Book Review: Bassanio, Or, The English Haiku

Bassanio, Or, The English Haiku, by H. J. Isaacson

It is hard to know what to say about this book.  For one, perhaps the most notable aspect of the book is the way it is an immensely short book that has a short subject in the form of Japanese poetry that was mastered first in Japanese Buddhism regarding themes of creation and then became a popular phenomenon in the West among cultured elites.  This book represents the early response of a cultured English poetic audience to the beauty of the haiku and as such it does a good job as a very small sample of a short poetic form.  In terms of this book’s contents, this appears to be the book that a prolific poet who was able to write brief commentaries on equally brief poetry could write in the course of a light afternoon.  It is unclear how long it took for this book to be written, but it is not the sort of effort that is likely to take very long for someone who is fond of haiku and very familiar with their form and with the genre as a whole.  Although short, this book is definitely a pleasant and enjoyable brief read.

The first few pages of this very short collection discuss the way that the haiku included were the result of the work of a handful of students some seventeen years before the book was finally collected and published by someone who was apparently their professor.  After that the main body consists of a variety of haiku with short comments.  The haiku themselves are fairly typical as far as the material goes, with a lot of references to cherry trees and some references as well to fans and kabuki that ought to be familiar to those who know something about Japanese culture and which date these poems, at least some of them, to the middle of the 19th century.  Some of the lines in the poems are not even full English translations but merely transliterations because the English language at the time did not include suitable words for the Japanese concepts that the poets were attempting to convey to early adopting audiences that wanted to adopt the Japanese culture of the haiku with its Buddhist implications before it became popular enough to be mainstream.  The end of the book then includes various images that look like representations of Japanese woodcuts or tapestries.

The title of this work is admittedly somewhat mysterious.  This book certainly is an example of English haiku, and not very many of them either.  The reference to Bassanio, though, is somewhat odd.  Bassanio is, for those who are not aware, one of the protagonists of the Merchant of Venice, and after solving a riddle involving metal caskets, he wins the hand of the beautiful and clever Portia, a woman who is perhaps better than he deserves, and a woman who sees him as good enough to marry when considering the competition in a play that has ugly elements of racism and anti-Semitism.  At any rate, it is the title of this book and provides a sense of mystery to what is otherwise a far more straightforward book than it seems to think it is.  That is perhaps the fate of all early adopters, to feel so far ahead of the curve and then find that later on the curve catches up with them and haiku, instead of being immensely exotic and unfamiliar, are on the contrary very common and easy for others to recognize and enjoy.  And so it is that a book that must have seemed avant garde in its times is now an easy book to enjoy and understand.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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