The poet known as Issa was born Kobayashi Yatar in 1763 in the village of Kashiwabara, a settlement of approximately one hundred houses in the highlands of the province of Shinano. The rugged beauty of the region, especially the gemlike Lake Nojiri two miles east of the town, led to the development of a tourist community in the twentieth century, but the harsh winter climate, with snowdrifts of more than ten feet not uncommon, restricted growth in Issa’s time. The area was still moderately prosperous, however, because there was a central post office on the main highway from the northwestern provinces to the capital city of Edo (now Tokyo). The lord of the powerful Kaga clan maintained an official residence that he used on his semiannual visits to the shogun in Edo, and a cultural center developed around a theater that featured dramatic performances, wrestling exhibitions, and poetry readings.
Issa was the son of a fairly prosperous farmer who supplemented his income by providing packhorse transportation for passengers and freight. His composition of a “death-verse” suggests a high degree of literary awareness. In the first of a series of domestic tragedies, Issa’s mother died when he was three, but his grandmother reared him with deep affection until Issa’s father remarried. Although his stepmother treated him well for two years, on the birth of her first child, she relegated Issa to a role as a subordinate. When she suggested that a farmer’s son did not need formal schooling, Issa was forced to discontinue his study of reading and writing under a local master. When her baby cried, she accused Issa of causing its pain and beat him so that he was frequently marked with bruises.
According to legend, these unhappy circumstances inspired Issa’s first poem. At the age of nine or so, Issa was unable to join the local children at a village festival because he did not have the new clothes the occasion required. Playing by himself, he noticed a fledgling sparrow fallen from its nest. Observing it with what would become a characteristic sympathy for nature’s outcasts, he declared:
Come and play,little orphan sparrow—play with me!
The poem was probably written years later in reflection on the incident, but Issa displayed enough literary ability in his youth to attract the attention of the proprietor of the lord’s residence, a man skilled in calligraphy and haiku poetry, who believed that Issa would be a good companion for his own son. He invited Issa to attend a school he operated in partnership with a scholar in Chinese studies who was also a haiku poet. Issa could attend the school only at night and on holidays—sometimes carrying his stepbrother on his back—when he was not compelled to assist with farm chores, but this did not prevent him from cultivating his literary inclinations. On one of the occasions when he was assisting his father by leading a passenger on a packhorse, the traveler ruminated on the name of a mountain that they were passing. “Black Princess! O Black Princess!” he repeated, looking at the snow-topped peak of Mount Kurohime. When Issa asked the man what he was doing, he replied that he was trying to compose an appropriate haiku for the setting. To the astonishment of the traveler, Issa proclaimed: “Black Princess is a bride—/ see her veiled in white.”
Issa’s studies were completely terminated when his grandmother died in 1776. At his stepmother’s urging, Issa was sent to...
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