Enquiring Mind and Collapsing Body

November 2001

 WHC Celebrations – Shiki Masaoka Centenary

WHC Translation Project of Haiku Poems by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
Part 3, Essay 4

Enquiring Mind and the Collapsing Body
Shiki’s Poem on the Snow

by Susumu Takiguchi

byochu-yuki (maegaki=foreword, snow seen while sick)

ikutabi mo yuki no fukasa wo tazune keri

Masaoka Shiki (estimated January or February 1896)

ikutabi=many times/ mo=emphasis or exclamatory particle/ yuki=snow/ no=possessive particle/ fukasa=depth, thickness/ wo=object particle/ tazune=verb stem, inquire, ask/ keri=past or exclamation adverb

The First Version

time and again,
about the thickness of the snow
have I inquired!

(Version by ST)

The Second Version

Oh, how many times
I have asked how thick
the snow is!

(Version by ST)

The Third Version

again and again
I ask how high
the snow is

 (tr. by Janine Beichman)

*pp. 65-68, Masaoka Shiki, Janine Beichman, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1982. If you haven’t got this book, copies are available from The World Haiku Club

Snow is rare in Matsuyama where Shiki was born. It doesn’t snow often in Tokyo either but when it does it gives some excitement to people living there. So much more so it must have been for Shiki. Uncommonly curious, Shiki wanted to see how the snow started falling, how it settled and how it melted.

Shiki came to live in Tokyo on 31 October 1895 (Meiji 28) and because of his illness never left the capital after that. On his way from Matsuyama, he suffered from serious backache in Osaka, which made it temporarily impossible for him to walk. It was assumed that he had severe rheumatism, which was to prove to be a false diagnosis the following March, when it transpired that he was in fact suffering from severe caries. This disease crippled him and made him bed-ridden for seven years until his death.

In February (1896) his condition deteriorated. There is a good chance that the haiku under review was written then. It is recorded in “Kanzan Rakuboku” Volume 5 (“Cold Mountain, Withered Trees”, for 1896, Meiji 29). There is nothing ambiguous about what the poem says. He was bed-ridden, unable to walk to open the shoji sliding door himself to see the snow. He loved snow and was so keen to know what it looked like all the time. He therefore asked his mother and Ritsu, his sister, repeatedly to tell him how deep the snow had got to until he himself realised what a lot of times he had been asking that question. Yae, the mother, and Ritsu obliged and went to see the snow and reported how it was to Shiki, even if they were busy enough looking after him and doing all other household chores.

There are three more snow haiku Shiki wrote in the same situation around the same time.

yuki no ie ni nete iru to omou bakari nite

thinking nothing else
but being bed-ridden
in a house of snow

(version by ST)

yuki furu yo shoji no ana wo mite areba

snow’s falling!
I see it through a hole
in the shutter…

(tr. Janine Beichman)

shoji akeyo ueno no yuki wo hitome min

open the shoji sliding door
and let me glimpse at the snow
at Ueno

(version by ST)

Beichman refers to “one of the central themes of Shiki’s later poetry as being the contrast between his own mortality and the continuity of the natural world around him.”(1) This theme was exploited fully in these four poems with the mixture of Shiki rejoicing at the beauty of nature and the sadness and irritation he felt of being unable to reach it. To quote Beichman again from the same pages, “One feels the poignance[-cy] of the distance between the poem’s speaker and the snow, a distance that can be bridged only by the repeated questioning.”

These four poems represent the dichotomy Shiki had begun to learn to live with between the world around him and his mind trapped in the immobile body, between life and death, which would be eventually transformed into the sense of resignation with which he probably succeeded in overcoming it and accepted death.

(1) pp. 65-68, Janine Beichman, Masaoka Shiki, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1982

Read Member Project: Awe and Anxiety (snow haiku)

Read Shiki Essay 1: Using Numbers in Haiku by Susumu Takiguchi

Read WHC Translation Project (Persimmons & Bells) by Susumu Takiguchi

Read Shiki Essay 2:  Using Same Themes (persimmons) by Susumu Takiguchi

Read Member Translation Project: Of Persimmons and Bells (persimmons)
Compiled & Edited by John E. Carley

Read Shiki Essay 3 : The Moment When Shiki Breathed His Last (death haiku) by Susumu Takiguchi

Read Member Translation Project: A Question of Interpretation (death haiku) Compiled & Edited by John E. Carley

Read Shiki Translation Project : The Ultimate Gift (snow haiku) Compiled & Edited by John E. Carley

  Read Member Project: Awe and Anxiety (snow haiku)
Compiled & Edited by John E. Carley



This entry was posted in Haiku, Shiki, Vol 1-3 November 2001 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Enquiring Mind and Collapsing Body

  1. Pingback: The Ultimate Gift | Rohini Gupta's Blog

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