Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉 1644 – November 28, 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. He is today regarded as the master of the haiku, and one of the greatest poets in the history of Japanese literature. In his own times, Basho was particularly famous for his renga, collaborative poems in which a group of poets would take turns writing linked stanzas; today, however, Basho is known worldwide for his clear, piercing haikus.
Prior to Basho, the haiku form was generally seen as little more than a literary pastime; most haiku were constrained by formal rules and overloaded with allusions to classical literature and contemporary gossip. Basho, drawing on his own studies of Zen Buddhism, revolutionized haiku by crafting poems that focused on microscopic scenes from everyday life that touched upon enormous truths. Basho showed how volumes of insight can be compressed into just seventeen syllables. His name and his legacy have virtually become synonymous with the word "haiku" itself, and his influence not only on Japanese literature but on literature the world over is tremendous.
Bashō was born Matsuo Kinsaku in roughly 1644, somewhere near Ueno in Iga Province. His father may have been a low-ranking samurai, which would have promised Bashō a career in the military but not much chance of a notable life. However, in his childhood Bashō became a servant to Tōdō Yoshitada, who shared with Bashō a love for haikai, a sort of cooperative poetry that began with the 5-7-5 syllable format (now known as haiku) and continued with a 7-7 addition by another poet. Both Tōdō and Bashō gave themselves haigo, or haikai pen names; Bashō's was Sōbō, and he was also given the samurai name of Matsuo Munefusa. In 1662 the first extant poem by Bashō was published; in 1664 two of his hokku were printed in a compilation, and in 1665 Bashō and Yoshitada composed a one-hundred-verse renku with some acquaintances.
Unfortunately, Yoshitada's sudden death in 1666 brought Bashō's peaceful life as a servant to an end. No records of this time remain, but it is believed that Bashō gave up the possibility of samurai status and left his home. Biographers have proposed various reasons and destinations, though these remain unsubstantiated speculations. Bashō's own references to this time are utterly vague. By his own account, he was even conflicted over whether to become a full-time poet: "the alternatives battled in my mind and made my life restless." In any case, his poems continued to be published in anthologies in 1667, 1669, and 1671, and he published his own compilation of various authors, Seashell Game (貝おほひ Kai Ōi), in 1672. In roughly the spring of that year he moved to Edo to further his study of poetry.
In Edo, Bashō's poetry was quickly recognized for its simple and natural style. He gave himself the haigo of Tōsei and by 1680 he had a full-time job teaching twenty disciples who published The Best Poems of Tōsei's Twenty Disciples (桃青門弟独吟二十歌仙 Tōsei-montei Dokugin-Nijukasen), advertising their connection to Tōsei's talent. That winter, his disciples built him a rustic hut and planted a banana tree (芭蕉 bashō) in the yard, giving Bashō a new haikai and his first permanent home. He wrote hokku in tribute to the Emperor:
With this success, however, grew dissatisfaction and loneliness. He began practicing Zen meditation but apparently it did not soothe his fears. In the winter of 1682 Basho's hut burned down, and his mother died early in 1683. He then traveled to Yamura to stay with a friend. In the winter of 1683 his disciples gave him a second hut in Edo, but his spirits did not improve. Instead, after publishing another compilation, Shrivelled Chestnuts (虚栗 Minashiguri), he left Edo in 1684 on the first of four major aimless wanderings.
