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Matsuo Bashō 1644?-1694

(Samurai name Munefusa; also wrote under pseudonyms Tōsei and Fūrabo) Japanese poet, travel writer, essayist, and critic.

Bashō is considered the foremost Japanese haiku poet and one of the leading figures in Japanese literature. He elevated the seventeen-syllable poem form—which had previously been considered an exercise in...

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Matsuo Bashō 1644?-1694

(Samurai name Munefusa; also wrote under pseudonyms Tōsei and Fūrabo) Japanese poet, travel writer, essayist, and critic.

Bashō is considered the foremost Japanese haiku poet and one of the leading figures in Japanese literature. He elevated the seventeen-syllable poem form—which had previously been considered an exercise in wordplay—to high art in his numerous anthologies and travel diaries. In his haiku Bashō drew upon the more serious modes of Chinese poetry and combined the ideals of “lightness of touch” (karumi) and Zen Buddhism to rise above the stifled nature of his predecessors' works in the genre. In haiku written in plain and almost purely descriptive language, he showed that the form could be used to evoke deep emotion and convey complex spiritual ideas. The simple images he used capture evanescent moments of human experience that point to a deeper reality. Bashō's numerous travel diaries, written in prose and verse, offer insights not only into the natural surroundings he describes but also into the beauty that lies behind them. His best work shows the clear influence of Zen, as he speaks of the beauty and force of nature, the wonders of ordinary existence, the fleetingness of all things, and the presence of the eternal in the concrete world.

Biographical Information

The details of Bashō's early life are unclear, but it is believed he was born in 1644 in Ueno, Iga Province, part of the present-day Mie Prefecture. He was one of six children of a low-ranking samurai. In his youth he entered the feudal service, taking the samurai name Munefusa and becoming a page to Todo Yoshitada, a young samurai two years his senior who shared his interest in the verse form haikai no renga. On his master's unexpected death in 1666 Bashō abandoned his aspirations as a samurai, and is thought to have journeyed to Kyoto, where he studied the Japanese classics. In Kyoto he became interested in the haiku of the Teitoku school. His verses were published in several anthologies, and he compiled Kai Ōi (The Seashell Game; 1672), an anthology of haiku by thirty poets, which were written for a contest.

In 1672 Bashō set out for Edo (modern-day Tokyo). For some years he was engaged in building waterworks in the city to earn a living. In 1675, under the pseudonym Tōsei he composed a linked-verse sequence with Nishiyama Soin of the Danrin school. His reputation as a haiku master increased, and generous friends and disciples made it possible for him to lead a life devoted to poetic composition. He established himself in a small cottage, where one of his followers presented him with a banana plant, which is called bashō in Japanese. The tree, a rarity at the time, was planted in Bashō's garden, and so pleased the poet that he thereafter assumed “Bashō” as his pen name.

In 1682 the Bashō-an Hermitage, as it was known, burned down, and Bashō moved to Kai Province. It is believed that around this time, feeling a sense of purposelessness despite his artistic success, he began his study of Zen at the Chokei Temple in Fukagawa and embraced an ascetic lifestyle. Two years later, seeking an exercise in spiritual and artistic discipline, he set off on foot on a pilgrimage across the Japanese countryside. He recorded the details of his physically demanding journey in his first prose and poetry diary, Nozarashi Kikō (The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton; 1685). Bashō continued to make similar pilgrimages for the next ten years, the details of which he recounted in numerous travel sketches using prose and verse, such as Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North; 1689), one of his greatest works. He lived for a time in quiet retirement at the Genjū-an (“Unreal Dwelling”) near Lake Biwa, north of Kyoto, and his account of this stay there is considered one of his finest prose essays, or haibun. In 1691 Bashō returned to Edo, where a new Bashō-an Hermitage had been built near the site of the former one. For the next three years he received many disciples and spent his time discussing poetry. However, he struggled with a spiritual conflict between his religious desire to transcend worldly life and his life as a haiku master and its attendant success. In the spring of 1694 Bashō set out on what was to be his last journey, a trip to his birthplace. Ill health forced him to stop in Osaka, where he died of a stomach ailment in the summer of 1694.

Major Works

Bashō's poems appeared in several anthologies of haikai, or light-hearted linked verse written by a team of poets, between 1667 and 1671, contributing to his growing reputation as a poet. The first anthology of haikai complied by Bashō himself, Kai Ōi, includes poems written by thirty poets for a haiku contest. Such contests, which matched individual hokku, or opening lines of linked verse sequences, led to hokku, or haiku, to be adopted and respected as an autonomous form. In the KaiŌi volume, Bashō comments on the thirty pairs of haiku and in doing so reveals his considerable poetic imagination and wit. In 1675 Bashō contributed verses to an anthology of renku (also renga), a more serious form of linked verse. Thereafter his work appeared more and more frequently in linked-verse anthologies and he judged numerous contests and wrote commentaries on the work of other poets. Bashō's work prior to 1680 was largely fashioned after that of his teachers in the Danrin movement, which sought to move beyond courtly humor and witticisms and describe the realities of everyday experience.

After 1680 Bashō's works began to show stylistic innovations that distinguished them from the verses of the Danrin school. His 1683 anthology of haikai verse, Minashiguri (Shriveled Chestnuts; 1683), marks a clear departure from other Japanese verse with its rejection of base wit and use of highly articulate diction reminiscent of Chinese poetry. The appearance of Fuyu no Hi (A Winter Day; 1685), a collection of five renku inspired by the season, with its markedly lyrical tone, signaled the beginning of Bashō's mature poetic style. In fact the verses were considered so different from previous haiku that the word shofu (haiku in the Bashō manner) was coined to describe them. In Bashō's contributions to the volume, Nature's grandeur and force is used to express the beauty the poet observed in the world. Bashō also enunciates the abstract beauty, or yugen, which lies just behind the appearance of the world. Bashō's diary of his first pilgrimage, The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, although not one of his best prose works, also reveals a shift in style and seriousness of subject. The dominant theme of that work is the search for enlightenment.

In 1686 the anthology Haru no Hi (A Spring Day) was compiled by followers of Bashō, revised by him, and published in Kyoto. These poems express the attitude of refined tranquility that seems to belie a deeper reality. The anthology contains perhaps Bashō's most famous haiku: “An old pond / a frog jumps in / splash!” The simplicity of the verse is the result of a methodical rejection of complication; as one critic has noted, “not the simplicity with which one starts but rather that with which one ends.”

In the late 1680s Bashō published four travel journals, Kashima Kikō (A Visit to the Kashima Shrine;1687); Sarashina Kikō (A Visit to Sarashina Village; 1688); Oi no Kobumi (The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel; 1688); and The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The last of these is perhaps the best of Bashō's travel diaries and one of his greatest literary achievements. It uses a mixture of haiku and haibun, a prose style in the fashion of the haiku. According to the critic Makoto Ueda, the work is based on the idea of sabi (literally “loneliness”), the concept that one attains perfect spiritual serenity by immersing oneself in the ego-less, impersonal life of Nature. The idea of the complete absorption of one's ego into the vastness of the universe is an underlying theme in much of his poetry written during his mature years, including that which appeared in the anthologies Sarunimo (The Monkey's Raincoat; 1691) and Sumidawara (A Sack of Charcoal; 1693). However, in these last works the seriousness is tempered by the principle of “lightness,” which makes it possible for one to attain detachment from the world while engaging in it, recognizing and accepting with joy the impermanence of life. The later poems are characterized by a lightheartedness that takes a detached and smiling attitude to daily existence while acknowledging the extraordinariness of the world.

Bashō's major poetical works, known as the Seven Anthologies of the Bashō School, were published separately from 1684 to 1698, but they were not published together until 1774. Not all of the approximately 2,500 verses in the Bashō anthologies are by Bashō, although he is the principal contributor. As in the earlier anthologies, in these volumes Bashō offers in addition to his own work comments on the verses of the other writers.

Critical Reception

Bashō had earned a considerable reputation as a poet by 1680, when his work began to appear in numerous anthologies. In early 1680 he apparently brought out a small book of his own verses that he distributed to his friends, which only haiku masters were permitted to do. His increasing renown and status as a literary master as well as his material and artistic success caused him to have several crises, as he struggled with his spiritual desire to transcend worldly affairs and his vocation as a poet. Some critics have argued that the principles of sabi and lightness that appear in Bashō's later work are a result of his attempt to reconcile this inner struggle.

Bashō continued to be venerated as one of the great masters of Japanese letters for several centuries after his death, and any negative criticism of his poetry was considered sacrilegious. He was deified in 1793 by the Shinto hierarchy. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when many Japanese began to embrace Western notions of individualism and the emphasis on the poet's personal emotions, some commentators began to publish adverse remarks on his work. However, the negative criticism had the effect of inspiring debate on the universality of Bashō's use of haiku, and Japanese critics began to view his work not only in the context of the haikai tradition but for its enduring interest and appeal. In the twentieth century, Western poets and commentators began taking a serious interest in Bashō and the haiku form in general. American poets including Ezra Pound and Sam Hamill have taken their inspiration from the raw simplicity of Bashō's verses, and critics have offered almost unanimous praise for his elegant style and lack of pretension in discussing spiritual matters. Many have paid particular attention to the influence of Zen in his work, which reveals itself in a love for his fellow human beings and the natural world despite their impermanence. In the East and in the West, Bashō continues to be praised as a poet of supreme delicacy of sentiment, the progenitor of modern haiku, and the greatest poet ever to write in that form.

Principal Works

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Kai Ōi [The Seashell Game; contributor] (poetry anthology) 1672

Minashiguri [Shriveled Chestnuts; contributor] (poetry anthology) 1683

Fuyu no Hi [A Winter Day] (poetry) 1685

Nozarashi Kikō [The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton] (poetry and travel diary) 1685

Haru no Hi [A Spring Day; contributor] (poetry anthology) 1686

Hatsukaishi Hyōchū [Critical Notes on the New Year's Renku] (criticism) 1686

Kashima Kikō [A Visit to the Kashima Shrine] (poetry and travel diary) 1687

Sarashina Kikō [A Visit to Sarashina Village] (travel diary) 1688

Oi no Kobumi [The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel] (poetry and travel diary) 1688

Oku no Hosomichi [The Narrow Road to the Deep North] (poetry and travel diary) 1689

Genjūan no Ki [An Essay on the Unreal Dwelling] (essay) 1691

Saga Nikki [Saga Diary] (journal) 1691

Sarumino [The Monkey's Raincoat; contributor] (poetry anthology) 1691

Aki no yo Hyōgo [Autumn Night Critical Commentaries] (criticism) 1693

Sumidawara [A Sack of Charcoal; contributor] (poetry anthology) 1693

Teihon Bashō Tasei (poetry) 1959

Kohon Bashō Zenshu. 10 vols. (poetry, travel diaries, criticism) 1959-69

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (travel sketches) 1966

A Haiku Journey: “The Narrow Road to the Far North” and Selected Haiku (poetry and travel writing) 1975

The Monkey's Straw Raincoat and Other Poetry of the Bashō School [contributor] (poetry anthology) 1981

On Love and Barley: Haiku of Bashō (poetry) 1985

Back Roads to Far Towns (poetry and travel diary) 1986

Basho's Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages: Two Works (poetry and travel writing) 1996

Harold Gould Henderson (essay date 1934)

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SOURCE: “Matsuo Bashō,” in The Bamboo Room: An Introduction to Japanese Haiku, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934, pp. 18-42.

[In the following excerpt, Henderson examines twenty-seven haiku by Bashō, mostly from the poet's mature years. The critic maintains that these poems are characterized by an all-embracing love for humans and the mutable world, a concentration on the beauty of the Absolute, and simple images suggestive of deep meaning and unfathomable mysteries.]

Shortly after 1600 the chaos of civil war that had prevailed for centuries was brought to an end, and Tokugawa Iyeyasu established the shogunate that was to impose peace on Japan for two hundred and fifty years. In 1638, under the third shogun, a completely pacified Japan was officially isolated from the world, and in 1644 Matsuo Bashō was born.

Bashō would probably have been a poet in any age, but that in which he found himself was peculiarly favorable for the development and appreciation of his genius. Life for all was once more stable and secure; for the first time a rich and leisured bourgeoisie was being born; and samurai—men of the warrior class—who could no longer turn their energies to the arts of war, naturally turned them to the arts of peace. And of these arts poetry was one of the most popular.

At the age of eight Bashō, who was of samurai blood, was sent to the castle of his daimyo, the lord of Iga. There he became the page of the daimyo's son, Lord Sengin, a lad just a few years older than Bashō himself. For fourteen years the two lived in close companionship, with Sengin not so much Bashō's master as his friend and guide and older brother. From Sengin Bashō learned the art of poetry as it was then known, and together they studied the hokku of the day; especially the school of Teitoku, of course, and also that of Kigin. At the end of the fourteen years Lord Sengin suddenly died, and within two months Bashō had gone to the monastery at Koyasan and had ‘renounced the world.’

There can be no doubt that Bashō was utterly broken up at the death of his much-loved master, and that the impression it made influenced his entire life. Some twenty years later Bashō went back to Iga in the spring, and stood again under the cherry trees where he and Sengin had worked and played so long, and with a heart too full to make a normal poem all he could say was:

Oh, many, many things
                    Are brought to mind
                                        By cherry-blossoms—

However, though Bashō had definitely given up ‘the world,’ this did not mean that he confined himself to a monastery, and we next hear of him at Kyoto studying haiku under Kigin. When Kigin went to Yedo (the present Tokyo) Bashō followed him; and two years later, when he was thirty, Bashō started a school of his own, taking as his first pupil a young boy who afterward became famous in his own right under the name of Kikaku.

Bashō took his poetry seriously, and soon made a name for himself as a haiku-master; but his work, though sincere, was not at first radically different from that of his contemporaries. Then, when he was about thirty-eight, something happened to him. He announced that his life, simple as it was, was ‘too worldly’; he invented a new form of haiku; and he began the serious study of Zen—the Buddhist sect which gives most attention to contemplation and to what may be called natural mysticism. It was after this, in the last ten years of his life, that nearly all of Bashō's great poetry was written.

Bashō's first poem in the new style was the famous:

                    On a leafless bough
A crow is sitting;—autumn,
                    Darkening now—

This differs from all previous haiku in that the mood is produced by a simple description. It is a plain statement of facts which make a picture. There is no expression of feeling, and, on the surface at least, no use of simile or metaphor.

In reading Bashō's later poems the important thing to remember is that he had an all-embracing love for human beings and the things of ‘this passing world,’ and that he was so imbued with the spirit of Zen that to him everything was an expression of ultimate Reality. The new spirit that Bashō put into haiku can in some ways be best illustrated by direct comparison with the earlier seventeen-syllable poems. Nearly every poet had at some time or other celebrated the cherry blossoms of Yoshino, and none more successfully than Teishitsu. … But when Bashō says:

                    Thin shanks! Even so,
While I have them:—blossom-covered
                    Hills of Yoshino!

he is saying something quite new. This is not merely: ‘How beautiful they are!’ As it is haiku, its full meaning cannot be put into words, and its connotations have to be felt rather than clearly thought out. Of course it is an expression of the everlasting human struggle for beauty, against odds; for the poem is impersonal in that Bashō is thinking of other strugglers as well as of himself. But behind it all is Bashō's eternal concentration on the beauty of the Absolute which makes the poem a deeper allegory still.

If this were the only poem that Bashō had ever written one might wonder whether the poet really put into it all the deep meaning that one finds. But the proof is overwhelming that, consciously or unconsciously, Bashō did put into his later haiku all the meaning that anyone can find, and probably much more. Some of them are direct records of semi-mystic experience. One day while he was journeying through Kiso, Bashō lost his way in a fog in the mountains. For what seemed like hours he felt his way along a narrow and dangerous path, at each step getting nearer and nearer to the sound of a rushing torrent far below him. Trembling, he turned a corner; the fog was blown away, and he was out in bright sunlight at the head of a little rustic bridge suspended over a deep gorge. Looking at the blue sky above, at the white water below, at the tangled grasses and the vine-wrapped trees that climbed the steep side of the cleft, he was carried out of himself completely. Not knowing which was sky or trees and which was Bashō, he found himself almost unconsciously exclaiming:

                    Around existence twine
(Oh, bridge that hangs across the gorge!)
                    Ropes of twisted vine.

This poem has all the meaning that anyone can find, though Bashō naturally had no time to think it all out consciously in detail. The association of ideas which connects the hanging bridge with the rest of the poem is mundane as well as metaphysical, for rustic suspension bridges of this type actually were made with ropes of twisted vines.

But even those poems that are apparently most trivial have underlying meaning. Take for example:

                    Oh, these spring days!
A nameless little mountain,
                    In the morning haze—

On the surface this is just a charming scene, and a tenderness for common, ordinary things. But a trained haiku-reader will see more; and we can see it too when we realize that this poem was written at Nara, which is surrounded by named mountains whose fame in Japan is second to that of Fuji only. And behind it all, though here possibly quite unconscious, is Bashō's eternal concentration on the beauties of the Absolute: ‘If even the beauties of this world can be suggested only by an indirect approach … !’

To Bashō haiku were means of expressing his deepest emotions, and there is a famous tale that illustrates what he felt about them. One day when he and his pupil, Kikaku, were going through the fields, looking at the darting dragonflies, Kikaku made a seventeen-syllable verse:

‘Red dragonflies!
                    Take off their wings,
                                        And they are pepperpods!’

‘No!’ said Bashō, ‘that is not haiku. If you wish to make a haiku on the subject you must say:

‘Red pepperpods!
                    Add wings to them,
                                        And they are dragonflies!’

Bashō's best-known work is Oku no Hosomichi, Distant Byways, a collection of notes of a six-months journey which started from Yedo in the spring of 1689, went through parts of northern Japan, and ended at the sacred shrine of the Sun-Goddess at Ise. It is quite short—it could be translated into English in about ten thousand words—and it contains only about fifty of Bashō's haiku. Yet it is undoubtedly one of the great works of Japanese literature, and it has probably been annotated and commented on more than any other work of its size in the world. Comment is unfortunately necessary as Bashō's style is almost like a shorthand, and he is constantly making allusions which were clear in his own day, but which are not clear now.

The book is absolutely unpretentious, and so are the haiku, which are an integral part of the text. Some are simple descriptions of a mood produced by the scenery, as:

                    Cool it is, and still:
Just the tip of a crescent moon
                    Over Black-wing Hill.

Others derive their chief interest from what they show of the personality of Bashō. For instance, one day at the beginning of May he came to a certain village. At that time, in preparation for the Boy's Festival of May 5th, every household with a boy in it would be flying, from the top of tall flagpoles, great paper streamers made to look like carp. Bashō does not say anything about this, as all Japanese would know it naturally, but among other things he tells how he went to the local temple and had tea there. He found that this temple preserved as its greatest treasures the sword of Yoshitsune, Japan's favorite hero, and the portable altar that used to be carried by the monk Benkei, the strong man who became Yoshitsune's most noted retainer. Bashō then inserts the haiku:

                    Altar of Benkei!
Yoshitsune's sword! … Oh, fly
                    The carp in May!

a poem whose meaning may seem a little obscure at first sight, but which, though not deep, is charming when it is thought out.

And then a little later he comes to the ruins of Takadate Castle, where Yoshitsune and his last faithful followers were killed. From this spot he could see the plains of Hiraizumi, the site of the golden temples of Chuzonji, and other famous places, at that time green fields or waste land, where in former ages many mighty warriors had lived in splendor. Bashō tells how he climbed up to the castle, thinking of by-gone glories, and he adds what is probably the most-discussed haiku in the language:

                    The summer grasses grow.
Of mighty warriors' splendid dreams
                    The afterglow.

This is a very inadequate translation. It lacks the martial roll of tsuwamonodomo ga, and ‘dreams’ does not suggest as well as yume does ‘splendor,’ ‘glorious deeds,’ and ‘lives that have passed like a dream.’ Most of all it lacks the crack of ato, a word that is almost untranslatable. Ato is literally ‘the afterwards’ and is usually translated as result, traces, footsteps, wake, relics, ruins, etc., depending on the context.

                    ‘Summer grasses!
The afterwards of warriors' dreams!’

might be a better translation. (If only, like Humpty Dumpty, we could make words do more than their proper work for us!) But even this would tend to obscure the meaning of the poem, which is not only that summer grasses are now growing on the sites of former splendor, but also that the grasses bring to memory the dreams which like them grew and blossomed and died—and many other things besides. For a poem such as this there is nothing to do except refer the reader again to the original.

In haiku, when two ideas are balanced, they are to be compared from many angles. Sora, Bashō's pupil and fellow-traveler, indicates one of these angles in the companion verse that he composed on the same occasion:

                    In deutzia-flowers there
One seems to see old Kanefusa's
                    Snow-white hair …

But this of course is simply the application of part of Bashō's thought to a particular instance.

The great danger for the commentator is that of talking too much, so perhaps it would be as well to finish these extracts from Oku no Hosomichi by letting Bashō speak for himself. He is reporting a conversation with one of his friends with whom he is staying in the province of Oshu—the ‘Distant Country’:

My host asked first: ‘At the crossing of the Shirakawa Barrier, what poem did you compose?’

‘The troubles of the long journey had tired me in body and mind, and moreover, I was carried away by the scenery and the old-time feeling that it evoked, so that I was not in any condition to compose a poem at the moment. But thinking it a pity to pass in silence, I gave this one:

                    Here is refinement's start:
Songs at the planting of rice-fields,
                    In the country's farthest part.’

I gave him this for an answer, and we added a second and a third verse to it, and so made it into a renga (a linked verse).

Many pages of comment have been written about this poem, and many explanations of it have been given. One is that Bashō, coming as he did straight from the ultra-refinement of the capital, was struck with the fact that here was its basis, financial as well as historical. Another, that Bashō wished to point out the necessary connection between true refinement and natural simplicity. A third, and the most modern, is that Bashō was simply paying a compliment to Oshu. The poem means different things to different people, and the reader may take his choice.

On all his journeys Bashō naturally gravitated to the society of poets, and would often stop for days composing haiku and renga with them. It was seldom that he was, as here, at a loss for a poem on any subject, and there are naturally many stories of his readiness in composition. One of the best-known is his answer to a joking request to compose a haiku on the ‘Eight Views’ of Lake Biwa. It should be explained that these are all very famous in literature and art, and that one of the ‘views’ is ‘The Bell of Mii Temple,’ whose tone is considered surpassingly lovely. Also that the point of the joke was that there did exist a well-known tanka of thirty-one syllables in which, by a series of word-plays, all eight views actually are mentioned by name. Bashō naturally could not match this in seventeen syllables, even if he had been willing to stoop to such trickery, but he got out of the dilemma very prettily with:

                    Eight Views?—Ah, well,
Mist hid seven when I heard
                    Miidera's Bell!

Perhaps this poem is not a very profound one, though most of Bashō's haiku have more to them than meets the eye at first. But others show very clearly his eternal concentration on the Absolute. Of course we must reconstruct for ourselves the circumstances in which they were written, and we can imagine Bashō and his fellow-travelers coming out to start their morning journey—possibly after an evening spent in discussion of Nirvana and the quest of Reality which each man has to take alone—when Bashō turns to them and says:

———And these also are not
                    Companions for me!

—a poem strangely reminiscent of what has been called the most poignant Indian expression of the sense of the eternal movement and unsubstantiality of life, Santi Deva's: ‘Who is a kinsman, and who a friend, and unto whom?’

Bashō usually traveled with at least one pupil or companion—someone who would understand when he tried to put an indefinable emotion into words. Thus when he came to the ‘Hagi’ Tamagawa (one of the six ‘Jewel Rivers’ in Japan) and saw the hagi there (a sort of bush clover with gracefully drooping branches) swaying in the wind, he could be sure of having his feeling apprehended when he said:

                    Hagi does not spill
The small white dewdrops, though its waves
                    Are never still …

For foreigners who are beginning haiku, it may be necessary to say that though this poem is, on the surface, simply a description of hagi, its connotations cannot be appreciated without realizing that whenever dewdrops are mentioned most cultured Japanese immediately associate them with fleeting human lives.

