In past postings I have mentioned “occasional” hokku — verses written for a specific occasion.  You may recall that they have to work on two levels — one the literal meaning, and the other the “occasion” meaning.  A very common reason for some such verses was as a greeting to or thanks to a host.

I have often said that in addition to some quite good hokku, Bashō also wrote a great many rather mediocre hokku — in fact they form the bulk of his collected verses.  And sometimes those unsatisfactory verses are “occasional” hokku.

Let’s look at an example.

In the summer of 1685, Basho was staying with a fellow named Hayashi Tōyō.  On leaving he wrote this verse, which appears in his travel diary Nozarashi Kikō / 野ざらし紀行.   No-zarashi / 野ざらし signifies bones exposed in a field, and kikō / 紀行 means “traveler’s journal.”  We could translate it as “Journal of Field-bleached Bones.”  Not a lovely title, but there it is.

The hokku is:

Botan shibe fukaku wake izuru hachi no nagori kana
Peony pistil deep-in separate-go-out bee ‘s parting-sadness kana

The botan (牡丹) is the tree peony common to China and Japan, not the herbaceous peony better known in the West.  Shibe () refers to the pollen-bearing stamens and the pistil of the plant.  Fukaku (深く) means to be deep into something. Wake izuru (分け出づる) means to separate from and go out of something.  A hachi () is a bee.  No () is a genitive particle that we can translate as ‘s.  Nagori (名残り) is the sadness in parting.  And finally kana () is that particle often described as giving emphasis, but in reality it was often used in hokku just to pad out the required number of phonetic units.  Shiki often over-uses it like that.  Nonetheless we find it at the end of this unusually lengthy verse, which exceeds the standard 17 phonetic units.

Now let’s make something in English out of all that.

The bee leaves from deep in the stamens
of the peony.

That is the meaning, but it is often translated something like:

The bee emerges from the stamens
Of the peony.

Translated rather literally it comes out awkwardly long for a hokku.

It is not a very good hokku in any case, and the reason why is precisely its intended double duty.  Bashō is expressing his sadness on leaving Tōyō’s home and hospitality, so to make his point he has to artificially pretend that a bee sadly leaves the stamens of the peony when it is gathering pollen.  And artificiality and pretense are never good in hokku.  The problem is that he does not keep the two levels of the verse completely distinct, but projects his own feelings of sadness on parting from Tōyō onto the bee leaving the inside of the flower.  That is why good “occasional” hokku are rather difficult to write; each side of the meaning must be strong and clear in itself, without any admixture.

That was a summer hokku.  But there was another Tōyō in Bashō’s life.  He was a 14 year old boy named Kumenosuke, who inherited the Izumiya Inn with its relaxing hot spring waters at Yamanaka.  Bashō gave the boy the pseudonym Tōyō.  is another word for the peach (momo) and comes from the expression momo no yōyō, meaning the beauty of a young peach, a phrase derived from the Book of Songs (“Poetry Classic) of Confucius.  Bashō may have felt a certain attraction to Kumenosuke, as it was not unusual for Japanese men of the time to be attracted to handsome youths.  The “occasional” hokku Basho wrote for Tōyō was:

Momo no ki no sono ha shirasu-na aki no kaze

Peach’s tree ‘s its leaves do not scatter/strip Autumn’s wind.

Do not blow away
The leaves of the peach tree,
Autumn wind!

The literal meaning is entreating the autumn wind not to strip the peach tree of its leaves.  The other meaning is a wish that the youthful charm of Kumenosuke might not be taken away by the passage of time.  As you recall, autumn is the time of things aging and withering, and that is its underlying significance in hokku.

In any case, that too is not a good hokku, which is often the result of trying to write hokku that function well on two levels.  Even Bashō was not very good at it.


Some old hokku were so telegraphic in brevity that a literal translation makes them near meaningless, such as this autumn verse by Bashō:


Miokuri no ushiro ya sabishi aki no kaze
Seeing-off ‘s back ya sadness autumn ‘s wind.

It was written for seeing off his student Okada Yasui (better known just as Yasui), who was a kimono fabric merchant from Nagoya.

