Each one fulfills a major theme of Basho poetry: 1) Praise for women 2) support for children
3) Caring for neighbors 4) Existential loneliness 5) Lightness and liveliness.
Basho visited Sonome and her husband at their home in Ise in 1687 and wrote DOORWAY CURTAIN
(see D-13 Madame Sonome. In 1689, Sonome and husband moved to Osaka. In 1694, Basho writes:
Basho as guest of honor begins the renku sequence:
The noble chrysanthemum with many layers of tightly packed petals stands tall on its stalk in the garden or in a flower vase. Chrysanthemums come in many colors, but the white ones are most striking in their pure white fullness, the essence of ‘purity’ in the chill weather of November. This greeting verse expresses appreciation for the refinement in Sonome’s home, and gratitude for her hospitality -- while on another level, it honors the purity in Sonome, or in any woman.
It is late autumn so chrysanthemums bloom in Sonome’s garden. She has arranged a few in a vase in the decorative alcove in the room where poets gather. Chrysanthemums can be many colors, but the white ones are most striking in their pure whiteness, the essence of Purity in the chill November weather.
Basho borrows phrases from Saigyo;
Saigyo sees purity without gender, and so without life.Basho is looking for, and so he sees, another sort of purity in living and active women. It is essential to realize that this is a greeting-verse from a guest to his hostess: it communicates a personal message of appreciation for Sonome’s skill and care in maintaining her house so that the environment adds to the success and happiness of today’s gathering, and also his appreciation for Sonome as a woman.
Shiko tells us Basho said about WHITE CRYSANTHEMUM:
Basho usually writes of ‘seeing’ what is hidden -- Here he speaks of concentrating on the woman he can actually see before his eyes -- for this will be his final chance to see her – but also looks for what is within and hidden. According to Shiko who was there at the time, Basho said the verse is about the “beauty of Sonome’s elegance.” Japanese scholars obviously either do not know, or do not approve of Shiko’s account, since they ignore it. Ueda translates five Japanese scholars’ comments on this verse: here are three of them:
“I would prefer to read this strictly as a poem on white chrysanthemums.”
“The beauty of the flower has no reference to anything else.”
“Basho was just writing a poem on flowers; he had no thought of Sonome at all; later on, it came to imply
the poet’s respect for the hostess with no deliberate intention on his part.”
What?! Basho was at her home, and the haiku was a greeting verse to his hostess. Of course it expresses respect. Here are three fine examples of androcentric thinking. To these scholars (if Ueda’s translations are accurate) any notion that Basho feels reverence for women is an anathema.
At a gathering the next night, November 16th:
The standard meaning for the word chigo is infant or small child, and in this collection Basho, as well as Sei Shonagon and Chigetsu, use it this way. Scholars however tell us that, in poetry, a chigo was the ‘boy lover’ of a pedophile; when the fox howls the boy clings to the man – the point of the verse, according to the scholars, being the man’s feeling for the boy. If it were true that Basho in his final poem on children advocated men having sex with young boys, then most of us would agree he was no spokesman for children’s rights.
HOWEVER THERE IS NO WORD OF SEXUAL CONTENT ANYWHERE IN BASHO’S VERSE.
This haiku speaks only of: 1) the moon, 2) a fox, 3) a child, 4) being scared, and 5) an attendant. All the rest we add in ourselves. Scholars assume that Basho was using the word chigo the way they use it – but I rather assume that Basho’s thoughts went deeper than theirs. Scholars do not think much about ordinary children growing up – but Basho did. Translating chigo as ‘boy-lover’ narrows the verse to a small group of men and boys. The way Basho wrote it, the verse applies to ANY child, boy or girl, and the attendant can be man, woman or older child – or the moon is the attendant. The choice is ours: does Basho’s final verse about children describe deviant male behavior, or the universal need in children for a trustworthy and supportive companion?
The road is dark and in the cold moonlight even familiar things become fearsome shadows. Foxes in Japanese folklore bewitch people and make them do evil. The years have taught Basho that the fox’s howl is only the cry of another being lonely in the night – but how can a child know this? When things get scary, every child needs someone bigger who can be trusted.
Some translators appear to believe that tomo in this verse is the character友, ‘friend’ as in tomodachi, which encourages the sexual-friend interpretation. Basho however wrote it with the character 供 for one who ‘attends, serves, takes care of, looks after.’ Sam Gamgee was Frodo’s attendant. Fans of the Lord of the Rings agree that the most inspiring element in that epic is the heroic bravery of Sam in supporting Frodo through all they suffered. The attendant must struggle to maintain the strength and clarity to attend the hero. Near the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sam comes close to succumbing:
Tolkien sees the small and meek draw power and hope from the distant star, as the child does from the moon in this verse written in 1686: .
Leonard Shlain proposes that the human concept of ongoing time originated in a prehistoric woman from two clues: the cycle of the moon together with the cycle of her menses. She needed the two clues, one inside her body and one in the greater world, to realize that time continues, and this realization led to all human culture and technology. Basho recognizes the clue in the moon: as we observe Luna, learning how she changes her shape and schedule from night to night, in stages that remain the same month after month forever, we learn the nature of Time; as Shlain puts it, we “see beyond the moon to the next month.” He says,
“A magical moment occurs in every child’s life when he or she realizes that the moon is the child’s personal companion! As we move through the nighttime landscape, approaching objects glide by and then recede in the distance behind us. Not so the distant moon, which always keeps pace rice alongside us… There is something vaguely comforting, especially to a small child who has a natural fear of the dark, in knowing that the moon is a reliable and faithful companion that will not only light the child’s way but also be a steadfast companion during nighttime excursions.
