At that time
on my pillow
under roots of mugwort,
then too may these insects
cheer me with friendly notes.
Saigyo (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991). The poem is a waka: five lines, with a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7 in the original Japanese.
The poem is preceded by an introductory note: "Written when he was feeling very downcast and discouraged and heard a cricket singing close to his pillow." (Translated by Burton Watson.) Watson provides an explanatory gloss to the poem : "Saigyo is imagining the time when he will be in his grave." Ibid, page 129.
The poem brings to mind Thomas Hardy's many poems about our life underground after death: the conversations that are for ever taking place down there among the denizens, most of whom seem quite content. Transformed (to use a typical Hardy word), yes, but still active and voluble. It is pleasant to think that, as we lie amidst the mugwort roots, we may hear the sound of singing crickets.
Alexander Jamieson (1873-1937), "The Mill, Weston Turville" (1936)
The poem also brings to mind a haiku by Issa (1763-1828):
Be the keeper of the grave-yard
When I die.
Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page xxvi.
Another pleasant thought, in my opinion. It is not yet their season, but the sound of grasshoppers and crickets in the tall grasses is an essential part of much of the year, particularly the long afternoons and evenings of summer. To use Saigyo's characterization, they provide friendly company (am I falling prey to the Pathetic Fallacy?), signaling their presence from somewhere off in the fields.
Alexander Jamieson, "The Old Moat, Weston Turville" (1930)
This may perhaps be the most famous cricket poem in Japanese literature:
Beneath the helmet
Chirps a cricket.
Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 79.
Here is an alternative translation:
Under the helmet
Basho (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1992), page 265.
The writing of the haiku was prompted by Basho's visit to Tada Shrine in Komatsu (a city in west-central Honshu, on the Sea of Japan) in September of 1689. Basho "saw the helmet of Saito Sanemori, an aged warrior killed in a battle fought at nearby Shinohara. Lest his enemies would know he was an old man, Sanemori had gone to war with his hair dyed. After the battle, his severed head was examined by an enemy general named Higuchi Jiro, who cried out, 'How piteous!'" Ibid, page 265. The helmet may still be viewed at the shrine.
The last line of the haiku is a single word: kirigirisu (cricket). Hence, Ueda's translation is literally correct, and "chirps" is an interpolation by Blyth. However, given the nature of the Japanese language, Blyth's interpolation is not without authority. A scholar of Basho writes:
"There have been three different readings. (1) A cricket was actually chirping under the helmet. (2) The poet did not actually hear the cricket but imagined it was chirping when Sanemori was killed. (3) It does not matter whether the cricket was actually chirping at the time. Each reading has its merit, but I can most readily accept the first one."
Iwata Kuro (1891-1969) (translated by Makoto Ueda), Ibid, page 266.
I'm not sure that this degree of explication is necessary (or helpful). I like the thought of a lone cricket chirping beneath the helmet on one of those hot, humid September days in Japan, as Basho looked on.
Alexander Jamieson, "Our Pond" (1937)
And how can we visit the subject of crickets and grasshoppers without bringing in Keats?
On the Grasshopper and Cricket
The poetry of earth is never dead.
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead --
That is the grasshopper's. He takes the lead
In summer luxury; he has never done
With his delights, for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never.
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The grasshopper's among some grassy hills.
John Keats, Poems (1817).
Do I have the capacity to weave a web that encompasses Saigyo, Issa, Basho, and Keats, and that ties them all together across the centuries? Alas, no. But here's a preliminary thought: "The poetry of earth is never dead. . . . The poetry of earth is ceasing never." Yes. Whether we are above ground or below, the crickets and the grasshoppers will never still their song.
Alexander Jamieson, "The Old Mill, Weston Turville" (1927)