Here are a few spring hokku by Bashō.
I have divided all but the last into three parts: First, the romanized Japanese and a rather literal translation; second, a “formal” translation of the original; third, a rewritten “American” version.
(M)ume ga ka ni notto hi no deru yamaji kana
Ume fragrance at suddenly sun appears mountain path
At the ume fragrance,
Suddenly the sun rises;
The mountain path.
Fragrant plum blossoms
And a sudden sunrise;
The mountain path.
The point of the verse is that as the writer smells the fragrant ume blossoms, the sun suddenly rises. There is a perceived connection between the strong scent and the sudden appearance of the brilliant sun
The ume (Prunus mume) is not actually what we know as a plum in the West. Instead it is a tree rather halfway between a plum and an apricot , but “Japanese apricot” generally does not fit very well into hokku where ume is used. The term for an actual plum in Japan is sumomo.
(M)ume ga ka ni mukashi no ichi-ji aware nari
Ume fragrance at past ‘s one character is sad
In the scent of ume,
The single character “past”
At the scent of plum blossoms,
The single word “past” —
The point of the verse is the writer’s smelling the scent of plums while looking at (or writing) the single Chinese character read in Japanese as mukashi — “the past.” The combination fills him with a sad, nostalgic feeling (aware, pronounced ah-wah-ray) because he knows that all things are impermanent and nothing lasts, least of all the fragrance of the early spring blossoms.
The verse was written as an “occasion” verse for Bashō’s student Baigan, on the anniversary of the death of the student’s son, which had happened a year earlier. We can see how indirectly hokku deals with such matters.
(M)ume ga ka ni oi modosaruru samusa kana
Ume fragrance at routed has returned cold kana
At the scent of ume
The routed has returned —
In the scent of plum,
What left has returned —
Not a good hokku. The rather minimal point is that spring has warmed enough to bring out the fragrant ume blossoms, but at the time the writer is smelling the fragrance, a cold spell has occurred. So the cold he thought had been routed by the warmth of spring has returned. It shows how changeable early spring weather is.
From bad to worse:
Ume ga ka ya Shirara Ochikubo Kyōtarō
Plum fragrance Shirara Ochikubo Kyōtarō
The scent of plum blossoms;
It is little more than an allusion to a line from a Japanese book called the Jōruri-hime Monogatari, in which the question is asked which books a certain Lady Jōruri read, whether that titled Shirara, or Ochikubo, or Kyōtarō, etc. The reader is supposed to be reminded of a pretty, elegant young woman reading a book of stories as spring begins. Of course this kind of verse does not survive time and travel to a different culture, and it depends entirely on the reader knowing the literary allusion Bashō is making. I have included it here only to show how unlike modern hokku some of Bashō’s verses were, and how “literary” in contrast to what we consider the best hokku. For the western student of modern hokku, which deliberately avoids dependance on such literary allusions, these old “see how well-read I am” verses are quite useless other than as examples of what not to do.