Basho in just six words creates an epic confrontation; the child poised in the center of the verse between two eternal forces: fear of the Unknown on one side and Clear Light on the other. The verse is a profound work of deep relevance to all children and all those who care for children (because there is nothing sexual going on between the attendant and the child). In order for the verse to empower children, we focus on its expression of the clarity of the trustworthy and supportive attendant.
Records from 8th Century Japan tell of people facing the rising full moon, clapping their hands twice before their faces, to worship the Buddha. By Basho’s time, nono-sama was a child’s name for both Moon and Buddha. Grandmothers taught their little grandchildren to bow and pray to nono-sama as the Moon rose into the sky. The folksong Nono-sama originated within the Pure Land sects whose kindergartens still teach it to small children.
The song – like Basho poetry – focuses on body parts, physical action, and human affection. Both Mother hugging and Father holding are “attendants” to the child. The Buddha is usually depicted in paintings and sculpture with a halo around his head – and this halo is the Moon. Here as he approaches his own death and merging with the infinite, Basho offers an “attendant” to walk along with the child on the path to knowledge: a man, woman, or older child as clear and trustworthy as the moon-Buddha
Late at night after THE MOON CLEAR, Basho woke up with severe pain and diarrhoea. Realizing he could not attend the gathering the next evening, November 17th, he asks Shiko to bring the following verse to open the sequence.
“Deep in autumn, the loneliness of the journey closing in on me, I lodge in a corner of the city. Someone resides in the next room, making no sound. There is something my neighbor does to pass through the world. I wonder what it is.” (Kon) Basho knows that the wonder of human activity in harmony with the seasons goes on all the while he lies dying, and will continue after he is dead.
Robert Aitken says,
“On his deathbed… in the loneliest circumstances the human spirit can experience, Basho’s mind goes out to his neighbour… Even the pain and isolation forced by his illness did not turn his energy to his smaller self.”
Even as the infectious sores “tear his bowels to pieces”,Basho maintains his Lightness and sense of wonder for human (male, female, or child) activity. Basho, before he dies, asks us to feel wonder for our neighbors.
The three poems so far form a trilogy:
WHITE CHYSANTHEMUN on women,
THE MOON CLEAR on children,
DEEP IN AUTUMN for all of humanity.
(from the diary of Shiko, November 25)
“Fields” in Japan are land not used for growing rice or vegetables, covered with grasses and flowers, the home of birds and insects. For half a century Basho has wondered about the fields watching them change with the seasons. Fields are where Basho developed his seasonal awareness. “Fields” may represent the body while dreams are the spirit which animates the flesh for a while and then passes on. In the spring and summer and autumn of life, dreams wander about fields bright in the sunshine and alive with birdsong. But then comes winter, time for dreams to wander off into eternity.
This famous haiku is the essence of sabi, that “medieval aesthetic of old age, loneliness, resignation, and tranquillity” which scholars relish in Basho – although he himself preferred Lightness. Although Basho did in fact write one more verse, scholars have taken ON A JOURNEY TAKEN ILL to be Basho’s final wisdom. Ueda translates scholar Higuchi Isao saying the verse is “a most fitting consclusion to the life of Baho, who pursued sabi all his life.” NO! Basho did not pursue sabi all his life, and this was not his final poem.
After taking his medicine Basho turns to Shiko and says,
Basho then says,
The verse he wrote beside the river in Saga was a vision of Basho’s ideal of purity (“no dust in the ripples”) seen in the moonlight on the swift flowing water. But then, 11 days ago, Basho saw an even more perfect image of purity in the white chrysanthemum of Madame Sonome: thus he says the verse he wrote in Saga is no longer worthwhile and must be revised to CLEAR CASCADE.
“Everyone knows” that ON A JOURNEY TAKEN ILL was Basho’s last verse, and the desolation in that poem fits nicely into the notion that Basho was an impersonal ascetic -- however the accounts of both Kyorai and Shiko say he wrote CLEAR CASCADE the next day. The scholars cannot imagine CLEAR CASCADE belonging to this time, early winter, because the season in the verse is summer. According to them, CLEAR CASCADE does not count as Basho’s final haiku because it is a “revision” of RIVER KATSURA and goes in the chronology in summer of this year. But how can a “revision” of a verse be an entirely different poem:
the original about moonlight; the “revision” about pine needles?
Pines keep their needles all year long, however in May the branches extend and new needles emerge on these new sections, by the end of summer, indistinguishable from the old ones further back on the branch. In reality the pine needles that fall are old brown ones – so this verse cannot be reality. It must be a dream,
And what does this mumbo jumbo about the “deep-rooted illusion of what is gone” have do with the original verse or its ‘revision’? Basho wrote CLEAR CASCADE upon waking from sleep. Suppose he did see green pine needles falling, in a dream during this sleep that winter night– so this dream-verse does belong to the end of November, and is Basho’s finale. ON A JOURNEY TAKEN ILL also came from a dream, a dream of winter desolation the season and mood at present – but then Basho went back to sleep and his dreams took him out of reality, away from the misery of his final disease, back to summer beside the river. The green in CLEAR CASCADE is a rejuvenation in Basho’s spirit, another (though not the final) casting off of the heaviness and negativity of Japanese thought, a reaffirmation of Lightness as the Way of Basho. Instead of an old man sadly dying we feel youth lightly passing onward. But this rejuvenation is only an illusion, a deep-rooted illusion of what is gone.
In so many Basho works his mind searches to see ‘traces of the past’ lingering in the present. Here Basho realizes that ‘traces’ have been an illusion so deeply-rooted in his mind it could not be removed or avoided. And isn’t this the illusion we all share? Don’t we all, sometimes, wish or hope we could get back what we have lost? Basho in his final haiku says NO. The pine needles fall into the rushing water, swirl about, and rush away leaving no traces of their existence, no possibility of ever being seen gain. The flow never returns and what is gone is gone forever.