Has Spring come? 春や来

Has Spring come?
Has the old Year gone?
On the Second-to-last day of the month

haru ya koshi toshi ya yukiken kotsugomori

春や来     し年や行きけん     小晦日

noodles

The meaning of Basho’s haiku

On the penultimate day of the year, Basho asks, “Has Spring come?”

Possibly, Basho and a few friends are having a conversation about the coming of the new year while eating a bowl of Toshikoshi soba, the year-crossing noodle traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve.

Because Spring started on the 29th of the new year, and not the 30th or the 1st day, Basho wrote this amusing conundrum. Penultimate, because it is the next to the last, and not the first or the last. Amusing because buried within the haiku are the rhyming words “koshi toshi“. This play on words, refers to Toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦), the year-crossing noodle dish, the traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve. Why noodles? Because last year’s hardships are easily broken up because soba noodles are easily cut.

Basho’s inspiration and sources

This haiku is thought to be Matsuo Basho’s earliest dated haiku. It dates to 1662-1663, the 29th of the lunar month of the New Lunar Year. At this time Basho served the family of Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region.

Basho’s haiku is loosely based on an earlier poem by Ariwara no Narihira (在原 業平, 825–880).

Did you come to me,
Or I go to you?
I have no idea
A dream or reality?
Was I asleep or awake?

kimi ya koshi
ware ya yukiken
omōezu
yume ka utsutsu ka
nete ka samete ka

君やこし
我やゆきけむ
思ほえず
夢かうつつか
ねてかさめてか

More so, the slightly later poem by Ariwara Motokawa (888–953).

During the old year
spring has come.
The day that is left:
should we call it
last year
or this year?

年のうちに
春は来にけり
一年を
去年とやいはむ
今年とやいはむ

toshi no uchi ni
haru wa ki ni keri
hitotose o
kozo to ya iwan
kotoshi to ya iwan

Withering Winter

The withering Winter and
The World is white –
The Sound of Wind

In the bleak Winter
When the World is one color
Is the Sound of Wind

Winter’s Solitude
And the World is one color –
The Sound of Wind

fuyugare ya    yo wa isshoku ni    kaze no oto

冬枯れ や 世は一色に    風の音

JP2492
Night Snow, Utagawa Hiroshige, circa 1833, The Met

Bashō‘s meaning

It is bitter cold, one can see nothing but white, and hear nothing but the sound of wind.

One could imagine Antarctica in the winter, or a Siberian scene in Dr. Zhivago. For me it was a “white-out” in eastern Colorado, early January of 2020.

I was driving my son’s ancient Camry from Ft. Collins, Colorado to Wichita. Being an intrepid soul, I avoided the quicker Interstate 25, and instead headed east early in the morning, driving through Windsor, Colorado, on to Highway 34, then picking up Interstate 76 to Fort Morgan, before switching back to US Highway 34, then south on lonely Colorado Highway 59, and finally, at Seibert, on to Interstate 70 for the majority of the trip.

Interstate 76 and 70 in the winter are both windy, but one has the company of other trucks and cars being buffeted about. If the snow and wind are too great, then the interstate is shut down and one stays in a hotel room if one can be found.

Out on the two lane Highway 34 and the side roads like Colorado 59, the experience is quite different. There are few trees, few towns, and few houses. In places where the land has been plowed for hay, or corn, or wheat, the winter brings on vast fields of snow that when the wind blows, makes the world one solid color of white. It is frightening to drive in such conditions.

Slowing down or stopping, one hears the sound of wind, a high pitched whistle, that along with the bitter cold cuts to the bone.

Notes on translation

fuyugare, 冬枯れ, is literally the withering winter. One can infer from this that Bashō was referring to the bleakness of winter or winter’s desolation or isolation. One could also use the cliche “dead of winter,” but cliche’s should be avoided. Some translators speak of winter’s solitude, and that works too. Solitude, however, may suggest serenity, and that is not what I choose to take away from my experience in eastern Colorado.

Ah, is not the beauty of poetry that it expresses something unique to each of us? Or does it depend on the moment? Dr. Zhivago is shivering away trudging through the snow, but quite happy in his frozen palace.

ya, や, is similar to “and” in English

wa isshoku ni, 世は一色に, is literally a world of one color, which, in this case, is white.

kaze no oto, 風の音, the sound of wind, or the voice of wind, if one wishes to hear the wind speak.

winter-snow-2
Evening snow on Hira mountains, Utagawa Hiroshige, Fitzwilliam Museum

 

The Guest’s Shadow is like Kageboushi

The banked fire
The guest’s shadow on the wall –
A silhouette.

