Matsuo Bashō Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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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Matsuo Bashō Biography (World Poets and Poetry)

Centuries of warfare among the lords and samurai of Japan’s chief clans came to an end when Tokugawa Ieyasu established a military dictatorship, the Shogunate, about 1600. With a Tokugawa shogun established in the thriving merchant city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and a ceremonial imperial court in ancient Kyoto, Japan officially closed its doors to the outside world in 1638. Such was the setting in which Matsuo Bash was born as Matsuo Munefusa in 1644 at Ueno in Iga province, only thirty miles from the imperial palace in Kyoto and two hundred miles from the powerful shogun in Edo.

Bash was one of several children born to Matsuo Yozaemon, a minor samurai nominally in the service of the Td family that ruled the Ueno area. Bash’s father had limited means and probably provided for his family by farming and giving lessons in calligraphy. At about age twelve, perhaps the year his father died, Bash entered the service of the Td family as a study companion to one of the Td heirs, Yoshitada, a youth two years his senior with a bent toward poetry. A genuine friendship with Yoshitada encouraged young Bash in the study of poetry and gave him access to one of the leading teachers of the day, Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705). When Yoshitada died suddenly in 1666, Bash, only twenty-two years of age, lost both a friend and a patron. He apparently remained in the area of Ueno and Kyoto, devoting himself to poetry in the haikai style of the Teitoku school favored by his teacher Kigin. Pursuing a career as a poet, by 1672, he had published at his own expense Kai-i (seashell game), a collection of humorous verses by local poets that he matched and commented upon as poet-teacher. Some scholars believe that during this period, Bash entered a relationship with a woman later known by her religious...

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Matsuo Bashō Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Born Matsuo Munefusa into a warrior family in Iga Province in the year 1644, as a youth Matsuo Bash (maht-suh-oh bah-shoh)—also known as simply Bash—served in the house of Td Yoshikiyo, warden of Ueno Castle, east of the ancient capital of Nara, as the personal retainer of Yoshikiyo’s son Yoshitada. Yoshitada was himself interested in the haikai, was a disciple of the poet Kitamura Kigin, and had the pen name of Sengin. Apparently this poetic activity stirred Bash’s interest, for there are early poems of his which were evaluated and corrected by Kigin.

Yoshitada died in 1666, when Bash was twenty-two. This was a turning point in Bash’s life, for he abandoned further feudal service. He seems to have gone to Kyoto, and in 1672 he was in Edo (now Tokyo), where he found employment at the local water works. By this time he had acquired a number of disciples, and one of them offered him a small residence. From that time on he devoted his life to his art. Two schools of haikai poetry were prevalent in Edo at this time, the old Teitoku School and the newer, more liberal Danrin School headed by Nishiyama Sin. Bash preferred the latter, and he associated himself with the school’s members; eventually, however, he tired of their tendency to run to empty witticisms. Bash began to form his own school around 1677, gathering around him numerous disciples who admired his attempts to merge the humor and lightness traditionally associated with haikai with a...

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Matsuo Bashō Biography (Poetry for Students)

Little information exists about Basho’s early life. The son of a low-ranking samurai, Basho is generally believed to have been born in 1644...

(The entire section is 487 words.)