In any outline of Bashō's poems it is impossible to leave out of consideration the most famous haiku of all—the haiku that Bashō himself considered the standard for his new style:

An ancient pond;
                    Plash of the water
                                        When a frog jumps in.

Many competent critics have found in this a deep and esoteric meaning; others have considered it too darkly mysterious to understand at all. Perhaps some light may be thrown by the fact that the last twelve syllables were the first to be composed and the first five were added only after a discussion in which several alternatives had been proposed. If a foreigner may venture an opinion on such high matters it would be that Bashō had experienced and wished to record a sense of peace and quiet and complete serenity. Certainly, ‘plash of the water when a frog jumps in’ does give this feeling directly, for there must have been external quiet for the sound to have been heard, and internal quiet for it to have been noticed strongly enough to make Bashō compose a poem about it.

Whether or not this is the proper reading of the ‘old pond’ poem, at least it is certain that in many of his later haiku Bashō does record a strong emotion by the simple description of an apparently unimportant fact. Thus for example:

                    Why, as it fell
Water that was in it spilled.
                    Camellia bell!

is on the surface just the description of a camellia-bloom which does fall all at once instead of piecemeal. Though it may seem thin at first sight, the effect is much like that of the plash of water in the old pond; and it should also be noted that this poem is a favorite among the Japanese.

In 1694 Bashō died, and died as he would have wished, on one of his beloved wanderings, and surrounded by many of his friends and pupils. During his illness he was constantly discussing religion and philosophy and poetry (three things that were almost one to Bashō), and when it became evident that he was dying, his friends asked him to give them his death-poem—the sum of his philosophy. Bashō refused, on the ground that every poem in his last eight years, starting with the ‘old pond’ haiku, had been composed as if it were a death-poem. But on the next morning he called them to his bedside, saying that during the night he had dreamed, and that on waking a poem had come to him. And he gave them:

                    On a journey, ill—
And my dreams on withered fields
                    Are wandering still.

Surely as lovely a farewell as any poet ever gave to the world.

A few more translations are added without comment. But it might be well to remind the beginner in haiku that though all these poems have more to them than is on the surface, few if any of them should be read as allegories in the ordinary sense, and all of them are primarily pictures. Abbé Dimnet1 suggests that we should all make notes of those experiences which we would like to remember. These notes, he says, should be ‘brief enough to preclude the danger of what the Veda calls “putting words between the truth and ourselves,”’ and at the same time ‘full enough to be clear to future, i.e. almost alien, re-reading.’ If we consider Bashō's later haiku as notes of this kind in poetic form, we shall not go far wrong in our appreciation of them.


                    How rough the sea!
And, stretching off to Sado Isle,
                    The Galaxy. …


                    Here on the mountain-pass
Somehow they draw one's heart so—
                    Violets in the grass!


                    A village where they ring
No bells!—Oh, what do they
                    At dusk in spring?


                    So! And did it yell
Till it became all voice?


                    The usually hateful crows!
They also, … on a morning
                    When it snows …


                    Leaning on their staves,
All the household, white-haired—
                    Visiting the graves!


                    Why not come and see
Loneliness! … One leaflet
                    From the kiri-tree …


                    Snow that we two
Looked at together—this year
                    Is it fallen anew?


                    Ah! First snow!
Enough to make narcissus-leaves
                    Bend low!


                    Falling of the night
Upon the sea, and wild ducks' voices
                    Shadowy, and white …

Herewith ends this brief introduction to haiku, and I can only hope that the interest and beauty of these little poems have not been wholly lost in the process of giving them an English uniform.

The haiku-form is peculiarly Japanese, but I believe most strongly that it has characteristics which transcend the barriers of language and of nationality, and which fit it for a special place among the forms of Occidental poetry. What the final English haiku-form will be, I do not know. It may be two lines, or three, or four; it may be rimed or unrimed. But I am sure that whatever it is, it will be a definite form, for a haiku is a poem and not a dribble of prose.


  1. In ‘The Art of Thinking,’ by Ernest Dimnet. Simon & Schuster, N.Y. 1929.

R. H. Blyth (essay date 1951)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2040

SOURCE: “Bashō,” in Haiku, Hokuseido, 1951, pp. 328-36.

[In the following excerpt, Blyth maintains that Bashō sought to convey in his poetry the greatness of ordinary life, as it honors the mind and body and the particularities of the fleeting world. This essay originally contained ideographic characters, which have been silently removed for this reprinting.]

There are three great names in the history of haiku, Bashô, Buson and Issa; we may include a fourth, Shiki. Bashô is the religious man, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist. Bashô is concerned with God as he sees himself in the mind of the poet before flowers and fields. Buson deals with things as they exist by and for themselves, in their own right. Issa is concerned with man, man the weak angel; with birds and beasts as they struggle like us to make a living and keep their heads above water. If we do not begin with Bashô, our interpretation of haiku is bound to lack depth. The objectivity of Buson and the subjectivity of Issa both spring from the homely little man with long eyebrows and a bad digestion.

It is truer in Japanese poetry than in any other, that for the understanding of it we need to understand the poet. Itô Jinsai1 said,

Where the teacher is, there is truth; respect for the teacher is respect for truth.

When therefore we come to Bashô, we do so because he is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Apart from human beings, there is no Buddha. Nevertheless, there is to be no imitation of Christ or any other person, no imitation of any teacher. In Bashô's own words,

Do not follow in the footsteps of the Ancients; seek what they sought.

As with Wordsworth, piety was the foundation of both Bashô's character and of his literary work. To him more than to any other oriental poet do Gensei's2 words apply;

By making faithfulness and filial piety the fundamental, and giving literary work a secondary place, poetry is profound.

We may compare what Wordsworth says:

To be incapable of a feeling of poetry, in my sense of the word, is to be without love of human nature and reverence for God.

Bashô felt that life was not deep enough, not continuous enough, and he wanted to give every action, every moment the value that it potentially had. He wanted the little life we lead to be at the same time the greater life. Every flower was to be the spring, every pain a birth pang, every man a haiku poet, walking in the Way of Haiku.

It was the life of the little day, the life of little people. And the man who had died said to himself, “Unless we encompass it in the greater day, and set the little life in the circle of the greater life, all is disaster.”3

What is this greater life, and how is the little life to be related to it? Or, to put the question in a more prosaic but more pertinent form, what is the social value of haiku? When we compare the life of Bashô especially, or of any other great haiku poet, with those of Wordsworth, Milton, Shelley, Keats, and so on, we are struck by one fact of seemingly little importance, that the Japanese haiku poets all had disciples; the English poets none. This is a matter of the greatest significance, for it is just here, in this religious attitude, that the little, prosaic life of little people may be set in the greater, the poetic life.

                    Winter seclusion:
Once again I will lean against
                    This post.


Here, and here only, is the little life set in the circle of the greater, the ordinary in the extraordinary, the commonplace in the miraculous, the material in the spiritual, the human in the divine. To sit on the floor and lean one's back against a post may not seen the acme of comfort, but this is the pleasure Bashô is promising himself. During the winter, while the snow is silently falling, he will lean against the post as he did last year, reading and writing poetry, thinking

Thoughts that wander through eternity,

through our eternity, through the greater life. This post, rubbed smooth with countless vigils, black where his head rested against it, is all he asks for.

The Way of Haiku requires not only a Franciscan poverty, but this concentration of all the energies of mind and body, a perpetual sinking of oneself into things. Bashô tells us, and it is to be noted, we believe him:

                    The autumn full moon:
All night long
                    I paced round the lake.

All night gazing at the moon, and only this poor verse to show for it? But it must be remembered that Bashô was a teacher. And thus we too, when we look at the moon, look at it with the eyes of Bashô, those eyes that gazed at that moon and its reflection in the placid water of the lake. Buson says,

                    Spreading a straw mat in the field,
I sat and gazed
                    At the plum blossoms.

This sitting and looking at a flowering tree is not quite so simple and easy as it appears. Buson, besides being a poet, was an artist, and was expressing in silence and motionlessness the poetic and artistic meaning of this plum tree (for this is the meaning of “gazing”).

One of Bashô's haiku which illustrates both this plain severity of life and his tender affection for his pupils is the following:

                    The beginning of spring:
For the new year,
                    Five shô of rice from last year.

At Fukagawa, Bashô's disciples, especially Sampu, brought him all the necessities of life. He had in the house a large gourd which would hold five shô (1 shô=3.18 pints=1,8 litres), The happiness of the New Year is the remembrance of the fidelity and affection of his pupils, symbolized in the rice remaining over from the year before. A similar verse is:


                    The first morning of spring.
I feel like
                    Someone else.

Literally, “Whom do I look like?” Bashô's lack of affectation is shown also in the following:


                    I am one
Who eats his breakfast,
                    Gazing at the morning-glories.

This was Bashô's reply to:

                    A firefly;
I partake of the smart-weed,
                    In my hermitage.


Kikaku means that, like the firefly, he prefers the night, and has eccentric tastes, enjoying the bitter flavour of the smartweed that other people dislike. Bashô says that the true poetic life is not here, but in eating one's rice and pickles for breakfast and gazing at whatever nature and the seasons bring us.

It would be just as hard to think of Bashô living in affluence or as even moderately well-off, as it would to imagine St. Francis a rich man. Bashô lived a life very similar to that of Meg Merrilies:

No breakfast had she many a morn,
                    No dinner had she many a noon,
And 'stead of supper she would stare
                    Full hard against the moon.

Chora gives us a picture of Bashô,—how different from that of the average European poet:

                    In travelling attire,
A stork in late autumn rain:
                    The old master Bashô.

The first poem in the Nozarashi Diary shows us Bashô's idea of the normal state of the poet, little different from that of the ascetic. The end proposed is not different from that ideal which Keats held up before himself, but the means are poles apart:

                    Resigned to death by exposure,
How the wind
                    Cuts through me!

Prepared to die by the roadside, he sets out on his journey. Why did he not stop at home, if not in comfort, at least out of the wind and rain? For several reasons. Without contact with things, with cold and hunger, real poetry is impossible. Further, Bashô was a missionary spirit and knew that all over Japan were people capable of treading the Way of Haiku. But beyond this, just as with Christ, Bashô's heart was turned towards poverty and simplicity; it was his fate, his lot, his destiny as a poet.

                    The year-end fair:
I would like to go out and buy
                    Some incense-sticks.

The modesty of Bashô's desires is evident in this verse. Nothing could be cheaper, or more cheerless, by ordinary standards.

Bashô's sympathy with animate things did not arise from any theory of the unity of life, nor from an innate love of living things. It was strictly poetic, and for this reason we find it partial and limited, but sincere. It springs, as is seen in the individual cases where it is expressed, from a deep experience of a particular case. Bashô was once returning from Ise, the home of the gods, to his native place of sad memories. Passing through the lonely forest, the cold rain pattering on the fallen leaves, he saw a small monkey sitting huddled on a bough, with that submissive pathos which human beings can hardly attain to. Animals alone possess it. He said:

                    First winter rain:
The monkey also seems
                    To want a small straw cloak.

He was preserved from any sentimentality about animals by the fact that his own life was full of discomfort, which he saw as inevitable, and, in a sense, desirable.

The gentleness of Bashô, (who was a samurai by birth) is a very special quality. We may perhaps compare him to Chaucer, of whom Thoreau says:

We are tempted to say that his genius was feminine, not masculine. It was such a feminineness, however, as is rarest to find in woman, though not the appreciation of it; perhaps it is not to be found at all in woman, but is only the feminine in man.

Bashô was not a great poetical genius by birth. During the first forty years of his life he wrote no verse that could be called remarkable, or even good. Unlike his contemporary Onitsura, who was mature at twenty five, Bashô made his way into the deepest realm of poetry by sheer effort and study, study here meaning not mere learning, but a concentration on the spiritual meaning of the culture he had inherited in haikai. Indeed, we may say that few men have been so really cultured as Bashô was, with his understanding of Confucianism, Taoism, Chinese Poetry, Waka, Buddhism, Zen, Painting, the Art of Tea. In Oi no Kobumi, he writes:

Saigyô's waka, Sôgi's renga, Sesshu's painting, Rikyu's Tea,—the spirit animating them is one.

Under Kigin, 1623-1705, Bashô probably studied the Manyôshu, the Kokinshu, the Shin Kokinshu, the Genjimonogatari, the Tosa Diary, the Tsurezuregusa and Saigyô's waka in his Sankashu. Other haiku poets also studied Saigyô, e.g. the verse of Sôin, written on a picture of Saigyô:

                    This Hôshi's appearance,
In the evening,
                    Is that of autumn.

There are a great number of haiku concerning Saigyô, and not a few of Bashô's referring to or based on Saigyô's waka. Bashô's interest in these was due to their apparent objectivity but real subjectivity, their yugen, their painful feeling, artistry, purity. More than the Chinese poets, he admired Saigyô for his life of poverty and wandering, his deep fusion of poetry and religion.

With truly Japanese genius, he did not merely read and repeat the words and phrases of these men, but put their spirit into practice in his daily life. There is a far-off but deep resemblance here between Bashô and Johnson, two utterly different types of men, who yet both hold a position in the history of literature higher than their actual writings warrant, by virtue of their personal character.

When all is written that can be written, and all is done that can be done, it may be found that Bashô was not only the greatest of all the Japanese, but that he is to be numbered among those few human beings who lived, and taught us how to live by living.


  1. 1627-1705, Confucianist scholar.

  2. 1623-96; priest and waka poet.

  3. Lawrence, The Man Who Died.

R. H. Blyth (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4640

SOURCE: “Bashō,” in A History of Haiku, Volume 1: From the Beginnings up to Issa, The Hokuseido Press, 1963, pp. 105-29.

[In the following excerpt, Blyth discusses the variety and originality of Bashō's haiku, noting that the poet's sensitivity to nature, love of beauty, and warmth of heart show through in his verses. This essay originally contained ideographic characters, which have been silently removed for this reprinting.]

Bashō wrote Furu-ike ya, the model verse of the Bashō School, in 1686. The school came to an end with the death of Hajin, the teacher of Buson, 1742. The Genroku Period was from 1688 to 1703, but Bashō died in 1694, and thus his great poetic work was all done at the beginning of Genroku. Until 1686, when Bashō was 41, he had written only mediocre verses, and for only eight or nine years, the last years of his life, did he write real poetry. In this respect he is the opposite of Wordsworth, whose best work was done at the beginning of his life, in the ten years between 1798 and 1808, with versifying up to 1850.

When the Genroku Period began, the Tokugawa government had been in power eighty years. Saikaku in prose, Chikamatsu in drama, Kumazawa Banzan in Confucianism made the period famous. In Buddhism also the various sects produced great monks, and in art Kōrin and Itchō are names that will never be forgotten.

Bashō was born in 1644, and in his youth was in attendance upon Yoshitada, the eldest son of his feudal lord, who loved literature, and studied haikai under Sengin. At his death, Bashō, being then 23 years old, left the samurai service, and later, at the age of 29, went to Edo. At first he used the pen-name Tōsei, but changed it to Bashō after he went to live at Bashō-an, “The Banana Hermitage,” at Fukagawa.

                    Bashō nowaki
tarai ni ame
                    wo kiku yo kana
                    A night listening
To the rain leaking into the tub,
                    The banana-plant blown by the gust.

This is signed Tōsei of Bashō-an. The banana plant comes again in a haiku by Chiri, with whom Bashō went to his native place and Yoshino and Kyōto between August 1684 and April 1685:

                    Fukagawa ya
bashō wo fuji ni
                    azuke yuku
We depart, leaving the bashō
                    To Mount Fuji.

Bashō spent much of his life in travelling, and most of his works are diaries; even the haiku are a kind of poetical diary. Bashō's first verses are of the Danrin type:

                    Ara nan to mo na
kinō wa sugite
                     fugu to shiru
                    Well, nothing seems to have happened,
Though I ate swell-fish soup

This is early Bashō, with its popular, anti-waka tone, though the language of the first part is borrowed from Nō. After living in hermitage after hermitage throughout the country he came back to Edo and stayed there for about two years. A verse of this period:

                    Ume ga ka ni
notto hi no deru
                    yamaji kana
                    Suddenly the sun rose,
To the scent of the plum-blossoms
                    Along the mountain path.

He left Edo again, for the last time, and returned to his native place. One of the verses composed on this journey:

nami ni chiri nashi
                    natsu no tsuki
                    The River Ōi;
In the ripples, not a particle of dirt—
                    Under the summer moon.

He went on to Nara, and Ōsaka, where he died. His death-verse is worthy of such a great poet:

                    Tabi ni yande
yume wa kareno wo
                    Ill on a journey;
My dreams wander
                    Over a withered moor.

This verse has mystery without solemnity, finality without despair, truth without ornament. It should be compared to the following by Izen, composed the night before Bashō's death:

futon ni samuki
                    warai kana
                    Pulling the bed-clothes
Back and forth, back and forth,
                    Wry smiles.

This verse was occasioned by Izen and Masahide, sleeping under the same quilt. Bashō himself smiled when he read it. Master and disciples had the relation of parent and children. Bashō reminds us a little of Goldsmith.

Bashō's verses are comparatively few in number, about two thousand in all, of which about a hundred are really good, but one thing that strikes us about them is their variety. We can see in his verses the tendencies which later poets developed.


ishi wa asama no
                    nowaki kana
                    The autumn blast
Blows along the stones
                    On Mount Asama.


                    Yogi wa omoshi
goten ni yuki wo
                    miru aran
                    The bed-clothes are so heavy,
The snow of the sky of the Kingdom of Wu
                    Will soon be seen.

Still Life

                    Shio-dai no
 haguki mo samushi
                    uo no tana
                    In the fish-shop
The gums of the salted sea-bream
                    Are cold.


                    No wo yoko ni
uma hikimuke yo
                    Lead my horse
Across the moor
                    To where the hototogisu is singing!


                    Mugi-meshi ni
yatsururu koi ka
                    neko no tsuma
                    The lady-cat,
With love and barley-rice
                    So thin!


                    Shigururu ya
ta no arakabu no
                    kuromu hodo
                    First winter rain,—
Enough to turn
                    The stubble black.


                    Chimaki musubu
katate ni hasamu
                    Wrapping rice-dumplings in bamboo leaves,
With one hand she fingers
                    The hair over her forehead.

When we call Bashō the greatest of the (haiku) poets of Japan, it is not only for his creation of a new form of human experience, and the variety of his powers, illustrated above. He has an all-round delicacy of sympathy which makes us near to him, and him to us. As with Dr Johnson, there is something in him beyond literature, above art, akin to what Thoreau calls homeliness. In itself, mere goodness is not very thrilling, but when it is added to sensitivity, a love of beauty, and poetry, it is the irresistible force which can move immovable things.

What was it that made Bashō suddenly realise that poetry is not beauty, as in waka, or morality, as in dōka, or intellectuality and verbal wit as in haikai? Some say it was the result of his study of Zen, but this seems to me very unlikely. Bashō does not seem to have urged his disciples to do zazen, and seldom speaks about Zen and its relation to haiku. The fact is that haiku would have come into being even if Bashō had never been born. We cannot say, however, that somebody would have written Shakespeare's plays even if Shakespeare (or Bacon or Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford or Queen Elizabeth) had not. What Thoreau said, that “Man, not Shakespeare or Homer, is the great poet,” is truer of Japan than of any other country, where custom and tradition are stronger, and where the poetry was not a romantic or classical solo, but a democratic trio or quartet. Again, as was noted before, Onitsura, Gonsui, and many lesser men were composing good haiku at the same time as Bashō. However, they did not have the modesty, the generosity, the ambitionlessness of Bashō. Onitsura loved sincerity and truth and made them his object, but Bashō just loved.

The following are some verses left untranslated in the four previous volumes.

                    Uguisu wo
tama ni nemuru ka
                    Making the uguisu its spirit,
The lovely willow-tree
                    Sleeps there.

This early verse of Bashō (written before 1683) seems to be based on the famous story of Sōshi's dreaming he was a butterfly. The willow has dreamed itself into an uguisu while it stands there asleep in the warm spring day.

                    Komo wo kite
tarebito imasu
                    hana no haru
                    Who is he,
A straw-mat over him,
                    This flowery spring?

People go to see the cherry blossoms in their best apparel, but here is someone lying under them covered with a straw-mat, a beggar or a madman, or a wandering master-less samurai. His spring, his flower-viewing must be different, more Thoreau-like than that of ordinary people; Bashō does not “pass by on the other side.”

                    Kono aki wa
 nan de toshiyoru
                    kumo ni tori
                    This autumn,—
Old age I feel,
                    In the birds, the clouds.

It is evening. Bashō is on a journey, his last; half a month later he will be dead. The birds of the air have their nests and the foxes their holes, but the son of man hath not where to lay his head. The onomatopoeia of this verse is striking; Bashō sounds as if sobbing or choking.

                    Asagao ya
hiru wa jō orosu
                    kado no kaki
                    Morning-glories blooming;
Locking up
                    The gate in the fence.

What Bashō means is that if he leaves the gate open, someone will come and he will have to entertain him. He wants to enjoy the morning-glories while they bloom. Morality gives way to aestheticism.

                    Kashi no ki no
hana ni kamawanu
                    sugata kana
                    The oak tree
Looks careless
                    Of the cherry blossoms.

The oak tree seems quite boorish and rustic compared to the delicate and civilised cherry flowers, but Bashō liked the former better; Wordsworth also.

kiku honoka nari
                    mizu no ato
                    Faintly the chrysanthemums,
After the water subsides,
                    Rising again.

Heavy rain in the day-time has caused the garden to be a stretch of puddles. As evening comes on, the water drops, the flowers begin to raise their heads again, but now it is half-dark and the flowers have something ethereal and even ghostly about them. It reminds us of Lawrence's writing of flowers, lilies, pinks, and irises in Sons and Lovers.

                    Shihō yori
hana fuki-irete
                    nio no umi
                    From all directions
Come cherry petals,
                    Blowing into the lake of Nio.

Nio-no-umi, or Lake Biwa, is very large, and this verse gives us a feeling of the expanse of cherry flowers surrounding it, and blown by spring breezes onto the surface of the water.

                    Kao ni ninu
hokku mo ideyo
                    The first cherry blossoms;
May the hokku
                    Be unlike our faces!

Oriental aestheticism is different from Wilde's, and even from Pater's green tie. The haiku poets were on the whole an awful-looking crowd, and never tried to look anything else.

kataru mo tabi no
                    hitotsu kana
                    Talking before the iris flowers:
This also is one of the pleasures
                    Of travelling.

This was written at a man's house in Ōsaka, when on the journey described in Oi no Kobumi.

                    Suma no ama no
yasaki ni naku ka
                    Is the hototogisu crying
At arrows shot
                    By fishermen of Suma?

This is the kind of verse which can hardly stand by itself, but requires the poetic narrative in which it is embedded. Bashō tells us some twenty lines before, that there were fish called kisugo spread out on the shore to dry, and crows stole them. The villagers, disliking this, shot at the crows with bows and arrows, which Bashō comments was hardly becoming to fishermen, and says that this cruelty may be perhaps ascribed to the fact that many battles were fought here in olden times. In the haiku Bashō expresses the feeling that the hototogisu by this shore may be crying in sympathy with the crows, or in fear of its own life.

                    Kambutsu no
hi ni umareau
                    kanoko kana
                    On the very day of Buddha's birth,
A young deer is born:
                    How thrilling!

On Buddha's birthday, a small statuette of the Buddha is continually laved with sweet green tea. From this comes the name Buddha-laving Day. The word “thrilling” is a very strong word to use of kana, which is hardly more than an exclamation mark.

                    Kono yama no
kanashisa tsuge yo
                    Make known
The sad stories of this mountain temple,

This verse, which comes in Oi no Kobumi, was written at Bodai Hill Temple at Yamada in the province of Ise; it was in ruins at this time. Bashō, with a kind of earthy humour, relates the Buddhism to the yams the man is digging up.

                    Kami-gaki ya
omoi mo kakezu
                    The Fence around the Shrine:
Unlooked-for, unforeseen,—
                    The picture of Buddha entering Nirvana.

