There are some impressively steep and deep earthworks on the north edge of Twyford Down, where it looks like relatively recent chalk-mining has underscored the lines of some Iron Age hillfort defences. I've always presumed these are the famous "dongas", a word brought back as a souvenir from South Africa in the late 19th century, and appropriated by the Dongas Tribe of road protesters in the 1980s. In the right light, they can look like giant waves breaking on a geological timescale.
On the parallel south side, there is a curious little "dry valley", of a sort typical of chalk downland, which has that watchful, haunted feel that abandoned places of habitation tend to have, although it's hard to imagine anyone living in such a sunless pinch in the landscape. The gravelly track running through it is full of fragments of old brick and tile, which adds to the melancholy impression of desertion, but these have probably been dumped here to improve the going for the occasional farm vehicle.
Such quiet, layered places bring to mind a famous haiku of Bashō, composed in summer 1689:
Ah, summer grasses!There's an interesting gloss on this poem in a book by Jane Reichhold, which takes a slightly different tack to most interpretations:
All that remains
Of the warriors' dreams.
trans. R.H. Blyth
It seems that Bashō, looking over a former battleground now covered with grass, felt that he was seeing the old soldiers hurrying towards battle and victory. Another element is the old poetic exp0ression "pillow of grass", which signifies "being on a journey" in Japanese poetry. The grass cut and folded for pillows for the poorest soldiers would still contain a trace of their dreams, perhaps enough to make the dream of war rise up and grow again. Sora wrote in his diary that after writing this verse, Bashō sat down on his hat and wept. Bashō wrote the same in his account.I'm not sure of the significance of sitting on one's hat... Is this like Zen master Joshu placing his shoes on his head, I wonder, or merely a practical way of keeping your backside dry?
Bashō: the Complete Haiku, translated with an introduction, biography & notes by Jane Reichhold
The translation of haiku is a fraught business: most Western enthusiasts are unaware of the real differences between the Japanese originals and the familiar English versions, or the strict poetic conventions at work in the genre, although the idea of "seventeen syllables" arranged 5:7:5 is well known. Perhaps, for us, the close association of haiku poets with Zen combined with the popularization of Zen via the American "beats" of the 20th century post-War period has caused us to see these poems through a hepcat's dark glasses as simplisticly imagistic, loose and spontaneous word games, deceptively easy to imitate.
Here's a commentary on some issues in translation, from a brief piece by John Carley which focuses on the Bashō haiku quoted above:
Haiku, like the hokku before them, are written in Japanese as a single line (or column). Excepting some cases where the calligraphy itself is a central feature of the art, there are no spaces between characters of groups of characters; so words and phrases are distinguished by the reader from an otherwise undifferentiated text. There is no capitalisation. Such punctuation as there may be is in the form of verbalised (and therefore written) interjections which are considered as words in their own right.The Japanese word "ya" is the so-called "cutting word", indicating the break in the poetic logic, rendered by Carley as "!/:/?" (i.e. any of these punctuation marks might serve), and the words "ga" and "no" indicate the equivalent of a genitive (rendered by Carley as "'s").
The following poem is a hokku (haiku) by Basho. I give it in its generally accepted original, followed by the same text entirely in Japanese phonetic script (i.e., without ideograms) - this is separated out into individual words with the metrical phrase boundaries shown by a double line. Then comes an approximate phonetic transliteration in the Roman alphabet. And lastly there is a crude word-for-word rendering.
なつくさ | や || つわものども | が || ゆめ | の | あと
natsugusa | ya || tsuwamonodomo | ga || yume | no | ato
summer-grass | !/:/? || warrior | 's || dream | 's | mark/remainder
The gulf between Japanese and English language and poetics is quite steep and deep, widened by our very different cultures and histories, and quite difficult to cross. Rhyme, rhythm and patterns of stress, not syllable counting, are our poetic traditions -- our Way (though syllabic poetry is the norm in French). In both Britain and Japan in February, however, it's generally best to keep your shoes on your feet, and your hat on your head.