on the plum tree
one blossom, one blossom worth
– Hattori Ransetsu (1654-1707)
Before I delve into the haiku, let me mention a bit about Ransetsu’s life. 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 humankind and the natural order in the experience of natural phenomena and universal processes.
A hallmark of Ransetsu’s work is his compassion for all living things and their condition. [adapted from the World Kigo Database]
Now onto looking at the haiku. Plum blossoms are an indication of early spring in Japan, and widely loved among Japanese people. They are a symbol of refinement, purity, nobility, and also a reminder of past love. In addition, Japanese tradition holds that the plum blossom functions as a protective charm against evil. The plum tree is traditionally planted in the northeast of a garden, the direction from which evil is believed to come. Also, the eating of its pickled fruit for breakfast is supposed to stave off misfortune.
So, there is a lot behind the reference to a plum tree and its blossoms, especially in Japan. But more importantly, even in translation, this haiku carries strong emotion. It is a special feeling that is difficult to describe, but the best I can do is say it gives an emotion of the beauty of the moment and preciousness of life.
Warmth is such a wide word, especially in the context of this haiku (Ransetsu was known to be quite an austere person as well). Warmth could mean a shielding from the winds of winter, could mean feeling warm from the beauty of the blossom, or the warmth of blossom against one’s nose when smelling it, or it touching the skin, and so on. But after reading this haiku, the reader may get the impression, intuitively, that though it is one blossom, its impact is more than it looks. Its impact is as strong on a viewer as a whole plum tree full of blossoms, and maybe more.
This play of the singular and plural makes up a classic haiku aesthetic. It is kind of like blurring the lines between quantity, and possibly the lines between infinity and emptiness.
In this sense, the single plum blossom is priceless and fathomless, and can only be understood in awe. This may correlate to Ransetsu’s Zen affiliation, where infinity and emptiness eventually lose meaning, and only the moment matters. Enlightenment, suffering, mere concepts compared to the awareness of the moment.
– Nicholas Klacsanzky