This was composed at the Ise Shrines, on the 15th day of the Second Month, and Bashō is expressing his surprise (and pleasure) at something which, however much sanctioned by ancient custom, is still astonishing, namely, the fusion of Shintō and Buddhism. This amalgamation took place at the beginning of the 9th century a.d., when the Shington Sect developed the doctrine of Ryōbu-Shintō,1 or Shimbutsu-Kongō2 by which the gods of Shintō were recognised as manifestations or incarnations of the Buddhist divinities.

                    Yoshino nite
sakura mishō zo
                    Cedar-strip kasa!
At Mount Yoshino I will show you
                    The cherry blossoms.

This verse is interesting in its playful simplicity. Bashō was going to Yoshino, with Tokoku, to accompany him. Besides the above verse, they also wrote in their kasa, umbrella-like hats,

Two fellow-travellers, dwelling-less in the Universe.

This expression, so deeply tragic, is to be put together with the verse above, just as they were in the kasa.

                    Nao mitashi
hana ni akeyuku
                    kami no kao
                    Still, I would fain see
The god's face
                    In the dawning cherry blossoms.

The verse was made at the foot of Mount Katsuragi. There was a story3 that En no Otsuno, a necromancer, born 634 a.d., when intending to make a bridge between Katsuragi and Yoshino, asked a god, Hitokoto-nushi, to help him. His face was so hideous that he only appeared and worked at night. Bashō feels that the place is so beautiful that he cannot believe the face was ugly, and wishes to see it. This is an indirect, but all more impressive tribute to the beauty of the place and the person.

We often feel Thoreau misanthropic, though perhaps he only disliked shallow and self-important people. We find Wordsworth a little cold to humanity, though he loved his sister and his friends passionately. But Bashō has such a warm heart, warmer even than Hakurakuten. In the Oi no Kobumi we find the following haiku:

                    Wakaba shite
onme no shizuku
                    Young leaves coming out,—
Ah, that I could wipe away
                    The drops from your eyes!

This was composed at Shōdaiji Temple in Nara. The temple, the main temple of the Risshu Sect, was founded by Kanjin, a Chinese monk of the Tang dynasty, who came to Japan in 745 a.d. Bashō says that he endured “more than seventy distresses at sea,” his eyes being injured by the salt air, and becoming totally blind. The haiku was made when worshipping before his image that stood in the temple.

                    Meigetsu ya
kado ni sashi-kuru
                    The autumn full moon;
The foaming tide
                    Rolls up to the gate.

The tide flows up to the gate and the moon shines on the waves. The moon is reflected in the water, and falls and breaks with it. There is the silence of the moon and the thunder of the waves. It is the moon of autumn, and there is an inexplicable feeling of grief and sadness.

                    Kyō made wa
mada hanzora ya
                    yuki no kumo
                    On a journey to the Capital,
Only half the sky traversed,
                    With clouds foretelling snow.

Bashō wrote this at Narumi. When Masaaki Asukai, a noted poet, died 1679, passed a night in this town, he composed the following waka and gave it to his host:

                    The Capital
Far, far away
                    From this Bay of Narumi,
With the vast, remote seas
Rolling between.

This reminds us of:

From the lone shieling on the misty island
Mountains divide us and the waste of seas.
                    Shiraga naku
makura no shita ya
                    Beneath the pillow
Where the grey hairs are pulled out,
                    Chirps a cricket.

Somebody is pulling out his white hairs for him as he lies in bed. Beneath the floor under his pillow, a cricket is chirping. There is something in the voice of the cricket, its melancholy resignation, which accords with Bashō's feeling of old age and the inevitable passing of time.

                    Nehané ya
shiwate awaseru
                    juzu no oto
                    The anniversary of the Death of Buddha;
From wrinkled praying hands,
                    The sound of the rosaries.

It seems that this is the original version; later the first line was emended to, Kambutsu ya, The Ceremony of pouring Water over an Image of Buddha on his Birthday. It is difficult to imagine why Bashō changed this, except perhaps on the general principle that a discord is better than a harmony,—a very doubtful idea anyway.

                    Ka wo saguru
ume ni kura miru
                    nokiba kana
                    Smelling the plum-blossoms,
I gazed up at the eaves,
                    And saw a godown.

This verse was the first verse, the hokku, of a set of linked verses made at a poetical party held at a house near Atsuta Shrine in Owari. There are three beautiful things here, the scent of the plum, the curving eaves, and the white-walled, castle-like warehouse.

yuki-mi ni makaru
                    kamiko kana
                    Smoothing its creases,
I go out snow-viewing
                    In my kamiko.

The poetry of this is faint but real. The kamiko, a kind of rain-coat made of paper, is all crumpled when he puts it on, and for this poetical viewing of the snow-landscape, he makes the best of this poor garment, straightening it here and smoothing it there. He wishes to look his best when the snow looks its best. This is expressed also by the literary terms tametsukete, makaru, instead of nosu, yuku.

kagami mo kiyoshi
                    yuki no hana
                    The sacred mirror
Is re-polished and clear,
                    In the snow-flowers.

This verse comes from the Oi no kobumi, and was written concerning “The Completed Rebuilding of Atsuta Shrine,” near Cape Irako in Mikawa Province. The point of the verse is the purity of the newly-polished mirror, and that of the snow. This verse has more (Shintō) piety than poetry.

                    Tabine shite
mishi ya ukiyo no
                    Seen on a journey,—
The year-end house-cleaning
                    Of this transitory world.

Bashō felt himself to be homeless, though actually he was at this time, the 10th of December 1687, on his way to his native place.

                    Kareshiba ya
yaya kagerō no
                    Over the withered grass,
At last an inch or so
                    Of heat-waves.

The grass is still withered, with no eye of green in it, but already there is an inch or two of heat-waves above it. This verse follows another one:

                    Haru tachite
mada kokonoka no
                    noyama kana
                    Spring has come,—
But moor and mountain
                    Are those of the ninth day.

These haiku are not very poetical perhaps, judged as literature, but they show how deeply interested Bashō was in the procession of the seasons. The same is true of the beginning of the Tintern Abbey Ode:

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters!
                    Hoshizaki no
 yami wo miyo to ya
                    naku chidori
                    The crying plovers,—
Do they bid me gaze upon
                    The darkness round Hoshizaki Cape?

The plovers are whistling from the darkness in the direction of this headland. The verse was composed at Narumi where he stayed when on a journey to his native place, 1687. We feel in it the sadness of a traveller who knew his journey to be without end. The question-form of this verse is deeply significant. Poetry is never in the answers, but in the questions,—or rather it lies in the region between question and answer, between known and unknown. Compare Shōha's verse:

                    Nani wo tsuru
oki no kobune zo
                    kasa no yuki
                    What are they catching,
The small boats out in the offing,
                    As snow falls on my kasa?

One of the most representative of Bashō verses:

                    Tabi-bito to
waga na yobaren
                    The first winter shower;
My name shall be

This was the first haiku Bashō wrote when setting out in November on a journey to his native place. Up to this time, he has been “Bashō,” or “Tōsei,” or “Teacher,” but now he has joined that vast multitude that journey without rest from one place to another, like torn-off leaves carried no one knows whither by the wind. This is the democracy of Bashō, the democracy of Nature.

                    Fuyu no hi ya
bajō ni kōru
                    A winter day;
On my horse's back
                    A shadow sits freezing.

This verse was composed when Bashō was passing along the Amatsu Nawate, “a narrow path through the ricefields, where a strong cold wind was blowing from the sea.” Bashō feels himself to be a mere shadow, frozen stiff. There are several other forms of this verse, for example:

                    Samuki ta ya
bajō ni sukumu
                    The cold rice-fields;
On horse-back,
                    My shadow creeps below.

Here the shadow is imprinted on the field as he passes.

                    Akebono ya
shirauo shiroki
                    koto issun
                    In the morning twilight
The lancelets,
                    Inch-long white things.

On the way to Nagoya, near Kuwana, Bashō went down to the sea-shore in the early morning, before it was still properly light. Fisherman were at work there, and he saw something white gleaming on the sand. Going closer, this mass of translucent whiteness, reflecting the eastern skies, resolved itself into small fishes, each of about an inch in length.

tabiji no hate yo
                    aki no kure
                    Still alive
At the end of the journey!
                    An evening of late autumn.

On the second of his journeys (eight in all) and the first of which he made a record (The Nozarashi Kikō) Bashō reached his native place in the autumn of 1684, when he was forty one years old. It was about this time that Bashō realized that “our being's home is with,” not “eternity,” but nature, and he had resolved to give up life itself in order to live there. He registers in this verse some surprise at finding himself not dead yet, in spite of a weak body upon an arduous journey of altogether eight months.

furu-su wa ume ni
                    nari ni keri
                    The old nest
Of the journeying crow,—
                    It has become a plum-tree.

This could hardly be called a great poem, or even a particularly good haiku, and yet when we know it is by Bashō, it expresses the whole of his character and way of life, that is, way of poetical living. It was probably composed in 1685, when he went back to his native place. He had been a young samurai; now he was dressed in black, monkish robes. Then it was his home; now it was the home of the plum tree in the garden. Bashō sees nature,

With its calm oblivious tendencies,
And silent overgrowings.
                    Uma ni nete
zanmu tsuki tōshi
                    cha no kemuri
                    On horseback half-asleep,
Half-dreaming, the moon far off,
                    Smoke for the morning tea.

Bashō left the inn in the early morning. He had not slept well, and he sat on the horse still half-asleep. In the western sky the moon was fading as it sank, and from here and there rose in the air the smoke of the fires being lit for the morning cup of tea. The horse, Bashō himself, the dreams of the night, the faintness of the moon in the distance, and the unwilling smoke are all in harmony with the morning stillness and half-awakeness.

                    Imo-tane ya
hana no sakari wo
                    The cherry blossoms at their best,
They walk about selling
                    Seeds of the yam.

Potato seeds are sown just at this time, and Bashō, though brought up as a samurai, and living chiefly in Edo, took a deep interest in the seasons as such.

                    Hi no michi ya
aoi katamuku
                    In the rains of June
Does the hollyhock turn
                    To the path of the sun?

It is raining, and the hollyhock turns perhaps in the direction of the unseen sun. We feel the secret life and faithfulness of things, the bond that unites them.

                    Uguisu ya
 take no ko-yabu ni
                    oi wo naku
                    The uguisu,
In the grove of bamboo shoots,
                    Sings of its old age.

It is early summer, and bamboo shoots are already appearing in the groves. The voice of the uguisu is past its prime, and as the sound of the bird declines in power and sweetness, the young sprouts are coming out of the ground with all their vitality and energetic growth.

                    Hirugao ni
kometsuki suzumu
                    aware nari
                    The rice-pounder,
Cooling himself by the convolvulus flowers,—
                    A sight of pathos.

The rice-pounder is exhausted, and sits in the shade mopping his brow. Along the fence the convolvulus flowers are blooming because of and in spite of the heat. The half-obliviousness of the flowers on the part of the man, and the complete obliviousness on the part of the flowers, gives Bashō a feeling which, like God, is nameless.

                    Harusame ya
hachi no su tsutou
                    yane no mori
                    Spring rain falling
The roof leaks,
                    Trickling down the wasps' nest.

This is a minute observation of the inconsequence, the haphazardness of nature, one of Wordsworth's “random truths.”

                    Mikazuki ni
chi wa oboro nari
                    soba no hana
                    The earth is whitish
With buckwheat flowers
                    Under the crescent moon.

Sometimes this hard, solid, matter-of-fact world looks ghostly and unreal; which indeed is the true one?

                    Nagaki hi wo
saezuri taranu
                    hibari kana
                    Singing, singing,
All the long day,
                    But not long enough for the skylark.

There is something insatiable about nature, as there is also in man, and though in general there seems a fitness and balance in things, we find also the ravenous, the excessive, infinite desire. The skylark is a simple and innocent example of this. It sings without sense or reason, from morning to night, a creature which the longest day can never satisfy or weary.

                    Asa-tsuyu ni
yogorete suzushi
                    uri no doro
                    In the morning dew,
Dirty, but fresh,
                    The muddy melon.

Bashō perceived in 1694, the year of his death, what Crabbe grasped a hundred years later, that mud is the most poetical thing in the world.

makoto no hanami
                    shite mo ko yo
                    Come, come
To the real flower-viewing
                    Of this life of poverty.

We may find a hint of Bashō's attitude towards the cherry blossoms in a waka from the Kokinshū, Volume XV, by Komachi:

                    The invisible colour
That fades,
                    In this world,
Of the flowers
Of the heart of man.

Occasionally we can see what an emotional person Bashō was, though usually he represses his feelings:

                    Te ni toraba
kien namida zo atsuki
                    aki no shimo
                    Should I take it in my hand,
It would melt in my hot tears,
                    Like autumn frost.

He is referring to the white hair of his dead mother which he saw when he returned to his native place in 1684.

                    Aki chikaki
kokoro no yoru ya
                    Autumn is near;
The heart inclines
                    To the four-and-a-half mat room.

When summer is ending, and autumn approaches, poetical people feel drawn to the small room where the tea ceremony is held. Tea, like nature itself, belongs to no particular season, yet as the energy of summer declines, the meditative mood, a more passive state of mind arises, and we wish to express the harmony and beauty of life in a meeting of friends, an association with simple and beautiful things only, and for this mood the tea ceremony was made, since out of this it proceeded. Bashō's verse is undeniably subjective, but it is not purely individual, for tea is a social thing, and further, through the expression of his own desire, he has given us something of the objective nature of the autumnal season as it takes the place of late summer.

What makes Bashō one of the greatest of the poets of the world is the fact that he lived the poetry he wrote, and wrote the poetry he lived.


  1. ryōbu means “two parts,” what arises from the Kongōkai, the Diamond Wisdom; and what arises from the Taizōkai, the Universe-Treasure.

  2. By analogy with these two, we get Shimbutsu-Kongō, Shintō and Buddhism blended.

  3. Recorded in Okugishō, a collection of waka, with notes, by Fujiwara Kiyosuke, 1104-1177.

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10134

SOURCE: “Matsuo Bashō: The Poetic Spirit, Sabi, and Lightness,” in Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics, Mouton & Co., 1965, pp. 35-64.

[In the following excerpt, Ueda argues that Bashō's poetic concepts of “fragrance,” “revelation,” “reflection,” and “lightness”—which concern how the “poetic spirit” can be revealed in a poem—are manifestations of the poet's ideas about life, including his religious pessimism, pragmatic optimism, feudalistic conventionalism, and bourgeois liberalism.]

Matsuo Bashō,1 the poet who perfected the haiku as a serious art form, shows a marked resemblance to Zeami in some respects. In a sense he was a medieval poet living in a modern age. He declared his adherence to medieval Japanese poets such as Saigyō and Sōgi, and, like them, he followed the footsteps of Li Po and Tu Fu in his way of life. He was also much attracted to Buddhism, particularly to Zen Buddhism. Medieval Buddhism tried to save men from life's tortures by the motto: “Meditate on death”. Although he never entered the priesthood, Bashō was often a hermit who found meaning in life through contemplation of death. There were, however, some unmistakable traits of modernity in Bashō, too. His haiku, unlike waka2 or the nō, was distinctly an art for common people. It required neither an elaborate costume, classical scholarship, nor courtly elegance of style. Bashō's haiku is characterized, among other things, by colloquialism and humor. It does not describe heaven and hell; it finds its materials in everyday life. It does not grieve over the mutability of life; it gazes at man's mortality with smiling eyes. In Bashō, to “meditate on death” does not necessarily deny the pleasures of life. He sees life and death from a distance, from a place which transcends both.

Bashō wrote no systematic treatise on the art of haiku. Whereas Zeami tried to prevent future deterioration of his art by leaving its secrets only to the best-qualified of his followers, Bashō traveled far and wide, and extended his teaching to anyone interested in haiku. It seems he taught different things to different persons; at times, two of his teachings are so different that the one almost seems to contradict the other. Perhaps Bashō wanted to cultivate his pupils' talents rather than to impose his own theory upon them. Or, perhaps, he did not approve of any fixed doctrine in haiku. The latter point was meditated on by Bashō himself, who developed it into the idea of “permanence and change” in art.

Bashō's comments on “permanence and change” were made on various occasions, and apparently not always with exactly the same implication. Yet his central idea is sufficiently clear in the following remark, recorded by Dohō:3

In the Master's art there is that which remains unchanged for thousands of years; there is also that which shows a temporary change. Every one of his works is ascribable to the one or the other, and these two qualities are the same in essence. This common essence is a true “poetic spirit”. One does not really understand the haiku unless he knows the permanent style. The permanent style is the one which is firmly based on the true poetic spirit, irrespective of the writer's time or of the contemporary fashion … On the other hand, it is a principle of nature that things change in numerous ways. In haiku, too, nothing new will be born unless it transforms itself with time.4

An artist always aims at the universal, yet tries not to lose his identity. Bashō, facing the dilemma, attempts to find a solution in a dialectic. He approves of both styles, permanent and temporary; a “permanent” poem is good because it embodies an eternal truth, and a “fashionable” poem also is interesting because it has freshness. Yet, as Bashō sees it, they are really the same in essence. Everything changes in our life; change is the only permanent thing. We observe seasonal changes, but they are equally the manifestations of the force in nature: flowers, leaves, winds, clouds, snow—they are created by a single spirit in nature. Similarly, there is a “poetic spirit” which lies in all great works of art. This spirit is timeless; only the ways in which it is expressed may change as time goes on. One of Bashō's disciples, Kyorai,5 loosely interprets this as a dualism of “substance” and “manner”. The interpretation is valid only in a limited sense: “substance” must mean certain ingredients which give a timeless quality to the poem, while “manner” should imply an individual way in which this quality is expressed.

The next question, and a very important one, is exactly what Bashō means by the term, a “poetic spirit”. His answer seems to be suggested in one of his most famous passages:

There is one common element which permeates Saigyō's waka, Sōgi's linked verse, Sesshū's painting, and Rikyū's tea ceremony. It is a poetic spirit, through which man follows the creative energy of nature and makes communion with the things of the four seasons. For those who understand the spirit, everything they see becomes a lovely flower, and everything they imagine becomes a beautiful moon. Those who do not see the flower are no different from barbarians; those who do not imagine the flower are no different from beasts. Detach yourself from barbarians and beasts; follow the creative energy and return to nature.6

In other words, Bashō believes that there are two types of men, those who possess a poetic spirit, and those who do not. While the latter type of people are blind to natural beauty, the former seek it in every possible way and thereby try to escape from the collisions of everyday life. Saigyō, Sōgi, Sesshū and Rikyū were engaged in different branches of art; but what made them great was the same—the recognition of beauty in the creation of the universe. The recognition, moreover, was of a particular kind: it was spontaneous, intuitive perception which was possible only when the spectator identified himself with a natural object, or with the energy flowing in the object Hence comes the notion of “return to nature”.

This concept naturally leads Bashō to the idea that an artist should insert no expression of his individual ego into his work. Dohō has recorded:

The Master once said: “Learn about pines from pines, and about bamboos from bamboos.” What he meant was that the poet must detach himself from his will. Some people, however, interpret the word “learn” in their own ways and never really “learn”. “Learn” means to submerge oneself within an object, to perceive its delicate life and feel its feeling, out of which a poem forms itself. A poem may clearly delineate an object; but, unless it embodies a feeling which has naturally emerged out of the object, the poem will not attain a true poetic feeling, since it presents the object and the poet as two separate things. Such is a work of artifice made by the poet's will.7

Beauty in nature is a manifestation of a supreme creative force which flows through all things in the universe, animate and inanimate. This force, it must be stressed, is different from the creative power of an individual physical being. The energy of the universe is impersonal; it produces the sun and the moon, the sky and the clouds, the trees and the grass. The energy of individual man is personal; it roots in his conscious will, in his passions and desires, in his egotism. But man, being part of the universe, also has impersonal energy within him, an energy which he shares with the cosmos. It is this energy which every poet must work with in his creative activity. Bashō, therefore, does not share the view that a poet puts his own emotion into a natural object and gives airy nothing a local habitation and a name. On the contrary, he believes that a poet should annihilate his personal emotion or will for the sake of impersonal energy within him, through which he may return to the creative force that flows in all objects in nature. One may attain this ideal state through a devoted contemplation of a natural object. One should try to enter the inner life of the object, whereupon he will see its “delicate life” and touch its “feeling”. This will be done only in a realm where the subjective and the objective meet, or rather, where the subjective approaches and becomes at one with the objective. A poem is a spontaneous creation of a man in such a state. It is something which naturally comes out of this realm, and not the result of forced will or logical thinking.

The identification of the self and the external object, of course, is an illogical act of intuition and is done in an instant of time. It is, from the poet's point of view, an instantaneous perception of hidden reality. Bashō emphasizes this as Dohō records his words and explains them:

On composing haiku the Master once commented: “If you get a flash of insight into an object, put it into words before it fades away in your mind.” He also said: “Toss out the feeling to the surface of your poem.” These teachings mean that one should set his poetic feeling into form instantly after he gets into the realm, before the feeling cools off. In composing haiku there are two ways: “becoming” and “making”. When a poet who has always been assiduous in pursuit of his aim applies himself to an external object, the color of his mind naturally becomes a poem. In the case of a poet who has not done so, nothing in him will become a poem; he, consequently, has to make out a poem through the act of his personal will.8

Suggesting that poetic creation is a momentary act of inspiration, Bashō advises that a poet should never miss the inspired moment. The moment is when the poet “gets a flash of insight into an object”, a moment of communion between the subjective and the objective. A poem is a result of the poet's unconscious act and not of his will; a poet does not “make” a poem,—something in him naturally “becomes” a poem. The inspired moment, however, does not come upon anyone at any moment; each poet should constantly strive to make it come through meditation and concentration. Yet, when the moment comes, the poet's mind is devoid of personal will; it is completely transparent, whereupon an external object dyes it in its own color and creates a beautiful picture. Bashō uses the term “haiku without other thoughts” in describing the ideal stage of poetic achievement.9 Evidently he refers to a state of mind in which there is no impure element, no personal element of the poet which would stain the whiteness of his soul at the moment.

This concept seems to come close to Baudelaire's idea of “correspondence”.10 Baudelaire, in revolt against the scientific spirit of his time, put forth his mystical method of cognition in his well-known poem, “Correspondences”. Instead of recognizing an external existence through one's subjective awareness, the French poet proposes to wander among symbols of nature and have close communion with it. A scientific analysis can only present an object as an incomplete accumulation of parts; Baudelaire's method enables one to feel an object in its entity, in a superhuman world of harmony. The aspects of correspondence which he points out in “Correspondences” are two: a correspondence between man and nature, and that between different human senses. Both aspects seem to exist in Bashō's concept of poetry. The first we have already seen, and we shall discuss the second a little later.

Bashō's mode of perception is thus quite different from that of science, but it also shows a departure from that of traditional Japanese poetry. Indeed, classical Japanese poetry is filled with communion between man and nature, yet in it man momentarily identifies himself with nature in order to express his emotion. Waka poets “express their emotions through the objects they see and hear,” as a famous Japanese statement on the nature of poetry goes. In Bashō's view, however, external reality is the primary element in poetic creation. We have already seen how Bashō advised a poet to negate his personal will in order to perceive the “delicate life” of a natural object. He remarks in another passage: “Do not neglect natural objects at any time.”11 At the root of his thinking lies the idea: “When we observe them calmly, we notice that all things have their fulfilment.”12 A pine tree lives its own life, a bamboo fulfils its own destiny; a pine never tries to become a bamboo, or a bamboo does not envy the life of a pine. A poet, therefore, should learn from a pine things about a pine, and from a bamboo things about a bamboo. Bashō remarks, as recorded by Dohō:

The Master said: “Changes in nature are said to be the seed of poetic spirit. Calm things show the aspects of permanence. Active things reveal the changes. Unless a poet records each change at that very moment, he will never be able to record it. By the word ‘record’ I mean to record by perceiving or hearing. Blossoms fly, leaves fall, they lie scattered on the ground; unless a poet perceives or hears these phenomena within the phenomena, he will never succeed in recording them in his heart.”13

The idea embodied in the first half of this passage is little different from that of waka, but the second half is typical of haiku. Whereas waka poets would sing of falling blossoms to mourn over their lost love, Bashō thinks that a phenomenon must be seen within the phenomenon and not from a human point of view. In haiku, or at least in the haiku of the Bashō school, we do not find a personal emotion expressed as we do in waka or in Western poetry in general.

