shizukasa ya iwa ni shimi-iru semi no koe
the cry of cicadas seep into the rocks
Is there any meaning to the fact that Bashō wrote shizukasa “tranquility, quietude, repose” with the character 閑 rather than the (possibly) more common 静 ?
Let’s look at a typical “argument by kanji components” explanation. There’s an interesting essay by “Toyonaga-sensei” (real name 豊永徳) at his personal page. The crux of his argument is based on the following character analyses, from the Dai Kangorin dictionary:
- 静 is composed of 青 “to be blue, to be clear [weather]” plus 争 “fight”. It therefore suggests the state of calmness which follows cessation of conflict.
- 閑 is composed of 門 “gate” plus 木 “tree, wood”. Its original meaning is “to fence in, to guard” (as when barring a gate). By association it came to mean “leisure, idleness” and then “calmness”.
Toyonaga-sensei’s conclusion is that Bashō chose 閑 to select a specific nuance: rather than the calm moment between bouts of activity, he’s suggesting the tranquility that permeates this poem’s rocky scenario – the calmness inherent to a place shut-in from the mundane world. Not “a moment of repose” but “a secluded haven”.
Is this a good explanation? On the face of it, my first instinct is to be skeptical. Linguists are taught to keep in mind the priority of the spoken language: the word shizukasa existed before to any particular way of writing it. In the old Portuguese dictionaries we find that xizucca meant “calm; slow; settled down” [1, 2], and this was probably the semantic area of the Japanese word by Bashō’s day. The Chinese characters weren’t created to represent particular nuances of Japanese words, but to record Old Chinese words. Consulting Schuessler’s etymological dictionary, we find that 閑 originally represented *grên (Mandarin xián, Japanese kan) which meant “barrier, protect, restrain, train (horses etc.), be large (pillars etc.)” and also “be lazy, be slow”. 静 represented *dzeŋʔ (Mandarin jìng, Japanese sei) meaning “to stop, keep quiet; to be peaceful, at rest; to be pure”.
The weakness of the “argument by components” method of literary analysis is that, often enough, the composition of Chinese characters is unrelated to the nuances of the words they represent, either Chinese or Japanese. However, in many other cases the characters do reflect meanings to some extent (or can be made to, with some imagination), and this is the case of the two characters here. What’s more, it’s true that the Japanese sometimes use multiple kanji ortographies in order to select different nuances of the same word. Is Toyonaga justified in applying this to Bashō’s poem? Is there any way of knowing whether Bashō felt that 閑 would suggest the nuance of “reclusion”?
We could try to find out whether the orthography 「閑かさ」 was common in Bashō’s time and what words were usually represented with 閑 versus 静, but as it happens, one could argue right here from the same text. Toyonaga draws attention to the (always crucially important) prose text accompanying the poem. The scene portrayed by Bashō is in the area of a mountain temple (yamadera 山寺) in Yamagata 山形 (“mountain-shape”) called Ryūshaku-ji 立石寺 (“standing-stone temple”), where the mountain is made of “rocky crags piling upon boulders” (岩に巌を重て山とし). All this repetition of boulders and montains colors the “rocks” or “boulders” of the poem (the ones that the cicadas sing into) with an unmistakeable hue of Buddhist-Taoist seclusion – a recurring theme in Bashō’s poetry, and also in the literary tradition that he works with (haiku poetry is thickly woven with references, and this one echoes a poem by Du Fu about “cicada’s voices gathering in the old temple” 蟬聲集古寺). Even more to the point: Bashō tells of how “the doors were all shut (扉を閉て) and not a sound could be heard”, and he says that the place was “renowed for its tranquility” (seikan 清閑). Notice the word seikan uses the 閑 character! I don’t have a contemporary Japanese dictionary at hand, but modern ones do ascribe the meaning of “reclusion” to seikan, suggesting the -kan part is being used with its original Chinese overtones.
Considering this repetition of the character and the fact that the entire text portrays seclusion, even explicitly mentioning the closing of gates, I think it’s entirely plausible that 「閑かさ」 was chosen deliberately in order to suggest a “secluded tranquility”. Kudos to Toyonaga-sensei’s sensibility!
(For more information on this poem, see the 芭蕉db and John R Wallace’s page.)