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

The 325th Anniversary of Matsuo Bashō’s Death

November 28, 2019

He was not old by Japanese standards of the 17th century. The Tokugawa shogunate had established peace and tranquility throughout the land. One could expect live to a Biblically allotted time span of 70 years.

But Matsuo Bashō died young, at the age of 50, perhaps worn out by his many travels, the journeys that made him famous.

In this early death, he resembled other famous writers including the Chinese Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, who died at 58; English playwright, William Shakespeare, who died at the age of 52;  or the American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who also died at the age of 58. She, explaining in a poem the nearness of death, wrote that:

My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light!

Bashō’s Final Journey

Today, November 28, 1694, marks the 325th anniversary of the death of Japan’s greatest haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō. He must of anticipated his death for he made a final  journey home in the fall of 1694. Having spent time in Ueno, his birthplace, and Kyoto, where he spent time as a student,  he arrived in Osaka, where he took ill.

One final haiku:

Stricken on my journey
My dreams will wander about
On withered fields of grass

Tabi ni yande/ Yume wa kareno wo/ Kakemeguru
旅に病んで 夢は枯野を かけ廻る

Bashō’s Final Illness

The news of his illness had spread to friends and students. And they gathered around his bed as his spirit left to wander this world. The image was one that was familiar to Basho, for he had often attended the Noh (能) theaters in Edo and, no doubt, in Kyoto where he learned the art of haiku as a student. Noh theater is a peculiar Japanese art form, popularized by Zeami Motokiyo, that includes only male actors who wear masks to represent emotions and typecast figures. Noh drama includes music, physical expression, and dance. The stories often relate to dreams, supernatural worlds, ghosts and spirits.

Life is a lying dream, he only wakes who casts the world aside.
Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443).

Bashō’s Dream

In an earlier haiku (June 29, 1689), Bashō alluded to a well-known Samurai figure, Minamoto no Yoshitsune who was treacherously killed in battle by the last Fujiwara lord, and the subject of a Noh play,

summer grass
and a warrior’s dreams
are what remains
natsukusa ya/ tsuwamono domo ga/ yume no ato
夏草や   兵どもが   夢の跡

 

Bashō’s Burial

Matsuo Bashō wanted companionship on his wanderings in the spirit world; and in accordance with his last wishes, his body was taken to Gichuji Temple, near the banks of Lake Biwa, where he was buried next to the famed Samurai Minamoto no Yoshinaka.

Yasuraka ni nemuru
安らかに眠る

Rest in peace!

banana-trees

Matsuo Bashō’s Death Haiku

Sick on my journey
my dreams will wander
this desolate field

旅に病んで 夢は枯野を かけ廻る

Tabi ni yande/ Yume wa kareno wo/ Kakemeguru

The Death of Matsuo Bashō

It came to an abrupt end in 1694.

Bashō, at the age of 50, was making a journey home. He left Edo (Tokyo) for the last time in the summer of that year, spending time in Ueno, where he was born, and Kyoto, where he studied as a young man, before arriving in Osaka, which he had often visited and no doubt had many friends and disciples. There his familiar stomach illness came on again. Bashō apparently had time to put his affairs in order, composing this final haiku.

It is said that Basho delivered this haiku on his deathbed to 60 of his disciples who had gathered to say a final goodbye. Four days later, he died.

Then, pursuant to his last wishes, he was buried at the temple dedicated to Minamoto no Yoshinaka in Gichū-ji. Yoshinka, a general of the Minamoto clan. Yoshinka was killed by his cousins at the Battle of Awazu in Ōmi Province in 1184. According to a play in the Theater of , his spirit wanders about.

milky-way-sea

 

Notes on translation

Tabi ni yande 旅に病んで,  sick on my journey; tabi 旅, meaning trip, travel, or journey

Yume wa kareno wo 夢は枯野を,  “like dreams on a withered field”. A second interpretation – the dream withers or dies on this field. Basho juxtaposes differing interpretations of death. In one scenario. life is extinguished and the dream dies. In the second, as in the Theater of , the spirit of the deceased wanders about.

