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July 24, 2017 / Christina Vazou

A Cicada Shell

cicada resized

                                                                                                                        Pnyka, Athens

Poem by Matsuo Basho
A cicada shell;
it sang itself
utterly away.

The haiku is one of the most well known forms of poetry in the world. It is also one of the least understood outside of it’s home. Originating in Japan, the haiku is known for its unique structure.
This poem deals with nature. To the Japanese, the cicada is not an annoying pest that comes out in the summer, rather it is a symbol of summer and is revered by the Japanese. Like American children try to collect fireflies s in their nets, Japanese children try to catch cicadas. They even refer to it’s loud chirping as a song and would go as far as to call the insect cute. Indeed, the cicada is highly valued in Japanese culture. But what signicance does it have in Japanese art ? It’s all in the last line of the haiku +utterly away.+ Japanese poets have long used the cicada as a symol of evanescence and form. They appear from spring to late summer, and as previously mentioned, their coming is seen as a signal of summer. They are always singing, all throughout the summer, and then they disappear around early fall. In this, we see the form and order of which the Japanese are so fond. The cicada is always present during a certain period of time and always behave the same during that period of time. Then that time has ended, they vanish. Like the unfolding of the chrysanthemum, this cycle is deeply respected by the Japanese and like any subject of nature, it gains more support from (hintoism. ) But the Japanese’s reverence for this insect do not end there. As previously mentioned, the Japanese also see the cicada as a symol of evanescence. This is for the same reason that they see it as a symol of form the period of time that they are present for. Out of three hundred sixty five days, the cicada is only present for the summer ; a quarter of the year. In this haiku, Basho has used the cicada to express the revity and impermanence of summertime. As Basho was a lover of nature, we can even say that he was lamenting the end of summer.  Indeed, the last two lines seem to indicate some sadness on Basho’s part on how short the summer is. But it is not a deep sadness, as not only does this confict with the principle of karumi, it also goes against the teachings of Tchouang-tseu. It isinstead a more reflective sadness. In this poem, the last two lines also seem to say that the cicada shell that Basho found, most likely on a journey: was that of a dead cicada. Just as the summer has gone, so has the life from the cicada he found. This again rings up the overlying theme in this poem the impermanence of all things. In this poem, Basho acknowledges that all things come to an end. The cicada’s presence is as impermanent as that of summer, and both are in turn as impermanent as life are. This is a serious topic, depressing to most people, and yet Basho is able to express it  in a non depressing manner. 

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