Verses about the "childness" between ages 3 and 7, with Japanese and Romanized, plus commentaries to help you "apply your heart to what children do" through Basho's words.
In Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, Polixenes speaks about his son:
His child makes me get up and move about in play instead of being a couch-potato; makes him laugh, brings him peace and conflict, depends upon him, is the most brave, the most diplomatic and cooperative, childness heals his mind and heart. That’s some praise! Basho says the same thing in fewer words:
On the saddle sits their “little monk”
Kuratsubo ni / kobōzu noru ya / daikon hiki
The leafy stalk of the daikon radish stands as tall as a small child, while the long white radish lodges deep in the ground. Fresh in winter, or pickled throughout the year, sliced or grated, daikon is eaten everyday by everyone, its enzymes aiding the digestion of oil and fat. Early winter is called ko-haru, “small spring”, for the days are often sunny and pleasant so winter already seems past. One such day, an entire farm family has come out to gather this year’s daikon crop. The youngest son, too small to help pull the thick heavy radishes from the ground, has been set on the horse tied to a tree where he will not get in the way. This is not an actual apprentice monk but rather an ordinary kid whose head has been shaved close. Because ‘daikon gathering’ in Japanese tradition suggests a happy family excursion, I have added in the word “their” – we feel not this is not just any little boy, but “their little monk”— the youngest son loved by the whole family. Basho told Doho:
The bald round head on a child‘s body “stands out” sitting on the horse high above the horizontal field, watching his elders at work. This makes the verse.
Kon explains ON THE SADDLE in this way:
“There is nothing to fear and all is calm and mild. Here is a candid photograph
of peaceful daikon gathering in a simple farm village, its focal point, the little boy.
A fine example of Lightness.”
Notice Kon‘s words: “nothing to fear…calm and mild…peaceful… simple farm village…little boy.” Such is the material for Lightness. From the words in Kon’s commentary, I define ‘Lightness’ as ‘a peaceful feeling of wholeness.’ Peace and harmony rarely appear in the newspapers or history books. People prefer to know about war and disruption.
As Basho developed his consciousness of Lightness in the final five years of his life, many of his followers objected. These followers preferred to stay with an older, heavier, more traditional style of poetry focusing either on bold,exaggerated imagery which shocks the reader or on lonely desolate beauty which saddens. Rather than shock or sadden, Lightness leaves the reader feeling good.
prosperity of grandchildren
In autumn globes of juicy fruit hanging on branches -- dark orange persimmons, and light orange Mandarin oranges) -- offer an image of prosperity. As a greeting Basho wrote to a family he visited in this season, the point of the verse to make the recipients feel good. The clear vivid orange colors are the fruits of their labor, the years and years of work -- planting fruit trees, building houses, starting businesses - to produce the prosperity of those not even born when that work was done.
let’s go rushing out
gems of hail
Basho is actually speaking to his followers, telling them to be more like children, overcome inhibitions and fears and preference for comfort, to go out there into the cold freezing weather and live life to the fullest.
He wrote another similar haiku:
Hey let’s go
I find it odd that some scholars, who are adults, think this is about worrying that one will injure oneself.
To a child, it is about having fun.
Hototogisu / naku naku tobu zo / isogawashi
The bird sounds breathless, as if trying to produce the call with most beauty. Usually it calls once, but sometimes you hear two calls in succession, as if the bird is especially busy and rushed. And occasionally you may even see it fly.
Rose mallow --
a naked little child’s
The hibiscus syriacus, also known as Rose of Sharon or rose mallow, is common in Japan as well as in South Korea where it is the national flower. They usually grow wild on an old wall or fence, blooming in early autumn, large trumpet shaped flowers, usually pink with prominent yellow-tipped white stamens, a fine ornament for the hair of a tiny peasant girl naked in August heat. The child stands there innocent and charming, the ideal human form: she carries the future of humanity. Shoko, with daughters this age, sees “an expression of the warmth in Basho’s heart.”
Spring rain -
sprouted to two leaves
Smaller than this ‘o’ in print, so light its weight cannot be felt, the drab brown seed contains the genetic information to produce a stalk with large green purple-veined leaves, bright purple flowers, and dark purple eggplants full of a multitude of seeds. Early in spring these are returned to the Earth under a half-inch of soil. Spring rains falls gently and continuously to soak the tiny plant emerging from the seed. The two infant leaves reach out to the side like hands welcoming the rain. These seven words have a simplicity the smallest child can understand, as simple as DNA. Schools commonly provide an eggplant seed with a cupful of dirt for small children to observe the miracle of life. Why not also give the Basho haiku SPRING RAIN? Can there be a more perfect way to teach elementary reading along with science?
