A Journey Through Japanese Haiku

Red Sun, Autumn Breeze

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Bashō’s poem depicts the indifferent heat of the sun. Or the coldness of a lover?

あかあかと日は難面も秋の風 芭蕉

Aka aka to / hi wa tsurenaku mo / aki no kaze

Bright red sun
relentless, but
an autumn breeze

(Poem by Bashō, written in 1689.)

Bashō wrote this at a poetry gathering in Kanazawa on August 31, during his journey recorded in Oku no hosomichi (trans. by Steven D. Carter as The Narrow Road Through the Hinterlands). One version on kaishi poetry paper in Bashō’s own writing includes the preface, “The pain of travel remains unhealed, the season of autumn is here when anxious thoughts grow, and the unseen autumn wind has a melancholy tone, but still the summer heat lingers.” The preface in The Narrow Road Through the Hinterlands simply notes that it was “A poem composed along the way.”

The word tsurenashi once indicated an expression of feigned ignorance, implying indifference. In this sense, the poem reads as meaning, “The sun pays no attention to people as it blazes down, and yet in the calendar it is autumn, so this is an autumn breeze.” Thus, the poem conveys the feeling of travel during the ferocity of fall’s lingering heat.

However, tsurenashi was regularly associated by poets of the time with love; the word tsurenai today retains that strong connection. Meanwhile, aki (autumn) can also mean “to tire of or lose interest in.” In this way tsurenaku mo aki can be interpreted as recognizing a lover becoming distant or indifferent due to having tired of the speaker. Here, mo represents an exclamation, instead of the contrast that it indicates in talking about the heat. Bashō appears to have been proud of this double reading, as he frequently made presents of the poem to others.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

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