that I watched this crow stopping on his withered branch before, September 19, 2019.
  2. For the semantically punctilious, much depends on the translation of とまりけり, tomarikeri. Perched, alighted, arrested are all possibilities. “Stopped” seems best to me.
  3. For an academic discussion of various English translations, see A CROW ON A BARE BRANCH: A COMPARISON OF MATSUO BASHŌ’S HAIKU “KARE-EDA-NI…” AND ITS ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS, by Elin Sütiste of Tartu University in Estonia.

hototogisu katsuo

the cuckoo
stains the skipjack tuna
I suppose

時鳥鰹を染めにけりけらし

hototogisu katsuo o some ni keri kerashi

Ahi Tuna

Hototogisu katsuo

What do we make of this strange haiku where a cuckoo stains a fish? Was Basho in Osaka eating ahi tuna when he had an insight?

The cuckoo is a popular subject in Japanese literature. Matsuo Basho begins no less than eleven haikus with the word hototogisu, 時鳥. Terebess, page 45.

the cuckoo is paired with katsuo, the skipjack tuna or bonito. We might think of it as ahi tuna, served fresh and raw, but ahi is a larger species than the skipjack. Can it be, the far ranging cuckoo with its bright red mouth has stained the tuna bright red?

Perhaps, but there is another story.

Patience

It is a Japanese short poem, known to Basho, that illustrates the virtues of patience. One day three Samurai, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu, got together and saw a cuckoo in a tree that wouldn’t sing. Nobunaga said, “If it doesn’t sing I’ll kill it.” But Hideyoshi said, “No; I’ll convince it to sing”; finally, Ieyasu said, “I’ll wait until it sings”.

Nobunga was regarded as the first “Great Unifier” of Japan. Hideyoshi succeeded him. Hideyoshi, it seems, had a passion for gold, and covered Osaka Castle with gold leaf and roof ornaments in the form of a mythical ocean fish. Ieyasu, biding his time, defeated Hideyoshi and became the first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Katsuo can also be read to mean “man who wins.” Hototogisu katsuo, means “the cuckoo wins.” Thus, the patient Ieyasu killed the “fish”.

I must take to the road again

Shall I call this an end or simply a repose.

It is now November. The sky is gray, the trees are bare, there is a cold wind that chills, leaves once red and gold, now yellow and brown, flutter in the air then gather for they know Winter is near.

Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks
Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks, Futami

September 1689, Ogaki

In September 1689, Matsuo Basho has completed his Journey to the North, ending in Ogaki on horseback. His friend Rotsu accompanied him, Sora, his companion on much of the journey, rejoined him. Basho continues, “we all went to the house of Joko, where I enjoyed a reunion with Zensen, Keiko and his sons, and many other old friends who came to see me by day or night.

On the 6th of September, it was time to part and take to the road again. Life moves on, and so, he left for the Ise Shrine, for he wanted to see the dedication of a new shrine (Futamiokitama Shrine). As he stepped into the boat that would take him across Ise Bay he wrote:

As clams
Divide into Two
(Separate in Futami)
In Autumn

蛤の
ふたみにわかれ
行秋ぞ

hamaguri no / futami ni wakare / yuku aki zo

So too, I take to the road again. Not a farewell my friends, a repose.

Previously posted September 26, 2019.

Matsuo Basho Halloween

Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) lived in the later half of the 17th century when Japan was isolated from Western culture and there was, of course, no Halloween, no Trick or Treat, no masked children laughing and singing, “Smell my feet, Give me something good to eat.” Masks were however used in the ceremonies of Shinto religion (Tengu, 天狗), the plays of Noh theater, and as part of the Samurai military costume.

Noh mask, 3 faces, Wikipedia

Basho’s Halloween Costume

Had he worn one, surely a banana , his self-given moniker, the very meaning of Basho (芭 蕉) and the plant which grew over his hut on the outskirts of Edo. Otherwise, a Noh mask, for Basho loved to attend the plays Lastly as an old and aged frog about to make a splash, for that was the poem that made him famous.

Old pond, frog jumping into water, sound

Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

ふるいけやかわずとびこむみずのおと

Why is Basho’s frog haiku famous

Water makes many sounds, it ripples on the rocks, splatters as rain falling upon the roof, as the roar of the ocean waves, even the gurgle of water in a drain. But the very best has to be surprise when a frog disturbs the stillness of a pond and we hear kerplop!