Spring rain is
tears at the tonsure
of a little boy
春雨は / 髪剃稚児の / 涙にて
Unlike the heavy drenching rain of early summer, the wind-whipped rain of autumn, or the freezing rain of winter -- Spring rain falls gently, continuously, soaking into the still barren earth. The tears may be of the child losing his hair, losing his childhood and family life -- or of the mother giving her child to the temple. Such tears, like spring rain, continue on and on.
Wake up! Wake up!
Wouldn’t you be my friend?
The original of this verse had “drunken” instead of “sleeping” so Basho used the image of a butterfly to suggest the drunken sleep of a man -- since butterflies in reality do not drink alcohol. The revision foregoes imagination to embrace actual reality: a butterfly motionless on a rock. Changing that one word switches the consciousness from adult male intocxication to small child wishing for a playmate, she speaks to the butterfly before her eyes:
the noon glories have bloomed
let’s peel the melons
いざ子供/ 昼顔咲きぬ / 瓜剥かん
Iza kodomo / hirugao sakaba / uri mukan
Well children, first we look at the flowers, then we peel and eat the melons, then we go down to play
at the river, enjoying the abundance of summer.
drawn upon a melon
うつくしき /その姫瓜や /后ぎぬ
Utsukushiki / sono hime uri ya / kisaki ginu
First on the list in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book of what she finds utsukushi, “lovely, adorable,” is “the face of a child drawn on a melon.” In this era it was a custom for little girls in summer to draw a face with black ink or face-powder on a melon and attach to a stick with two-color strings, to make a hanging toy. The melon used was a hime-uri, ‘princess-melon’, a type of musk melon. (It did not taste very good and, with plastic available for toys, is no longer grown. The shape of the melon -- small on top and wider in the cheeks -- is the classical ideal for the Japanese female face – the face you see in illustrations of the Tale of Genji.
The lower segment kisaki-zane is literally “empress kernel” -- the ‘seed’ who grows up to become Empress. Basho draws the connection between the name of the melon and the ‘little princess’ who will someday marry the Crown Prince.
He shows us a little girl’s plaything, a picture she drew of her idol, the little girl whose fairytale dream comes true. She feels about her face drawn on a melon the way little girls today feel about pictures of their idols in music, movies and royal families. s this an image of Basho’s little sister Oyoshi, long ago and far away? An image of the affection Oyoshi felt for the “little princess” she drew upon a melon. An image of Oyoshi to comfort the homesick 28 year old man in the metropolis of Edo (Tokyo)
First we look at the flowers, then we peal and eat the melons, then we go to play in the river,
the abundance of child life in the summer.
Take no ko ya / osanaki toki no / e no susabi
Bamboo is biologically a grass, so the ‘trunks’ are actually blades rising from the underground maze of rhizomes growing horizontally and interlocking under the entire grove. In May curious-looking brown conical sheaths emerge from the earth, and these give rise to slender stalks which, in just one summer, will grow thirty feet with a circumference of two hands. The scene of this year’s baby bamboos, like brown pointed magician’s hats, peeking out here and there among their towering parents, is one any child would love to draw. Susabi is the absorption of a child in learning, the compulsion to practice a task over and over again. Maria Montessori in the Absorbent Mind says
“The information that the child unconsciously absorbs from his surroundings in the early years is used to construct and create himself… (then between age 3 and 6) his mind compels him to sort through, order, and make sense of the information he unconsciously absorbed”
so we see 5 year old Basho hunched over the paper, concentrating his entire being on drawing that conical shape on a flat piece of paper, creating himself from information he absorbed as he draws.
Hiru nete asobu / bon no tomodachi
Young children who live in different cities are brought together in one village, so are able to play with children they usually do not see. Bon is the festival for honoring ancestors, but Basho observes their descendants here and now developing themselves through play so they can become the ancestors honored at future O-Bons.
Sensen writes about a woman putting on her lover’s jacket before he leaves on a cold morning, giving the fabric some of her body warmth for him to feel when he is out in the freezing dawn. To be so kind and considerate, she must be young and innocent, unspoiled by the sinful world, still able to care with her whole being. Miyawaki observes that such selfless caring for others is, in Japan, typical of 14-15 year olds girls. Sensen speaks only of the female action, saying nothing of the male response to this female kindness. Basho replies that small children, both male and female, love with the totality of their hearts, without greed, anxiety, or discontent, giving themselves wholly and completely to love.
