Issa wrote a spring “question” hokku about violets:


Who was it
That lived here before me?
The violets….

“The violets” is not an answer to his question, but rather the context.  He is wondering what kind of people were there before him and saw the violets of previous springs, as he sees them now.  But it is just a question that, as in all “question” hokku, expects no answer.  It is the feeling aroused by the question itself that is the point of the verse.

I happen to live in an area that used to be a forest, and children of a century ago picked wildflowers in those vanished woods.  Now it is houses, but between my dwelling and that of my neighbor, the wild violets still bloom in the spring, whether noticed or not, whether appreciated or unappreciated.  I could not help thinking of those vanished children of generations ago seeing the violets here, and now I — under greatly changed circumstances — still see them blooming.




Sono-jo — another female writer of hokku — wrote:

Isogashi ya   sumire wo tsumeba   tsukuzuku shi
Busy       ya violets wo picking    thoroughly

So occupied —
Absorbed in picking

Sometimes one becomes so absorbed in an “absorbing” action that the “thinking” self fades from view, and is seen only in retrospect.

But however delicate and pleasant violets are in appearance and fragrance, there comes a time when we realize their brief existence, their impermanence, like that of all things, as again Sono-jo wrote:

Hana-gami no    aida ni shioruru   sumire kana
Flower-paper ‘s between at   dried  violets kana

The paper handkerchief —
Faded violets.

It is a delicate hokku — a woman’s hokku — and somehow is more satisfying than Bashō’s

Yama-ji kite   naniyara yukashi    sumire gusa
Mountain-path coming   something lovely  violet-plant

Something lovely
Beside the mountain path —
A clump of violets.

It is not as good because it presents us with too wide a setting for the little violet plant, which gets lost in the vast scenery; but Sono-jo’s verse is looking right at the withered violets, which need not compete with anything else for our attention.



Today I see the robins are out, and violets have begun to bloom.

In “organic” hokku, as we might call the modern system, we do not use specific season words to classify our hokku; instead we classify them by merely marking each verse with its season.  Nonetheless there are some subjects that are so obviously seasonal that one can see how the “season word” practice began, however it may have later degenerated and become impractical.

A violet is, of course, spring.  And where I live, it is one of the earliest signs of spring.

One thinks immediately of Wordsworth’s

A Violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the Eye!

That is in itself rather hokku-like in objectivity, but we should not forget that in the original verse Wordsworth is talking about a person for whom the violet is a metaphor, whereas in hokku we prefer the violet in itself and leave the person for other kinds of verse.

Wordsworth expands:

A Violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the Eye!
—Fair, as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky!

The last two lines are also something we would not do in hokku — we would not use a simile.  The violet is not “fair as a star” in hokku because in hokku we let each thing just be what it is, unlikened to, uncompared to, anything else.  Nonetheless these two lines do give us a glimpse of one of the principles of hokku, not in the simile (the comparison) but rather in remarking on how fair a star is when only one is shining.  This is the hokku principle that one thing is generally held to have more significance than many things.

That is why in old hokku — in a language that did not specify singular or plural — a subject is generally understood to be single unless there is a good reason for making it multiple.

The woman Naojo wrote

Sumu mo oshi    tsumanu mo oshiki    sumire kana
Pick too pity    pick-not too pity         violet   kana

A shame to pick it —
A shame not to pick it —
The violet.

Naojo is caught in her own attachment.  She is, as the old saying goes, like a dog at a pot of boiling fat; he can neither taste it nor leave it.  But what she tells us indirectly — indirectness being very appropriate for hokku — is how beautiful the violet is.  It is because of that delicate beauty that she finds herself caught in attachment.

It is very important that she does not simply tell us the violet is beautiful.  To do so is too direct, too crude, though sometimes one may find it done in hokku.  But she makes it quite clear through what she does tell us.

There is another violet verse by Gyōdai:

Sumire tsumeba    chiisaki haru no    kokoro kana
Violet picking         tiny  spring  ‘s  heart/mind kana

My translation of this differs slightly (but significantly) from that of Blyth.  Mine is:

Violet picking —
The tiny Mind
Of Spring.

Blyth, no doubt fearing such a translation would be misunderstood in English, went for the more easy

Picking a violet, —
The slender
Heart of Spring!

But to me there is an important element lost in that.  “Heart” in English does not have quite the meaning of kokoro in Japanese, which is also a spiritual term.  It is closer here to the word “mind,” but in this case it is not the “intellectual” mind.  Instead it is like the mind in the verse by Chiyo-jo, in which she tells us, speaking of gourds, that a hundred come from the mind (kokoro) of one vine.  This “mind” of one vine, like the “mind of spring” of Gyōdai — is the Mind of Nature, the Mind of the Universe.  As manifested in a Sequoia it is huge, as manifested in a violet it is the “tiny Mind of Spring.”

Blyth is right that it is the “Heart of Spring” in that one sees all of spring expressed in the tiny violet.

Still, one has to say of Gyōdai’s verse what Blyth says of Chiyo’s verses in general — that it is tainted with subjectivity.  Gyōdai is interpreting the violet for us, just as Chiyo gave us a little sermon in her verse on a hundred gourds from the mind of one vine.  But the best hokku neither interpret nor preach.

Yes, the violet is the tiny Heart of Spring, but it is a shame to say so.