This is one of Basho's best-known poems:
an octopus pot --
inside, a short-lived dream
under a summer moon.
Basho (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 201.
Some background information. "An octopus pot is an unglazed earthenware vessel made for trapping an octopus, which has the habit of escaping into a dark hole when it is alarmed. Fishermen string a number of these pots on a rope, sink them into the sea, and pull them up after octopuses have entered them." Ibid. Basho wrote the haiku while visiting Akashi, a seaside town near Kobe. The poem bears the heading: "Staying overnight in Akashi." Ibid. Thus, as is the case with nearly all haiku, Basho's verse is based on direct personal experience -- a moment in time.
Charles Ginner (1878-1952), "Dahlias and Cornflowers" (1929)
Here is the original in romaji (transliterated Japanese using Romanized spelling):
hakanaki yume wo
natsu no tsuki
Tako is "octopus." Tsubo is "pot" or "jar." Ya is a particle of emphasis, akin to "!". Hakanaki means "fleeting," "transient," "short-lived," or "ephemeral." Yume is "dream" (as a noun). Wo can be described as a "noun-following particle marking the direct object of a clause." Kodansha's Romanized Japanese-English Dictionary (1993), page 375. Natsu is "summer." Tsuki is "moon." No is another "noun-following particle," which, in this case, turns the final line into: "moon of summer" or "summer moon." It all seems fairly simple, doesn't it? Deceptively simple, as is the case with all good haiku.
Charles Ginner, "Flask Walk, Skyline" (1934)
Here are a few other English translations of the haiku, for purposes of comparison.
The octopus trap:
Under the summer moon.
R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido 1952), page 41. When considering the various translations, bear in mind that, in Japanese, there are no plural forms of nouns: singular or plural is a matter of context. Nor is there an equivalent to "a" or "the."
The jars of octopus --
under the summer moon.
Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 22.
An octopus pot:
An ephemeral dream
Under the summer moon.
Toshiharu Oseko, Basho's Haiku (Maruzen 1990), page 107.
Charles Ginner, "Hartland Point from Boscastle" (1941)
What, then, are we to make of this? What does it "mean"? The notion of "explaining" a haiku is one that I resist mightily. With apologies, I will refer to a recent post: a haiku is like a moose swimming across a lake and walking off into the deep woods. Or like the buck emerging from the lake in Robert Frost's "The Most of It." The moose and the buck are what they are.
Basho is reporting what he saw and felt. Make no mistake: there is consummate art in what he does. But there is no symbolism. And there are no "tropes" or metaphors or allegories. Basho's moment is what it is. But that does not mean that it does not have intimations and implications and depths beyond words.
Misty rain on Mount Ro, the incoming tide at Sekko --
Before you have been there, you have many regrets;
When you have been there and come back,
It is just simply misty rain on Mount Ro, the incoming tide at Sekko.
Su Tung-P'o (also known as Su Shih) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido 1949).
Charles Ginner, "Rooftops"