Also known as: Basho
On high narrow road
old traveler clears wide swath,
tiny scythe glinting.
a frog leaps in
To a leg of a heron
Adding a long shank
Of a pheasant.
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) was one of the greatest Japanese poets. He elevated haiku to the level of serious poetry in numerous anthologies and travel diaries.
The name of Matsuo Basho is associated especially with the celebrated Genroku era (ca. 1680-1730), which saw the flourishing of many of Japan's greatest and most typical literary and artistic personalities. Although Basho was the contemporary of writers like the novelist and poet Ihara Saikaku and the dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon, he was far from being an exponent of the new middle-class culture of the city dwellers of that day. Rather, in his poetry and in his attitude toward life he seemed to harken back to a period some 300 years earlier. An innovator in poetry, spiritually and culturally he maintained a great tradition of the past.
The haiku, a 17-syllable verse form divided into successive phrases or lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, originated in the linked verse of the 14th century, becoming an independent form in the latter part of the 16th century. Arakida Moritake (1473-1549) was a distinguished renga poet who originated witty and humorous verses he called haikai, which later became synonymous with haiku. Nishiyama Soin (1605-1682), founder of the Danrin school, pursued Arakida's ideals. Basho was a member of this school at first, but breaking with it, he was responsible for elevating the haiku to a serious art, making it the verse form par excellence, which it has remained ever since.
Basho's poetical works, known as the Seven Anthologies of the Basho School (Basho Schichibushy), were published separately from 1684 to 1698, but they were not published together until 1774. Not all of the approximately 2,500 verses in the Basho anthologies are by Basho, although he is the principal contributor. Eleven other poets, his disciples, also contributed poems. These anthologies thus reflect composition performed by groups of poets with Basho as the arbiter of taste, injecting his comments on the poems of others, arranging his works in favorable contrast to theirs, and generally having the "last word." It was understood that he was the first poet of his group, and he expected a considerable amount of deference.
Basho was born in 1644 in Ueno, lga Province, part of present-day Mie Prefecture. He was one of six children in a family of samurai, descended, it is said, from the great Taira clan of the Middle Ages. As a youth, Basho entered feudal service but at the death of his master left it to spend much of his life in wandering about Japan in search of imagery. Thus he is known as a traveler as well as a poet, the author of some of the most beautiful travel diaries ever written in Japanese. Basho is thought to have gravitated toward Kyoto, where he studied the Japanese classics. Here, also, he became interested in the haiku of the Teitoku school, which was directed by Kitamura Kigin.
In 1672, at the age of 29, Basho set out for Edo (modern Tokyo), the seat of the Tokugawa shoguns and defacto capital of Japan. There he published a volume of verse in the style of the Teitoku school called Kai-Oi. In 1675 he composed a linked-verse sequence with Nishiyama Soin of the Danrin school, but for the next 4 years he was engaged in building waterworks in the city to earn a living. Thereafter, generous friends and admirers made it possible for him to continue a life devoted to poetic composition, wandering, and meditation, though he seems to have been largely unconcerned with money matters.
In 1680, thanks to the largesse of an admirer, Basho established himself in a small cottage at Fukagawa in Edo, thus beginning his life as a hermit of poetry. A year later one of his followers presented him with a banana plant, which was duly planted in Basho's garden. His hermitage became known as the Hermitage of the Banana Plant (Basho-an), and the poet, who had heretofore been known by the pen name Tosei, came increasingly to use the name Basho.
The hermitage burned down in 1682, causing Basho to retire to Kai Province. About this time it is believed that Basho began his study of Zen at the Chokei Temple in Fukagawa, and it has often been assumed erroneously that Basho was a Buddhist priest. He dressed and conducted himself in a clerical manner and must have been profoundly motivated by a mystical faith. Whatever experiences of tragedy or strong emotion that he suffered seem to have enlarged his perception of reality. His vision of the universe is implicit in all his best poems, and the word zen has often been applied to him and his work. His work and later life certainly could not be called worldly.
