Buson, who wrote some rather artifical and contrived hokku, also managed to write one of the simplest and most effective of spring hokku:
Shoku no hi wo shoku ni utsusu ya haru no yū
light ‘s flame wo light at transfer ya spring ‘s evening
The flame of one light
Transferred to another light
The Spring evening.
Translated woodenly — literally — like that, it does not look like much. That is why when we translate a hokku into English, we must not just say exactly what the verse means in Japanese, because the Japanese language does not say things as we would say them in English. We only get the full effect of the verse when we make it fully English, like this:
Using one candle
To light another;
The spring evening.
I always stress to my students the importance of Yang and Yin in hokku, of understanding how they are applied in countless verses. We see here a very effective use of the Yin-Yang principle.
Yin, you will recall, is the dark and passive principle in the universe; Yang is the bright and active principle. Everything is a combination of Yin and Yang. The summer is Yang, the winter Yin. Yin grows until it reaches its maximum, then it becomes Yang; Yang grows until it reaches its maximum, then it transforms to Yin. Spring is a period when Yin and Yang are mixed, but it is growing Yang, because Yang increases until the height of summer; then Yang begins to decline into fall (autumn), which is another mixed season, but of growing Yin and declining Yang.
This hokku, then, is set in spring, when Yin and Yang are mixed, and Yang is growing. It is also set in the evening, which is growing Yin — the light of day declines into the darkness of night.
Knowing all this, we can appreciate the interplay of elements in Buson’s hokku.
It is twilight — evening begins, and the light of day is fading and the shadows growing. Someone has lit a candle that shines in the gathering darkness. And someone is using the flame of that candle to light another candle, increasing the Yang element in the midst of the Yin of evening.
One can easily see that this lighting of a “Yang” candle, this “doubling” of the Yang of the lit candle by using it to light another is in keeping with the growing Yang of spring. It shines in the darkness and dispels — but only partially — the Yin of the evening, just as the growing Yang dispels — but only gradually — the Yin element of spring, as Yang begins to move to dominance.
To say all of that, however, is to overthink the verse. We are not supposed to work it out in ratios of Yin and Yang, like a mathematical formula. Instead we are just supposed to feel the Yang of the candle flame dispelling — but only partially — the Yin interior darkness of evening. Buson did not sit down and work this verse out in measures of Yin and Yang; it was already a part of his understanding of the universe, so when he wrote it, it came naturally and without intellection. Yin and Yang are often new concepts to Westerners, however, so we must make it a part of our understanding of things, and then we will understand countless hokku without having to think it all out. It will just come naturally to us as well.
With our electric lights in the modern world, we miss the rituals our ancestors used to know so well — the lighting of a candle or a lamp at evening. It is an act filled with significance, and we see the effect in many old paintings where the light is only that of a candle.
Twilight used to be a time of calm and closeness for families, who would gather around the light of a candle or a lamp as the shadows of evening grew.
There is a very old-fashioned song, popular generations ago, that in spite of its romanticism, captures the quiet of this time of evening:
Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low;
And the flick’ring shadows softly come and go.
Tho’ the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes love’s old song,
Comes love’s old sweet song.
If we were to make a hokku of that, we would use only the “non-romantic” parts:
Softly come and go;
That would make a fitting verse to go with Buson’s hokku.