Traveling in medieval Japan was immensely dangerous, and at first Bashō expected to simply die in the middle of nowhere or be killed by bandits. As the trip progressed, his mood improved and he became comfortable on the road. He met many friends and grew to enjoy the changing scenery and the seasons. His poems took on a less introspective and more striking tone as he observed the world around him:
The trip took him from Edo to Mount Fuji to Ueno and Kyoto. He met several poets who called themselves his disciples and wanted his advice; he told them to disregard the contemporary Edo style and even his own Shrivelled Chestnuts, saying it contained "many verses that are not worth discussing." He returned to Edo in the summer of 1685, taking time along the way to write more hokku and comment on his own life:
When Bashō returned to Edo he happily resumed his job as a teacher of poetry at his Bashō Hut, although privately he was already making plans for another journey. The poems from his journey were published as Account of a Weather-beaten Skeleton (野ざらし紀行 Nozarashi kikō). In early 1686 he composed one of his best-remembered hokku:
Apparently this poem became instantly famous. By April the poets of Edo gathered at the Bashō Hut for a haikai no renga contest on the subject of frogs that seems to have been a tribute to Bashō's hokku, which was placed at the top of the compilation. Bashō stayed in Edo, continuing to teach and hold contests, and taking an excursion in the autumn of 1687 to the countryside for tsukimi, or moon watching, and a longer trip in 1688 when he returned to Ueno to celebrate the Lunar New Year. As long as he stayed in his epynomous hut, Bashō constantly worried about inviting over too many visitors and his perceived "idleness." At the same time, he enjoyed his life and had a subtle sense of humor, as reflected in his hokku:
Bashō's private planning for another long journey culminated on May 16, 1689, when he left with his student Kawai Sora on a trip to the Northern Provinces. Bashō and Sora headed north to Hiraizumi, which they reached on June 29. They then walked to the western side of the country, touring Kisakata on July 30, afterwards hiking back at a leisurely pace along the coastline. Basho completed his epic work based on this journey, The Narrow Road to Oku (奥の細道 Oku no Hosomichi), in 1694. It is often considered his finest achievement, including hokku such as:
Oku no Hosomichi, which translates as Road to the Interior, chronicles about 156 days of Basho and Kawai Sora's journeys, covering thousands of miles mostly on foot. Of all of Bashō's works, it is the best known, both in Japan and abroad. The text is a mixture of prose and verse, with many references to Confucius, Saigyō, ancient Chinese poetry, and even The Tale of the Heike. It manages to strike a delicate balance between all the elements to produce a powerful account. The work is primarily a travelogue, and Bashō vividly relates the unique poetic essence of each stop in his travels. Stops on his journey include the Tokugawa shrine at Nikkō, the Shirakawa barrier, the islands of Matsushima, Sakata, Kisakata, and Etchū. He and Sora parted at Yamanaka, but at Ōgaki Basho met up with a few of his other disciples for a brief time before departing again to the Ise Shrine and closing the account. After his journey, Basho spent five years working and reworking the poems and prose of Oku no Hosomichi before publishing it. Based on differences between draft versions of the account, Sora's diary, and the final version, it is clear that some events were fabricated or reordered to make a better story, but the essential poetic truth and shimmering beauty of the work remains. The Oku no Hosomichi is easily one of the most priceless works of all Japanese literature.
In the winter of 1691, Bashō returned to Edo to live in his third Bashō hut, again provided by his disciples. This time, he was not alone; he took in a nephew and his female friend, Jutei, who were both recovering from illness.
Bashō continued to be uneasy with his role as an instructor and mentor. He wrote to a friend that "disturbed by others, I have no peace of mind." He continued to make a living from teaching and appearances at haikai parties until late August of 1693, when he shut the gate to his Bashō Hut and refused to see anybody for a month. Finally, he relented after adopting the principle of karumi or "lightness," a semi-Buddhist philosophy of greeting the mundane world rather than separating himself from it. Bashō left Kyoto for the last time in the summer of 1694, spending time in Ueno and Kyoto before coming to Osaka. He became sick with a stomach illness and died peacefully, surrounded by his disciples.
Rather than sticking to the strict formulas of kigo (季語), the formal rules of traditional Japanese poetry which remain popular in Japan even today, Bashō aspired to reflect real human emotion in his poetry. Even during his lifetime, the clean style of his poetry was widely appreciated; after his death, it only increased. Several of his students compiled quotations from him about his own poetry, most notably Mukai Kyorai and Hattori Dohō.
During the eighteenth century, appreciation of Bashō's poems grew more fervent, and commentators such as Ishiko Sekisui and Moro Nanimaru went to great length to find references in his hokku to historical events, medieval books, and other poems. These commentators were often lavish in their praise of Bashō's obscure references, some of which would later turn out to be spurious. In 1793, Bashō was deified by the Shinto bureaucracy, and for a time criticizing his poetry was literally blasphemous.
It was not until the late nineteenth century that this period of unanimous passion for Bashō's poems came to an end. Masaoka Shiki, arguably Bashō's most famous critic, tore down the long-standing orthodoxy with his bold and candid objections to Bashō's style. However, Shiki was also instrumental in making Bashō's poetry accessible to leading intellectuals and the Japanese public at large. He invented the term haiku (replacing hokku) to refer to the freestanding 5-7-5 form which he considered the most artistic and desirable part of the haikai no renga.
Critical interpretation of Bashō's poems continued into the twentieth century, with notable works by Yamamoto Kenkichi, Imoto Nōichi, and Ogata Tsutomu. The twentieth century also saw translations of Bashō's poems into languages and editions around the world.
Translations of Bashō's hokku are quoted or adapted from Ueda 1992.
All links retrieved September 1, 2018.
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