In January of 1685, Matsuo Bashō had been on the road since August. He was staying with his disciple Hayashi Tōyō in Atsuta just south of Nagoya when one evening the two men, together with two other local poets, decided to take a boating trip “to see the water in winter.”

As they rowed out into the sea, the four poets took turns composing a series of 36 linked verses, in a genre known as a kasen. Bashō started them off with a poem describing the wintry scene on the water. In his wonderful book On Haiku, Hiroaki Sato translates this poem, which has become one of Bashō’s most famous. Satō renders it in a single line:

The sea darkens and the voices of ducks faintly white

Writing haiku in a single line is the norm in Japanese, but English readers are so used to reading them broken into three lines that some may have a hard time recognizing this as a haiku.

And yet this is how Bashō wrote it:

Umi kurete kamo no koe honoka ni shiroshi


In case you’re wondering, lineation still matters here, it just doesn’t happen visually on the page.  It happens in the reader’s ear as she reads the poem out loud or to herself and senses where the phrases end. Such a reader will soon notice that this poem breaks into an unusual syllabic pattern of 5-5-7 rather than the standard 5-7-5.  Like this:

umi kurete / kamo no koe / honoka ni shiroshi

the sea darkens / the voices of ducks / faintly white

Many critics have pointed out that Basho could easily have maintained the orthodox 5-7-5 syllable pattern by reversing the order of the second and third lines. He chose not to do so most likely because he wanted “faintly white” to refer to the ducks’ voices, creating an effect in which the sound of the voices is described in visual terms. It is this synaesthetic effect for which the poem is best known.

While the phrasing may make the lineation clear even when the poem is written in a single line, the poem lacks a clear cutting word (kireji), so that some ambiguity remains as to where to place the cut that every haiku requires. If the cut comes after the first five-syllable line, the synaesthetic effect is accentuated. If it comes after the second line, the phrase “faintly white” could be said to modify the first and second lines together. In this case it would be not just the ducks’ voices that are “faintly white,” but the darkening sea as well, calling up the impression, say, of small waves cresting or a whitish mist over the water to emphasize by contrast the depth of the onrushing darkness. A reader might indicate where he or she thinks the poem cuts with a pause, with the result that the poem’s precise meaning will be determined as much by how the poem sounds when read as by how it looks on the page. In this sense, the poem’s synaesthetic effect depends upon a synesthesia of form.

Taking some liberties in English translation, one might highlight this oscillation between sight and sound by playing with the word order and making “faintly white” into a pivot that works in both directions:

Like this:

the sea darkens

faintly white

ducks’ voices

Here, the synaesthestic image of “white voices” flickers in and out of view, alternating with the dark, but faintly white, sea as the reader’s eye lingers over the poem, scanning up and down. And yet such a reordering would not have the same effect in Japanese because the word “white” (shiroshi) is in the conclusive form (shūshikei), which signals the end of a sentence, a little like an audible period (again mixing sound with sight…) Thus if “honoka ni shiroshi” came in the second line rather than the third, it would introduce a break and prevent “faintly white” from working as a pivot as it does in this English translation. This may be another reason why Bashō chose not to rearrange the words and kept “faintly white” at the end, even though it is seven syllables long and therefore required him to break the 5-7-5 rule.

Peipei Qiu cites this poem as an example of how Bashō’s aesthetic was shifting toward an aesthetics of “loneliness”  beginning with his move the previous year to a hermit’s hut in Fukagawa. She argues that this shift was made under the influence of Daoism, which celebrated “emptiness, stillness, limpidity, silence, inaction.”[1]  In the Daiost text Zhuangzhi, from which Qiu is quoting here, this aesthetic is repeatedly associated with images of whiteness “to represent the attainment of the Dao, a state that is born in emptiness and stillness.” Bashō may have chosen this image of whiteness to describe the ducks’ voices in a nod to this tradition.

And yet, while the poem read on its own does suggest such an aesthetic of stillness and solitude, it reads rather differently in the context of its original composition as the first link in a kasen. Linked verse is a social practice, and the rules of the genre specify that the first verse, or “hokku” should include a salutation to the host. As Sato points out, the salutation in “the sea darkens” is in the sound of the ducks quacking, which is associated with “people chatting at a gathering.”  Thus the poem is saying to Tōyō, the host, “Thanks for bringing us all here for this lively gathering.” Tōyō picks up on this meaning and responds with this verse (in Sato’s one-line translation):

whale broiled on skewers and this cup

As Sato explains, the whale skewers are a humble party food and the saké cup is meant for Basho as the guest of honor.

Thus in one reading of the poem, the “faintly white” voices of the ducks emphasize a sense of solitude, while in another the quacking ducks call to mind the party on the boat.

Later, Bashō extracted “the sea darkens” from this session and included it in his first poetic travelogue, A Record of a Skeleton in the Fields [Nozarashi kikō]. In this text Bashō does not mention the party on the boat, and in David Barnhill’s English translation, there is only one duck:

the sea darkening,

a wild duck’s call

faintly white

In this way, as the poem moves further and further from its original context through anthologization and translation, the lively scene of the ducks quacking and the party on the boat is replaced with Bashō as a lone figure in the landscape. Bashō’s fellow poets in Atsuta thus watched themselves disappear from this scene of collective poetic composition, until almost a hundred years later, in 1774, a group of poets in the same region published the kasen in its entirety for the first time. And now almost 250 years after that, in On Haiku, Hiroaki Sato has given us a translation with full commentary of all 36 links by all four poets in the “Sea Darkens,” so English readers can see for themselves what a difference lineation, translation, and context can make in our enjoyment of this stunning poem.


See my full review of Sato’s On Haiku in Translation Review, vol. 106 #1. 2020.


[1] Peipei Qiu, Basho and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005). 90.


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