Buson's Advice: Haiku of the Four Elders

Bashō, Buson, Issa and Shiki first by the judgment of the years, but then who?  Buson said: “Seek out Kikaku, visit Ransetsu, recite Sodō, and accompany Onitsura. Meet those four elders every day.”  For today, then, knocking on Kikaku’s door, a visit with Ransetsu, and a walk with Onitsura.  But Sodō--he’s hurrying off to the melon patch.  Another time for that one.


Waking before dawn, see
How the constellations
Are all
Turned around!
--Ransetsu tr. Harry Behn and Peter Beilenson

Every morning
Shaking out the fireflies
When drying the straw rain-coat.
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (1)

In my four-foot bamboo hut this spring,
There is nothing; there is everything.
-- Sodō tr. Harold Stewart

The Great Morning

The Great Morning
Winds of long ago
Blow through the pine trees.
-- Onitsura tr. R H. Blyth (2)

Its first note;
The uguiso
Is upside down.
-- Kikaku tr. R. H. Blyth (3)

Here water,
And there water,
The waters of spring.
-- Onitsura tr. R H. Blyth (3)

The cool breeze
Fills the empty vault of heaven
With the voice of the pine-tree.
-- Onitsura tr. R H. Blyth (4)

The wind ceases;
Water drips in the forest;
A kankodori sings.
-- Kikaku tr. R. H. Blyth (4)

Above the pilgrims
On a misty road
Wild geese are flying.
-- Ransetsu tr. Harry Behn and Peter Beilenson

Lightning flashing
All night in the east
This morning
Smoulders in the west.
-- Kikaku tr. Harry Behn and Peter Beilenson

At last, when her song
Is still
The goddess becomes
A small green bird.
-- Onitsura tr. Harry Behn and Peter Beilenson

Melon Patch

The morning after the storm;
The melons alone
Know nothing of it.
-- Sodō tr. R. H. Blyth (4)

Gathering young greens
In the garden, they called out
To a kerchief.
-- Kikaku tr. R. H. Blyth (3)

Pale, the yellow rose
In spring already—bitter
Too, the lettuce grows.
--- Sodō tr. Kenneth Yasuda

Able to look after
Its own self,--
The melon.
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (1)

Pleasure Quarter

A courtesan enclosure
A hototogisu sings
In the dawn
I am made to buy an umbrella.
-- Kikaku tr. R. H. Blyth (2)

The whole tenement house,
Having locked their doors,
Are dancing and dancing.
-- Kikaku tr. R. H. Blyth (5)

Catching goby;
A river village, a mountain quarter,
A wine-shop flag in the wind.
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (4)

Dolls for Sale

There a beggar goes!
Heaven and earth he’s wearing
For his summer clothes.
-- Kikaku tr. Harold Henderson

A summer shower;
A woman sits alone,
Gazing outside.
-- Kikaku tr. R. H. Blyth (4)

A childless woman…
How tenderly she touches
Little dolls for sale.
-- Ransetsu tr. Peter Beilenson (2)

Moon Viewing

A copper pheasant wakes with shrill-edged cry;
The silver crescent cuts the chilly sky.
-- Kikaku tr. Harold Stewart

Harvest moon is bright,
Casting the shadows of pine
On the mats tonight!
-- Kikaku tr. Kenneth Yasuda

This autumn
With no child on my lap
Gazing at the moon.
-- Onitsura tr. Adam Kern

The frenzied dash and dart of dragonflies
Is stilled:  a crescent moon begins to rise.
--Kikaku tr. Harold Stewart

Painting pines
The blue sky
The moon tonight
-- Ransetsu tr. Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite

Harvest moon,
And mist creeping
Over the water
-- Ransetsu tr. Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite

Leading me along
My shadow goes back home,
From looking at the moon.
-- Sodō tr. Harold Henderson


How cool things are:
The coolest—on Musashi Plain
A falling star.
-- Kikaku tr. Harold Henderson

To bring me the flowers,--
Oh, that the evening path of the messenger
May be moon-lit!
-- Kikaku tr. R. H. Blyth (3)

Stillness . . . then the bat
Flying among
The willows
Black against green sky.
-- Kikaku tr. Peter Beilenson (1)

Come come!  Come out!
From bogs old frogs
Command the dark
And look . . . the stars!
-- Kikaku tr. Peter Beilenson (1)

In stony moonlight
Hills and fields
On every side
White and bald as eggs . . .
-- Ransetsu tr. Harry Behn and Peter Beilenson

A bowel-freezing night
The sound of an oar striking the wave,--
-- Kikaku tr. R. H. Blyth (2)


On top of skeletons
They put on a gala dress, and then—
the flower-viewing!
-- Onitsura tr. Harold Henderson

Over and over,
Sprinkled over by blossoms
Drowsily drowsily.
-- Onitsura tr. Adam Kern

The cherry blossoms having fallen,
Enjôji Temple
Is quiet once more.
 -- Onitsura tr. R H. Blyth (2)

Oh, how green
The threads of the willow,
Over the stilling waters!
-- Onitsura tr. R H. Blyth (3)

The wild cherry:
Stones also are singing their songs
In the valley stream.
-- Onitsura tr. R H. Blyth (3)

When cherry trees bloom
Birds have two legs
Horses four
--Onitsura tr. Faubion Bowers

Gusty spring breezes . . .
But the stubborn
Plum buds still
Gripping their thin twigs.
-- Onitsura tr. Peter Beilenson (3)

