What is Matsuo Bashō really writing about in “Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel”?

In “Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel,” Matsuo Basho presents a poetic travelogue in which he reflects on poetic composition, oneness with nature, and the pursuit of artistic excellence.

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In his poetic essay “Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel,” Matsuo Basho presents a travelogue of sorts, yet he does not concentrate merely on the sights he sees and the places he visits. Rather, he reflects on the composition of poetry, on becoming one with nature, and on his pursuit of...

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In his poetic essay “Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel,” Matsuo Basho presents a travelogue of sorts, yet he does not concentrate merely on the sights he sees and the places he visits. Rather, he reflects on the composition of poetry, on becoming one with nature, and on his pursuit of artistic excellence.

Basho begins his essay with a meditation on the spirit that is within him, “a wind-swept spirit” that leads him to write poetry, first merely for amusement but later as a “lifelong business” and passion (71). Sometimes this spirit is “puffed up with pride,” but other times it is dejected and ready to give up (71). It never finds peace in its poetry but is always doubting, yet it cannot stop writing because of its “unquenchable love of poetry” (71). With this short reflection, Basho captures the struggle many poets experience between the need to write and their frustration at their failures (or at least what they perceive as their failures).

Basho continues by commenting that to find excellence in art, one must “obey nature” and “be one with nature” all year round (71). The mind must recognize the wonder and beauty of the world and allow nature to lead. Here, Basho begins his travelogue, for in October, he sets out on his journey. Along the way, he both calls to mind the poems of others and composes his own. Poetry marks nearly every phase of the trip, for the spirit within him cannot help but write (and appreciate what others have written).

When Basho reaches Yoshino, however, the place of the cherry blossoms, he discovers to his dismay that he “was not able to compose a single poem.” The beauty of the blossoms has overwhelmed him, and he sinks into one of his periods of dejection, feeling “utterly devoid of poetic success” (84).

Basho regains his poetry shortly after, and as he continues to travel, he finds that it is “a great pleasure to see the marvelous beauties of nature” and to meet others who are also devoted to the “search for artistic truth” (85). He is delighted when he encounters anyone who understands “artistic elegance,” viewing these as fellow travelers, and sometimes he even discovers a “genius hidden among weeds and bushes, a treasure lost in broken tiles” (85). Poets need companions who can appreciate their joys and struggles as they pursue their art.

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