Uzumi-bi ya/ Kabe niha kyaku no/ Kageboushi

埋火や 壁には客の 影法師

mountain-hiker

Meaning of Matuso Basho’s haiku

A banked fire is like the guest’s shadow, is like a silhouette. A silhouette, the essence of a human being reduced to its most basic form. A shadow without substance.

A banked fire, 埋火, literally, a buried ember. The banked fire is built around rocks or stones and protected from the wind. Thus, we find Matsuo Basho and his disciples on a cold winter’s night sitting around a fire with their backs facing the wall of the inn or the home, their face and hands warmed by the fire’s heat, until the flames die down and it is time to go to bed.

If the coals from the fire are protected, there will usually be enough heat in the embers to start a fresh fire the next day. The first character 埋 also implies the quality of being buried or hidden, a fire that lies within the embers.

Kageboushi, 影法師, literally “shadowman,” refers to a silhouette, and to Shadow Theater, and indirectly to Puppet theater which became popular during the Edo Period.

 

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

Seagull – Kamome

Cold water / hard for even a seagull / to sleep

Cold water / could a seagull sleep / I wonder

Mizu samuku/ neiri kane taru / kamome kana

水寒く     寝入りかねたる     鴎かな

seaguls-herring-gul

Dedicated to the priest Genki

Most translators add the following information to this haiku, that it was written in Edo in honor of the Buddhist priest Genki (元起) on the occasion of his presenting Basho with a bottle of Saki, no doubt to help get through a long winter’s night.

Perhaps the two of them had been to see a Noh play in the theater district. Perhaps they were walking back to Bashō ‘s hut across the Sumida River. Perhaps they were discussing the similarity of the art of Zen and haiku, delving into the subtle difference of meditation and sleep when Genki stopped to buy a bottle of saki from a street vendor. Perhaps Basho caught the sight if a seagull in the near frozen river water and wondered how it would sleep through the night.

Kana! I wonder!

 

Notes on translation

Misu samuku 水寒く, cold water

Neiri kane taru 寝入りかねたる,  can’t sleep

Kamome kana 鴎かな, kamome seagull (鴎) plus kana (かな), I wonder

A crow on a withered branch

On a withered branch
A crow is perched
An autumn evening

枯朶に  烏のとまりけり  秋の暮

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

Kawanabe Kyōsa Crow on a snowy plum branch
Image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Bashō’s poetry

Written in the autumn of 1680. Matsuo Bashō was then living in Edo (Tokyo) and teaching poetry to a group of 20 disciples. In this wonderfully simple poem, a crow alights upon a withered branch, and Bashō is moved by the sight to write this haiku.

Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku
Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku

Kare eda ni

A withered branch, kare eda ni. Much is implied, little is said.

Karasu no tomarikeri

A crow, karasu, alighting on the branch, tomarikeri.

Beyond the obvious phonetic assonance of repeating “Ks” is the symbolism of a solitary crow. Normally we associate these noisy and annoysome birds with flocks.  In Japanese mythology the crow symbolizes the will of Heaven.

Gentle reader, I ask: Is Basho the crow, imposing his knowledge and will upon his disciples?

Aki no kure

The final line is aki no kure, autumn evening. This completes the harsh repetition of the K sound, and imitates the cacophonous call of the crow.

Timeline of the poem

Let us visit for a moment with Bashō in Edo. It is still autumn and the leaves are turning red and gold. Winter is about to come.

Perhaps we can imagine Matsuo Bashō sitting on a log in one of the many gardens of Edo surrounded by his student disciples. He is dressed in black, or they are. It is a cool autumn evening and the leaves are gathering at their feet. The students wait in anticipation of what the master is going to say.

Bashō’s poetry was developing its simple and natural style. The point of view in many of Bashō’s haiku is that life (the human condition) is best described as a metaphor. Bashō died at the early age of 50. Perhaps at the age of 36 when this haiku was written he was feeling both the effects of age and the anticipation of death.

Rhyme, rhythm, and assonance

For those who focus more on rhyme, we could translate as follows: “On a withered bough a crow is sitting now.” It is not a choice I like. Better yet, On a cracked and broken branch sits a crow. Some may think of Edgar Allen Poe’s the raven gently tapping… Others may call to mind Yeats line, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick…”.

