Soft Upon My Shutters

Hattori Ransetsu 1654-1707

by Jane Baker
Basho is rightly famous but why does the western world know so little of his contemporaries? Deep in Basho’s “old silent pond” dwell all sorts of interesting other frogs – Kikaku’s that “command the dark”; Onitsura’s “froglets” that in summer “sang like birds” but with winter’s onset “bark like old dogs”; Joso’s “good Buddhist frog…/ rising to a clearer light / by non-attachment” as well as Issa’s “fat frog / in the seat of honour / singing bass”.

The fact that a poet is not widely known as often reflects his history and social circumstances as it does his being of lesser literary stature than better-known contemporaries. Little is known of Hattori Ransetsu beyond his inclusion in the circle of Ten Philosophers as an intimate as well as a student of Basho yet any trawl of the Web will turn up his poignant “childless woman” haiku.

Born in 1654 his name first appeared in literary circles with the 1680 publication of two anthologies under Basho’s name which included works by both Ransetsu and Kikaku. Obviously Basho thought highly of his student’s writing if he collaborated in a joint production when Ransetsu was only twenty-six. In the winter of 1702 Ransetsu was obviously well established as a poet because he circulated a New Year Haikai Ichimazuri – the sort of poem that was not offered for sale but distributed on a single sheet of quality paper among fellow haijins (poets).

When Basho died Ransetsu shaved his head and became a Buddhist monk, perhaps an indication that he closely shared Basho’s later life preoccupation with Buddhism and inclination towards monastic life. Certainly, retirement to a monastery ruled out any possibility of a Ransetsu school and of disciples in whose interests it would be to promote his life and works. Nothing seems to be known of his death other than the year of its occurrence, 1707, just five years after his New Year Haikai’s circulation, when he was fifty-three. Like his contemporaries, Ransetsu was concerned with time passing, with the transience of beauty, with capturing the unity of man and the natural order in the experience of natural phenomena and universal processes. His was a very individual eye and a very individual sensibility expressed in original and compact imagery e.g.

In stony moonlight / hills and fields / on every side / white and bald as eggs …

Sometimes his marrying of image and thought is so precise that the one becomes the other. In the “pilgrim” haiku, for instance,

Above the pilgrims / chanting /on a misty road/ wild geese are flying

both pilgrims and geese are moving in formation through the landscape. In the mist the pilgrims are as without individual feature as the geese in flight. Their chanting echoes the cry of the geese overhead. They and the geese are engaged in a search that consumes them. In this white landscape they are the black visualization of the search for meaning and purpose in existence.

There is something of a Hopkins sensibility about his oft-quoted “leaf” haiku :

A leaf is falling …/ alas, alas another / and another / falls

Yes, it is an autumn poem and leaves are doing their autumn thing but Ransetsu does not talk of leaf fall but of the death of one leaf and then of another and yet one more after that one. The death of summer is not in the heaped up leaf litter but in the death of each single leaf making its own individual break with life. Each death is a source of grief and each leaf’s fall contributes to that grief which recognises all mortality.

Ransetsu’s most loved verse,

A childless woman …/ how tenderly / she touches / little dolls for sale

is widely quoted. The childless woman does not hold the dolls but just “touches” them as if she has no right to anything more. Her tenderness conveys all the love she can never spend on a child of her own. A hallmark of Ransetsu’s work is his compassion for all living things and their condition. In this haiku the tragedy of barrenness is almost palpable.

Like Onitsura’s Ransetsu’s work can occasionally display a lightness of humour that avoids the pretension of less-skilled poets. His

New year’s day/ The sky is cloudless;/ Sparrows are gossiping

succeeds for this reason where Senna’s ponderous

A solitary bird /For my companion / Upon the withered moor

fails. His sharp eye for observation is evident too in his cheerfully idiosyncratic comment on the movement of the spheres:

Waking before dawn, see / how the constellations are all / turned round.

Much has been written about his plum blossom haiku. It has had many translations, so succinct was its original construction, and some of them differ wildly. I prefer the Behn translation

Out of one wintry / twig, one bud / one blossom’s worth / of warmth at long last!

to the Henderson which runs :

One the plum tree / one blossom, one blossomworth / of warmth

This is no usual spring haiku. It links personal and seasonal warmth to the emergence of spring plum blossoms as one would expect but, more than this, it suggests that a whole season’s warmth is carried in the heart of one tiny bud. Ransetsu’s single bud is all spring, all warmth, all promise of renewal and growth. This haiku celebrates the whole universe in all its workings in the form of a single blossom on a winter bare bough.

Hattori Ransetsu, regarded by Basho as a favourite student, has not left a large volume of poetry behind him but those haiku of his that survive display an individual perception and sensibility that warrant greater recognition than that received to date.

Note: Most modern translations are written in three lines but earlier translations were more usually written in four lines. Four-line texts quoted are drawn from the four-volume translations by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn, published by Pauper Press, New York, in 1960 and three-line texts are drawn from a 1970 Hallmark Collection selected by Mary Dawson Hughes from translations by R H Blyth published by Hokuseido Press, Tokyo. The Henderson translation is quoted from an Anita Vergil E-Journal Feature article at:
http://www.poetrylives.com/SimplyHaiku/SHv3n2/features/Vergil_interim.html

Biographical Note: Jane Baker is a poet with background careers in secondary and tertiary education, freelance journalism and editing, and disability advocacy. Her work has been anthologised and recognised in competitions across Australia. In 2004 she won the FAW Jean Stone award for poetry. Jane has a lifetime interest in Asian history and culture, particularly in the poetry of Japan and also of China.