Basho had the second idea in mind as he had discussed with his friends his wish to be buried near Yoshinaka, who was killed in battle, and was himself the subject of a play in the Theater of Nō where his spirit wandered about.

Kakemeguru かけ廻る, to run or rush about.

East West 東西 higashi nishi

East or west
Just one melancholy thing –
Autumn wind.

東西 あはれさひとつ 秋の風
higashi nishi / aware sa hitotsu / aki no kaze

japanese-couple

Explanation of Basho’s haiku

East and west, it is all the same sorrow when one so young dies so soon.

Basho lived in Fukagawa, Edo (the East Capital), and his disciple Mukai Kyorai 向井去来 in Kyoto (the West Capital). In the summer of 1686, Kyorai and his younger sister Chine went on a journey to the Ise shrine.

They kept a journal, the Ise Journal* that begins:

“The sun hot yet wind cool on our heads,
I take my younger sister on a pilgrimage to Ise.”

Chine replied:

“Until Ise
such good companions,
morning geese.”

Chine died two years later at the young age of 25 on the 15th day of the 5th lunar month.

She wrote a final haiku:

Easily glows and easily goes a firefly
もえやすく又消やすき蛍哉
moe yasuku mata kie yasuki hotaru kana

In tribute, Basho wrote his haiku in the eighth lunar month.

Notes on translation

あはれさひとつ aware sa hitotsu could also be translated as “our sorrow is the same”

East or west / our sorrow’s the same / an autumn wind

An autumn wind (秋の風 aki no kaze) is understandably melancholy, summer is over and winter near. In another haiku, Basho references the Autumn Wind – Shake even the grave, My wailing is the autumn wind, 塚も動け我が泣聲は 秋の風, tsuka mo ugoke waga naku koe wa aki no kaze.

Americans and Japanese of the World War II generation are, no doubt familiar with the term Kamikaze, 神風, “divine wind” or “spirit wind”. The historically ancient term Kamikase refers to the 13th century wind that saved Japan from a Mongol invasion.

*Kyorai’s Ise Journal, Ise Kiko. See also the well-written post The Life and Death of Chine, by Writers in Kyoto .

a village without bells

a village where no bells ring: what, no way to tell it is dusk in spring

or,

in a village without bells, how do they mark the end of spring?

鐘撞かぬ里は何をか春の暮
kane tsukanu sato wa nani o ka haru no kure

I hope to come back to this haiku, yet, as Robert Frost said, ‘knowing how way leads on to way, I doubt I ever could.’ What, a village without bells, no way in ‘hell’ to find my way back again.

Notes

haru, spring, but also vitality; liveliness; energy; life
lust; lustfulness; passion; sexual desire
kure, this character has several meanings including: evening; dusk; late sunset; closing of the day.

In old Japanese haru no kure  may mean the end of spring

evening-milky-way

 

Like a cloud in the wind

like clouds in the wind
a wild goose and his friend
depart

or,

like a cloud in the wind
like a wildgoose and his friend
life departs

雲とへだつ友かや雁の生き別れ

kumo to hedatsu tomo ka ya kari no ikiwakare

Descending Geese at Katata, Eight Views of Ömi Province, 1957, Utagawa Hiroshige
Geese descending at Katata on Lake Biwa by Utagawa Hiroshige, 18th c.

Master Basho explains

A summer’s day near Lake Biwa, the clouds drift by and at sunset the wildgeese descend to the lake. Master Basho and his friend watch the setting sun. “Look at the cloud in the wind, like a wild-goose from the flock, my friend we all too soon depart.”

Lake Biwa

Matsuo Bashō had several connections with Lake Biwa and the surrounding area. He was born in nearby, in Iga Province, and may have studied in nearby Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. Basho is know to have visited Lake Biwa in 1684 and again during the summer of 1690, enjoying the scenic views, the wild life, and nearby temples.

Basho departed this world in November of 1690.

Notes on translation

雲 kumo, cloud
雁 kari, wildgoose
や ya, kana word used to connect wildgoose and friend
友 tomo, friend, companion
生 yǒu, life
別れ wakare, farewell, depart

lake biwa, japan