Scattered Showers

bridge crossing Sumida River from Edo to Fukagawa
bridge crossing Sumida River from Edo to Fukagawa

A passing cloud like a stray dog relieving itself – scattered showers

行く雲や犬の駈け尿村時雨
yuku kumo ya / inu no kake bari / mura shigure

winter 1677

Weather Report from the Edo Waterworks

Five years after Matsuo Basho moved to Edo, he found himself working as a clerk at the Waterworks Department to support himself. As an aside, Basho joined Nishiyama Sōin, founder of the Danrin school of haikai (haikai no renga), who came to Edo from Osaka in 1675.

The style was witty wordplay bordering on the vulgar.

Winter’s Drizzle

Without hat
While winter drizzles
Well, well

笠もなきわれを時雨るるかこは何と

kasa mo naki ware o shigururu ka ko wa nanto

Hiroshige-Atake-detail

Winter’s drizzle

In northern Japan, the winter drizzle 時雨 that continuously falls in late autumn and winter is a familiar sight. Here in the Midwest, in March, the rain falls to a steady beat. The farmers bless the coming of the rain, a sign of a good year to come.

Like a drifting cloud, Basho has no preconceived notion of where he’s supposed to be or go, or what he is supposed to wear.

What prompted Basho’s haiku?

This haiku is from Matsuo Basho’s book Weather-Beaten Journey (1685). The book opens with Basho’s quote of a Buddhist priest, “Traveling a thousand li, I bring no provisions, under the midnight moon, I enter the land of nothingness.”

Hat, no hat, winter’s drizzle, where am I to go, what am I to do?

Notes on translation

笠 bamboo hat
雨 rain
時雨 winter drizzle
るる continuously
かこ the past, try not to dwell on the past
何と whatever, what, when

 

winter rain no hat Utagawa Kuniyoshi
heavy rain no hat Utagawa Kuniyoshi, wikiart

 

First Snow on Shin Ohashi Bridge

初雪や
懸けかかりたる橋
の上に

Hatsu-yuki ya
kake-kakari-taru hashi
no ue ni

First Snow
falling on the unfinished bridge,
Oh, if only on top

わからない, Wakaranai, I don’t understand

“Master Basho,” the disciple says after reading this haiku, “Wakaranai, わからない, I don’t understand.”

After a momentary pause, Master Basho replies, “Those who speak, do not know. Those who know, need not speak.”

The disciple bows his head, the fingers of his two hands interlaced in his lap, and exhaling a deep breath before repeats, almost as if in prayer, “Wakaranai.”

The old master removes his cap and runs his hands through his graying hair. Then he strokes the beard of his chin as if it were the fur of a cat and says, “We are all looking for answers. But some things in life are mysteries. There are no answers my son. Perhaps, a haiku, a word picture may suffice.”

After a moment, the disciple nods.

Unexplainable, unknowable, ineffable

Even the most gifted writers know than not all experiences can be rendered into language. A common example, the first light of the morning sun parting the darkness greeting the new day. “You had to be there,” one usually says when trying to describe the unexplainable, the unknowable, the ineffable.

Matsuo Basho’s haiku is inspired by the building of the lofty Shin Ohashi (New Great Bridge). Constructed in the fall of 1693, it spanned the Sumida River, and for the first time linked the bustling city center of Edo (old name for Tokyo) and rustic Fukagawa, where Basho lived in a hut provide to him by his disciples. One source reports that the construction was begun “in July and finished in five months on Dec. 7 1693.” (See the online essay, The Spaces of Robert Hass, March 10, 2015, James Karkoski). If so, it still allows time for the a first winter’s snow before the bridge’s completion, a moment for Matsuo Basho to stand below the unfinished bridge.

Although it depicts rain and a completed bridge, this later day painting by Japanese artist Hiroshige, 1857, conveys a sense of being exposed to the Nature’s elements.

Hiroshige Atake Shin Ohashi  bridge Shizuoka city Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art
Hiroshige Atake, Shin Ohashi bridge, Shizuoka city Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art

Lost in translation

Translators rarely agree about wording and Matsuo Basho’s poem is no exception.

The most Spartan example by David Landis Barnhill:
first-snow ! / make / bridge ’s top

Robert Hass:
first snow
falling
on the half finished bridge

This last example seems to eliminate the last line of Basho’s poem, の上に, no ue ni, which I render as “If only on top” and adding the gratuitous exclamation “Oh”.

One might add a little more context to the haiku by explaining that Basho moved from Edo to Fukagawa in 1680. The river Sumida separated the two and there were no bridges. I suspect that not all of the residents would look forward to becoming a part of metropolitan Edo (Tokyo).

Understanding and knowing

One has to wonder if there is a difference in Japanese between understanding and knowing. My answer is: わかりませんです, Wakarimasendesu.