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Untitled -- Matsuo Basho

Guest poem sent in by Jeffrey Sean Huo , who writes

Related somewhat to the current theme, I would like to offer the following
haiku from Matsuo Basho's _Oku_no_Hosomichi_ :
(Poem #1259) Untitled
 The summer grasses
 All that remains
 Of brave soldiers dreams
-- Matsuo Basho
           From Station (Chapter) 23, "Hiraizumi"

The transliterated original:

  natsukusa ya
  tsuwamonodomo go
  yume no ato

----

A biography of Basho has appeared previously (#802, "Haiku"); I'd instead
like today to talk about _Oku_no_Hosomichi_ and the context for this poem in
particular.

Decades of brutal civil war had ended almost a century earlier at the
decisive battle of Sekigahara; and the shogunate that Tokugawa Ieyasu
established at Edo (now Tokyo) was firmly entrenched by the time Basho began
writing the _Oku_no_Hosomichi_. Edo was fast becoming a great city by the
end of the seventeenth century, but the lands surrounding were still
relatively wild. It was the sights of the region of Tohoku in Northeastern
Japan that Basho set out to explore in 1689. The three months he spent
wandering through the mountains and valleys of Tohoku became the basis for
_Oku_no_Hosomichi_, "Narrow Road to the Deep North". This collection of
Basho's essays and haiku has become regarded as one of the great literary
works of the Japanese language. One of the places Basho visited was
Hiraizumi.

Hiraizumi was the setting in which, centuries earlier, one of the great
heroic tragedies of Japanese history had its bitter end. Centuries before
the battle at Sekigahara, a prior, equally brutal civil war was fought
between the forces led by the Taira and the Minamoto clans. The stories of
this time were collected in the epic _Heike_Monogatari_ (The Tale of the
Heike), and include many of Japan's most famous samurai legends. And among
the great warriors on both sides, Minamoto Yoshitsune was regarded as one
of the most brilliant and brave.

At the height of the battle of Ichi-no-Tani Yoshitsune and his cavalry
charged like a storm straight down a previously-thought impassable cliff and
broke the enemy; at the battle of Yashima, Yoshitsune led his men in a
daring headlong assault across a sea-channel at low tide to drive his enemy
literally into the ocean; and at the final sea battle at Dan no Ura,
Yoshitsune crushed the Taira utterly, the last lords of the Taira throwing
themselves into the sea to avoid capture. Yoshitsune's bravery and skill won
the civil war for the Minamoto. Yoshitsune's reward was betrayal.

Yoshitsune's lord, Yoritomo, had become increasingly paranoid that
Yoshitsune's prowess constituted a threat to Yoritomo's own rule. Yoshitsune
protested his loyalty to the Minamoto family and to Yoritomo himself in the
famous "Koshigoe Letter". But treason and slander won the day, and the brave
Yoshitsune was forced to flee for his life. Pursued and hounded, Yoshitsune
was finally cornered. Even Yoshitsune's death was legendary: Yoshitsune
calmly committed seppuku (samurai ritual suicide) in an interior room while
his oldest friend, the giant warrior-monk Benkei (Japan's "Little John")
single-handedly held the door against vastly outnumbering enemy troops. The
place where Benkei and Yoshitsune made their final stand was Hiraizumi, and
it was in this context that Basho composed a number of haiku, including the
one above.

Basho is believed to have chosen the Japanese word 'natsukusa', in reference
to the muggy, slimy, rank muck that summer's oppressive humidity and heat
turn the grasses of spring into, an appropriate vision, perhaps, of the
chaos and treachery of war. By the time Basho visited Hiraizumi centuries
later, those dank overgrown weeds were all that remained of the fortress in
which Yoshitsune made his final stand. As Basho himself comments in the
_Oku_no_Hosomichi_:

  "The select band of loyal retainers who entrenched themselves here in this
  High Fort and fought so desperately - their glorious deeds lasted but a
  moment, and now this spot is overgrown with grass...We sat down upon our
  straw hats and wept, oblivious of the passing time."

The sentiments Basho expresses in the Haiku have deep meaning, even
(especially!) today. But for me, there is a deeper truth contained in the
haiku and the greater story it is a part of. Yoshitsune's betrayal was only
made possible by the cowardice, greed, or perfidy of many petty lords and
scheming officals who turned on Yoshitsune in order to benefit or protect
their own positions. They are all forgotten. But even as the poets and
storytellers --like Basho-- mourned Yoshitsune's death, in doing so they
kept his memory alive, such that today almost all Japanese know Benkei and
Yoshitsune as Europeans know Leonidas at Thermopylae; and in that sense,
Benkei and Yoshitsune have become immortal. The dreams of the brave live on.

-Jeff

67 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Jason Nyilas said...

This poem reminds me vividly at the end of Blackadder IV, where Rowan
Atkinson and company leave their trenches and charge the Germans during WW1.
We don't see the ensuing bloodbath. Instead, the final scene is of a green,
pastural field on a beautiful summer day.

Jason N

william.schubert said...

Tangent off of Basho (not the dream, but the grass):

"Find the cost of feeedom
Buried in the ground
Mother Earth will swallow you
Lay your body down."

Neil Young

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