One of the most obvious characteristics of the coming and advance of spring is the lengthening of the days. The sun rises earlier and lingers later. To those who live close to Nature this is a matter of great significance. That is why in old hokku, “the long day” — the lengthening of the day in spring — was a fixed topic, what was called a “season word.” Today we no longer use season words because the system became too complex and unwieldy, but we do still keep the importance of seasonal classification of hokku in our writing, and with it also the old topic — “the long day.”
How one approaches it depends on how one approaches hokku in general. One can usually count on Issa to have a very “personal” approach, somewhat dangerous for Westerners, who are so attuned to “I,” “me,” and “my” that they tend to overpersonalize. Nonetheless, Issa sometimes presents us with something interesting, as here:
Oinureba hi no nagai ni mo namida kana
Age-if day’s length at too tears kana
Tears come also at
The length of days ….
We can improve that by smoothing it out a bit;
Even the lengthening day
Old hokku tended to assume that the reader had a poetic nature and would intuit the point of the verse, which in modern times is not always the case — for many moderns, a poetic nature must be taught and acquired, or at least “educated.”
So what is Issa saying? Well, as usual he stretches the bounds of hokku, which usually just presents us with an experience of Nature and lets us feel its significance for ourselves.
Here he is saying that he is “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” He suffered in life, and understood, as Buddhism teaches, that underlying all human existence is a deep dissatisfaction, because ultimately no “thing” can satisfy us more than temporarily. Issa had a very difficult childhood, and it left emotional scars which are readily visible in his verses. On reading them, one often thinks of the “male” version of the old folk song that begins, “I am a man of constant sorrow; I’ve seen trouble all my days.”
Knowing that, we are ready to look again at Issa’s verse. Whereas for many of us the lengthening of the days in spring is a cause for rejoicing, Issa knows that more daylight hours just bring more troubles. We may find that hard to understand, because many of us have grown up in protected pockets of the world. But in many places and in many times, life has been very difficult — and still is. Our ancestors, who generally had to work remarkably hard for a living, knew this well. They saw the harsh realities from which we have often been shielded.
Issa, then, is combining two things here. First is the process of growing old, which brings its aches and pains and ailments along with the weakening of the senses. We feel time in that. And with that Issa gives us the lengthening of the day in spring, so we see that he is actually using an old hokku technique that we learned some time ago — the combining of things that are similar in feeling. Here we have the “length” of life in old age and the length of the day.
And then Issa makes a comment on the two combined, which is that as one grows older, the lengthening of the day also may seem just one more cause for sorrow. Not only does it bring the problems inherent in more daylight hours, but it also gives us a feeling of time stretched out to the point of pain, so that one begins to feel, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, “Sort of stretched…like butter scraped over too much bread .” (The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien)
Technically, then, this is a “statement” hokku made by combining two similar things and making an objective statement about the result. Now one may question how objective Issa’s comment is here, but for him it was objective; it was simply the way he perceived things, and about that there is no quibbling.
Of course there is the more usual and more obviously objective approach to the subject of the lengthening of days, but I will save that for another little talk.