Monday, June 10, 2013

Poetic Musings: Summer Grass Haiku by Basho

summer grass:
all that remains
of warriors' dreams

translated by David Landis Barnhill (Barnhill, p. 93)

Commentary: The poem above comes from a haibun in the Hiraizumi section, one of the climactic passages of Basho’s most-read travel journal, Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no Hosomichi):

The glory of three generations of Fujiwara vanished in the space of a dream; the remains of the Great Gate stood two miles in the distance. Hidehira’s headquarters had turned into rice paddies and wild fields. Only Kinkeizan, Golden Fowl Hill, remained as it was. First, we climbed Takadachi, Castle-on-the-Heights, from where we could see the Kitakami, a broad river that flowed from the south. The Koromo River rounded Izumi Castle, and at a point beneath Castle-on-the-Heights, it dropped into the broad river. The ancient ruins of Yasuhira and others, lying behind Koromo Barrier, appear to close off the southern entrance and guard against the Ainu barbarians. Selecting his loyal retainers, Yoshitsune fortified himself in the castle, but his glory quickly turned to grass. “The state is destroyed, / rivers and hills remain. / The city walls turn to spring, / grasses and trees are green. “With these lines from Tu Fu in my head, I lay down my bamboo hat, letting the time and tears flow (Shirane, pp. 237-8).

Basho’s haiku operates on two axes. The fragment (line 1) is a scenic description from the present world, the site of a formal battlefield; the phrase (lines 2 and 3) "refers to the passage of time: the summer grasses are the 'aftermath' of the dreams of glory." (ibid., p. 238) Thematically speaking, this haiku resonates well with its immediately preceding prose, the opening lines from Tu Fu's poems: "The state is destroyed, / rivers and hills remain./ The city walls turn to spring, / grasses and trees are green." Furthermore, this dual vision of a former battlefield can be found in its Chinese archetype in “The True Treasury of the Ancient Style: Essay on Mourning for the Dead at an Ancient Battlefield” by Li Hua, in which " the poet gazes down at an old battlefield, imagines the terrible carnage, listens to the voices of the dead, before returning to the present to ponder the meaning of the past." (Ibid., p. 239) In juxtaposing these disparate worlds, past and contemporary, Japanese and Chinese, the dreams in Basho's haiku are the dreams of not only Japanese warriors, but also of those who have fought their battles. More importantly, summer grasses (natsukusa), a classical seasonal word for summer, was to be associated with "eroticism and fertility." (Ibid.) Through allusion to Tu Fu's famous poem on the transience of civilization, Basho transformed this seasonal word into the one associated with the "ephemerality of human ambitions." (Ibid.)

As Koji Kawamoto emphasizes in his essay dealing with the use and disuse of tradition in Basho's haiku, "the key to [haiku's] unabated vigor lies in Basho's keen awareness of the utility of the past in undertaking an avant-garde enterprise, which he summed up in his famous adage "fueki ryuko," (Kawamoto, p. 709) which literally means "the unchanging and the ever-changing." This haikai poetic ideal was advocated during his trip through the northern region of Japan. He stressed that "haikai must constantly change (ryuko), find the new (atarashimi), shed its own past, even as it seeks qualities that transcend time." (Shirane, p. 294) However, his notion of the new "lay not so much in the departure from or rejection of the perceived tradition as in the reworking of established practices and conventions, in creating new counterpoints to the past." (Ibid., p.5) In Edo culture, the ability to create the new through the old was a more preferred form of newness than the ability to be unique and individual. (Ibid.) This Japanese view of "newness" still pervades and is in sharp contrast with that of the West .


David Landis Barnhill, Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Koji Kawamoto, “The Use and Disuse of Tradition in Basho’s Haiku and Imagist Poetry,” Poetics Today, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter, 1999).


  1. Below is Basho's Japanese original:

    natsukusa ! ya | tsuwamonodomo | ga | yume | no | ato

    summer-grass | : | warriors | ' | dream | 's | trace

    The following is Tu Fu's poem to which Basho's haiku alludes:

    A Spring View by Tu Fu; Translated by David Landis Barnhill

    The nation broken, mountains and rivers remain;
    spring at the old castle, the grasses are deep.
    Lamenting the times, flowers bring forth tears;
    resenting separation, birds startle the heart.

  2. When faced with the excruciating events and resulting anguish and loss of Fukushima, this very same haiku by Basho is what came to mind when I wrote the following haiku as a contribution to the anthology "We Are All Japan":

    samurai bones in spring rains

    Donna Fleischer
    "We Are All Japan" (Wilson and Vasic, 2012)

    Thank you for your fine essay here.


  3. Hi! Donna:

    Many thanks for sharing your thought, and for your beautifully-crafted haiku, which stirs the reader's emotion and reflection.


  4. Thank you, Chen-ou, for your kind response.


  5. Best commentary (criticism) of this haiku, maybe, is said best by Shiki:


    No glory in the gore of war, just broken, destroyed families....