Apparently, this view of poetry was rooted in Bashō's attitude toward life. Or, perhaps, Bashō's devotion to poetry motivated his attitude toward life; for, Bashō's view of life is what we may call an aesthetic view. He looks at life in the same manner as one looks at a work of art. We have noted that Bashō discouraged the intrusion of a personal emotion into creative process. In fact he went a step farther; he proposed to minimize the activity of a personal emotion in actual life as well. Personal emotions are difficult to get rid of when we get ourselves involved in the struggles of life; Bashō suggests that we can avoid the involvement if we view our life from an aesthetic distance. We do not try to change our society; we only change our attitude toward society, we face our society in the same manner as we see a painting, hear music, or read a poem. We enjoy a story of war since we are not in a war ourselves; we shall enjoy our life more, in Bashō's view, if we do not follow the utilitarian ways of life. Bashō's ideal life is, in his words, “to enjoy life by being indifferent to worldly interests, by forgetting whether one is young or old”. He continues:

A foolish man has many things to worry about. Those who are troubled with sinful desires and become expert in some art or another are persons with a strong sense of right and wrong. But some who make art the source of their livelihood rouse their hearts in anger in the hell of greed and drown themselves in a small ditch; they are unable to keep their art alive.14

One way to transcend worldly involvements is to become a poet—a haiku poet. Bashō says: “The haiku is like a fireplace in summer or a fan in winter. Contrary to the popular needs, it has no immediate utility.”15

Of course a poet, being a man also, cannot be completely detached from worldly concerns; he has to eat, wear clothes, live in a house. He may do all these things, yet the important thing is not to be bothered with a desire to possess more than enough. This is a significant point at which Bashō's “poetic spirit” differs from hermitism or asceticism. A hermit or an ascetic imposes seclusion or abstinence upon himself. Bashō, on the other hand, does not reject the things of the world; he only advises us to look at them from a distance, without committing ourselves to them. The haiku poet's attitude toward life is that of a by-stander. A man with an impulsive temperament or a strong desire will find it difficult to become a haiku poet; perhaps such a man would better go to religion in order to attain serenity of mind. The haiku requires a passive, leisurely personality by its very nature.

In haiku, therefore, there is no passionate emotion, no strong sentiment. There is only the shadow of an emotion, or a vague mood. Instead of joy, there is a formless atmosphere arising from happiness; instead of grief, there is a mood vaguely suggesting quiet resignation. There is, for instance, a famous farewell poem which Bashō composed upon leaving for a distant journey:

Spring is going …
Birds weep, and the eyes of fish
are filled with tears.(16)

A long journey through rural areas of northern Japan was ahead of him, and he was old, sickly, and not sure of his safe return. But there is no personal grief in the poem. Bashō's sentiment is depersonalized. It is spring that goes; it is birds and fish that weep. There is no acute pain; there is only a vague sadness which fills nature. To take another example, here is a poem which Bashō wrote as he mourned over his disciple's death:

In the autumn wind
lies, sorrowfully broken,
a mulberry stick.(17)

Compare this with another poem by Bashō which describes dead grass in winter:

All flowers are dead.
Only a sorrow lies, with
the grass-seeds.(18)

It is roughly the same mood that prevails over these two poems, although the occasions would have evoked widely different emotions in an ordinary person. It was not that Bashō was inhuman; he was only “unhuman”. This element becomes more obvious in his better poems:

Quietness …
The cicadas' voice
penetrates the rocks.(19)
The rough sea …
Far over Sado Isle, extends
the Milky Way.(20)
Gathering the rains
of June, how swiftly flows
the Mogami River!(21)

In these pieces there is little trace of the emotion which the poet originally had on each occasion. All that we get is the feeling of the quiet, the vast, or the swift. The poet never says happy or sad, wonderful or disgusting. He only crystalizes the feeling of nature. Nature has no personal emotion, but it has life. The best of Bashō's haiku catch this life through certain moods which surround it.

This quality at once explains the two fundamental prerequisites of haiku which are observed even today: the seventeen syllable form, and the rule requiring a word suggestive of a season. The haiku is an extremely short poem, normally consisting of three lines with five, seven and five syllables each. The waka is short, too, but it is still long enough to express one's emotion in the form of a statement. The haiku does not permit the poet either to explain, to describe, or to state; an idea, or a sentiment, will never be fully put forth within the space of seventeen syllables. This is a perfect medium for the haiku poet who avoids a systematic presentation of an idea or emotion; it requires him to depersonalize his emotion, if he ever has one, through an object in nature. Here comes in the second prerequisite of haiku, that a haiku must contain a word referring to a season of the year. A personal sentiment, if any, will become a thing of nature in the poem. Furthermore, unlike a waka poet, the haiku writer cannot go through a process in which he starts with his own feeling and then finds an object which will best express that feeling; his best “objective correlative” may not happen to be a thing related to a season. The haiku poet must begin with a natural object or objects outside of himself; even though he has an emotion in himself, he has to submerge it in an outside object, whereupon a certain mood arises which would vaguely suggest the original feeling but never set it in the foreground of the poem.

It is relevant, in this connection, to observe the historical development of Japanese poetry and the origin of the haiku form. When the earliest anthology of Japanese poetry was compiled in the eighth century, there were two verse-forms: the waka with thirty-one syllables and the chōka with an indefinite number of syllables. After the latter form became obsolete, the former went a downward way as it lost freshness and vitality. In the tenth and eleventh centuries the waka was a plaything in the court circles, who, except for a few genuine poets, used the form to display their wit or scholarship, to express their over-sentimental love or sense of life's transience. Some time around 1200 a reaction set in; the new poets, still using the waka form, turned from the poetry of intellect to that of mood, from the verse of statement to that of suggestion. In contrast with an ordinary Japanese poem which follows the usual sentence structure ending with the predicate verb, the poet of this time often ended his poem with a noun, leaving out the predicate verb; the reader was expected to supply the verb by himself, to complete the poem in his own imagination. The poet, instead of composing a self-contained entity, created a poem which left so many things unsaid that the reader felt need to supplement the poem by creating another poem by himself. The linked verse stemmed from this tradition; one set of linked verse was a joint product of several poets who supplemented each other's imagination and completed each other's work. What they aimed at was a creation of some unique mood, delicate, graceful and harmonious. Presently, the opening stanza of linked verse became independent and took the form of what we now call haiku. The independence of haiku from linked verse marked a revolution in the history of Japanese verse. What sort of revolution it was, or how the haiku differed from the waka in mood, will be further discussed later in this chapter, in connection with “lightness”. Let it suffice here to note that the haiku form was not a casual invention of a genius but an offspring of an age-long tradition.

Bashō, however, did not talk much about the rules of haiku form or of a season word, nor did he strictly prohibit a departure from them. In fact he himself composed many poems with more than seventeen syllables, as well as a few poems with no season word. On the other hand, there were certain ideas on verse-writing which Bashō positively insisted on. Chief among them were sabi, shiori, hosomi, “inspiration”, “fragrance”, “reverberation”, “reflection”, and “lightness”. They are different from each other, as the terms are different. But they have one thing in common, the “poetic spirit”. The first three and “lightness” designate certain attitudes toward life, and, as we shall see presently, they all stem from the same basic view of life that underlies the poetic spirit. The remaining four are concerned with the technique of haiku composition; they make clear certain ways in which the poetic spirit can be made manifest in a poem.

The word sabi stems from an adjective sabishi, which literally means “lonely” or “desolate”. Bashō himself never used the term sabi in his writing, but he did use sabishi. One of the instances appears in a poem which he wrote while living alone at a lonely temple:

My sorrowful soul …
Make it feel more lonesome,
you, a cuckoo.(22)

Sorrow is a personal emotion, while loneliness, in this context, is an impersonal mood existent in a cuckoo's voice. The poet, as it were, wants the purification of his soul, the transformation of the personal into the impersonal. Sabi seems to imply such an impersonal emotion—a mood. It is not personal loneliness, but a lonely mood latent in nature. The same point is suggested in Kyorai's well-known passage on sabi:

Sabi refers to the color of a poem. It does not mean the emotion of loneliness embodied in the poem. Sabi is like what we feel about an aged man, whether he fights in battlefield wearing a suit of armor, or attends a banquet with a brocade garment on. Sabi may lie either in a gay poem or in a tranquil one. I shall quote a poem for illustration:

Under the blossoms
two watchmen talk, with their white
heads together.

The Master said that the sabi color was very well expressed in this poem.23

Kyorai, learning from Bashō, argues that sabi lies not in the substance or technique but in the “color” of a poem. “Color” seems to mean the quality of the mood which the poem embodies. The poem may deal with a lively party scene or a quiet country life; but the materials do not much matter, the important thing is the atmosphere which permeates the poem. A poet may, for example, depict lovely cherry-blossoms in full bloom, yet the “color” of his poem may be that of sabi because the poem also presents two aged men quietly talking under the blossoms. By contrasting white hair with pink blossoms, the poet suggests the coming fall of the blossoms, a destiny for both men and the objects of nature. But the poem by no means laments over the mutability of life; it simply describes a scene, out of which arises a mood ambiguously pointing toward sadness or loneliness. Bashō's way of saying it is that the poem has the color of sabi.

Sabi, then, is a poetic mood vaguely pointing toward a certain view of life. This view of life is called wabi. Wabi originally meant “sadness of poverty”. But gradually it came to mean an attitude toward life, with which one tried to resign himself to straitened living and to find peace and serenity of mind even under such circumstances. People considered sadness as an unavoidable condition of living in this world; they endeavored to overcome it by getting themselves accustomed to the inconveniences of life. Bashō liked to travel, primarily for this reason. He writes:

My straw hat was worn out by rain on the way, and my robe too was crumpled up through the storms I had met here and there. My appearance was so extremely shabby that even I myself felt a little sad. It just occurred to me that many years ago a gifted comicverse writer had traveled in this province. Thereupon I too composed a comic haiku:

In the wintry gust
I wander, like Chikusai
the comic poet.(24)

Here again the poet subdues his grief by looking at himself from a distance. His situation is sad enough from an ordinary man's point of view; he himself says he felt sad. But he steps backwards from vital feelings of life, he looks at his own situation as if it were someone else's; then he realizes that the situation is not sad but even a little humorous. Such an attitude is the later implication of wabi. Sabi, primarily an aesthetic concept, is closely associated with wabi, a philosophical idea. Sabi, as we have observed, is not an emotion but an impersonal mood; the process of depersonalization is done through wabi, in which the poet looks at himself and his emotion from a distance, as if looking at some natural object. Personal sorrow becomes universal loneliness; sadness over transiency of life becomes a vague mood arising from it.

Of shiori Kyorai has repeatedly said: “Shiori in poetry does not mean a poem with the feeling of pity”,25shiori and a poem with the feeling of pity are different”,26 and so forth. This implies that shiori and pity are fairly close, and that the people of his time often confused the two. The difference, according to Kyorai, is that shiori does not lie in the topic or diction or material of the poem while pity does. “Shiori”, writes Kyorai, “lies in the form of a poem.”27 And he says elsewhere: “Shiori is a suggested feeling.”28 From these comments we may gather that shiori is a certain mood arising from the poem itself rather than from the ingredients of the poem, and that it is somewhat close to pity but differs from it in that it is not a personal feeling. The complex meaning of shiori may be traced back to its double origin. The term shiori stems from a verb shioru, which means “to bend” or “to be flexible”. Originally, therefore, shiori seems to have been used in describing a poem which is not stiff or straightforward in expression but is flexible in meaning and allows several levels of interpretation. Yet it so happened that there was another verb shioru, written differently and declined differently but pronounced the same, describing a withered flower or a frustrated man. This implication seems to have found its way into the noun shiori and combined itself with the original meaning of the term. Thus shiori, in its later usage, describes a poem which allows several levels of meaning all of which have the common undertone of sadness—if we understand sadness to be an impersonal mood as distinct from pity which is a personal feeling. A poem of pity would contain an intense, personal emotion as we often see in a dirge or elegy. A poem of shiori, on the other hand, would embody an indefinable, ambiguous mood surrounding the feeling of pity; the reader would wonder, for example, whether the poem is about a particular person's death, or about man's mortality in general, or about the passing of summer. The ambiguity of meaning widens the scope of the poem; it elevates a personal feeling to the universal. Kyorai quotes a poem which Bashō thought had the quality of shiori:

The Ten Dumplings
have become smaller too.
The autumn wind …(29)

The Ten Dumplings, so called because they are sold in units of ten by stringing them together, are a special product of a small mountain village in central Japan. It is autumn; travelers have become fewer and fewer. The villagers, who make their living by selling dumplings to travelers, are now in a straitened state; their dumplings, as a consequence, have become smaller. The mood which prevails over the poem is what we may call sadness. But, we ask, what is the sadness directed toward? Toward the local villagers? Toward the fate of mankind, represented by the villagers? Toward the poet himself, the lonely traveler? Toward the summer that has gone? Or toward both man and nature that must change with time? The word “too” and the verbless last line leave the whole meaning ambiguous; nevertheless the mood which comes out of it gives us a uniform impression of sadness. The feeling of pity, which the poet originally felt toward the villagers, is universalized by the ambiguity which the poem embodies. While the mood of sabi is based on a certain philosophical attitude, that of shiori comes out of the ambiguity in meaning. Both of these moods have a certain, almost identical undertone, although, perhaps, shiori has a greater implication of sadness than of loneliness.

Zeami also had a notion similar to shiori and expressed it in a similar term: we remember his metaphor of a withering flower in describing the effect of a superb performance. His shiori, however, seems to differ from Bashō's in two main respects. First, it strictly follows the implication of our second verb shioru, which means “to wither”. Zeami's idea, consequently, does not imply flexibility or ambiguity. Secondly, Zeami's shiori always seems to have its contrast in the background: behind shiori there lingers graceful, flowering beauty. We see a blooming flower in a withering one, blossoms on a dead tree. We recognize no such double image in Bashō's shiori. A dead tree is a dead tree; it is beautiful because it has followed its destiny to the end.

Hosomi, literally meaning “slenderness”, seems to mean the delicacy of sentiment lying in the depth of a poem. Kyorai says: “Hosomi is not found in a feeble poem.” Then he continues: “Hosomi lies in the feeling of a poem.” The poem he cites for illustration is:

I wonder whether
seabirds too are asleep
on Lake Yogo tonight.(30)

The poet is trying to sleep under a thin quilt in a cold winter night at a certain lakeside village. Suddenly he hears a seabird's cry. At once he compares himself with the seabird, and wonders if the seabirds on the lake are too cold to go to sleep. The poet buries himself in an external object with delicate sensitivity; this is hosomi. It is, as it were, a fine vibration of the poet's heart in response to the smallest stimulus in nature. Hosomi is a sensitive working of the heart which penetrates into the innermost nature of things. It is subtle but not feeble; it has a power coming from the poet's mind concentrated on the smallest phenomenon in nature. Anyone can catch crude emotions such as anger or jealousy, yet it requires utmost sensitivity to grasp a formless mood which surrounds the life of a natural object.

Hosomi is referred to by Bashō in another instance, when he commented on a poem by one of his disciples:

The monkey's shriek
is hoarse, his teeth white.
Over the peak, the moon.

Bashō criticized the poet for his excessive desire to create an unusual scene, and himself composed a haiku for the sake of contrast:

A salted sea-bream,
showing its teeth, lies chilly
at the fish shop.(31)

The writer of the first poem has not put himself in the monkey's position; he is standing a little distance away from the monkey and listening to his shriek. But Bashō has set himself within the object—a sea-bream. Just as the writer of the seabird poem can feel what the seabirds feel, Bashō feels chilly as the salted fish feels chilly at a fish shop in winter. The whiteness of the fish's exposed teeth has caused a delicate vibration of the the poet's heart, establishing a slender but firm relation between the fish and the poet. This quality is explained as hosomi.

“Inspiration” refers to an instantaneous insight into the hidden nature of things. Bashō repeatedly taught his disciples not to miss an inspired moment in composing a poem. “If you get a flash of insight into an object”, we have already heard him say, “put it into words before it fades away in your mind”. “Even though a poet may get a glimpse at the real nature of things”, Dohō explains, “he may either nourish his perception or kill it. If he kills his perception, his poem will not have life. The Master once taught that a poet should compose a poem with the force of his inspiration.”32 Bashō advises that a flash of insight should be crystalized into a haiku before any impure element gets in the way. Dohō records:

The Master said: “A poet should discipline himself every day. When he sits at a poetry contest, he should be able to make up a poem instantly after his turn comes; there should be no lapse of time between him and the writing desk. If the poet quickly puts into words what he has just felt, he will have nothing to hesitate about. The manuscript of a poem is no better than a trash paper when it is finished and is taken down from the writing desk.” This was the Master's strict teaching. At another time he said: “Composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy. It is also like cutting a ripe watermelon with a sharp knife, or like taking a large bite at a pear. Consider all thirty-six poems as light verse.” All these words show the Master's attempt to remove personal will from the artist's work.33

“Inspiration” does not come from the Muse; it comes from the poet's constant training and discipline. When it arrives, it arrives in an instant. The poet should catch the inspired moment and put his experience into words on the spot. What is important is the inspiration of the moment, and not the arrangement of the words as they are put down on a piece of paper. The manuscript of a poem is in itself nothing more than a trash paper; a poem is alive only when it is in the stage of being composed or read on a writing desk. Therefore, once the poem is finished at the inspired moment, do not change words from one to another. Compose the whole set of thirty-six poems in a light mood—that is, not in a grave mood of a philosophical thinker. “Inspiration” is intuitive, and not cogitative. It is not something which the poet wrings out of himself by effort. The poet's effort should be toward the direction of making it possible for such a moment of “inspiration” to visit upon him.

Bashō rejects artifice on the same ground. Artifice kills “inspiration”; it is merely an intellectual play, without an intuitive insight into nature. Bashō calls it “a craftsman's disease”. “Let a little boy compose haiku”, says he. “A beginner's poem always has something promising.”34 Often the poet's too eager effort to write a good poem does harm to his work, because his personal will tends to show in the foreground of the poem. A good haiku cannot be written merely by a long verse-writing experience or by wide knowledge of the technique of haiku. For this reason, “some who have been practising haiku for many years are slower in knowing true haiku than others who are new in haiku but who have been expert in other arts”, Bashō says.35 Here again we see Bashō's idea that all arts are the same in spirit and that this spirit is the most important element in haiku-writing as well as in other arts.

“Fragrance”, “reverberation” and “reflection” are the main principles which rule the relation between parts of a poem. These terms are often used in linked verse, but they are basic ideas in haiku-writing too. Among them “fragrance” is the oldest idea in Japanese aesthetics, frequently used in the waka tradition. “Fragrance” means “fragrance of sentiment”, some vague quality rising out of a mood and appealing to human senses. Bashō seems to have believed that different parts of a poem should be related to one another by “fragrance”, forming an atmospheric harmony rather than logical coherence as a whole. Dohō points out some examples in linked verse:

How bothersome
are the innumerable names
of spring flowers!
A butterfly, slapped,
awakes out of its sleep.

The scene of the second stanza was conceived in harmony with the first, as its writer felt the fragrance of mind in the expression “bothersome” and visualized a butterfly flying up in alarm.36

The first stanza describes the loveliness of spring flowers: all flowers are so beautifully blooming that it is bothersome to remember them by different names. Yet the expression “bothersome” vaguely suggests a certain quality of mood—somewhat unsettled, faintly uneasy, as if something is fluttering in the corner of a beautiful landscape. The second stanza takes over this “fragrance” of mood suggested in the first stanza and introduces the image of a fluttering butterfly. The relation between the two stanzas, therefore, is “fragrance”.

Dohō has many linked haiku which illustrate the principle of “fragrance”, but we shall take just one more example:

A weasel sharply squeaks
somewhere behind the shelves.
Tall bloom-plants,
sewn by no one, grow
thickly in the yard.

The writer of the second stanza could faintly hear a desolate fragrance between the lines of the first stanza and added the scene of a dilapidated house with wild bloom-plants heavily growing in the yard.37

The first stanza has the “fragrance” of a lonely mood: the squeak of a weasel suggests a desolate house in remote wilderness. This particular quality that permeates the mood of the first stanza is strengthened by the image of densely growing bloom-plants in the second. The second stanza follows the first, but again by no logical necessity; it is only a peculiar “fragrance” that unites the two.

“Reverberation” implies a relation of two parts in a poem in which the mood of one part reverberates in the other. Kyorai explains:

Reverberation in poetry may be compared to the case of two objects in which as soon as the one is hit the other reverberates from it. For instance:

On the long porch
a silver-glazed cup
is smashed to pieces.
Watch the long, slender sword
he is about to draw!

The Master taught me with this example, himself imitating the action of flinging a cup in his right hand and of preparing to draw a sword in his left.38

The first stanza describes a tense scene in which a fierce quarrel has begun among swordsmen at a banquet, whereupon one of them in anger smashed his wine cup on the porch. The poet of the second stanza heard the vibration of this mood and composed a stanza which would vibrate with the first: in the second stanza the mood is even tenser as two warriors prepare to fight. Here is another example quoted by Dohō:

In the blue sky
dimly hangs the moon
as the day breaks.
The first frost has fallen
at Hira, by the autumn lake.

The writer of the second stanza was inspired by the first line of the first stanza and created a clear, fresh, magnificent scene with the autumn lake and the first frost at Hira.39

The first stanza presents a beautiful mood with a wan morning moon, but there is one image, the blue sky, which suggests the feeling of magnitude. This causes a reverberation in the second stanza and introduces the magnificent scene of a large lake extending into an infinite distance in the chilly autumn air. “Reverberation,” then, is like “fragrance” in its function; it relates one part of a poem to another by a certain quality of mood. Yet, whereas “fragrance” accompanies a calm, elegant mood, “reverberation” appears only when the mood is of tension, excitement, grandeur or magnitude. Such a mood, as it were, is so forceful that it causes an echo in a stanza that follows.

As for “reflection”, Bashō's own comment is recorded:

Men are cutting the brushwood
by a grassy path on the peak.
In the dense pine-wood
on the leftside mountain
is the Temple of Kaya.

The Master said: “In view of the reflection from the line ‘Men are cutting the brushwood,’ it would be better to change the opening line of the second stanza to ‘It is hailing. …’”40

The force of the first line in the first stanza is strong, rough and coarse. But “In the dense pine-wood” implies a silent, calm atmosphere. So Bashō thought that the mood of the second stanza did not “reflect” that of the first, and advised to change the line to “It is hailing …”, which would correspond to the roughness of the mood in the first stanza. “Reflection”, again like “fragrance” or “reverberation”, is the reflection of a mood between two different parts of a poem creating a harmony as a whole. Its basic difference from “fragrance” or “reverberation” is that “reflection” can be applied to any mood, quiet or violent.

