Rainy Season Flowers

Saturday, 24 June 2023

紫陽草や薮を小庭の別座敷
ajisai ya yabu o koniwa no betsuzashiki[1]

hydrangea…
a thicket for a little garden
of this cottage
—Bashō[2]

Tomoda Mitsuru - Hydrangea in Rain
Tomoda Mitsuru – Hydrangea in Rain

In Japan, it’s currently the season of the beautiful hydrangea. My wife always calls them rainy season flowers because they begin their bloom during this season. I’m not sure if that’s a common nickname in Japan or a term my wife coined herself. At any rate, they are an absolutely beautiful flower. The grey skies of the rainy season make their color and beauty pop even more than they otherwise would.

This haiku was written for a renga session Bashō was invited to that was held in a small room surrounded by a very rustic garden. Bashō used this haiku not only as the leading verse of the renga, but also to illustrate his concept of karumi, or “lightness”, in haiku.

Karumi was Bashō’s final and ultimate philosophy of haiku which he created not long before his death. It highlights that great attention should be paid to the mundane aspects of life and that the seriousness of classical Japanese and Chinese poetry should be avoided. In many ways, karumi really shows Bashō’s progress in his Zen Buddhism. When he was a young man, his haiku were full of clever wordplay, numerous inside jokes, references to deep topics of old Chinese poets, and so on. But the older he grew, and the deeper he settled in his Zen, the more his haiku philosophy moved in the direction of being simpler and simpler, ultimately resulting in his idea of karumi.

An interesting thing about this haiku is it is one of only two that he wrote about hydrangea. I’ve searched thousands of them, but I can’t find that Issa ever wrote any on the flowers either, nor Buson. There is a reason these three haiku masters avoided featuring the flower. During the Edo period in which they all lived hydrangea became very unpopular because they were considered a symbol of moral infidelity. While I’m sure Bashō would have cared little for any strange samurai influenced moral outlook imposed on flowers, it seems he was influenced by it. Like all of us, Bashō was a product of his culture, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it influenced his work.

Published by David

Watching the world drift by, learning as I go, lost in Japan





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