Ah, the moon, a silvery thread
As insects hmmm
fuyu niwa ya
tsuki mo ito naru
mushi no gin
冬庭や 月もいとなる むしの吟
2nd year of Genroku, at a tea ceremony with Ichinyū celebrating Banzan.
Winter, 2nd year of Genroku, 1689
At least one modern day student of Basho dates this haiku to 1689 and adds, “on meeting Ichinyū at a celebration held by Banzan.”
Ichinyū was a lay Buddhist teacher and seven year Basho’s senior. By trade he was a traditional tea potter, fourth generation Raku. Ichinyū lived and worked in Kyoto, which suggests that he was an old friend from Basho’s student days.
Kumazawa Banzan was a follower of Confucius, an advocate of agricultural reform who ran afoul of the Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. Beginning in 1687, Bashan was confined to Koga Castle in Ibaraki Prefecture, making it likely that the occasion for writing this haiku was not a meeting with Banzan, but a celebration of Banzan’s writings that took place at a tea ceremony in Kyoto hosted by Ichinyū.
We should perhaps give Basho credit here for political commentary. I read this haiku as, “the peasants (i.e. insects) continue through winter’s darkness to work (hmmm) for the Imperial court and the samurai class.
Notes on this haiku
The 2nd year of Genroku refers to the reign of Emperor Higashiyama.
Those who garden know that a winter’s garden, fuyu niwa ya, 冬庭や, has but a few plants and fewer insects. The ending character や, ya, turns this phrase into an interjection expressing surprise which I’ve added to the next line. An early frost shrivels the leaves and stills the sounds of the insects who feed on the plants. To me, it is remarkable after an early frost to hear a solitary insect humming. This insect has perhaps burrowed down deep in the earth, found a dung hill, or huddled next to the house to survive the icy cold. And the next day, in the warmth of the sun, merrily goes about its work.
Tsuki mo ito naru. Tsuki is our familiar moon in all its phases. Naru is the verb form for becoming. Mo ito, literally, like a thread, giving us the sense that the moon is waning to a “silvery thread.”
Mushi no Gin, the sound of insects. I render this as “insects hmmm.” Those familiar with Matsuo Basho’s haiku know that as a Zen poet, he was fascinated with the sound of things, whether it was a cricket under a helmet, a frog jumping in an old pond, or insects in rocks.