The concepts of “fragrance”, “reverberation” and “reflection” show that in haiku the relation between parts is based on a vague feeling of similarity in mood. In haiku it is quite possible to bring together two widely different things and still create some strange yet harmonious mood as a whole. The two things may have nothing in common to ordinary eyes, but the imaginative union of the two may create an unusually beautiful fragrance, reverberation or reflection. One of the consequences of this unique idea is the merging of different senses in haiku. The very fact that Bashō used such terms as “fragrance”, “reverberation” or “reflection” in denoting a mood suggests his belief in the interrelatedness of the five senses; from an ordinary point of view a mood would have no smell, no sound, no color. Bashō saw an experience in its total impact; odor, sound and color were one to him. Hence examples of synesthesia are abundant in his work. Among his poems which imply a correspondence between sound and color are:

As evening has come
on the sea, wild ducks' cry
is faintly white.(41)
Quietness …
On the wall, where hangs a painting,
a grasshopper chirps.(42)

The blending of vision and the sense of temperature is seen in such poems as:

Onions lie
washed all in white.
How chilly it is!(43)
The autumn wind
whiter than the rocks of
the Rock Mountain …(44)

Vision and odor are fused in these poems:

Scent of orchids …
It perfumes the wings
of a butterfly.(45)
Their fragrance
is whiter than peach-blossoms:
the daffodils.(46)

The correspondence between sound and smell is shown in the following poems:

The wind fragrantly
sounds, as if to praise
the pines and cedars.(47)
The rippling waves …
They beat time, with the fragrance
of the breeze.(48)

In addition to these, there are many poems in which synesthesia is implied. They juxtapose two different human senses in such a way that a strange fusion of the two will take place. Some of the best poems by Bashō belong to this category:

Quietly, quietly,
yellow flowers fall to the ground.
The sound of the rapids …(49)
The chrysanthemum smell …
In the old town of Nara
many ancient Buddhas.(50)
A cuckoo's cry …
The moonbeams are leaking
through the thick bamboos.(51)

Yellow flowers and the sound of water, the fragrance of chrysanthemums and old Buddhist images, a cuckoo's cry and the moonbeams—there is no immediate relation between the two that constitute these pairs; yet the poet brings the two together—by the principle of “fragrance”, “reverberation” or “reflection”—and creates a uniquely harmonious mood on the whole. The haiku often contains several things contradictory to each other; but still it has an atmospheric unity, the “poetic spirit” permeating its heterogeneous materials. This is the point at which the “correspondence” in haiku differs from its counterpart in French symbolist poetry. French symbolists deliberately try to unite two disparate objects and create the beauty of artifice; their beauty is the perfume of “amber, musk, benjamin and incense”—strong, sensual, artificial, sophisticated, often decadent and even abnormal. The beauty springing out of Bashō's “correspondence” is like the fragrance of a chrysanthemum or orchid—faint, natural, simple, primitive, and never extravagant or shocking. This, of course, stems from his attitude toward life, from his “poetic spirit”, which we have already discussed.

The attitude which tries to accept all things as they are in life came to form another aesthetic concept, “lightness”, in Bashō. As he grew old Bashō emphasized this notion so much that it almost appeared as if he thought it the highest ideal of haiku. “By all means endeavor to produce lightness”, he says to one of his disciples, “and tell this to your friends too”.52 “I was delighted”, he says to another, “to find that, among other improvements, lightness has come to prevail in your poetry in general”.53 As for the nature of “lightness”, there is an interesting dialogue in Kyorai's writings:

A certain man asked about the new flavor of haiku. The Master said: “Do not take duck soup; sip fragrant vegetable soup instead.” The man inquired: “How could vegetable soup be compared to duck soup?” The Master smiled and gave no answer. As I was sitting by, I said to the man: “It is no wonder that you should not be tired of duck soup. I have never seen you eating it. You crave for it day and night.” The Master said: “Do not stop even for a moment. If you do, your poetry will become heavy.”54

“Lightness” is a beauty found in common, everyday things. It is not gorgeous but plain, not sophisticated but naive, not greasy but faintly fragrant. It is a simple beauty, as Bashō says elsewhere: “When you compose a poem, be simple and bold …”55 It is free of sentimentalism, as he criticizes a certain poem for being sweet.56 It is a beauty of innocence, as he says: “Simply observe what children do.”57 It is also “shallow”, as he says: “The style I have in mind resembles a shallow sand-bed river. Both the form and content of a poem should be light.”58 “Shallow” does not imply lack of depth in meaning. Poetry is compared to the pure water flowing in a shallow sand-bed river; it is transparent, smooth, and not stagnant. A “shallow” or “light” poem, in other words, is devoid of any intent to teach philosophical ideas or to indulge in deep emotions. That “lightness” does not connote the shallowness of thought or feeling is obvious in the second half of Kyorai's passage as quoted above. Only those who have tasted duck soup may properly appreciate the flavor of vegetable soup; only those who can deeply feel may attain the stage of transcendental “lightness”. The relation between “lightness” and “heaviness” is not antithetical but dialectical.

The nature of “lightness” is further clarified as Bashō mentions an actual example. It is, as cited by Dohō:

Under the trees
soup, fish salad, and all,
in cherry-blossoms.

When this poem was composed, the Master said: “This has a flavor of blossom-viewing poetry in the mood of lightness.”59

Cherry-blossom viewing, of course, had been a common poetic theme since ancient times. But this haiku differs from traditional blossom-viewing poems because it does not praise the loveliness of blossoms nor mourn over the passing of spring, but introduces a down-to-earth subject, food. The mood which comes out of a scene where beautiful blossoms are falling on soup and fish salad is “lightness”.

Thus “lightness”, implying naivete and familiarity in style as well as in subject-matter, makes a distinct departure from the tradition of classical Japanese literature. In fact Dohō writes:

Chinese verse, waka, linked verse and haiku are all poetry. Yet haiku covers all the areas of life, including the things which have not been treated in the other three.60

Chinese poetry, waka and linked verse aim at the creation of heroic or elegant beauty; naturally their materials are limited. Yet haiku, with its “lightness”, accepts all things for its material—a muddy crow, a bird's dropping, or even horse-dung. The beauty of haiku is that of the “poetic spirit” which discovers delicate workings of the universal energy in all things of life. If one looks at things with the “poetic spirit”, even the pettiest, humblest things will become subjects of poetry as precious as the blossoms and the moon. The haiku poet may use colloquialism too, which was a taboo in classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. “One use of haiku”, says Bashō, “is to correct colloquialism.”61 A vernacular word, when it is used in haiku, is no longer crude or indecent; it is “corrected”, it is elevated to the poetic level. Thus the realm of haiku, both in subject-matter and in language, is as broad as the whole range of human life.

A light mood as a distinguishing element of the haiku is re-emphasized by Dohō when he says: “a willow tree in the spring rain completely belongs to the world of linked verse. A crow digging up mud-snails is an exclusive property of haiku poets.” Indeed we cannot imagine a graceful linked verse writer watching a dirty crow digging the muddy rice-paddy. A haiku poet, on the other hand, can write a poem like:

In the rain of June
let us go and see the floating
nest of a little grebe.(62)

No ordinary adult would be tempted to go out in the rain just to see a grebe's nest on the pond. But the poet Bashō, with almost a childlike innocence, enjoys doing so. “Let us go and see” successfully conveys the lightheartedness of the poet, which is in the center of the poem's mood.

The principle of “lightness” results in another characteristic of haiku, humor. The world of man is full of contradictions and struggles, and one is often provoked, angry and desperate. A haiku poet, however, looks at them from a distance, with the sympathy of a man who has calmly given up fighting. Life is a tragedy to those who feel, but is a comedy to those who stop and think. When the haiku poet leisurely watches other people without being involved in their emotions, a smile forms in his face, humor emerges in his work. For instance:

a peasant makes straw sandals
in the moonlight,
when a neighbor wakes to shake off
the fleas in early autumn.(63)

The first stanza depicts a poor farmhouse scene. The peasant, unable to live on his daytime work alone, makes straw sandals late at night; he works in the moonlight outdoors to save lighting oil, yet he has to be cautious not to disturb sleeping neighbors. The second stanza, while carrying on the modest village scene, introduces a streak of humor by describing a neighbor awakened by fleas and coming out of his shack to shake them off. The poet shows no indignation or sentimentality at the poor peasant life; he only watches it understandingly and smilingly.

The haiku, then, was for Bashō the way to salvation. As he recalls, there were times when he craved for an official post or wanted to become a monk, yet he failed in both and hung to the thin string of haiku.64 Bashō refused to take a practical way of life, but neither could he go along with the Buddhist view of salvation. His standpoint differs from the writer's or Buddhist's in that Bashō's “poetic spirit” does not deny the values of the present world for the sake of the world yonder. Buddhism would recommend that man should renounce all the worldly values and enter an enlightened realm ruled by the great cosmic law. Bashō, on the other hand, takes an attitude so passive and all-inclusive that he need not renounce anything. For a Buddhist, life exists because there is death. For Bashō, life exists because there is death, indeed; but at the same time death exists because there is life—life is just as important as death. Bashō's ideas on poetry are ultimately the manifestations of such an attitude toward life. Sabi and wabi are the principles by which man purges his excessive emotions and gains serenity of mind; they enable man to live in this world while transcending it. “Fragrance,” “reverberation” and “reflection” are the ideas by which man unites opposites and resolves struggles; they help man to see a correspondence between himself and nature. “Lightness” is a concept through which man recognizes the true value of common ways of living; it teaches man how to endure hardship with a smile, to sympathize with others with a warm heart. Religious pessimism and pragmatic optimism, medieval asceticism and modern humanism, feudalist conservatism and bourgeois liberalism, all are blended in Bashō's poetry. Bashō includes multitudes; he physically lives among them, while detached from them spiritually. “Attain a high stage of enlightenment and return to the world of common men” was his deathbed teaching.65

The word bashō designates a banana plant, symbolizing the mutability of life with its large, soft leaves. The poet, in adopting it for his pseudonym, attempted to overcome sadness of life by “attaining a high stage of enlightenment” through haiku. Like the water in a shallow sand-bed river, he never stayed at one place either in actual life or in poetry; he traveled extensively throughout his life and wrote numerous haiku as he traveled along. Yet haiku, after all, was not a religion. As he grew old, a doubt came upon him as to whether haiku itself was not one of those human passions which kept him from attaining a higher stage of religious awakening. Day and night he thought of poetry; as he slept he dreamed of walking in the morning clouds and in the evening dusk, and as he awoke he admired the mountains, the water, and wild birds.66 He also writes:

No sooner had I decided to give up my poetry and closed my mouth than a sentiment tempted my heart and something flickered in my mind. Such is the magic power of the poetic spirit.67

Is there a difference between ordinary men's attachment to material interest and Bashō's to poetry? Bashō tried, as Zeami did, to bring art and religion together. But gradually he discovered, as Zeami did, that the two could not become one as long as religion denied some humanistic values which were the motives of art. Did Bashō finally recognize the priority of religion to art when, shortly before his death, he referred to poetry as “sinful attachment”?68 Whatever the answer may be, the fact remains that his great poetry is a combined product of the two: his philosophy of life comparable to religion in its profound understanding of reality, and his art which gave it a full expression.


  1. Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) was born in a samurai family, but left home as a youth and spent most of his life traveling through various regions of Japan and composing haiku poems along the way. His ideas on the nature of poetry are suggested in his prose works such as “Genjū-an no ki” (The Unreal Dwelling, 1690), “Heikan no setsu” (On Closing the Gate, 1692), “Saimon no ji” (The Rustic Gate, 1693) and “Oi no kobumi” (A Traveler's Scribble, 1709), as well as in his letters to his pupils. But it is in the writings of the two leading disciples under him, Kyorai and Dohō (see notes 3 and 5), that Bashō's poetics fully reveals itself.

  2. A form of classical Japanese poetry. Also called the tanka. It consists of five lines, with 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables each. Since around the ninth century it had been an art almost exclusively for the upper class.

  3. Hattori Dohō (1657-1730), one of Bashō's leading disciples. His Sanzōshi (Three Books on the Art of Haiku. Completed not long after Bashō's death, but not published until 1776) is one of the most reliable records of Bashō's teachings on the haiku.

  4. Sanzōshi, in Shōmon haiwabun-shū (abbreviated as SH hereafter), 162.

  5. Mukai Kyorai (1651-1704), one of the best poets among Bashō's followers. His Kyorai shō (Selected Writings of Kyorai. Published 1775), containing many informal conversations between Bashō and himself, is an excellent material to learn Bashō's ideas on the haiku. The passage in question appears in “Kyorai no monnan ni kotauru no ben”, SH, 423-424. Kyorai wrote another book on the principles of haiku, called Tabine-ron (Sleeping on a Journey, published in 1778).

  6. Oi no kobumi, Bashō ichidai-shū (abbreviated as BI hereafter), 572.

  7. Sanszōshi, SH, 162-163.

  8. Ibid., 164.

  9. Ibid., 181.

  10. Cf. Yoshie Okazaki, “Banbutsu kōkan” (Correspondences), Okazaki Yoshie chosaku-shū, VI, 53-83.

  11. Sanzōshi, SH, 182.

  12. “Minomushi batsu”, BI, 614.

  13. Sanzōshi, SH, 164.

  14. “Heikan no setsu”, BI, 627.

  15. “Saimon no ji”, BI, 633.

  16. Oku no hosomichi, BI, 587.

  17. Oi nikki, BI, 52.

  18. Tomaribune-shū, BI, 79.

  19. Oku no hosomichi, BI 595.

  20. Kanjinchō, BI, 48.

  21. Oku no hosomichi, BI, 595.

  22. Saga nikki, BI, 606.

  23. Kyorai shō, SH, 276-277.

  24. Fuyu no hi, BI, 75.

  25. Kyorai shō, SH, 277.

  26. “Kyoshi no monnan ni kotauru no ben”, SH, 420.

  27. Kyorai shō, SH, 277.

  28. “Kyoshi no monnan ni kotauru no ben”, SH, 420.

  29. Kyorai shō, SH, 277.

  30. Ibid., 277.

  31. Fūshi, Haikai jiteiki (1750's). Quoted in Bashō kōza, III, 8.

  32. Sanzōshi, SH, 163.

  33. Ibid., 163.

  34. Ibid., 163.

  35. Ibid., 163.

  36. Ibid., 174.

  37. Ibid., 176.

  38. Kyorai shō, SH, 273.

  39. Sanzōshi, SH, 175.

  40. Sanchō sangin hyōgo”, BI, 553.

  41. Nozarashi kikō, BI, 88.

  42. Bashō-ō shōsoku-shū, BI, 56.

  43. Infutagi, BI, 86.

  44. Oku no hosomichi, BI, 599.

  45. Bashō-ō shinseki-shū, BI, 53.

  46. Oi nikki, BI, 80.

  47. Ibid., 38.

  48. Ibid., 38.

  49. Areno, BI, 23.

  50. Oi nikki, BI, 70.

  51. Saga nikki, BI, 605.

  52. Bashō's letter to Sanpū, June 24, 1694. Bashō kōza, VII, 291.

  53. Bashō's letter to Dohō, September 23, 1694. Ibid., 320.

  54. “Fugyoku ate ronsho”, (1695), Kyorai shō; Sanzōshi; Tabine-ron, 226.

  55. Ibid., 226.

  56. Kyorai shō, SH, 252.

  57. Tabine-ron, SH, 233.

  58. “Betsuzashiki jo”, Shōmon haikai zenshū, 529.

  59. Sanzōshi, SH, 169.

  60. Ibid., 155.

  61. Ibid., 182.

  62. Ibid., 155.

  63. Ibid., 175.

  64. “Genjū-an no ki”, BI, 614-615.

  65. Sanzōshi, SH, 162.

  66. Oi nikki, Shōmon haikai go-shū, 13.

  67. “Seikyo no ben”, BI, 638.

  68. Oi nikki, Shōmon haikai go-shū, 13.

Nobuyuki Yuasa (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10029

SOURCE: Introduction to Bashō: The Narrow Road to the Deep North and other Travel Sketches, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, Penguin Books, 1966, pp. 9-49.

[In the essay below, Yuasa remarks on Bashō's genius, which lifted haiku above the efforts of his predecessors to the realm of perfect poetry. The critic goes on to discuss the travel sketches, in particular The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which, Yuasa contends, Bashō is seeking a vision of eternity in the impermanent world.]

Haiku, or hokku as it was called during the lifetime of Bashō, is the shortest among the traditionally accepted forms of Japanese poetry. It consists of seventeen syllables,1 divided into three sections of five-seven-five. For example,

Furuike ya, kawazu tobikomu, mizu no
Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water—
A deep resonance.(2)

It is obvious, however, that it is not sufficient to define haiku purely from the standpoint of syllabic structure, for haiku, like any other form in literature, has grown out of a long process, and it is subject to a number of restrictions historically imposed upon it. Let me, therefore, attempt by way of introduction a short history of haiku so that the reader may get acquainted with the essential traits of this most fascinating literary form.

Long before haiku, or even its distant prototype, came into existence, there was already an established form of poetry in Japanese literature, and this form, waka, consisted of thirty-one syllables, divided into five sections of five-seven-five-seven-seven. For example,

Haru no no ni, sumire tsumi ni to, ko
shi ware zo,
no o natsukashimi, hitoyo ne ni keru.
Coming with a light heart
To pick some violets,
I found it difficult to leave
And slept overnight
Here in this spring field.(3)

Or again,

Hisakata no, hikari nodokeki, haru no
hi ni,
shizugokoro naku, hana no chiru ramu.
On a long spring day,
When all is happily bathed
In the peaceful sun,
Cherry blossoms alone fall—
Unwilling to stay?(4)

As these examples indicate, this older and longer form of Japanese poetry was particularly suited for emotive expression and refined description of nature. Hence it became extremely popular among aristocratic courtiers. Courtiers, however, employed this form sometimes in their playful mood as a medium of witty conversation, breaking it into two separate halves of five-seven-five and seven-seven. For example,

Okuyama ni, fune kogu oto no, kikoyuru
Nareru konomi ya, umi wataru ramu.
How is it that I hear
The noise of creaking oars
In the deepest mountains?
Because of the ripening fruits
That rub against wood as oars do.(5)

Or again,

Hitogokoro, ushimitsu ima wa, tanoma
ji yo.
Yume ni miyu ya to, ne zo sugi ni keru.
It has passed midnight,
I no longer wait for you,
Pining for sorrow.
Oh, dear, I overslept,
Wanting to see you in the dream.(6)

Sometimes the order of the two halves was reversed to give more independence to each counterpart and greater freedom to the exercise of wit. For example,

Ta ni hamu koma wa, kuro ni zo ari keru.
Nawashiro no, mizu ni wa kage to, mie tsure
The horse grazing on the bank
Seems to me black in colour.
I think it otherwise,
For its reflection in the paddy
Says chestnut-brown.(7)

This kind of witty verse, which continued to be written under the name of linked verse (renga) throughout the Heian period (794-1191), seems to me to be the earliest germ of haiku poetry, for it is here that for the first time the five-seven-five syllabic structure came to be recognized as a poetic unit, though not completely independent, and furthermore, the witty and playful tone of the linked verse is a heritage which passes into the marrow of later haiku, though somewhat modified by subsequent developments.

Towards the end of the Heian period, and more universally in the Kamakura period (1192-1392), arose the fashion of writing a long chain of linked verse by multiplying the number of links. For example,

Nara no miyako o, omoi koso yare.
Yaezakura, aki no momiji ya, ika nara mu.
Shigururu tabi ni, iro ya kasanaru.
I wonder how it is now
In the ancient capital of Nara.
Those time-honoured cherries
That bloom in double flowers
Must be in their autumnal tints.
Each rain of fall brings forth
Ever-deepening colours in the leaves.(8)

In the beginning, the number of poems thus linked together was relatively small, but before long as many as thirty-six, forty-four, fifty, or even one hundred poems began to be included in a series. What must be borne in mind in reading these long sequences of linked verse is that they were written by a number of poets sitting together and writing alternately, and that each poem in a series was linked to the immediately preceding one either by witty association or verbal play. The result was often a kind of kaleidoscopic beauty with infinite variety revealed to the reader in a slowly evolving movement.

Inherent in these long sequences of linked verse, however, was a danger that they might degenerate into chaotic confusion or tedious monotony. To prevent this, therefore, various attempts were made to establish certain rules of composition, and various schools of poets began to be formed. During the Kamakura period, these schools were classified roughly into two groups, serious (ushin) and non-serious (mushin), the former trying to emulate the elegant style of waka and the latter persisting in witty composition of a lower order. Towards the end of the Kamakura period and during the Muromachi period (1393-1602), however, the poets of the serious group won gradual ascendancy, and with the coming of Sōgi (1421-1502) the art of linked verse reached its perfection. Let me quote here the first eight poems of his masterpiece called Minase Sangin as an example of his superb art.

Snow-capped as they are,
The gentle slopes of the mountains
Fade into the hazy mist
At twilight on a spring day.
The river descends far and distant,
Plum-fragrance filling the village.
In a soft river breeze
Stands a single willow tree
Fresh in spring colour.
At early dawn every push of the oar
Is audible from a passing boat.
There must be a moon
Dying in the morning sky
Wrapped in a heavy fog.
The ground is covered with frost,
The autumn is drawing to its close.
In a sorrowful voice
A cricket is heard singing
Beneath the withering grass.
I paid a call to a friend of mine,
Taking a desolate lane by the hedge.(9)

Note in the above how each poem takes up the suggestion of the preceding poem and yet opens a new world of its own, so that the reader is carried through the whole series as through the exquisitely arranged rooms of a building, always entertained by delightful changes but never arrested by sudden contradictions. It is no longer witty association or verbal play but something in the depths of the human heart that combines these poems. I think it is particularly significant from our point of view that already in the times of Sōgi, the starting piece (hokku) of a series, which was always written in the five-seven-five syllable form, was given a special place and composed only by the most experienced of the poets. At least two things were considered essential to the starting piece. First, a reference to the season in which it is written, and second, the existence of the so-called breaking word (kireji), a short emotionally charged word which, by arresting the flow of poetic statement for a moment, gives extra strength and dignity. These are restrictions that bind later haiku as well.

Towards the end of the Muromachi period and in the early part of the Edo period (1603-1866), linked verse of a lower order (haikai no renga), which continued to be written in the preceding age merely as a kind of recreative pastime, gained enormous popularity. This is, of course, partly due to the over-refinement and elaboration of serious poetry, but mainly because freedom and open laughter, which characterized linked verse of a lower order, suited the taste of the merchant class which was then rising throughout the country. The earliest innovators are Sōkan (dates unknown) and Moritake (1473-1549). Let me quote here some of their poems (hokku) to give a glimpse of their poetic world.

In a perfect circle
Rises the spring day,
But it gains an enormous length
By the time it sinks.
To the moon in the sky
If you put a handle,
It will certainly be
An excellent fan.
A hanging willow
In beautiful green
Paints eyebrows
On the brow of a cliff.
Not in the flower
But rather in the nose
The smell resides—
So it seems to me.

Even in the technique of linking, they seem to have almost gone back to the playful mood of the poets of the Heian period. For example,

I wanted, yet not quite wanted,
To use my sword to kill a man.
Capturing a thief,
I was surprised to find him
None but my own son.(10)

Or again,

Lighter than paper,
Plum blossoms are sent flying
In the holy compound
On a spring day.
Unwilling it seems, to fall behind,
Crows and bush warblers fly about.(11)

The witticism of Sōkan and Moritake was carried a step further to a bold and conscious acceptance of colloquialism by Teitoku (1571-1653). He it was who first stated explicitly that linked verse of a lower order had an artistic merit peculiar to itself, and that it, being ‘the voice of the happy people’, should not hesitate to use any popular terminology (haigon) available to provoke healthy laughter. What actually happened in his poetry, however, was somewhat different from what he proposed to do in his theoretical statements, for he did everything so consciously, so calculatingly: almost by rule and measure. For example,

Wonderful coolness
Is packed intact
In the lumpish moon
Of a summer evening.
No bigger than a fist, it seems,
The clouds that brought the shower.(12)

This linked verse happens to be fairly good poetry, but if one looks at it closely, one realizes that the link is provided by an elaborate net of verbal association (‘lump’ and ‘fist,’ and ‘evening’ and ‘shower’). Bashō criticized this kind of linking technique as being mechanical (mono-zuke), for, carried to an extreme, it often leads to the impoverishment of poetry. The same tendency can be detected in Teitoku's hokku.

Dumplings rather than flowers
They seem to choose—
Those wild geese
Flying home to the north.
The year of the tiger
Has come—
Even the spring mist rises
In spots and stripes.

What Teitoku intended but did not quite succeeed in doing, was achieved by Sōin (1605-82) and his disciples, particularly Saikaku (1642-93) among them. I think it is significant that both Sōin and Saikaku chose as the centre of their activityŌsaka, the city where the power of the merchant class was strongest. In the poems of Teitoku, as we have seen, the language was often colloquial enough, but the depicted scenes themselves were not greatly different from the elegant scenes of serious poetry. In the poems of Sōin and Saikaku, however, all the events of this ‘floating world’ are reported with absolute freedom—in cheerful rhythm and truly popular idiom. To quote some of their hokku:

Long rain of May,
The whole world is
A single sheet of paper
Under the clouds.
Exactly in the shape of
A letter in the Dutch alphabet
Lies in the sky
A band of wild geese.
Saying, ‘Shishi, shishi,’
My wife encourages the baby
To pass water, and I hear
The noise of a morning shower.
Walking in a desolate field,
I picked up a woman's comb;
She must have come here
To pluck flowers in spring.

