Today we move on to Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827). Of the four great Japanese haijin, much as I respect Basho and Buson and admire Shiki, I enjoy Issa. He is the most easily understood of the four, and the most human.
As you will see in the biographical sketch, Issa had his share of misery and more. His mother died when he was a baby and Henderson tells us his stepmother was “of the fairy-tale variety.” When his father died, his stepmother and half brother kept him from his inheritance for thirteen years. Later, his wife of ten years and all five of their children died. He remarried and divorced. He suffered a stroke and lost his ability to speak for a time. He remarried again, and his only surviving child was born after his death.
Despite his travails, Issa’s haiku are often infused with a subtle or ironic humor. There is also a gentleness toward other creatures, including the fleas and flies that infest his hut. Here is an archive of nearly 10,000 of Issa’s haiku. Just click the refresh button to see another. It’s easy to lose hours doing this.
Issa’s most famous haiku was written after the death of one of his children. Henderson notes how difficult it is to translate it and gives us the most literal version possible:
this dewdrop world –
a dewdrop world it is, and still,
although it is…
Another common version (translator unknown):
this dewdrop world
is but a dewdrop world
This may be a world of dew, without permanence, and a good Buddhist understands this. But Issa is alive to feel the loss and philosophy doesn’t come close to healing his grief.
So as not to end on that sad note, one of Issa’s many wry mosquito haiku:
my home –
for the mosquitoes
a famous resort