In 1683 the hermitage was rebuilt and Basho returned to Edo. But in the summer of 1684 Basho made a journey to his birthplace, which resulted in the travel diary The Weatherbeaten Trip (Nozarashi Kiko). That same year he published the haiku collection entitled Winter Days (Fuyu no Hi). It was in Winter Days that Basho enunciated his revolutionary style of haiku composition, a manner so different from the preceding haiku that the word "shofu" (haiku in the Basho manner) was coined to describe it.
Winter Days, published in Kyoto, was compiled under Basho's direction by his Nagoya disciple Yamamoto Kakei. Basho, wintering at Nagoya on his trip home to lga, had summoned his disciples to compose a haiku sequence inspired by the season. Basho set the tone for the sequence by using the words "wintry blasts" in the first poem. The progress of the seasons was one of the main inspirations for the anthology, putting it in tune with the cosmic process. Nature, the understanding of its beauty and acceptance of its force, is used by Basho to express the beauty which he observes in the world. Basho enunciates the abstract beauty, yugen, which lies just behind the appearance of the world. The word "yugen" may be understood as the inner beauty of a work of art or nature which is rarely apparent to the vulgar. And the apprehension of this beauty gives the beholder a momentary intimation, an illumination, of the deeper significance of the universe about him. This view of the universe, while not original with Basho, was in his case undoubtedly inspired by some previous experience.
In 1686 Spring Days (Haru no Hi) was compiled in Nagoya by followers of Basho, revised by him, and published in Kyoto. There is an attitude of refined tranquility in these poems representing a deeper metaphysical state. The anthology contains one of the most famous of all Basho's haiku verse: "An old pond/ a frog jumps in/ splash!" There has been much speculation on the significance of this verse, which has captured the fancy of many generations of lovers of Japanese poetry. But even the imagery alone can be appreciated by many different people at a variety of levels. Composition within the delicate confines of haiku versification definitely sets Basho off as one of the greatest mystical poets of Japan. The simplicity it exhibits is the result of the methodical rejection of much complication, not the simplicity with which one starts but rather that with which one ends.
In the autumn of 1688 Basho went to Sarashina, in present-day Nagano Prefecture, to view the moon, a hallowed autumn pastime in Japan. He recorded his impressions in The Sarashina Trip (Sarashina Kiko). Though one of his lesser travel diaries, it is a kind of prelude to his description of a journey to northern Japan a year later. It was at this time that Basho also wrote a short prose account of the moon as seen from Obasute Mountain in Sarashina. The legend of the mountain, where an old woman was abandoned to die alone, moved him also to compose a verse containing the image of an elderly woman accompanied only by the beautiful moon of Sarashina.
The Journey to Ou (Oku no Hosomichi) is perhaps the greatest of Basho's travel diaries. A mixture of haiku and haibun, a prose style typical of Basho, it contains some of his greatest verses. This work immortalizes the trip Basho made from Sendai to Shiogama on his way to the two northernmost provinces of Mutsu and Dewa (Ou). This diary reflects how the very thought of the hazardous journey, a considerable undertaking in those days, filled Basho with thoughts of death. He thinks of the Chinese T'ang poets Li Po and Tu Fu and the Japanese poets Saigyo and Sogi, all of whom had died on journeys.
Setting out early in the spring of 1689 from Edo with his disciple Kawai Sora, Basho traveled for 5 months in remote parts of the north, covering a distance of some 1,500 miles. The poet saw many notable places of pilgrimage, including the site of the hermitage where Butcho had practiced Zen meditation. The entire trip was to be devoted to sight with historical and literary associations, but Basho fell ill and again speculated on the possibility of his dying far from home. But he recovered and continued on to see the famous island of Matsushima, considered one of the three scenic wonders of Japan.
He proceeded to Hiraizumi to view ruins dating from the Heian Period. On the site of the battlefield where Yoshitsune had fallen, Basho composed a poem: "A wilderness of summer grass/ hides all that remains/ of warriors' dreams." In the province of Dewa he was fortunate enough to find shelter at the home of a well-to-do admirer and disciple. Passing on to a temple, Risshakuji, Basho was deeply inpired by the silence of the place situated amidst the rocks. It occasioned the verse which some consider his masterpiece: "Stillness!/ It penetrates the very rocks/ the shrill-chirping of the cicadas."
