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

 

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.

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…”.