Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1904

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...

(The entire section contains 1904 words.)

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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 temporal into the eternal, of the mutable into the indestructible, of the tiny and finite into the vast and infinite, out of which emerges a primeval lonely feeling shared by all things in this world.”

Bashō’s haiku are inseparable from the frequent journeys that occasioned their composition. In perhaps the most relaxed, even carefree, period of Bashō’s life, he traveled to Kashima, a small town some fifty miles to the east of Edo. Bashō’s reason for the journey was to view the harvest moon. This journey provided the materials for A Visit to the Kashima Shrine. The first half of the journal describes the trip, and the latter half is a collection of poems by Bashō and others from the area of Kashima. This journal has as its primary motif the appreciation of the beauty of nature and the idea that through this appreciation one can have union with poets of the past. Objectivity perhaps best describes Bashō’s eight haiku in this volume.

In 1687, Bashō undertook a long journey westward which resulted in Manuscript in My Knapsack. This volume records the first half of the journey that extended into 1688. In this, one of his longer journals, Bashō records his travel from Edo westward to his hometown of Ueno and thence to the coastal town of Akashi. The prose style resembles that of the earlier journal A Visit to the Kashima Shrine in using restrained language. The distinctive feature of Manuscript in My Knapsack is that in it Bashō makes a theoretical statement as an aesthetic primitivist, an advocate of a “return to nature.” In this aspect, it is something of an extension of the earlier Kashima journal. While Bashō retains the modest tone characteristic of his writing, he nevertheless exhibits a clear sense of self-confidence.

During the same year, 1688, Bashō’s shortest journal recorded his travel to Sarashina Village. The half of the journal devoted to poetry contains eleven haiku by Bashō. Although Bashō had presumably gone through a period of having nothing new to say, he apparently found in the fresh, undeveloped, natural beauty of Sarashina a source for poetry that he had not considered appropriate earlier. The Sarashina journal provides an opportunity to record a new stage in Bashō’s development.

Struck with this new dimension of nature, Bashō’s next journey was northward, to the least developed area of Japan. This 1694 volume, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is the longest of the journals. What is particularly interesting about the diary is its metaphorical title: It is a record of a spiritual journey as well as a literal one. While it is a journey in quest of the best of nature, it is also a search for what Bashō believes man has lost in the contemporary world.

The 1691 journal Saga nikki is, in some ways, most like an ordinary diary in that each entry of an approximately two-week visit in Saga is dated. In other ways, it is clearly akin to the other travel journals, especially in the central theme of forgetting one’s material poverty and enjoying a serene, leisurely life attuned to nature.

Early in the summer of 1691, at the peak of the Bashō-style haikai, Mukai Kyorai and Nozawa Bonchō, under Bashō’s guidance, published an anthology of haikai, Monkey’s Raincoat. The volume is especially significant because it lent credence to the haikai as a serious art form.

In 1692, the third Bashō hut was built, and the next year Bashō closed his gate and did not receive visitors for a time. In the summer of 1694, however, the poet began what was to have been a long journey, although one of his haiku documents his awareness of approaching death. He became increasingly ill, and, in early autumn, surrounded by some of his disciples and relatives, Bashō died in Osaka.

Summary

Matsuo Bashō is without question among the greatest, if not the greatest, of the haikai poets that Japan has produced. Hundreds of years after his death, his reputation remains secure. Many of his pupils perpetuated his style and passed on the tradition to others: In bringing to new life the artificial, steadily dying form of the earlier haikai, he raised the genre to a new height; indeed, he founded a new genre.

Bashō was a master in his use of season words; in his use of associations with historical places or situations, and with historical sources for materials; and in his parody of old poems. Especially noteworthy were his style of expression and his ability to evoke the quality of sabi. Bashō also excelled as a critic and is considered a major contributor to Japanese literary aesthetics.

Bibliography

Aitken, Robert. A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen. New York: Weatherhill, 1979. The introduction provides a concise sketch of Bashō’s life and a discussion of the historical development of the haiku. The main body of the book is given to commentary on a number of Bashō’s haiku, with some comparison of various English translations of a given poem.

Caws, Mary Ann, ed. Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986. Earl Miner’s chapter on Bashō has as its main thesis that Bashō has not been known in the West as he would have wished to be known. The focus of his discussion is the fact that the Western concept of mimesis, what is real and what is fiction, differs from its Eastern counterpart, opening the way to misunderstanding.

Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958. Based on an earlier work, The Bamboo Broom (1934). The author makes an excellent translation of about seventy of Bashō’s haiku. Strives to retain the original syllable pattern while avoiding distortion of English grammar in doing so.

Keene, Donald. World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976. In a chapter devoted to the haikai poetry of Bashō, Keene evaluates Bashō’s reputation in his lifetime and then outlines Bashō’s life, discussing haiku that are based on particular situations. The narrative explains, interprets, and comments on noteworthy examples of Bashō’s work.

Ogata, Tsutomu. “Five Methods for Appreciating Basho’s Haiku.” Acta Asiatica: Bulletin of the Institute of Eastern Culture 28 (1976): 42-61. An elucidation and identification of methods for appreciating Bashō’s haiku.

Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Basho. New York: Twayne, 1970. In a biographical sketch of Bashō, the author traces five stages of development in Bashō’s literary career, giving representative haiku from each period with commentary of each one. Excellent bibliography, but many of the works are in Japanese.

Ueda, Makoto. Zeami, Basho, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics. The Hague: Mouton, 1965. Notes the influence of Zen on Bashō’s haiku and their modernity. Discusses Bashō’s poetic theory on such concepts as permanence and change.

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