Silent the garden
Where the
Opens its whiteness.
-- Onitsura tr. Peter Beilenson (3)

A blossom of the plum,
A blossom’s worth
Of warmth.
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (1)

Tea Bowls

Evening squall!
Scampering among the houses,
Squawking ducks.
-- Kikaku tr. Adam Kern

A tree frog, clinging
To a banana leaf—
And swinging, swinging.
-- Kikaku tr. Harold Henderson

Play about, O, fair
Beads of dew, from one grass-leaf
To another there!
-- Ransetsu tr. Kenneth Yasuda

The grain of rice
Stuck on my face
I gave to a fly.
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (1)

No letter
No message,--
Five rice dumplings in bamboo leaves.
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (1)

The pine cricket
Does not make a sound -
This black bowl
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (2)

Flying in from the bamboo-blind
The swallow is tame
With the beautiful girl.
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (3)

Catching the reflection
Of the yamabuki,
The spring is yellow.
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (3)

The pampas grass,--
It sums up all
The loneliness of Saga.
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (5)


New Year’s Day
Dawns clear, and sparrows
Tell their tales.
-- Ransetsu tr. Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite

In the New Year dawn
Solemn and
Tall cranes go marching.
-- Kikaku tr. Peter Beilenson (1)

Green cornfield:
A skylark soaring,
-- Onitsura tr. Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite

Even I who have
No lover . . .
I love this time
Of new kimonos.
-- Onitsura tr. Harry Behn and Peter Beilenson

On the corn shoots
White frost of spring.
-- Onitsura tr. Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite

In spring, frogs sing;
In summer,
They bark.
-- Onitsura tr. R H. Blyth (3)

Trout leaping:
On the river-bed
Clouds floating.
-- Onitsura tr. Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite

How hot, on afternoons without a breeze,
The cobwebs hanging from the dusty trees!
-- Onitsura tr. Harold Stewart

How woeful
The wail of a cicada
Caught by a hawk.
-- Ransetsu tr. Adam Kern

Paulownia leaves
Scatter, crinkle, one by one
On the breeze.
-- Ransetsu tr. Adam Kern

Winter having come,
The crows perch
On the scarecrow.
-- Kikaku. tr. R.H. Blyth (5)

Blue-shadow-bolted . . .
The castle gate
Of Edo
In frozen moonlight.
-- Kikaku tr. Peter Beilenson (3)


The table of the spirits;
Dew, and tears,
These are the oil.
-- Ransetsu tr. R. H. Blyth (5)

A leaf is falling…
Alas alas another
And another
-- Ransetsu tr. Harry Behn and Peter Beilenson

And so the spring buds burst, and so I gaze,
And so the blossoms fall, and so my days . . .
-- Onitsura tr. Harold Stewart

Biographical Notes

Takarai Kikaku (1661—1707)
The son of a physician, Kikaku followed a muse instead of the family practice and became one of Bashō’s most accomplished students.  He studied Confucianism, Chinese poetry and painting.   His account of Bashō’s death can be found here: http://simplyhaiku.com/SHv4n3/features/Nobuyuki.html

Uejima Onitsura (1661—1738)
Born into a family of saké brewers, Onitsura sold his share of the family business to a younger brother and immersed himself in the study of poetry.   His efforts to elevate the writing of haiku from a parlor game to a serious form of literature have historically been overlooked and over-shadowed by the Bashō narrative.  Recent scholarship credits him with equal and independent contributions.

Hattori Ransetsu (1654—1707)
Eldest son of a low-level samurai and a disciple of Bashō, Ransetsu studied Zen under Saiun Hōjō and painting from Itchō. R. H. Blyth states he was born in a farmer’s house and served several feudal lords as a samurai.  One account states Ransetsu's first wife was a bathing house prostitute. She died after giving birth to a son, whereupon Ransetsu took a geisha as his wife. 

His poetry first appeared during 1680 in a pair of anthologies compiled by Bashō. He was numbered among the Ten Philosophers of Bashō’s circle of students.  He shaved his head and became a monk when Bashō died in 1695.  His poem on the master’s passing:

Sent off
By the winter blast
His retreating figure.

Ransetsu’s religious convictions did not prevent him from continuing his writing although he did not leave behind a large volume of work.  He was known as an established poet by 1702 and he authored a diary of his travels to Southern Japan three years later.  Little is known of his own death in 1707. 

Yamaguchi Sodō (1642—1716)
Said to have been employed as a flood control engineer, Sodō studied the tea ceremony, calligraphy, and Confucianism.  He lived for a time near the lotus-filled Shinobazu-no-Ike Pond in Ueno.

Sources of the translations

Adam Kern, The Penguin Book of Haiku
Faubion Bowers, The Classic Tradition of Haiku
Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite, The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse
Harold Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku
Harold Stewart, A Net of Fireflies
Harry Behn and Peter Beilenson, Haiku Harvest
Kenneth Yasuda, A Pepper-Pod: A Haiku Sampler
Peter Beilenson (1), Japanese Haiku
Peter Beilenson (2), The Four Seasons
Peter Beilenson (3), Cherry Blossoms
R. H. Blyth (1), A History of Haiku Volume One
R. H. Blyth (2), Haiku I:  Eastern Culture
R. H. Blyth (3), Haiku II:  Spring
R. H. Blyth (4), Haiku III:  Summer/Autumn
R. H. Blyth (5), Haiku IV:  Autumn/Winter

This article originally appeared in Synchronized Chaos in May 2023 https://synchchaos.com/story-from-russell-streur/

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