A small child was put to bed, but gets up, sneaks to the party room in pajamas, and opens the door a crack to peer in on the adults carousing. Basho follows with the obvious: the bedroom where the child is not, but instead moonlight quietly peeks in on empty bed.
Basho’s stanza by itself is brilliant because it can apply to any child, anywhere in the world, in any era, and so it unites all children into a single icon. I enjoy considering the stanza all by itself, linking it with visions of children I know, or read about, or see in videos – but I also like to consider it along with the previous and following stanzas which portray very specific situations in which this child crying says nothing.
A man has cut a fine stalk of bamboo to make a hunting bow, and wipes off the morning dew. The child weeps because father is going to kill an innocent animal -- but can speak no word of this to this imposing patriarch who would not respond kindly to such criticism from a small child. As I interpret this link, it is a message that we should protect animals in the wild, be saddened by their being killed, and oppose their killing.
In Japan and other Asian cultures, white is associated with death, and the deceased is wrapped in a white shroud and placed in a coffin in a sitting position. The coffin was carried on a litter to the burial place, accompanied by a procession of mourning relatives and priests intoning sutras. The coffin containing the white-shrouded corpse moves through the long rows of mourners. The child in silent tears watches the coffin and corpse continue away from him, as the father’s spirit also departs from the child’s heart.
So we can explore Basho’s stanza 1) by itself, saying nothing about the child or the sadness, leaving it up to us to imagine; 2) with the previous stanza, feeling the relation between animal-loving small child and hunting father, and 3) with the following stanza, the child watching his deceased father’s coffin move away.
This prosperous dealer in medicinal herbs has a roof of heavy ceramic tiles (most houses at this time had roofs of thatch). The impressive Chinese gables at the ends make the place look like a temple. Growing up in a rich house, where knowledge of herbal remedies and how to use them is second-nature, why is this child so sickly? Basho creates the question but gives no hint of an answer.
Annual events in Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara have a traditional Noh play presented outdoors at night beside a bonfire.
Noh theater is characterized by mystical beauty – beauty which is felt rather than seen, the profound beauty of the transcendental world, and the mournful beauty of sadness and loss. The music played by drums and flute is harsh and monotonous, like all traditional Japanese music, devoid of chords and lacking the chord progressions which make music “interesting.” The singing is within a limited tonal range, with lengthy repetitive passages in a narrow dynamic range. Noh has none of the light, happy melodies that make Disney movies popular with children. Ordinarily Noh is not the sort of performance that would interest children – but Noh illuminated by a bonfire is such a trip that in the days after the performance, the local children enthusiastically imitate the actors and their monotonic singing.
The next poet realizes that what these children are doing – imitation, postural and vocal control, emotional expression -- is more than merely an silly and immature form of an Noh performance; rather it is a demonstration of the miracles of human development preparing a child for adulthood.
Kikaku’s stanza feels like the thoughts of a child – for an adult would be accustomed to the size of a melon. A child finds the mundane remarkable. After eating the sweet luscious fruit, the kids play with scraps mother cut away from the fabric she needed to make an article of clothing, scraps of no interest to adults, but fascinating to the pure, naturally high mind of a child. Children play the way they eat melons: with enjoyment.
One chore in a traditional Japanese house is done with paste: attaching paper to the wooden frames of shoji window panels, so scholars see this verse as adult experience – however it is easier to imagine it at a kindergarten in winter: The children went outside in “rotten weather” to have fun (because they are children); they marvel at the combination of hail and sleet falling all around them. Then they come inside to make crafts with paste, comparing the feeling of sticky white paste in their fingers to the feeling of sticky frosty white hail and sleet in the same fingers.
Basho told his follower Doho words that children may appreciate:
The “Energy” here is ki, or qi, the “universal energy” of martial or healing arts, or as George Lucas called it “the Force.” Children who play a musical instrument, or surf the waves , or fly a kite, or practice a martial art, may best understand Basho’s meaning. To see how Basho himself rode the Energy in poetry, consider these two stanzas from the first of 300 sequences in which Basho participated. The year is 1666 and Basho is about 22. The first poet offers an elegant image of Japanese classical dance, and Basho takes that feeling into the world of children.
The movement of the dancer’s hand expresses more, much more, than simply getting from up to down; it expresses the dancer’s obedience to ki. The hand rides the Energy downward, as a surfer stays on the board even as the board drops and rises. Likewise the small child may not follow adult commands, but is obedient to that universal Energy.