Crossing over to the coast of the Sea of Japan, Basho continued southwest on his journey to Kanazawa, where he mourned at the grave of a young poet who had died the year before, awaiting Basho's arrival. He continued to Eiheiji, the temple founded by the great Zen priest Dogen. Eventually there was a reunion with several of his disciples, but Basho left them again to travel on to the Grand Shrine of Ise alone. Here the account of this journey ends. The work is particularly noteworthy for the excellence of its prose as well as its poetry and ranks high in the genre of travel writing in Japanese literature. Basho continued to polish this work until 1694; it was not published until 1702.
In 1690 Basho lived for a time in quiet retirement at the Genju-an ("Unreal Dwelling") near Lake Biwa, north of Kyoto, and he wrote an account of this stay. Early in 1691 he stayed for a time in Saga with his disciple Mukai Kyorai.
As for his poetry, Waste Land (Arano) had been compiled by the disciple Kakei and published in 1689. It is the largest of the anthologies and contains a preface by Basho in which he characterizes his preceding anthologies as "flowery" and henceforth establishes a new standard of metaphysical and esthetic depth for haiku. The Gourd (Hisago) was compiled by the disciple Chinseki at Zeze in the province of Omi in 1690. It foreshadows in its excellence the mature and serious versifying which was to be the hallmark of the anthology The Monkey's Raincoat (Sarumino) in 1691. Compiled by Basho's disciples under his attentive supervision, The Monkey's Raincoat is composed of a judicious selection of haiku from the hands of many poets.
It was while Basho was staying at the hermitage in Omi during the spring and summer of 1690 that the compilation was made. The Monkey's Raincoat contains some of Basho's own finest and essential haiku. This anthology, which may be compared with the finest anthologies in the history of Japanese literature, is arranged according to the four seasons. The title is taken from the opening verse by Basho, a poem of winter: "First cold Winter rain/ even the monkey seems to want/ a tiny raincoat." Basho leads the contributors with the largest number of poems, followed by Boncho and Kyorai. But all the verses conform to Basho's tastes. The poems are linked by a subtle emotion rather than by a logical sequence, but they belong together.
In the late fall of 1691 Basho returned to Edo, where a new Banana Hermitage had been built near the site of the former one, complete with another banana plant in the garden. For the next 3 years Basho remained there receiving his disciples, discussing poetry, and helping in the compilation of another anthology, The Sack of Charcoal (Sumidawara) of 1694. The reason for the title, according to the preface, is that Basho, when asked if such a word could be used in haiku poetry, replied that it could. This anthology, together with its successor, The Sequel to the Monkey's Raincoat (Zoku Sarumino), exhibits the quality of Karumi, or lightness, an artistic spontaneity which is the fruit of a lifetime of poetic cultivation. It is a kind of sublimity reached by a truly great poet and cannot be imitated intellectually. The Sequel to the Monkey's Raincoat in 1698, appearing 4 years after Basho's death, is concerned with the seasons, traveling, and religion. It contains some of Basho's last and most mature poems.
In the spring of 1694 Basho set out for what was to be his last journey to his birthplace. At Osaka he was taken ill. Perceiving that he was near his end, Basho wrote a final poem on his own death: "Stricken while journeying/ my dreams still wander about/ but on withered fields."
Information on Basho and his works is available in Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (1955)
Kenneth Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History and Possibilities in English (1957)
Harold G. Henderson, ed. and trans., An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems from Basho to Shiki (1958)
Ryusaku Tsunoda, William Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, eds., Sources of the Japanese Tradition (1958; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1964), an anthology with commentary
R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku (2 vols., 1963)
Makoto Ueda, Zeami, Basho, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics (1965)
Nobuyuki Yuasa's introduction to his translation of Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (1966).
Source: Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 18 vols. Gale Research, 1998.