Sōin and his disciples insisted that the real merit of their poetry was in metaphor (gūgen), that is, saying one thing and meaning another. This is an idea that was later developed by Bashō into the more significant theory of substance (jitsu) and essence (kyo) in poetry. As interpreted by Sōin and his disciples, however, metaphor meant simply bringing together two things of different categories by ingenuity. For example, a morning shower and urination in the third poem quoted above. The same kind of ingenious flight can be detected in the linking technique.

Thus gathered in a company,
We have in the midst of us
A tree of laughter and talk,
A fragrant plum tree.
The piercing voice of a bush warbler
Is an alarm for the slumbering world.
On a misty morning,
A line of smoke from my pipe
Is broken sideways.
Palanquin-bearers having passed,
There arose a blast of mountain wind.(13)

Here the links are provided by clever interpretation and ingenious transfer (what Bashō called kokoro-zuke). It was certainly an improvement over the mechanical linking technique of Teitoku, because it opened a new world of poetry by giving a freer play to the human mind. There was, however, something vitally important lacking in the poetry of Sōin and his disciples, as is amply testified by their inferior works which almost degenerated into nonsense verse. Just when people became aware of this—when poets like Gonsui (1650-1722) and Onitsura (1661-1738) were making their efforts to save poetry from vulgarity—our master, Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) employed his great genius to lift haiku once and for all into the realm of perfect poetry: poetry that embodied in itself at once the seriousness and elegance of Sōgi and the freedom and energy of Sōin, indeed, poetry that is worth reading hundreds of years after his death, or for that matter, at any time in human history.

Bashō was born in the city of Ueno in the province of Iga (now a part of Mie Prefecture) in 1644. His father, Yozaemon, was a minor samurai in the service of the Tōdō family that had ruled the city for a number of generations. Bashō had two elder brothers, and one elder and three younger sisters. Financially, his family was not particularly favoured, and his father is said to have supported the family by teaching writing to the children of the vicinity. Bashō was called Kinsaku in childhood, and Tōshichirō, or sometimes Chūemon, after his coming of age. In 1653, when Bashō was only nine years old, he entered the service of the Tōdō family, officially as a page, but in reality more as a study-mate of the young heir, Yoshitada, who was older than Bashō by only two years. Thus began their relatively short but extremely warm friendship. In 1655 Bashō's father died.

Born with a delicate constitution, Yoshitada took more to the acquisition of literary accomplishments than to the practice of military arts. He and Bashō studied the art of linked verse under the guidance of Kigin (1624-1705), one of the ablest disciples of Teitoku. Yoshitada must have been a fairly good poet himself, for he was given the pen name of Sengin, which had one character in common with his teacher's pen name. Bashō's pen name in those days was Sōbō. The following two poems (hokku) of his, published in 1664 in the anthology named Sayono-nakayama Shū, are the earliest recorded.

The moon is the guide,
Come this way to my house,
So saying, invites
The host of a wayside inn.
The leafless cherry,
Old as a toothless woman,
Blooms in flowers,
Mindful of its youth.

Needless to say, one can detect a heavy influence of the deliberate style of Teitoku in these poems. In 1665 Sengin, together with his fellow poets, composed a chain of linked verse consisting of one hundred pieces to commemorate the thirteenth anniversary of Teitoku's death. Bashō contributed seventeen poems, but they were written in a style quite similar to that of the poems quoted above.

In 1666 Sengin died at the age of twenty-five. His early and sudden death must have given Bashō a tremendous shock, for upon returning from Kōyasan, where he enshrined the mortuary tablet of Sengin by the order of the bereaved father, Bashō asked for permission to resign from his service. The permission denied, he ran away to Kyōto.

The exact manner in which Bashō spent the next five years in Kyōto is unknown. It is generally believed, however, that, making his abode at the Kinpukuji Temple, he studied Japanese classics under Kigin, Chinese classics under Itō Tanan, and calligraphy under Kitamuki Unchiku. One can detect an air of greater freedom in the poems Bashō wrote during his stay in Kyōto. For example,

Unable to meet
At their annual rendezvous,
The two stars fret
In the fretful sky of July.
Coquettish bush-clovers
Stretched out on the ground,
Ill-mannered just as much
As they are beautiful.
The sharp-crying cuckoo
Seems to have dyed
With the blood of his mouth
These azaleas on the rocks.

The episode with Juteini is also believed to be an event of those years. Historically, however, there is nothing known about this woman except that she was the mistress of Bashō in his youthful days. In any case, the five years in Kyōto must have been very fruitful and yet in many ways stormy ones for Bashō.

In 1671 Bashō returned to his native place, and in the spring of the following year, he presented to the Tenman Shrine of Ueno City the first anthology of his own editing, named Kai Ōi. It was a collection of hokku coupled in pairs, each pair compared, judged and criticized by Bashō. For example,

Time and time again,
Nipped by a sickle
With a click—
Beautiful, beautiful cherry.
Come and take a look
At this tapestry of cherry,
Tapestry-coated old man,
My friend, Jinbe.

The first poem, by Rosetu,14 is excellent in that it praises the cherry tree by saying, ‘Time and time again’. Wit of this kind is certainly a model for all composition. The second poem by myself, tries to communicate the idea that Jinbe's rich coat will lose its colour, if he comes to see the cherry. It must be admitted, however, that this poem is weak not only in structure but also in diction that gives real beauty to the poem. Let me condemn my poem therefore, by saying that Jinbe's soft head is no match for the sharp blade of the sickle.

It is possible, of course, to suspect that this judgment was formed by Bashō out of the modesty which was so characteristic of him, but at the same time, no one will fail to observe that this anthology was the work of a very ambitious man. So in 1672, after a short stay of several months in his native place, Bashō left for Edo (Tōkyō), the city which was thriving as the seat of the Tokugawa government. His firm determination at the time of departure is expressed by the poem he left behind.

Separated we shall be
For ever, my friends,
Like the wild geese
Lost in the clouds.

Now, unlike Kyōto, Edo was a relatively young and growing city, and there was a great deal of activity and freedom in the air. For the first few years at least, Bashō seems to have found it difficult to decide what he really wanted to do. He stayed with his friends and admirers, and engaged in work of a miscellaneous character. Even through those years of groping, however, Bashō seems to have gained an increasingly firm footing in the poetic circles of Edo, for in 1675 when Sōin came from Ōsaka, Bashō was among the poets who were invited to compose linked verse with him.

The encounter with Sōin must have been an epoch-making event for Bashō, for upon this occasion he changed his pen name from Sōbō to Tōsei. Deep respect for Sōin, as well as his marked influence, can be felt in the linked verse he composed in the year after.

Under this plum tree,
Even a black bull will learn
To sing a song of spring
Filled with cheerful joy.
Coming, as it is, from a human throat,
The song is better than the frog's chorus.
Lightly, fancifully,
Sprinkled upon this world—
Tiny rains of spring.
In the field, young shoots float in pools
Muddy as bean-paste mixed with vinegar.(15)

Note in the above the absolute freedom of movement which was typical of Sōin and his school. In the first poem, Bashō identifies himself with a black bull and admires the plum tree which is the source of his poetic inspiration, namely Sōin. In the second poem, one of the Bashō's disciples praises him for writing a beautiful song. What Bashō learned from Sōin is the special value in poetry of the humble and unpretentious imagery of everyday life, as he himself testifies by saying,

If you describe a green willow in the spring rain it will be excellent as linked verse of a higher order. Linked verse of a lower order, however, must use more homely images, such as a crow picking mud-snails in a rice paddy.

Bashō is reported to have said, ‘But for Sōin, we would be still licking the slaver of aged Teitoku.’

In the summer of 1676, Bashō returned to his native place for a short visit—with the following poem.

My souvenir from Edo
Is the refreshingly cold wind
Of Mount Fuji
I brought home on my fan.

Returning to Edo almost immediately, he actively engaged in writing poetry. During the following four years, his poems were published in different anthologies in large numbers, and also anthologies consisting mainly of his and his disciples' poems began to be published, among which Edo Sangin, Tōsei Montei Dokugin Nijū Kasen, Inaka no Kuawase, and Tokiwaya no Kuawase may be mentioned. On the whole, however, Bashō's poems of this period reflect the playful tone and ingenious style of Sōin. To quote some of them:

A male cat
Passed through the hole
In the broken hearth
To meet his mistress.
So it was all right,
Yesterday has passed safely,
Though I ate and drank
Quantities of globefish soup.
Ah, it is spring,
Great spring it is now,
Great, great spring—
Ah, great—

Bashō, however, was not satisfied to remain in this kind of low-toned atmosphere of the ‘floating world’ for long. There was something in him which gradually rebelled against it. In 1680, Sampū,16 one of the admirers of Bashō, built for him a small house in Fukagawa, not far from the River Sumida, in a relatively isolated spot. In the winter of the same year, a stock of Bashō tree (a certain species of banana tree) was presented to him by one of his disciples. Bashō seems to have felt a special attachment to this tree from the very beginning, for he says:

I planted in my garden
A stock of Bashō tree,
And hated at once
The shooting bush-clovers.

Or again about the same tree, he wrote in later years:

The leaves of the Bashō tree are large enough to cover a harp. When they are wind-broken, they remind me of the injured tail of a phoenix, and when they are torn, they remind me of a green fan ripped by the wind. The tree does bear flowers, but unlike other flowers, there is nothing gay about them. The big trunk of the tree is untouched by the axe, for it is utterly useless as building wood. I love the tree, however, for its very uselessness … I sit underneath it, and enjoy the wind and rain that blow against it.

This must have been another epoch-making event for Bashō, for it is from this tree that he took a name for his house, and eventually a new pen name for himself.

Bashō's life at his riverside house must have been an externally peaceful but internally agonizing one, for as he sat there meditating all by himself, he began to revolt more and more from the world which surrounded him. Signs of tremendous spiritual suffering are seen in the poems collected in Azuma Nikki, Haikai Jiin, and Musashi Buri, which were published shortly after his removal to the riverside house. To quote some of them:

A black crow
Has settled himself
On a leafless tree,
Fall of an autumn day.
At midnight
Under the bright moon,
A secret worm
Digs into a chestnut.
On a snowy morning,
I sat by myself
Chewing tough strips
Of dried salmon.
Tonight, the wind blowing
Through the Bashō tree,
I hear the leaking rain
Drop against a basin.
Oars hit waves,
And my intestines freeze,
As I sit weeping
In the dark night.

It was also during those years of suffering that Bashō came to know the Priest Bucchō17 and practised Zen meditation under his guidance. Whether Bashō was able to attain the state of complete enlightenment is a matter open to question, for he repeatedly tells us that he has one foot in the other world and the other foot in this one. There is little doubt, however, that this opportunity gave him the power to see this world in a context in which he had never seen it before.

In 1682, when Bashō's house was only two years old, it was destroyed by a fire that swept through a large part of Edo. So Bashō sought a temporary abode in the house of Rokuso Gohei18 at the village of Hatsukari in the province of Kai (now a part of Yamanashi Prefecture). This misfortune must have shaken him considerably, for something almost like despair is heard in the poems collected in Minashi Guri (Empty Chestnut) which was published immediately after his return to Edo in the summer of 1683. To quote from it:

Tired of cherry,
Tired of this whole world,
I sit facing muddy sake
And black rice.
Who could it possibly be
That mourns the passing autumn,
Careless of the wind
Rustling his beard?
With frozen water
That tastes painfully bitter
A sewer rat relieves in vain
His parched throat.

But despair is hardly the word to express the state of Bashō's mind through those years, for those were the years of the deepest meditation and severest self-scrutiny which developed his awareness of an important truth. It is best expressed by his own words.

What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry.

This is easy to say but difficult to practise. The poems Bashō wrote during the period 1680-83 are not entirely free from the overtones of the ingenious style of Sōin, but they point to the direction in which Bashō was moving—all by himself, finding his way, step by step, through his own suffering, with no one to guide him.

In the summer of 1683, Bashō's mother died in his native place, and in the winter of the same year, a new house was built for him in Fukagawa by his friends and disciples. On this occasion Bashō wrote as follows:

Overhearing the hail,
My old self sits again
In the new house,
Like an overgrown oak.

Bashō, however, did not stay in this house for long, for in the summer of 1684, he started on the first of his major journeys. A vivid account of this journey is given in The Record of a Weather-exposed Skeleton (Nozarashi Kikō). …

What must be borne in mind in reading the travel sketches by Bashō is that travels in his day had to be made under very precarious conditions, and that few people, if any, thought of taking to the road merely for pleasure or pastime. Furthermore, as I have already indicated, Bashō had been going through agonizing stages of self-scrutiny in the years immediately preceding the travels, so that it was quite certain that, when he left his house, he thought there was no other alternative before him. To put it more precisely, Bashō had been casting away his earthly attachments, one by one, in the years preceding the journey, and now he had nothing else to cast away but his own self which was in him as well as around him. He had to cast this self away, for otherwise he was not able to restore his true identity (what he calls the ‘everlasting self which is poetry’ in the passage above). He saw a tenuous chance of achieving his final goal in travelling, and he left his house ‘caring naught for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy’.

This tragic sense is given beautiful expression in the opening passage of The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton. Viewed as a whole, however, this work is not a complete success, because there is still too much self forced upon it—because now and then crude personal emotions hinder the reader from entering into the world of its poetry. It is written in haibun, prose mixed with haiku, but the two are not perfectly amalgamated. Sometimes prose is a mere explanatory note for haiku, and sometimes haiku stands isolated from prose. Particularly towards the end of the work, prose seems to be almost forgotten. In spite of these defects, however, the work is amply rewarding to those who read it with care, because it is the work of a man who tries to cast his own self away and almost achieves it—because here and there in the work we find beautiful poems and prose passages where the author seems to have found for a brief moment his true identity. Indeed, The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton is the first work of Bashō where we find glimpses of his mature style.

Bashō returned to his home in Edo in the summer of 1685 after about nine months of wandering. In 1684, while he was still in Nagoya, however, an anthology of great importance was published. It was called Fuyu no Hi (A Winter Day), and it constitutes the first of the so-called Seven Major Anthologies of Bashō (Bashō Shichibu Shū). If one compares the linked verse of this anthology with the linked verse (quoted above) Bashō wrote back in 1676 under the influence of Sōin, one realizes the great spiritual distance he had travelled in less than a decade.

With a bit of madness in me,
Which is poetry,
I plod along like Chikusai
Among the wails of the wind.
Who is it that runs with hurried steps,
Flowers of sasanqua dancing on his hat?
Under the pale sky of dawn,
I importuned a water official
To pose as a tavern keeper.
A customer having arrived, his red horse
Stands shaking his head moist with dew.(19)

About the special features of Bashō's linking technique I shall have more to say later. Note here, however, the sweet elegance with which the whole poem moves. The influence of Sōin is still faintly detectable, but ingenuity has given place to something at once deeper and quieter—something which is probably best described as human wisdom.

In 1686 two anthologies, Kawazu Awase (Frog Contest) and Haru no Hi (A Spring Day), were published. The former is a collection of poems on frogs by Bashō and his disciples. The latter is traditionally counted as the second of the Major Anthologies, though there are only three poems of Bashō in it. The importance of these anthologies rests on a single poem by Bashō included in them, which is probably the best known of all his poems. It has already been quoted at the beginning of the introduction, but let me quote it here once again with a comment by one of his disciples.20

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water—
A deep resonance.

This poem was written by our master on a spring day. He was sitting in his riverside house in Edo, bending his ears to the soft cooing of a pigeon in the quiet rain. There was a mild wind in the air, and one or two petals of cherry blossom were falling gently to the ground. It was the kind of day you often have in late March—so perfect that you want it to last for ever. Now and then in the garden was heard the sound of frogs jumping into the water. Our master was deeply immersed in meditation, but finally he came out with the second half of the poem,

A frog jumped into water—
A deep resonance.

One of the disciples21 sitting with him immediately suggested for the first half of the poem,

Amidst the flowers
Of the yellow rose.

Our master thought for a while, but finally he decided on

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond.

The disciple's suggestion is admittedly picturesque and beautiful but our master's choice, being simpler, contains more truth in it. It is only he who has dug deep into the mystery of the universe that can choose a phrase like this.

So many people in the past have commented upon this poem that it seems to me that its poetic resources have been well-nigh exhausted. Still it is possible, I believe, to use this poem as an illustration of Bashō's mature style. What is remarkable in this poem is, in my opinion, the symbolism which it achieves without pretending in the least to be symbolic. On the surface the poem describes an action of the frog and its after-effects—a perfect example of objectivity. But if you meditate long enough upon the poem, you will discover that the action thus described is not merely an external one, that it also exists internally, that the pond is, indeed, a mirror held up to reflect the author's mind. Bashō explains this himself in the following way.

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural—if the object and yourself are separate—then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.

Some people have spoken as if Bashō entered into the realization of this principle the very moment he wrote the frog poem. It is difficult to believe that it was so. On the other hand, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that all the poems written by Bashō in his mature style are based on this principle, for it was exactly what Bashō had in mind when he said that there was a permanent, unchangeable element (fueki) in all poetry. In any case, crude personification and ingenious self-dramatization have completely disappeared from his poems. To quote three more:

Under the bright moon
I walked round and round
The lake—
All night long.
Build a fire, my friend,
So it will crackle.
I will show you something good,
A big ball of snow.
All the livelong day
A lark has sung in the air,
Yet he seems to have had
Not quite his fill.

In the early autumn of 1687, Bashō left on a short trip to the Kashima Shrine. The records of this trip constitute A Visit to the Kashima Shrine (Kashima Kikō), the second of the travel sketches translated in this book. Although this is an extremely short work, it is carefully organized with a climax (rather an anti-climax, for Bashō beguiles the reader in his own ironic way) falling just where prose ends and poetry begins in the middle of the work. Its somewhat religious atmosphere is due to the fact that it is a kind of tribute to the priest Bucchō with whom Bashō studied Zen. In its quiet beauty and also in its pseudo-archaic flavour, this work occupies a unique position among the travel sketches by Bashō.

Almost immediately after he returned home from his trip to the Kashima Shrine, Bashō left on the second of his major journeys. This time he stayed on the road for about eleven months, following nearly the same route as he did in the first journey. … This expedition resulted in two travel sketches, The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel (Oi no Kobumi) and A Visit to Sarashina Village (Sarashina Kikō), the third and fourth of the travel sketches translated in this book. The former covers the first half of the journey from Edo to Suma, and the latter is an account of the detour he made to the Sarashina Village (now a part of Nagano Prefecture) on his way home.

Viewed from an artistic point of view, The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel is a great advance over his previous travel sketches, for here for the first time an attempt was made to bring prose and haiku into an organic whole. When Bashō left on the journey of The Records of the Weather-exposed Skeleton, as I have already pointed out, he was just coming out of the agonizing years of self-scrutiny, and was busy finding his identity in nature. In The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel, however, he seems to have succeeded in maintaining a certain artistic distance between himself and his materials. That is why we find in it such beautiful passages as the description of the Suma Beach at the end of the book, superb indeed for its tragi-comical effect. The book is not, however, without its flaws. For one thing, Bashō writes too much about the travel—why he has taken to the road, how he wants to write the travel sketch, and so on. These statements, of course, have their own value, especially read as sources of critical and biographical interest. They do not necessarily, however, contribute to the total effect of the work. It seems to me that there is an air of an ‘étude’ about The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel, and that it should be read as a kind of stepping-stone for the subsequent travel sketches.

A Visit to Sarashina Village is the shortest of all travel sketches by Bashō. It carries on, however, the wonderful tragi-comical effect of the concluding passages of The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel. In its fine polish, in particular, it is unrivalled and shines forth like a gem.

Bashō returned from his expedition to Suma and Sarashina in the autumn of 1688, and already in the spring of the following year he left on the third of his major journeys. Shortly before his departure, however, Arano (Desolate Wilds), the third of the Major Anthologies, was published. Bashō's poems included in this anthology reveal the unusual depth of mind he had achieved after a year of wandering on the road. For example,

How amusing at first
How melancholy it was later
To see a cormorant show
On the darkening river.
Confined to my house
By winter weather,
I snuggled as before
Against an old pillar.

Bashō's third major journey brought him The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi), the last of the travel sketches translated in this book. Leaving Edo in the spring of 1689, he spent more than two and a half years on the road. It is significant, I believe, that he had sold his house in Edo prior to his departure, for it means that he did not expect to return from this journey. What is more significant, however, is that he went to the North this time, avoiding the familiar Tōkaidō route. In the imagination of the people at least, the North was largely an unexplored territory, and it represented for Bashō all the mystery there was in the universe. In other words, the Narrow Road to the Deep North was life itself for Bashō, and he travelled through it as anyone would travel through the short span of his life here—seeking a vision of eternity in the things that are, by their own very nature, destined to perish. In short, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is Bashō's study in eternity, and in so far as he has succeeded in this attempt, it is also a monument he has set up against the flow of time.

It seems to me that there are two things remarkable about The Narrow Road to the Deep North. One is variety. Each locality, including the little unknown places Bashō visited in passing, is portrayed with a distinctive character of its own, so that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Bashō was in possession of a magical power to enter into ‘the spirit of place’. Even the people he met on the road are given characters, each different from the others, so that they leave enduring impressions on the imagination of the reader. Furthermore, we often find in reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North themes and subjects of his previous travel sketches recurring—modified to fit a new pattern, of course, but used to create that enormous variety which alone can give the work an illusion of being as large as the universe and as infinite as time itself.

The other remarkable thing about The Narrow Road to the Deep North is its unity. To use Bashō's own classification, variety, being the temporary, changeable element (ryūkō), is in the substance (jitsu) of the work. Unity, on the other hand, is the permanent, unchangeable element existing in the essence (kyo) of the work. In other words, unity is invisible on the surface, but it is the hidden vital force that shapes the work into a meaningful whole. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, we often find that even place-names are made to contribute to the total effect. Indeed the whole structure of the work is so determined as to meet the demands of unity. Take the major events of the journey, for example. They are arranged not simply linearly according to chronological sequence, but also circularly, according to time of another sort, as is demonstrated in the following table, where the events on the left half of the circle must be related to the opposing events on the right half of the circle.

This is, of course, a simplification, and the work as a whole does not present neat regularity like this. Nevertheless, anyone who reads the work with care will not fail to notice the tremendous effort Bashō makes to achieve unity through variety. Scholars have pointed out that in his attempt to achieve unity Bashō took such liberty as to change the natural course of events, or even invent fictitious events. The result is a superb work of art where unity dominates without destroying variety.

Just one more thing need be mentioned about The Narrow Road to the Deep North. In his preceding travel sketches, as I have already pointed out, Bashō failed to maintain an adequate balance between prose and haiku, making prose subservient to haiku, or haiku isolated from prose. In the present travel sketch, however, Bashō has mastered the art of writing haibun so completely that prose and haiku illuminate each other like two mirrors held up facing each other. This is something no one before him was able to achieve, and for this reason, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is counted as one of the classics of Japanese literature.

Bashō travelled the great arc of the northern routes (Ōshūkaidō and Hokurikudō) in six months, arriving inŌgaki in the autumn of 1689. This is where the record of The Narrow Road to the Deep North breaks off. Bashō, however, did not return to Edo till the winter of 1691. He spent this two-year period travelling a great deal in the vicinity of his native place, making short but happy sojourns at the houses of his disciples. Among such houses, Genjūan (the Vision-inhabited House) and Mumyōan (the House of Anonymity), both situated not far from Lake Biwa, and Rakushisha (the House of Fallen Persimmons) in the suburbs of Kyōto, should be mentioned. Of the last, Bashō wrote as follows:

The retreat of my disciple, Kyorai,22 is in the suburbs of Kyōto, among the bamboo thickets of Shimo Saga—not far from either Mount Arashiyama or theŌigawa River. It is an ideal place for meditation, for it is hushed in silence. Such is the laziness of my friend, Kyorai, that his windows are covered with tall grass growing rank in the garden, and his roofs are buried under the branches of overgrown persimmon trees. The house has developed a number of leaks, and the long rain of May has made straw mats and paper screens terribly mouldy, so that it is difficult to find a place to lie down. Ironically, the sun reaching into the house is the gift with which the master of the house welcomes his guest. I wrote:

Long rain of May,
I saw on the clay wall
A square mark of writing paper
Torn recently off.