Shoda Koho, Frog on Lotus Leaf, detail stylized, source ukiyo-e.org

Wintry Wind, Kogarashi

The wintry wind,
Swelling cheeks and throbbing pain on
Peoples’ faces

Kogarashi ya/ Hoobare itamu/ Hito no kao

こがらしや 頬腫痛む 人の顔

Though we don’t know, let us imagine that the year is 1672, Basho at age 28, has moved to Edo (now Tokyo), the seat of the newly established Tokugawa shoguns. He is there to make his career as a professional haiku poet. Picture a street in Edo, it is winter, the trees have been striped of their leaves by a strong wind blowing out of the North. Men and women, old and young, pull up their collars and tighten their scarves and scurry down the street trying to avoid the bitter wind that bites their cheeks.

In the words of Lao Tzu, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” And those who feel know how truly cold it is. Normally, a face reveals nothing, but a bitterly cold wind reveals the pain one feels on a winter’s day.

Kogarashi is a marker for the start of the winter season. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, the wind must blow from the north at a speed of 28.8 kph (18 mph) and be capable of stripping leaves from the tree.

Wintry Scene in Edo, Utagawa Hiroshige

Autumn, How Will it End?

1694, Genroku 7, on the 21st day of the ninth lunar month

An Autumn evening (sigh)
Breaking down
How will it end – (an angry) talk?

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Translators, like Nick Carraway’s character in The Great Gatsby, never totally agreeing, trying to make sense of Matsuo Basho’s haiku. This however provides hours of fun and never-ending chatter, for when it comes to the sense of a poem, in Zen, there is no right or wrong.

How will it end – In pleasant chat or angry talk?

Three alternative translations

In the autumn night,
Breaking into
A pleasant chat

Matsuo Basho’s Autumn haiku poems

this autumn night
brought to naught
by our storytelling

WKD Haiku Topics

Autumn’s night
Struck and shattered
By a genial conversation

Basho’s Haiku by Jeroen van Zanten

How Will it End

Context provides clarity.

1694 – Basho is traveling again for the last time, going from the house of one friend to another. In the year 1694 (Genroku 7, on the 21st day of the ninth lunar month), shortly before his death, he arrives at the home of Shioe Shayo in Osaka. Old friends gathering, reciting haiku, and talking of the olden days.

One month later, on the 12th day of the tenth lunar month, he peacefully passed away.

Notes on Translation

秋の夜を 打ち崩したる 咄かな
Aki no yo wo/ Uchikuzushitaru/ Hanashi kana

Line one. 秋の夜 を Akinoyo wo, An Autumn night. The final character imparts the idea of a sigh or emphasis.

Line two. 打ち崩したる Uchikuzushitaru, most translation agree that this conveys the meaning “breaking down into”. I imagine an evening that began as a Renga party where a group of poets each contributed a verse under the direction of a renga master, Matuso Basho. Each verse a haiku that contained three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Eventually all games come to an end, breaking down into congenial chatter and sometimes anger.

Line three. 咄かな Hanashi kana. Basho leaves us with a bit of a mystery. After three centuries, Hanashi comes down to us as a talk, a story and a chat. But the character when repeated becomes a loud voice (onomatopoeia), especially in an angry way; like tut-tut or tsk-tsk. The final two characters かな kana express wonder.

If the evening ended in anger and disagreement, I imagine Basho sitting there, a bit groggy from the wine, shaking his head, sadly thinking, this is how it ends. Thankfully, I am in the minority on this point of view. A month later, on his death bed, Basho is pictured, at peace, surrounded by friends.

The Autumn Wind

“Ignore the faults of others and be ignorant of your own virtues.”

Should I to say a word
My lips turn cold
In the autumn wind.

mono   ieba / kuchibirusa   samushi  / aki  no  kaze

物いへば唇寒し龝の風

Autumn 1691

On his return to Edo in the autumn of 1691, Bashō took up the task of editing his journal that was to become The Narrow Road to the Interior (奥の細道, Oku no Hosomichi), which was published in 1694. He had a great many visitors and wrote to a friend, “I have no peace of mind.”

Silence is golden!

Scattered Leaves

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.

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō
Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō, near Kyoto

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

Matsuo Basho on Autumn Leaves.

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

Menshooj Temple, original image Wikipedia

Moon over the Mountains, Basho

Let us write poetry!
the moon over the mountains
is rarely seen in Edo

Hiroshige’s Moon over Mountain, 1835

Moon Viewing

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.

This post relies on WKD – Matsuo Basho Archives by Gabi Greve.

Notes on Translation

読む nagamuru, “reading out loud”. One can of course silently experience the beauty of a full moon. Sharing an experience is better.

稀な marena, rare or uncommon.

Japanese and Rōmaji 

詠むるや江戸には稀な山の月

nagamuru ya Edo ni wa marena yama no tsuki

Kakitsubata

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

Japan's most renowned iris painting is Kakitsubata-zu by Ogata Korin (1658-1716), in the Nezu Museum in Tokyo.

Kakitsubata

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
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.