If we think of waka (with 5/7/5/7/7 phonetic units) as the rather elegant verse form of the Japanese court and aristocracy, it is not too far off to think of hokku (5/7/5) in its original linked context as the verse of the rising merchant class of Edo Period Japan. Many merchants had money and leisure enough to learn the intricacies of linked verse from teachers such as Bashō, and teaching renga (linked verse beginning with a hokku) was how Bashō made his living. Remember that renga was originally a communal form of verse that often took a trite and humorous course, which accounts for why its popular form was known as haikai (comic/playful) no renga — “comical” linked verse. So knowing how to participate in a haikai no renga gathering gave both amusement and a certain feeling of social elevation to the businessmen of that time. Remember that merchants were only next up from the very bottom of the social scale in Edo Japan. Fortunately, hokku eventually outgrew that often shallow origin in haikai no renga, losing its superficiality and becoming more profound — at least hokku at its best.

But back to Bashō’s initially rather cryptic verse:

Miokuri no ushiro ya sabishi aki no kaze
Seeing-off ‘s back ya sadness autumn ‘s wind.

It is not possible to translate it literally as a successful verse in English. If we treat it as an actual event, we see Bashō seeing off his departing student Yasui. As Yasui turns and leaves, Bashō looks at Yasui’s back, and understanding the deeper meaning behind that leaving — impermanence — a feeling of sadness arises in Bashō. That feeling is only deepened by the autumn wind as the background of the parting.

So, given that autumn is the time of impermanence, one feels parting even more deeply because it is in harmony with the atmosphere of the season. All things have an end; people come and go, whether temporarily or permanently, and often we do not know which it is to be. I think most of us have experienced that sudden twinge of sadness on seeing someone we like leaving. There is something about their turning away, seeing their back receding in distance and time, that arouses that feeling in us.

So given all that, how might we render Bashō’s verse so that it makes sense in English and has a similar effect? I hope you all realize by now that there can often be several ways to translate the same Japanese hokku, some very literal, some more interpretive, and the interpretive — if done well — often makes for a more effective hokku in English.

As you depart,
Sadness on seeing your back;
The autumn wind.

It is not exactly what Bashō wrote, but it is the meaning behind it. Notice that the sense is not “I am sad” but rather “there is sadness,” seeing the sadness objectively, as one would look at a leaf or a stone.

There is a very long tradition of “parting” verses that can be traced from Japan back to China, particularly the Tang Dynasty poems that had become so famous among the literary folk in the Japan of Bashō’s day.



This hokku attributed to Bashō is not easily translated into English.  It uses a Japanese word for an emotion that we all feel at some time, but the English language has no precisely equivalent term.  So it is very easy to give the word too much emphasis in translation.

Traditionally it is said that Bashō wrote it recalling the death of a sister of one of his students, but here we will look at it very literally as a hokku of autumn, with no other association.


Here it is:

東西 あはれさひとつ 秋の風
higashi nishi aware sa hitotsu aki no kaze

East  west  aware sa one autumn’s wind.

Leaving the word in question and the particle following it untranslated,  a rather literal rendering would read:

East — west —
One aware;
The autumn wind.

The closest we can come in English is perhaps this, which is still inadequate:

East and West
A single sadness;
The autumn wind.

it is  a tranquil sadness however, the kind one feels when looking out on the falling leaves of autumn.  As you already know, in hokku autumn corresponds to the afternoon in the day, and to growing old in human life.  It is the time when things begin to wither and reveal their ultimate impermanence.

Because of that, this hokku might call to mind the lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

That addresses a girl who feels a kind of sadness just at the sight of a grove of trees dropping their golden leaves in autumn.

In Bashō’s verse, whether one looks east or west, left or right, one sees only the impermanence revealed by autumn, and added to that is the slight chill of the autumn wind; and that awakes a slightly sad emotion in us.  Some like to use “pathos” to translate aware, but that seems to me a bit too strong and fancy for hokku.

Of course this would be the experience of someone surrounded by Nature in the form of trees and plants.  It would be difficult to feel this delicate sensation in a treeless city, though it might be aroused by other factors.

One could even give the verse a rather loose Buddhist rendering:

East and west
The same transience;
The autumn wind.

Put that way, we need not use an “emotion” word at all, because it is the experience of transience that arouses the emotion of aware — that delicate aesthetic emotion that borders on sadness without becoming too “emotional.”

And we could be even more inclusive in making it an autumn hokku:


All around
Is only transience;
The autumn wind.