Bashō wrote an equally beautiful Essay on the Vision-inhabited House (Genjūan no Ki), and Saga Diary (Saga Nikki) was also a product of his stay at Rakushisha.

During the two-year period we are now dealing with, two anthologies of great importance were published. They are Hisago (A Gourd) and Saru Mino (A Coat for a Monkey), the fourth and fifth of the Major Anthologies. The former is a slim volume consisting of five linked verses, but the latter is a large collection of some four hundred poems (hokku) plus four linked verses and the Essay on the Vision-inhabited House, and it is generally believed that those two anthologies demonstrate the mature style of Bashō (shōfū) at its highest pitch. To quote some poems (hokku) from this period:

A man's voice piercing
Through the air,
The northern stars echo
A beating fulling-block.
In the first shower
Of early winter,
Even a monkey seems to crave
For a raincoat.
Under a cherry tree,
Soup, salad, and all else
Are brought to us,
Dressed in gay blossoms.
With a friend in Ōmi
I sat down, and bid farewell
To the departing spring,
Most reluctantly.
If nothing else,
I have this tree at least
To take shelter in—
A pasania in summer.
Hardly a hint
Of their early death,
Cicadas singing
In the trees.
Under the bright moon,
The children of the vicinity
All lined up
On the porch of a temple.
A sick stray goose
Falling into cold darkness,
I slumbered by myself—
A night on the journey.
For his morning tea
A priest sits down
In utter silence—
Confronted by chrysanthemums.
With your singing
Make me lonelier than ever,
You, solitary bird,
Cuckoo of the forest.
A white narcissus
And a white paper screen
Illuminate each other
In this quiet room.

Now, taken at the surface level, all these poems are purely descriptive, but if one broods upon these poems long enough, one realizes that they also have a symbolic quality. This symbolic quality inherent in the poem is called by Bashō sabi (loneliness), shiori (tenderness), and hosomi (slenderness), depending on the mode of its manifestation and the degree of its saturation. Although definition of these terms in any strict manner would only lead to misunderstanding, let us take, for example, what Bashō says (through the mouth of a disciple23) about sabi.

Sabi is in the colour of a poem. It does not necessarily refer to the poem that describes a lonely scene. If a man goes to war wearing a stout armour or to a party dressed up in gay clothes, and if this man happens to be an old man, there is something lonely about him. Sabi is something like that. It is in the poem regardless of the scene it describes—whether it is lonely or gay. In the following poem, for example, I find a great deal of sabi.

Under the cherry
Flower guards have assembled
To chatter—
Their hoary heads together.

In other words, sabi is the subjective element, deeply buried in the objective element of the poem, but giving it a profound wealth of symbolic meaning. It is indeed by these qualities of sabi, shiori, and hosomi that Bashō's mature style is distinguished from the styles of his predecessors or his own immature style.

It is necessary, I believe, for us to turn at this point to the special features of Bashō's linking technique. I have already pointed out that Teitoku's linking technique was based on verbal association (mono-zuke) and Sōin's on clever interpretation and ingenious transfer (kokoro-zuke). Bashō says that in his case the link is provided by what he calls the aroma (nioi), echo (hibiki), countenance (omokage), colour (utsuri) and rank (kurai) of the preceding poem. Here again the strict definition of the individual terms would only cause confusion, but let us take as an example what Bashō (again through the mouth of a disciple24) says about hibiki.

When you hit something, the noise comes back to you in a matter of an instant. This is what I mean by hibiki. In the following pair, for example, the second poem is a perfect echo of the first.

Against the wooden floor
I threw a silver-glazed cup
Breaking it to pieces.
Look, now, the slender curve
Of your sword, half-drawn.

Even through this brief explanation, I think it is clear that the special features of Bashō's linking technique exist in its imaginative quality. Instead of lashing the poems together forcibly by wit or ingenuity, Bashō moors them, so to speak, with a fine thread of imaginative harmony, giving each poem fair play. It is indeed by virtue of this imaginative linking technique (nioi-zuke) that Bashō was able to achieve an unprecedented degree of perfection in his linked verse. Let me quote here the first few poems of a linked verse collected in Saru Mino as an example of his superb effect.

Combed in neat order
By the first shower
Of winter—
Thick plumage of a kite.
A storm having passed, fallen leaves
Have settled themselves on the ground.
Early in the morning
I wade across the swollen river
My trousers in water.
Silent air is broken by farmers ringing
Piercing alarms to drive a badger away.
In twilight, the horned moon
Reaches to the ruined lattice-door
Through an overgrown ivy.
Here is a greedy man who keeps to himself
The beautiful pears ripe in his garden.(25)

Here is indeed something that is comparable to Sōgi's masterpiece in seriousness and elegance, and to the best of Sōin's poems in freedom and energy.

Bashō returned to Edo from his third major journey after two and a half years of wandering, in the winter of 1691, and in the spring of the following year a new house was built for him. Bashō spent the next two and a half years in this house. For a number of reasons, however, Bashō's life of this period was not a happy one. An unusual degree of ennui is expressed in the essay he wrote in 1693 to announce his determination to live in complete isolation.

If someone comes to see me, I have to waste my words in vain. If I leave my house to visit others, I waste their time in vain. Following the examples of Sonkei and Togorō, therefore, I have decided to live in complete isolation with a firmly closed door. My solitude shall be my company, and my poverty my wealth. Already a man of fifty, I should be able to maintain this self-imposed discipline.

Only for morning glories
I open my door—
During the daytime I keep it
Tightly barred.

Two anthologies of importance were the product of these two and a half years in Edo. They are Fukagawa Shū (Fukagawa Anthology) and Sumidawara (A Charcoal Sack), the latter being the sixth of the Major Anthologies. In the poems Bashō wrote during this period, however, there was a strange sense of detachment from life, which sometimes produced a slightly comical effect—what Bashō called karumi (lightness), but at other times a somewhat sombre effect. For example,

A bush-warbler,
Coming to the verandah-edge,
Left its droppings
On the rice-cakes.
The wild cries of a cat
Having been hushed,
The soft beams of the moon
Touched my bedroom.
Warming myself
At an ashy fire,
I saw on the wall
The shadow of my guest.
The voice of a cuckoo
Dropped to the lake
Where it lay floating
On the surface.
Confined by winter,
A man is guarded
By an age-old pine
On the golden screen.
In audacious quickness
The spring sun rose
Over a mountain-path,
Sweet scent of the plum.
In the sky
Of eight or nine yards
Above the willow—
Drizzling rain.

In the spring of 1694, Bashō left on the last of his major journeys. This time he was determined to travel, if possible, to the southern end of Japan. He was already fifty, however, and his health was failing. The poems he wrote on this journey suggest something almost like a shadow of death. For example,

Autumn drawing near,
My heart of itself
Inclines to a cosy room
Of four-and-a-half mats.
My feet against
A cold plastered wall,
I took a midday nap
Late in summer.
Ancient city of Nara,
Ancient images of Buddha,
Shrouded in the scent
Of Chrysanthemums.
Deep is autumn,
And in its deep air
I somehow wondered
Who my neighbour is.

While Bashō was lingering in Ōsaka and its vicinity, he fell a victim to what seems to have been an attack of dysentery. Here is a vivid description of his condition four days before his death by one of his disciples.26

On the night of October the eighth, though it was almost midnight, Donshū was summoned to our master's bedside. Soon I heard the clatter of an ink bar rubbing against a slab. I wondered what manner of letter it was, but it turned out to be a poem. It was entitled, ‘Sick in bed’.

Seized with a disease
Halfway on the road,
My dreams keep revolving
Round the withered moor.

Later I was summoned by our master, who told me that he had in mind another poem which ended like this:

Round, as yet round,
My dreams keep revolving.

And he asked me which one I preferred. I wanted to know what preceded these lines, of course, but thinking that my question would merely give him discomfort, I said I preferred the first one. Now it is a matter of deep regret that I did not put the question to him, for there is no way of knowing what a beautiful poem the second was.

Thus died on 12 October 1694 one of the greatest geniuses in Japanese literature, and five years after his death, the last of his Major Anthologies, Zoku Saru Mino (A Coat for a Monkey, Continued), was published, being the collection of the poems he wrote in the last few years. Fortunately, however, his works survived him, and through them we can enter into the inner depths of this great man. His travel sketches, in particular, show him at his best or on his way to his best, for they are, as I have already pointed out, the products of his ripest years.


  1. Count the number of vowels to reckon syllables. The Japanese language falls most naturally into breathing groups of five or seven syllables.

  2. This haiku is by Bashō, probably the best known of his masterpieces.

  3. This waka, taken from Manyō Shū, is by Yamabe-no-Akahito, a nature poet in the years of Tempyō (729-48).

  4. This waka, taken from Kokin Shū, is by Ki-no-Tomonori, a contemporary of Ki-no-Tsurayuki (868?-945).

  5. This linked verse is taken from Toshiyori Zuinō. The first poem is by Ōshikōchi-no-Mitsune, a contemporary of Tsurayuki and the second is by Tsurayuki himself.

  6. This linked verse is taken from Shūi Shū. The first poem is by an anonymous court lady and the second by Yoshimine-no-Munesada, who is better known as Henjō (816-90).

  7. This linked verse is taken from Kinyō Shū. The first poem is by Eigen and the second by Eisei. These priests lived in the middle of the Heian period.

  8. This linked verse is taken from Ima Kagami. The first poem is by Fujiwara-no-Kinnori (1103-80), the second by Minamoto-no-Arihito (1103-47) and the third by an anonymous woman.

  9. This linked verse is by Sōgi and his disciples. The starting piece is by Sōgi himself (1421-1502), the second by Shōhaku (1443-1527), the third by Sōchō (1448-1532), and this order is followed in the part of the series quoted here.

  10. This linked verse is taken from Shinsen Inu-Tsukuba Shū edited by Sōkan (dates unknown).

  11. This linked verse is taken from Moritake Dokugin.

  12. This linked verse is taken from Gyokkai Shū. The first poem is by Seishō who is better known as Teishitsu (1610-73) and the second is by Teitoku (1571-1653).

  13. This linked verse is by Sōin and his disciples. It is commonly known as Danrin Toppyaku In. The starting piece is by Sōin (1605-82), the second by Sessai, the third by Zaishiki (1643-1719), and the fourth by Ittetsu.

  14. Hardly anything is known about this poet.

  15. This linked verse is taken from Edo Ryōgin. The starting piece is by Bashō, the second by Shinshō who is better known as Sodō (1642-1716), the third again by Shinshō, and the fourth by Bashō.

  16. Sampū (1647-1732) was a rich merchant in Edo, and acted in many ways as a financial supporter of Bashō. He was a good poet himself, whose style may be best represented by the following poem.

    Blinded by the glimmer
    Of the spade I am,
    As a farmer wields it
    In a spring field.
  17. Bucchō (1643-1715) was the head priest of the Komponji Temple, twenty-first in descent from the founder. Bashō practised Zen under his guidance at the Chōkeiji Temple in Edo during the years of Empō and Tenna (1673-84).

  18. Rokuso Gohei (dates unknown) was one of the pupils of Bucchō in Zen.

  19. This linked verse, taken from Fuyu no Hi, is entitled ‘the Wails of the Wind’ (‘Kogarashi’). The starting piece is by Bashō, the second by Yasui (1658-1743), the third by Kakei (1648-1716), and the fourth by Jūgo (1654-1717).

  20. The disciple's name is Shikō (1665-1731). This passage is taken from Kuzu no Matsubara, a collection of his critical essays.

  21. The disciple's name is Kikaku (1661-1707), probably the most important of Bashō's disciples. He is well known for the masculine sharpness of his wit and his habit of drinking. His style is probably best represented by the following poem:

    Locked firmly
    By a heavy bar—
    This wooden door
    Under the winter moon.
  22. Kyorai (1651-1704) was a native of Nagasaki, whose importance as a disciple of Bashō is probably second only to Kikaku. A collection of his critical essays entitled Kyorai Shō is the most important source for Bashō's ideas on poetry. The style of his poetry is probably best represented by the following poem:

    Under the cherry
    Flower guards have assembled
    To chatter—
    Their hoary heads together.
  23. Kyorai. This passage is taken from Kyorai Shō.

  24. This passage, like the preceding one, is taken from Kyorai Shō. The linked verse quoted here is taken from Izayoi Shō edited by Ginboku. The first poem is by Ryūkō and the second by Shigenari.

  25. This linked verse, taken from Saru Mino, is entitled ‘The First Shower of Winter’ (‘Hatsu Shigure’). The starting piece is by Kyorai, the second by Bashō, the third by Bonchō (?-1714), the fourth by Fumiyuki, the fifth by Bashō, and the sixth by Kyorai.

  26. The disciple's name is Shikō. This passage is taken from his Oi Nikki.

James H. Foard (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10266

SOURCE: “The Loneliness of Matsuo Bashō,” in The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Donald Capps, Mouton, 1976, pp. 363-91.

[In the following excerpt, Foard discusses the three stages of Bashō's life: his early years, his poetic and spiritual wanderings, and his life as a literary and religious master. The critic proposes that Bashō utilized his haiku in an attempt to overcome his isolation and discover his true self.]

In 1918, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, one of the leading Japanese writers of this century, wrote a miniature piece of historical fiction called ‘Karenoshō’ (‘Notes on Withered Fields’).1 It described the death of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), greatest of all haiku poets and one of the giants of Japan's cultural heritage, whose most famous verses can today be quoted by virtually every Japanese. One of those verses, reputed to be his last, gave the title to Akutagawa's short work:

Tabi ni yande
Yume wa kar eno o
Kake maguru
Ill on a journey,
My dreams over withered fields

(KNBZ, 327)2

In his work, Akutagawa described how Bashō's disciples sincerely grieved on the occasion of his death, but grieved over the loss of their master. While they were so occupied, Bashō, the man, passed quietly away, alone in the midst of his disciples.

For over two hundred years before Akutagawa wrote this, the master Bashō had been the object of a cult which was inseparable but distinct from his literary legacy. As Bashō's school of haiku, the Shōmon, quickly became orthodox, the memories and practices of this cult spread through haiku circles all over Japan. The memories were of a wandering sage who found truth by communion with nature through poetry. The practices were of two kinds: (1) an annual worship of Bashō by groups of poets, and (2) the imitation of Bashō's wandering life by certain extraordinary individuals.

The clearest evidence of the worship of Bashō is the conferral of shingo or ‘kami names’ upon him.3 The first conferral came one hundred years after his death, in 1793, when the chief of the Shinto headquarters (the Jingi Haku) entrusted a haiku group from Kyūshu to enshrine Bashō as Tōsei Reishin.4 This granting of shingo, however, only confirmed and added dignity to ceremonies already existing throughout the country. Of greatest importance was the observation of the anniversary of Bashō's death (the twelfth of the tenth month), a normal practice for the commemoration of an ancestor or sectarian leader, probably begun the first year after Bashō's death by his disciples. This worship not only reaffirmed the ideal of a man who had achieved fulfillment through haiku, but also bound the haiku group to common loyalties by offering thanks to Bashō for his poetic legacy. The name of the annual ceremony eventually became Shigureki, or ‘Early Winter Rain Commemoration’, after an appropriate haiku ‘season word’ (kigo.)

A record of such a ceremony near Nagoya in 1793 has come down to us in some detail.5 It tells the story of a local poet called Bokuzan who, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Bashō's death, was touring all the gatherings of poets being held for the occasion. Arriving at a place called Shimogō, he found people who had preserved a musical instrument (chiku) and a portable writing desk (oi,) which they said were left by Bashō on one of his travels. Bokuzan also learned that a cedar reputedly planted by Bashō had recently blown down and was being used as a ridgepole in a woodshed. As he had been disappointed in the statues of Bashō he had seen on his tour, Bokuzan, purifying himself beforehand, took five or six feet of this wood and carved a statue of Bashō, setting it up in a special hall or zodō. Three years later there was a celebration of ‘the opening of the eyes’ (kaigen, of Buddhist origin) of this statue, a practice normally used in the dedication of a sacred image. This ceremony involved all of the major poets of the area, and the list of its food, incense, flowers, music and other components is truly staggering. The most famous participant on this occasion was Shirō (or Biwaen, 1742-1812), whose close identification of Bashō with nature, such that Bashō was even present in the rain, can be seen in the following verse composed at one such anniversary:

Yo ni furuwa
Sara ni Bashō no
Shigure kana.(6)
Falling on the world,
Early winter rain (shigure).

Besides these formal occasions, the cult of Bashō worship also centered informally on places where he had written famous verses, often marked with memorial stones (kubi)7, and upon Bashō memorial mounds (tsuka).8 Such mounds were built very early in Bashō's family temple, at Edo, and in Mino province, but were soon widespread.9 We find the great Shinto scholar, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), writing before a statue of Bashō:

Futari nake
Okina nari keri
Kono michi ni
Okina to ieba
Kono okina nite.(10)
Master of whom
There is no equal;
The master who
Walked this road
Was this one alone.

Only a few people actually imitated Bashō's wandering life; the most important among them was Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827). Parallel to what we will see in Bashō's biography, Issa's separation from the normal fabric of life led to his pursuit of intimacy with nature through haiku. His mother died when he was an infant and he was raised partly by his grandmother. Upon his grandmother's death, he was sent by a cruel stepmother to Edo where he studied haiku. After his father's death, Issa had a long struggle for his inheritance which prevented him from living at home. For years he wandered and was finally able to settle and marry, but his wife and four children all died in a short time. He remarried again only shortly before his death.

This tragic life drove Issa to spend more years on the road than Bashō and to write forty thousand verses compared to Bashō's one thousand. Issa's substitution of nature for family shows itself in his companionship with all living things. Instead of dissolving his self into an impersonal world as Bashō did, he personalized the rest of the world. He talked to bugs and frogs and wrote several sentimental verses identifying himself with motherless birds. His use of Bashō as a model comes across most clearly in the following verse:

Basho sama
No sune o kajitte
Nibbling at
Master Bashō's shins—
The cool of the evening.

‘Nibbling at Master Bashō's shins’ refers to his copying Bashō. That his image of Bashō was of a sage in harmony with nature is shown by the following, written for that annual Bashō commemoration day:

Ikinaki ya
Kari mo heiwa na
Narabi sama.(12)
The old master's commemoration—
The geese, too, seem
To be mumbling together.

It might not be too rash to call Bashō a founder, then, of a small cult of poets who looked back to him as a wandering sage of nature, to be annually worshipped and occasionally imitated.


Bashō's cultic position was broken, however, by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). On the two hundredth anniversary of Bashō's death in 1893, he published a short attack on Bashō idolatry. Among his irreverent lines, we find:

“The two hundred years commemoration is the two hundred years commemoration—last year was the one hundred and ninety ninth and next year will be the two hundred and first—what's different about this one? Like all the others there is this clamor of, oh, building a shrine, and wow, setting a memorial stone. And in the end the little benefit which falls on these people is just showing their red tongues while facing a portrait in the alcove, smilingly extending their gratitude to Matsuo Daimyōshin (a shingo for Bashō), while he obliviously says nothing.”13

Shiki's attack made possible a more critical appraisal by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke who, along with his ‘Karenoshō’ mentioned above, wrote two other works on Bashō entitled ‘Bashō Zakki’ and ‘Zoku Bashō Zakki’ (‘Notes on Bashō’ and ‘Continued Notes on Bashō’). In the former, he wrote about Bashō's great passion as a poet which seemed to contradict his image as a man who renounced the mundane world, and continued:

“If we must call such passion in a world renouncing man a contradiction, then a contradiction it is. But even if it is so, doesn't this bear witness to Bashō's genius? […] I love the contradiction of Bashō's not truly becoming a world renouncer. At the same time, I love the greatness of that contradiction.”14

After two hundred years of cultic memory of the master, Akutagawa was suggesting that Bashō, the man, lived in contradiction with the life ideal associated with him as master.15 Although I disagree with many of Akutagawa's observations, Bashō's life as shown through his poetry does show such a contradiction. More importantly, the difference between the life ideal remembered by the cult and the historical life of Bashō cannot be ascribed solely to enhancements within the cultic memory. Instead, this difference, as we shall see, had its roots in Bashō's life. As Akutagawa suggested, he lived the disparity of an ideal and a real life, a disparity which after his death grew into that between the cultic memory and the historical man. Most ironic of all, his initial success with his ideal led to his having an ‘official identity’16 as a poetic master, and this ‘official identity’, more than anything else, prevented him from living out his ideal.

The ideal, religious life which the cult remembered sprang from Bashō's own visions and attainments. While he attained such a life, however, he could not sustain it, and his achievement only served to create the mode of his own failure. But with the ‘charismatic hunger of mankind’,17 his disciples, devoured his attainments, and for them and the tradition which followed them, Bashō was a master. It was this master of a religious life whom they mourned in Akutagawa's sketch, and who was remembered by tradition, but it was the man who failed to sustain that very life who lay dying.

In Young Man Luther, Erik Erikson has written about a man whose solution for the problems of his own life became a solution for those of his age.18 With Bashō, we find a man whose solution for his own life became a model for a much smaller although definite tradition, but whose own life digressed from that solution, leaving him isolated from, and occasionally even bitter towards, the very life ideal which he had developed.

In becoming the master of an original haiku religious life, Bashō succeeded in discovering a world of meaning from which he later became isolated, but from which he could not escape in life, death, or even after death. His later isolation was tragically ironic, because it was precisely to overcome a sense of isolation and loneliness that he had attempted a new religious discovery. Instead, he found simply another, more profound context from which to become isolated once again.

This isolation was expressed by Bashō as loneliness, a loneliness which passed through different stages in his life. In the following pages we will be examining these stages of Bashō's life by seeing his efforts to overcome loneliness and isolation and to envelop himself, through poetry, in a meaningful, supportive world. We will not find any cataclysmic encounter with the transcendent, nor should we expect to. Bashō understood his possible religious success as providing a fulfilling life by creating a place for him in a sympathetic and immanently sacred universe. Religious failure, conversely, was synonymous with isolation from any such meaningful context. As will be discussed below, this religious goal was rooted in forces which shaped the Japanese personality of the Tokugawa period.

We will examine Bashō's efforts to create his role in a meaningful context in the three following steps. First, we will look at his early life, before his poetic wanderings. Secondly, we will consider the period when Bashō attempted to live the wandering religious ideal, culminating in his masterpiece, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North). Thirdly, we will look at his failure to sustain this ideal, his return to loneliness, and his attempts to create a new ideal, which were cut short by his death.

Throughout this discussion I rely mainly on the evidence provided by Bashō's haiku. Bashō wrote only about one thousand of these short verses, plus many linked verses (renku), short prose works, and critical commentaries. It may appear that I am making too much out of these slivers of poetry, but, as will become apparent below, Bashō staked his life on them. While providing us only with tidbits concerning his early life (for which I will have to rely on a general knowledge of the times), these poems became his technique for relating himself to a meaningful world. Hence they show his efforts to overcome isolation and to discover his true self.19


Bashō was born after the basic social structures of the Tokugawa Period (1600-1867) had been laid down, and was a young man during or shortly after the original intellectual ferment regarding the values which were to dominate the age.20 While little is known about his early life, everything we do know suggests that he began a typical, lower-ranking samurai existence. The ultimate source of meaning for such an existence was sacred devotion to parents and lord because of a sense of enormous debt to each. While this is not the occasion to discuss Tokugawa values, we can assume with good reason that particularistic and sacred social duties shaped young Bashō's world of meaning.21 He was born in 1644 in the province of Iga, southeast of Kyoto, the son of a samurai who was reduced to farming in peacetime.22 In due course, Bashō entered the service of Tōdō Yoshitada, a young member of the manorial household only two years his senior, and assumed the staunch samurai name of Matsuo Munefusa.

