Matsuo Bashō Essay - Critical Essays


At a time when many haikai poets wrote hundreds of verses during a single night’s linked-poetry session, Matsuo Bash’s lifetime accumulation of barely a thousand seventeen-syllable hokku is indicative of the seriousness with which he took his art. Constantly struggling with each of these verses, Bash established a standard of craftsmanship and profundity that would later lead to hokku’s independent status as haiku.

The hokku often singled out as Bash’s first masterpiece is his crow verse of 1681: “On a withered branch/ A crow settles itself down—/ Autumn evening.” The stark tableau of a black branch against the darkened sky is broken by the sudden movement of a crow alighting. Here, timelessness and the momentary meet, and as they merge, the wider and deeper cycle of nature’s seasonal pattern is revealed. The darkness of branch, crow, and autumn nightfall interpenetrate, suggesting the Japanese aesthetic qualities called wabi (poverty) and sabi (solitude).


What the poet has not said is as significant as his choice of theme. The traditional aristocratic themes of Japanese court poetry, the scented love notes, koto music, and tear-drenched sleeves of waka are absent. Bash reaches back to the themes and cadences of the great Tang Dynasty poets of China, Du Fu and Li Bo, to lend universality to his verse. The monochromes of the great Chan masters are suggested by the black branch and crow, and perhaps the hokku itself suggests the Chinese poetic topic, “shivering crow in leafless tree.” The merging of all in the mystery of darkness suggests Bash’s reading preferences: Daoism’s Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) and Japan’s poet-priests Saigy and Sgi. The rhythm and repetition of sounds, lost in English translation, witness Bash’s careful craftsmanship in the crow verse: kare (withered), karasu (crow), aki no kure (autumn evening).

Frog verses

One of Bash’s Edo disciples, Senka, compiled a haikai matching of verses on the subject “frog” in 1686, Kawazu awase (frog contest). Bash provided the opening verse, or hokku, the most famous of all his works: “An age-old pond—/ A frog leaps into it/ Splash goes the water.” The presence of kawazu (frog), a kigo (season word), tells the reader that it is spring. The poet sees the still surface of a murky pond, probably an ancient pond edged by rocks and reeds designed centuries earlier by some Zen priest as a setting for a temple. A sudden splash shatters the stillness of the pond, and in that disruption a new awareness of the eternal is sealed on the consciousness. Asian philosophy’s yin-yang complementarity is revealed in the relation of stillness to sound, and the Daoist theme of a void from which momentary forms of life emerge and to which they return is celebrated. The consummate demonstration of just how much can be suggested in a few words constitutes Bash’s principal contribution to the hokku and suggests the Asian “one-corner philosophy”: Sensitivity to the smallest creature or the briefest moment within the cycle of nature provides a gateway to the motion and meaning of the entire universe. In the words of Zen Buddhism, “The mountains, trees, and grasses are the Buddha.”

Zen and Daoism

Bash’s training in Zen Buddhist meditation and his donning the robes of a Buddhist priest for his travels might suggest that the key concept of Buddhism, sunyata (emptiness), would find expression in his verses. It is significant that many of Bash’s hokku focus not on a presence but rather on an “absence,” a creative emptiness that suggests “pure potentiality.” He writes of a skylark “clinging to nothing at all,” of Mount Fuji “disappearing in mist,” of flowers “without names,” and of “a road empty of travelers.” The Daoist void and Buddhist emptiness are expressed in the aesthetic quality Japanese call ygen (mysterious vagueness), a quality of the hokku akin to the vacant spaces in a Zen scroll painting.


(The entire section is 1717 words.)