“Old Pond” is possibly the best-known haiku in English translation. Written sometime between 1686 and 1691, it is a product of the poet’s peak period. During this time, a number of the poems focused on the manifestation of sabi, that objective, nonemotional loneliness so difficult to define clearly in English, or in Japanese, for that matter.
This haiku follows the classical pattern of a 5-7-5 arrangement of the seventeen syllables in three lines:
5Furuike ya Old pond:7Kawazu tobikomu frog jumps in5Mizu no oto water-sound.
A number of translations have been made of this famous haiku. W. G. Aston’s rendition is perhaps among those closest to the actual Japanese wording, and it exemplifies the notion of juxtaposing images without using connecting words.
The colon at the end of the first line denotes the ya, or the “cutting word” that separates the subject from the rest of the poem, leaving the reader to make an appropriate association between the elements. The first image here is an ancient, ageless, primeval natural phenomenon, the pond. Possibly for centuries it has existed in stillness—infinite, timeless. In an instant, that quiet is broken by the intrusion of the splash of a small, living (and hence recent, immediate) object. This contrast elicits the accepting, perhaps welcomed, feeling of loneliness as the two elements make contact. Harold G. Henderson provides a Zen interpretation by attributing symbolism to the frog’s leap: The jump into the pond symbolizes a sudden leap to satori, or spiritual enlightenment.