Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Poetic Musings: The Oldest of Basho's Datable Poems

Because spring started on the twenty-ninth

was it spring that came
or was it the year that went?
the Second Last Day

According to Makoto Ueda, this poem is the oldest of Basho's datable poems, which was composed on February 7, 1663 (29th of the 12th month, knows as the Second Last Day). It includes a prefatory note, which indicates that the spring of 1663 arrived two days earlier. Without this note, Ls 1&2 are confusing. It's because spring would normally start on the lunar New Year's Day. However, “in a rare year, as was the case here, the first day of spring arrived one or more days earlier” (p. 19) This unusual occurrence had inspired a lot of Japanese poets to write poems that could convey their feelings or thoughts. Below are two examples included in classical Japanese literature:

Before the year
is gone, spring has come.
Those remaining days --
What shall we call them,
the old year or the new year?

Ariwara Motokata (888-953)

Was it you who came
or was it I who went?
I do not remember ...
Was I asleep or awake,
was that dream or reality?

Ise (speculated)
(“a poem sent by a woman to her lover after their night together) (p. 19)

Armed with this intertextual knowledge, we can appreciate Basho's skill in parodying the temporal sense of the first waka and the form of the second one (p. 20). More importantly, even without this knowledge, we still can see that through the opening question, Basho encourages readers to see time from different perspectives. This poem is our today’s food for thought.


The second waka (ancient name for tanka) is included in The Tales of Ise,  a collection of waka poems and associated narratives, dating from the Heian period. The current version  is made up of 125 sections, with each combining poems and prose.

Below is excerpted from Section 69 of The Tales of Ise

From midnight until three in the morning they stayed together there, but in the end she returned to her quarters without exchanging vows of love. The man felt extremely sad, and could not sleep. The next morning, while wondering if he might not send one of his own attendants over to her, sat, feeling extremely empty and forlorn, waiting for her message. A little while after dawn, her poemcame, but without a message.

Was it you who came?
Or I who went?
I donʹt know if it was a dream or reality,
If I was sleeping or awake.

The man, sobbing in profound grief, sent this poem.

I am lost in the gloom of my darkened heart
Whether it was dream or reality
Let us find out tonight.

He then set out for the hunt. Although he was in the field, his heart was in the sky. He thought that he must send everyone off to bed and at least meet with her tonight. But the governor of the province, who was also the administrator responsible for the shrine, had heard that the imperial huntsman was there.


 Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford University Press, 1995.

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