Basho and His Interpreters

Things are slowly returning to “normal” around here. I’ve managed to take Skye out for his walk two days in a row, and I’ve even managed to find some time to start reading poetry again. I’ve had Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary by Makoto Ueda lying around for quite awhile, since, as I remember it, Jonathon Delacour suggested it was the best version of Basho out.

If you’ve come here for awhile you’ll remember that Chinese and Japanese poetry are favorites, though I’ve only had one college course that centered on them. In fact, most of my interest has arisen since I’ve retired. I’ll continue to include them under the heading “Haiku and Beyond” because I still don’t feel comfortable discussing them in the same depth I discuss English-speaking poets.

One of the reasons I’m particularly fond of this translation is that Ueda includes his translation, a Japanese translation directly under that, and a word-by-word translation after that. He follows that with what he considers significant commentary on each of the hokku. Occasionally, I even find that my initial interpretation of the poem matches at least one of the commentaries.

a fool in the dark
grabs a bramble-
firefly hunt

go / ni / kuraku / ibara / wo / tsukamu / horatu / kana
folly / in / dark / bramble / [acc.] / grab / firefly / kana


Kuraku, as is the English word dark,” can mean either physical or metaphorical darkness.


Unable to see in the darkness of night and absorbed in an exciting firefly hint, a man accidentally grabbed a bramble. Reading this hokku, we should remind ourselves of those pleasures that will do us harm if we are too absorbed in them. – Duuto

This hokku seems to satirize a person who falls into an error because of his own greed. -Tosai

The poet saw a firefly that had settled not on a soft blade of grass but on a thorny bramble. Thereupon he speculated that the firefly muse be none too brilliant during daylight hours, although at nighttime it flits about freely by its own light. That, I think, is what the poet meant by the hokku’s opening phrase. – Komiya

The meaning of the poem centers on the loss of judgment suffered by is person who was too intent on catching a firefly. The lesson can be applied to life in general. The poem utilizes an allegorical device borrowed from Chuang-tzu, a device that was central to the art of the Danrin school. -Shuaon

An allegorical poem on the folly of a person who is too preoccupied with one thing to reflect on other things. Probably self-derision. – Kou

Though he didn’t do so in this example, Ueda also consistently points out lines in the hokku that reference poetry or literature that preceded Basho’s hokku. It’s clear Western readers of hokku miss much in these poems because they don’t have the literary background to pick up on such subtle references. On the other hand, the poems reveal Basho’s genius because they are able to stand on their own. Even without a literary background, the best of these poems create a moment that reveals its own eternal truth.

3 thoughts on “Basho and His Interpreters”

  1. First person who ever taught me about Basho was Robert Sund. He is a NW poet who continues the gift. kjm

  2. I do like the way you have included an interpretation of the haiku – it is a perfect example of how a few well chosen words can have such a depth of meaning.

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