My scissors for a while
Stop their motion.
So there is plenty of evidence that this poem is by Sōseki. Yet the Buson misattribution has spread widely. As with the “two autumns” poem, other translators have also attributed the “white chrysanthemum” poem to Buson incorrectly. For example, in Japanese Haiku (New York: Peter Pauper Press, 1955, published just three years after Blyth’s book), Peter Beilenson attributes the poem to Buson and translates it as follows, except that Beilenson used all capitals (page 43):
white chrysanthemum . . .
Robert Hass also perpetuated the error in The Essential Haiku (Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco, 1994), page 121, repeating Blyth’s translation, but omitting the comma and lowercasing the last two lines. More research would no doubt uncover attributions to Buson in other sources, but I doubt that any of them predate Blyth (the poem does not appear under Buson’s or Sōseki’s name in Asatarō Miyamori’s An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern, Tokyo: Maruzen, 1932, nor in Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku, New York: Doubleday, 1958, which was an expansion of The Bamboo Broom, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934). In any event, the repetition of this error by various translators suggests that they used prior translations as their sources rather than original Japanese sources. This contrasts with books of Buson translations by Yuki Sawa and Edith Shiffert and by W. S. Merwin and Takako Lento, which do not contain the “white chrysanthemum” poem—they both used original Japanese sources.
How this error came to light, at least for me, was that I was recently surprised to see the poem attributed to Sōseki when I thought it was by Buson. In early March 2018 I was reading the results and commentary for the international section of the 21st Mainichi Haiku Contest (see the PDF file), in which Pamela A. Babusci won first prize. In the commentary, she is quoted as providing two favourite haiku, the first of which was the “two autumns” poem, and the second of which was the “white chrysanthemum” poem. The Mainichi contest commentary attributed the “two autumns” poem to Shiki, which I knew to be correct, but then attributed the “white chrysanthemum” poem to Natsume Sōseki, which puzzled me, because at the time I still thought the poem was Buson’s. In fact, I wrote to Pamela and said I thought she might be in error in saying the latter poem was by Sōseki. She emailed me on 6 March 2018 to say that she “put Buson for both haiku” but that “the Japanese judges changed them both.”
This correction was my first inkling that many of us in the West have been wrong all along in thinking the “white chrysanthemum” poem is Buson’s. And of course the Mainichi contest organizers were right to make such a correction, and the change itself accentuates with authority that the poem is Sōseki’s, not Buson’s. A change such as this highlights how vulnerable we are in English to translation and attribution errors by R. H. Blyth and other early haiku translators whose work has entered our Western poetic consciousness. I suspect that errors such as these are rare, which is why this new example is worth mentioning, but the situation should remind Western readers of haiku translations to be on guard.
We may well ask what other attribution errors are lurking in Blyth’s hallowed haiku books. My understanding is that he drafted them partly while incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan during World War II, with his Japanese wife bringing materials to him from outside the prison when she could, and that his extensive library was entirely destroyed during an air raid during the war (the library he developed since the war was donated to D. T. Suzuki’s Matsugaoka Library in Kita Kamakura shortly after Blyth died in 1964). Blyth’s wartime circumstances might easily explain the limited availability of sources for him to check. Also, given the monumental scope of Blyth’s four-volume Haiku books, and the two-volume History of Haiku books, it is understandable that a few errors crept in. So I do not wish to hold Blyth’s feet to the fire here. However, it is clear that we cannot take Blyth’s attributions and other statements as being infallible. In this case, the “white chrysanthemum” poem is perhaps one of the better-known poems attributed to Buson, and thus among “Buson’s” most famous haiku. But it is not by Buson at all.
Until now, if I were going to quote the “white chrysanthemum” poem, I too would have attributed it to Buson, just as Pamela Babusci did. In fact, I already have. In Frogpond 18:3, Autumn 1995, page 39, I published a haibun titled “Scissors” that began by quoting this poem—attributed to Buson (an error that I’ve now corrected on my website). Both Pamela and I were victims of Blyth’s error, perpetuated by Hass, as are countless other Western readers who have previously had every reason to believe the poem was Buson’s. A search online finds thousands of links to this poem in English with attributions to Buson, so the error has spread widely—as with the “two autumns” attribution error.
To conclude, I find it intriguing that both the “two autumns” poem and the “white chrysanthemum” poem have connections to Sōseki. Shiki wrote the “two autumns” poem for Sōseki, his close friend, and the “white chrysanthemum” poem is by Sōseki. And Blyth mistakenly attributed both poems to the same erroneous author. This makes me wonder if Blyth was using some source related to Sōseki that was incorrect or if Blyth read that text (in Japanese) incorrectly. I know, too, of a classical music composition by Alexander Elliott Miller titled “Two Autumns” that also connects these two poems (both using Robert Hass’s translations, among five in Miller’s composition; the sheet music and an explanation of the texts is available in PDF form at Miller’s website). Though Miller cites Hass as providing permission for his translation, the “two autumns” poem is correctly attributed to Shiki, which suggests that Hass had offered the correction (I, perhaps among others, had alerted Hass to the “two autumns” error, and Hass acknowledged the error to me in May of 2010). But the “white chrysanthemum” poem is incorrectly listed as being by Buson. In any case, this is a further example of a connection between these two poems. Indeed, it feels like something is afoot here—the entanglement of Shiki, Sōseki, and (by accident) Buson seems tantalizingly more than coincidental. We may never know. But the situation should give us pause. We can at least step forward with the understanding that this famous chrysanthemum poem is by Natsume Sōseki rather than Buson.
from the guest, the host—
halfway up the stair—
—Elizabeth Searle Lamb