Article abstract: Bashō is considered one of Japan’s greatest poets, especially as master of the haiku. While the haiku was already established as a poetry form prior to the Tokugawa era, Bashō is credited with reinvigorating the form at a time when it was in severe decline.
Matsuo Bashō was born Matsuo Kinsaku in Ueno, in the province of Iga, near Kyoto, on the island of Honshu in Japan. His father, Matsuo Yozaemon, was a samurai of minor rank and a teacher of calligraphy. His mother was also of samurai stock. He had an elder brother and four sisters. When Bashō was a young boy, he became a page at Ueno Castle and was a companion to the son of the lord of the castle, Tōdō Yoshitada. The two boys had a common interest in poetry, and they no doubt influenced each other. During this time, Bashō assumed a samurai’s name, Matsuo Musafune. This relationship with Lord Yoshitada’s son came to an untimely end when the young lord died in 1666. Grief-stricken, Bashō left his service at Ueno Castle and began to devote more of his time and commitment to his poetry. While the later years of his youth are not well documented, it appears that Bashō spent much of his time wandering about Kyoto and studying with masters of literature there. At some time during this period, he abdicated his samurai status.
In his late twenties, probably around 1672, Bashō left the Kyoto area and settled in Edo. Why he moved is not clear, and he apparently had a difficult time getting established. Around 1677, he began to gather around himself a circle of pupils, many of whom would become his disciples and perpetuate his style. During this period, Bashō gained some reputation as a master of haiku, the brief seventeen-syllable verse form for which he is best known. In 1680, he was the recipient of a cottage which had banana trees planted on the land, and soon he was known as the “banana tree man,” hence the name change to Bashō. Thought to have been a gift of Sampū, an admirer, the hut was located near the Sumida River in an isolated area. Two years later, the Bashō hut burned, to be replaced the following year. That same year, his mother died in Ueno. Although some early biographers have suggested that Bashō may have had a mistress and one or more children, such a relationship cannot be clearly documented.
Bashō’s life’s work divides itself rather naturally into five stages, beginning with his earliest extant haiku written at age eighteen, in 1662, and lasting about ten years. For some years, his work showed evidence of change and maturity as he sought to master new techniques. In 1684, Bashō became a Buddhist priest and began a series of pilgrimages. His first important journey is recorded in Nozarashi kikō (1698; The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, 1959). Most of Bashō’s finest haiku are written in his travel journals, and these diaries are themselves of high literary quality. Perhaps the best idea of his physical appearance is to be found in a wooden image, by an unknown carver; Bashō is in the dress of a Zen monk and has a typically Japanese expression of serenity and wisdom. Between the years 1686 and 1691 Bashō was at the peak of his career, producing five poetic diaries containing haiku: Kashima kikō (1687; A Visit to the Kashima Shrine, 1965), Sarachina Kikō (1704; A Visit to Sarashina Village, 1957), Oku no hosomichi (1694; The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1933), Saga nikki (1691; the saga diary), and Oi no kubumi (1709; Manuscript in My Knapsack, 1962). In addition, he was overseer for an anthology of haiku poems, Sarumino (1691; Monkey’s Raincoat, 1973).
Prolific output of poetry is not, in itself, a sign of quality; indeed, compared to other haiku poets, Bashō is far from being the most prolific. What was characteristic of the work during this peak period was the distinctive style that Bashō developed. While he would continue to borrow from and allude to classical Chinese literature, as poets before him had done, he would continue to refine techniques that he had established in his earlier writing. In much of the poetry of this period, however, the unique quality of sabi, or loneliness, appeared. Always at the heart of this “loneliness” is the recognition of the fragility and transience of some manifestation of life merging into the vastness of nature. As Makoto Ueda has noted, the haiku that use sabi by implication, if not more explicitly, centers on “the merging of the...
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