The Old Pond – Matsuo Basho

The Old Pond by Matsuo Basho is probably the most famous of all haikus ever written. I am sure it is the most translated at least. A Google search for The Old Pond throws up at least a few dozen varied translations of the haiku.

Haiku is, of course, a Japanese short poem format that has very specific rules regarding its subject and structure. It is typically composed of three phrases, one of which has to end with what they call as a cutting word or kireji. This word acts as a kind of pause between two phrases that convey distinct ideas but are still connected to the central theme of the haiku. The three phrases follow a 5-7-5 or 3-5-3 syllable (on in Japanese) pattern. Every haiku typically has a nature based theme and essentially includes a seasonal reference taken from a standard compendium of such words.

Haiku, as a poetic form, was developed in Japan over several centuries, having undergone so many variations to reach its currently recognized form. I will leave it up to you to read in detail about the highly convoluted history of the haiku’s origin on Wikipedia. But, all you need to know is that Matsuo Basho, a 17th century Japanese poet, was the one who popularized the haiku in its current format. It was called hokku then, I think.

What is amazing about this poetic form is the way a bare minimum of words is used, to bring up in our minds, the entire atmosphere of that moment in time captured in verse.

This haiku, for some reason, always conjures up an overcast, late afternoon in my mind. No breeze. The air heavy with humidity. A promise of rain, even. The old pond itself is dark and rich with moss, and lily pads floating around. The frog sitting quietly one of the lily pads, the entire world pregnant with its stillness. And then the frog jumps. A splash in the water! Shattering the tranquility of the scene. Ripples travelling across the pond, fading away. Silence again.

All that captured in just a handful of syllables, each and every one of them so lovingly curated to rightly deserve a place in the poem – beauty in brevity indeed!

Here is the poem in its original Japanese form:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

The literal translation in English goes,

Old pond!
frog jumps in
water’s sound

A more rounded out translation is, perhaps,

The old pond;
a frog jumps in —
the sound of the water.

But there is a whole plethora of its translations out there, in various languages too, each one trying to outdo the others in finding the most perfect words (the mot juste, if you will) to as closely capture the essence of the original as possible. There have even been attempts to retain the 5-7-5 syllable pattern in English, though our definition of syllable is quite different from that of the Japanese on. I will leave it up to you to discover and enjoy them.

And such is the universal appeal of The Old Pond haiku that it seems to have found resonance in all the corners of the world. Why, there is even a reference to it in a Tamil movie song from the early 00s, in which a boy and a girl sing of the various ways in which love had hijacked their lives. The girl sings,

KalangAdha kuLam ena irundhavaL
Oru thavaLai thAn kudhithadhum vatrivitten

(I used to be a still pond; a frog jumped in and emptied me out!)

Personally speaking, I am particularly partial to this whimsical version by Allen Ginsberg.

The old pond
A frog jumped in,

It never fails to put a smile on my face.

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