Both Matsuo Munefusa and Tōdō Yoshitada engaged in haiku composition as a kind of elegant pastime, but what was later to be genius was at this stage only cleverness. In this period Bashō was under the influence of the haiku school called Teimon, with its elegant wit, double entendre, and juxtaposition of classical themes.23 While not without moments of sensitivity,24 Bashō chose such subjects as women's names, striking but often hackneyed beauties of nature, social occasions, and times of the year.

The comfortable, and by all indications satisfying, fabric of Bashō's world was suddenly torn open by the premature death of his friend and lord, Yoshitada, in 1666. Yoshitada's younger brother took over the family and Bashō resigned from service, forsaking forever his samurai status. As only these bare facts are known, there has been no lack of speculation about intrigues which could have led to his resignation. Professor Ueda's suggestion that he just did not fit into the circle surrounding his new lord is the least spectacular and the most probable.25

But we can be certain that, whether as cause or result, Bashō's leaving service involved a loss of that supportive context of social relationships grounded in Neo-Confucian and traditional Japanese values, which gave meaning to the life of a young samurai. In leaving his position, Bashō burned that bridge to fulfillment and began searching for a new world of meaning, though he may not yet have been aware of the search.

Details of his life immediately after Yoshitada's death are unclear. Living close to Kyoto, it is unthinkable that he would not have visited this cultural center, but we do not know if he studied or worked there.26 There is no evidence that he then thought of being a professional poet, but a few of his poems were published in local collections, and this undoubtedly gave him new confidence.27 Finally, in 1672, he published his own book, Kai Oi (The Seashell Game), in which he paired haiku, including his own, and passed a series of judgements upon them. From this we can guess that Bashō's departure from samurai service led him to improve what was formerly an avocation. Later that year, he left Iga for Edo with some ambition which must have included haiku.

The city of Edo to which Bashō migrated in 1672 was soon to reach a population of one million.28 Along with Osaka, it was the capital of a new kind of city culture, one of sophistication and gay, but refined pleasure. Bashō was probably attracted to Edo by a vision of opportunity, stimulation and adventure. Instead, he had to struggle for a few years to establish his reputation, working perhaps in some clerical capacity, and writing under the name of Tōsei.29

Having become a city man with ambition to become a professional poet, Bashō progressed rapidly in style. Two stylistic developments were prerequisites for the religious life of haiku he was later to adopt, although at this time they were strictly literary changes. The first was an expansion of his subject matter to include the commonplace and even lower sides of life. The stimulus for this development came from the Danrin school, which often applied classical allusions to mundane or even wild contexts.30 A rather extreme extension of subject matter can be found in the following:

Yuku kumo ya
Ino no kakebari
Mura shigure
Passing clouds—
Like a stray dog relieving himself,
Scattered showers.


The second and later stylistic development was Bashō's simpler poetic goal of setting an image for emotional impact alone, an image which would grow into an entire scene planted in the reader's mind. As Bashō began concentrating more on emotional impact, rather than on wit and double entendre, the range of sensibility in his poems expanded greatly, often into solemn or even eerie moods. The most famous poem of this type, generally considered a breakthrough, is:

Kare eda ni
Karasu no tomari keri
Aki no kure
On a withered branch
A crow settles;
Autumn dusk.

(KNBZ, 38)

Besides showing Bashō's new capacity for somber moods, this poem sets a scene which expands in the reader's mind. It also uses an important technical device, the comparison of the crow and the night settling. Later, he will use such internal comparisons to great effect.

Together with this new maturity of style, Bashō attained, by the end of the 1670s, the recognition and position he sought in coming to Edo. The year 1680 seems to mark his emergence as a professional teacher. In that year he published the first collection of his disciples' poems. More importantly, his disciples provided him with a small hut which had formerly belonged to the Shogun's fish warden. In the garden by the hut, they planted a banana tree, an exotic plant in Japan, which is called bashō in Japanese. From this, the hut's occupant took his new and lasting professional name.31

By 1680, then, Bashō had a new name and new status. He had joined the bustling new city culture and had risen to a comfortable, respectable, and creative role within it. There are a number of poems which show his ease and comfort in this new position, including the following:

Haru tatsu ya
Shinnen furuki
Kome goshō
Spring comes—
At the New Year
Five pecks of rice left
          (from the old).(32)

(KNBZ, 44)

We find him also enjoying the refined pleasures of the capital:

Hana ni yadori
Hentanshi to
Mizukara iedomo
Lodging under the blossoms,
Although I must call myself
‘Mr. Bottle’.

(KNBZ, 37)

At this point it might seem that Bashō's essential biography is over. He has achieved success and enjoyment and is flexing and developing his technical muscles. In the midst of this, however, we find a definite opposing strain of loneliness, one which may have begun as poetic fashion, but which crescendoed into painful isolation by 1684. In 1680, Bashō was already writing poems which objectively set lonely scenes at his hut, and by the following year he expressed his sense of loneliness symbolically:

Bashō no waki shite
Tarai ni ame o
Kikuyo kana
The banana plant in the gale;
A night listening to rain
Drip in a tub

(KNBZ, 48)

He also expressed himself directly, writing:

“I'm lonely towards the moon; lonely towards myself; lonely towards my lack of skill. I want to answer that I'm lonely, but there is no one who will ask. Only in loneliness, loneliness—”

Wabite sume
Tsukiwabasai ga
Naracha uta
Live in loneliness;
The moon-lonely one
With his gruel song.

(KNBZ, 48)

The winter after he wrote that verse, he wrote:

Ro no koe nami o utte
Harawata kōru
Ya ya namida
The sound of oars striking the waves,
My bowels chill;
Tears in the night.

(KNBZ, 49)

His verses suggest only two reasons why he felt this way. The first is found in two New Year's poems in which he contrasts his own solitude with the family gaiety surrounding him:

Kure kurete
Mochi o kodama no
Wabine kana
The year ends, dusk settles,
The echo of rice cakes being pounded—
I go to bed alone.

(KNBZ, 50)

Gan jitsu ya
Omoeba sabishi
Aki no kure
New Year's—
When I remember, I'm lonely,
As in an autumn evening.

(KNBZ, 58)

The second explanation for his loneliness lies in four poems which show his sense of not having achieved anything. The first is symbolic of grasping for something and getting hurt instead. The others are more explicit.

Gu ni kuraku
Ibara o tsukamu
Hotaru kana
Foolishly in the dark,
Grabbing a thorn—

(KNBZ, 41)

Ima wa haikaishi
Naki yo kana
Now is a world
Without a haiku master.(33)

(KNBZ, 59)

Tsuki jūyokka
Koyoi sanjūkyū
No warabe
The moon of the fourteenth day,
This night, a thirty-nine year old

(KNBZ, 52)

Aware kiku ya
Kono mi wa moto no
Hearing hail—
I am just the same as I was,
Like that old oak.

(KNBZ, 58)

This sense of separation from social and family life, and the realization of not having changed or accomplished anything, were really two sides of the same crisis. Upon his withdrawal from samurai life, Bashō had lost that supportive, sacred context of social relations which could have offered him a fulfilling life. He did not resolve this problem directly, but pursued an ambitious career as a professional poet and teacher in the only place where this was possible, the open, bustling city of Edo. This career and its delights consumed his attention for several years, but when he reached a high level of success, its allure had run its course. Only at this point did he face his basic problem, that of the loss of a fulfilling social nexus. A sense of isolation, and hence for a Japanese of his times, a sense of meaninglessness in life, began to haunt him. For this reason, we find poems not only about loneliness, but also about an unchanged, unfulfilled life. By this time, however, Bashō had greatly expanded his poetic range in both subject matter and emotional content. When he finally faced the existential problem brought on by that fundamental loss of a meaningful social nexus, he was well armed.

Two accidental events forced his hand. The first was the burning of his home in 1682. Then, just when it was rebuilt, he received news of his mother's death in Iga (his father had died when he was twelve). Her death must have deepened his loneliness even more, for his efforts to discover a meaningful context for his life in that eventful year of 1684 were closely entwined with an understanding of his loss of that primary sacred context of Tokugawa life, the family. We have already seen him call himself a child. In one of the first passages in the diary of that year, he identifies himself with an abandoned child. Most importantly, his efforts to find fulfillment in a meaningful context began on a trip back to Iga, ostensibly to pay homage to his mother and to visit his family.35

In the fall of 1684, then, Bashō began to pursue a new life, one which he hoped would overcome the loneliness that had settled upon him. We must suspend our narrative a bit to look closely at what he was trying to do.


First, we must briefly examine the historical sources of Bashō's religious life style, that of religious pilgrimage and the recluse tradition, and look at the new religious understandings and poetic techniques which Bashō developed within that life style.

We can better understand Bashō's travelling life style by finding its sources in the Japanese traditions of pilgrimage and of recluses and wanderers. Joseph M. Kitagawa lists three types of pilgrimage in Japan: (1) pilgrimage to sacred mountains; (2) pilgrimage to shrines or temples associated with certain divinities; and (3) pilgrimage based on faith in certain charismatic holy men.36 The second type does not concern our discussion of Bashō as much as the first and third. The first type was generally, but not necessarily, a group activity under the supervision of a guide and involved the acquisition of personal soteriological power. Certain places such as Kumano and Yoshino, furthermore, were said to be a foretaste of Amida's Pure Land. This factor, says Kitagawa, ‘gives strong impetus to pilgrims to seek the religious meaning of life within the realm of phenomenal existence’.37 The third type relied on the saving power which had been actualized in a real human being. Such a holy person ‘shares every step of the earthly pilgrim’.38 From this, we can observe that pilgrimage in Japan led to discovery of the sacred in the phenomenal world of nature, tradition-laden mountains or other sites, or in the imitation of the life of an historical individual. We note the immanent accessibility of the sacred as it is indistinguishable from the fabric of a positive, fulfilling world, especially as it carries the mark of a powerful tradition.

We might also note two further aspects of Japanese pilgrimage. First, it was not necessary that everything connected with a pilgrimage be religious. A pilgrimage often involved seeing relatives, simple sightseeing, sampling famous foods, and so on.39 Secondly, it was a practice well suited to religious syncretism, for one travelled from shrine to temple to famous landmark, partaking of a veritable supermarket of deities and traditions.

The evidence that Bashō did, indeed, combine this prevalent mode of religious pilgrimage with his poetic life is strong. Rather than travelling randomly, Bashō visited many places behind which stood long, most often literary, traditions. Perhaps the clearest example of the importance of tradition in such places is found in Sarashina Kikō (1688), in which Bashō says that he was somewhat disappointed with the mountain itself, but when he thought of the old crone abandoned there according to a long literary tradition, he was filled with emotion.40 His trips to these places often took on a style of pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to visit a place of traditional power and to walk where poets of the past walked and to see what they saw. Two travel diaries in particular record such pilgrimages. Sarashina Kikō was mentioned above. Kashima Kikō (1687) records a pilgrimage to a Shinto shrine, characteristically undertaken to see the moon famous in literature. Bashō visited the popular pilgrimage sites as well. Particularly interesting to a student of religion is his account of his trip to Mount Haguro, a center for a sect of mountain priests called Shugendō which is still a popular pilgrimage site.41 Bashō even dressed as a pilgrim, shaving his head, carrying a staff, and wearing simple, monkish robes.42

A second historical source of Bashō's style of life, which merges with Kitagawa's third type of pilgrimage, is represented by the poetic recluses and wandering priests of the past whom Bashō admired. In Oku no Hosomichi, for example, he refers to Saigyō, a twelfth century waka poet, to Gyōgi, an archetypical wandering priest from the Nara Period, and to other such figures. Instead of following in their footsteps over particular pilgrimage trails, he identified with their wandering and reclusive life in general, but he did emphasize places associated with them, such as Saigyō's willow.43 While borrowing important components of his life style from these models, Bashō used a much wider range of subject matter, derived from his Danrin heritage, than these earlier poets knew. This new freedom of range was not incidental to Bashō's religious life, as we shall see.

In summarizing Bashō's life style in relation to these historical precedent of pilgrimage and the recluse or wandering life, we can say that he combined the two, extending both motifs into wider and more inclusive areas. Rather than merely following routes prescribed by a tradition (although he did so on occasions), Bashō also travelled to other places of literary and historical importance. Eventually, he treated virtually everything as partaking of an immanent sacrality conferred by the past, often seeking an ancient tradition or classical allusion in the commonest things. While not neglecting several tradition-laden paths, then, Bashō became a pilgrim in an entire world of immanent sacrality. He found himself in a sacred context wherever he went, thus pushing the wandering life into new areas of the country and new subjects of concern.

Bashō's poetry, in both its technique and goals, was well suited to the content of this expanded pilgrim's life. In every step of his travels, Bashō attempted to find some overriding aesthetic meaning in the moment and place of which he was a part. This aesthetic perception was informed by a sensibility for the sum of the many disparate elements in each of such places and moments. Such a sensibility affected his poetic technique, leading him to use methods for getting these disparate elements into his poems. Often this took the form of bringing together different senses, or in some cases, ascribing the adjective appropriate for one sense to another. A heron's screech, for example, is white above the dark sea. A more technical device, common to haiku generally, is the use of kireji, or ‘cutting words’. These are short, semantically meaningless syllables which cut off one line from the other two, thereby bringing together, without any predicated explanation, two elements of a given moment or place.

One element which must always be present in a haiku is the kigo, or ‘season word’. This will be a reference to a natural phenomenon or an adjective like ‘cold’, which places the haiku in some season. The kigo seems to be the clearest manifestation of the haiku postulate that time, rather than being homogenous, consists of different moments, each with its own particular aesthetic content.

It is the task of the poet to perceive this content and give it expression and form. If he is honest in this task, he will be willing to use virtually anything as a subject, a characteristic which sets haiku, and Bashō's in particular, apart from other Japanese poetry. Bashō brings even horse urine and lice into his poems. Furthermore, such a sensibility to the sum of particular moments necessitates a certain ambiguity, which Bashō called shiori, or ‘flexibility’. It is often difficult to define the object of the aesthetic emotion generated by a haiku of Bashō, even a haiku of one image. We might even say that his images are transparent, rather than opaque, and that through them we receive a satisfying aesthetic sense of all that surrounds and stands behind the haiku.

With this understanding of his poetry, we can see why it was coupled with the diary form. The diary structure permitted Bashō to turn his journeys into a series of rhythms and reverberations of these aesthetic sentiments. In his later diaries, he achieved a balanced interaction between the prose and the poetry, such that the prose set the elements of a scene or moment, the central aesthetic sense of which was illuminated by the flash of a haiku.

Since such an ambiguous aesthetic sense of the moment included the poet as part of that moment, we can understand how poetry could relieve Bashō's isolation. Central to this relief was the dissolution of his own emotions into these impersonal aesthetic senses of the world around him.44 A striking example is his poem at the grave of a beloved disciple:

Tsuka mo ugoke
Waga naku koe wa
Aki no kaze
Shake, o tomb,
My crying voice
Is the autumn wind.

(KNBZ, 191)

Here we can see his grief becoming part of the total moment of a chilly autumn day. More typical, however, are the haiku in which the poet is not directly mentioned. With these, one is struck by Bashō's uncanny ability to write an objective poem in which his presence is still strongly sensed. This ability to enter into the things around him he called hosomi, or ‘slenderness’.45 From all of this, we can see how Bashō was striving to use his poetry to go beyond his personal emotions or even poetic sentiments. He tried to discover through his poetic creativity an impersonal meaning in each place and moment of his travels.46

This tuning of himself to aesthetic senses of particular times and places could have been a powerful antidote for the anguished isolation Bashō was feeling by the middle of 1684. I am not suggesting that he simply tried to create a mock family or a close social nexus by this new use of haiku. I am suggesting, however, that Bashō, from the time he left Iga, had a latent thirst for a sense of belonging, of fulfilling participation in an immanently sacred context, and that this desire had roots in the early shaping of his personality. Because of its continuity in his personality, this thirst remained even when he could ignore it during his early poetic career, and could eventually be satisfied by a source different from that which had originally shaped it. In general, Bashō's case confirms a suggestion by Albert Craig that one interpretation of the Japanese love of nature ‘would be to see the Japanese ability to melt into nature as akin to the ability to melt into the social group. The openness and sensitivity to subtle cues in the group mood that the group member can miss only at his peril may be similar to the receptivity toward nature and the willingness to let it flow in on the self.’47

One further point about this haiku religious life should be made before we return to our narrative. It may seem that this life dissolves the self, making it dependent upon the vicissitudes of the environment without its own individual continuity. We miss that sense of a person discovering his identity and ‘making the environment adapt to him’.48 Our objections might very well be culture bound, however, for we have no background in the extraordinary claims made upon Japanese individuals by their social situation, claims which tend to produce a different type of self, or ‘non-self’.49 This cultural difference leads to judgments upon the West as well, as in the remark by Mishima Yukio that ‘Americans sometimes tend to over-exist. … The Japanese, nurtured as they are on Buddhism, have the curious conviction that existence is a transitory and basically unessential phenomenon, a shifting process which changes with each moment, a relative state as opposed to nothingness.’50 Whether this is entirely a Buddhist legacy is debatable, but it should restrain us from looking for a strong, continuous ego, stamping its impression on the world.


Bashō pursued the travelling life of haiku from the fall of 1684 through 1692, a period of over eight years. During that time, he produced five major travel diaries.51 While we cannot go into the details of even one of these works, I would like to outline briefly his development within this new life by looking at the first and the last, Nozarashi Kikō and his masterpiece, Oku no Hosomichi.

In 1684, Bashō took his first trip for strictly poetic purposes to his home in Iga and to some famous areas in that part of Japan. The records of this trip became Nozarashi Kikō (Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton). This trip and its diary represent only the first, alternately hasty and halting, steps in Bashō's new life of travel. In the beginning, he jumped too much into the part, striking a pose rather than finding an identity:

Nozarashi o
Kokori ni kaze no
Shimumi kana
A weather-exposed skeleton
On my mind, the wind
Piercing my body.

(NKBT, 36)

In a later part of the diary, Bashō, perhaps feeling a bit foolish for overdoing it, wrote:

“Upon setting out from the Musashi Plain, I had resolved to become a ‘weather exposed skeleton’.”

Shinimo senu
Tabine no hate yo
Aki no kure
I am hardly dead
As a result of my lodging by the road;
Autumn's close.

(NKBT, 40)

Despite such initial posturing, Bashō was able to experience and express virtually all the necessary components of his new calling. In the first section of the diary, he senses a separation from his unfulfilling Edo life, but only by a return to what can no longer be a real home. This loss of his old home is expressed in a brief but powerful section in which he cries over strands of his mother's white hair. Most of the diary, however, shows him beginning to work out that new style of life which would replace both his old home and Edo. One of the first poems concerns Saigyō, and a substantial section of the diary centers on the pilgrimage center of Yoshino, a mountain upon which Saigyō had once lived. Towards the end of the diary, there are a number of poems which show Bashō's comfort in his new travelling life:

Iza tomo no
Hogumi kurawau
Kusa makura
Let's go together
Eating wheat
With grass for our pillows.

(NKBT, 43)

In all, Bashō took great strides in Nozarashi Kikō but he still had far to go. Technically, his diary structure broke down completely, the prose serving only to name the place of each poem. His occasional dependence on, rather than use of, classical allusions gives a contrived flavor to some poems, and there are too many verses connected with the stock situations of parting and on people's names. Still, Bashō obviously increased his ability for spontaneous and imaginative observation, so important for his success as a wandering poet:

Akebono ya
Shirauo shiroki
Koto issun
The whitefish; whiteness
Of one inch.

(NKBT, 41)

These mixed literary achievements reflect the partiality of Bashō's first attempt as a wandering poet. By relying on his mere cleverness of former times, he demonstrated that he had not yet reached the point of using haiku to completely inform his life of the impersonal meaning of each time and place. Still, he had turned his back on his unfulfilling life in Edo, confirmed the loss of his old home, worked out the basic components of his new life style—those borrowed from pilgrimage and the tradition of wanderers—and he had found a new identity into which he could grow.52 Later, he was to write:

Tabibito to
Waga no yobaren
Hatsu shigure
I will be called,
First autumn shower.

(NKBT, 52)

In order to show his growth, we will skip over a great deal of time to 1689. This was the year of his longest journey, in which he produced his master-piece, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North). Beginning in the spring, he went over fifteen hundred miles though the most rustic, wild and occasionally dangerous part of old Japan, the northwest section of Honshū. Although only six months were included in the diary itself, he was away from Edo for two and a half years, this time with no destination, unless we can say that the whole trip was a destination. Above all, Oku no Hosomichi reveals a man who is ‘aware of so much—his memory and imagination swell with associations of the past—and his rapid movements of mind and heart from the high or sublime to the low reveal a very wide-eyed, knowing man’.53 We are convinced that he has attained final release from isolation and receives sustenance from the impersonal pulse of the world. His identification of his departure from friends with the impersonal flow of a departing spring can be seen in the following passage. By the last line of the haiku, Bashō images the impersonal nature of his emotions as tears within the sea:

“At Senjū, I got off the boat, and my heart swelled all the more at the thought of beginning so long a journey. At this dream-like separation of paths, my eyes filled with tears of parting—”

Yuku haru ya
Tori naki uo no
Me wa namida
Spring departs—
Birds cry; fishes' eyes
Fill with tears.

(NKBT, 70-71)

When he perfectly flowed with such impersonal sensibilities he made loneliness the most important of these sensibilities, rather than rejecting it. His term for this impersonal loneliness was sabi, a term with its own long history in Japanese criticism, which derived from the word sabishii, or ‘lonely’.54Sabi cannot be equated, however, with the loneliness Bashō felt in Edo in the early 1680s. His loneliness at that time had been the loneliness of an isolated man. Sabi, however, is the impersonal, aesthetic sense of loneliness he shared with the ever changing world of nature within which he travelled. Sabi, then, expressed the seeming paradox of an aesthetic sense of loneliness discovered in the universe, within which Bashō could find refuge from the very different loneliness of isolation.

Bashō was at the summit of his powers on this trip, and he composed verses which would stand as some of the most powerful haiku ever written:

Shizukasa ya(55)
Iwa ni shimiru
Semi no koe
Penetrating the rocks
A cicada's cry.

(NKBT, 87)

Araumi ya
Sado no yokotau
Violent sea—
Stretching towards Sado Island
The Milky Way

(NKBT, 91)

His blending of prose and poetry into the pulsating sweep of Oku no Hosomichi resulted in perhaps the greatest of such travel diaries. In his life of constant travel, participating in ever changing time and the eternity of common life and nature, all enveloped within an aura of impersonal sabi, Bashō had overcome his isolation by wrapping himself in a world of meaning so vast that only a person of his literary genius could have attained or even reached for it. Driven as he was to using his extraordinary powers to their utmost, his Oku no Hosomichi became more than a personal document; it became a literary event which has ever since been regarded as one of the pinnacles of Japanese literary history. At the same time, it recorded the attainment of a religious ideal of wandering communion with nature. Precisely because it was recorded in Oku no Hosomichi and other works of 1684 and after, this was an ideal which would survive Bashō after death, absorbing his name and memory.


After completing his Oku no Hosomichi trip, Bashō spent 1690 and 1691 around Kyoto and Iga. During this time, he continued to write a great deal, still dominated by his sense of sabi. In the summer months of those two years he spent considerable time in solitary huts, first by Lake Biwa and then overlooking Kyoto. This last stay was particularly noteworthy as he produced, not a record of a trip, but a normal diary, the Saga Nikki (Saga Diary). Also in 1691, he and his disciples compiled the collection known as Sarumino (The Monkey's Raincoat), which was prefaced by an apology for being too colorful in previous works and offered an appeal for sabi. All of this indicates that Bashō was satisfied in his perfection of both his life and poetry within the ideal of sabi for some time after the Oku no Hosomichi trip.

In 1692, he returned to the Edo he had left in 1689. Once again, he was set up in a hut with banana plants and seems to have been comfortable there, writing at the end of a long prose piece:

Bashō-ba o
Hashira ni kakemu
Io no tsuki
Banana leaves
Hung by the pillar,
The moon at my hut.

(KNBZ, 268)

This complacency did not last, however. Through his achievements in poetic wandering, culminating in Oku no Hosomichi, Bashō had become famous and was swamped with visitors. In a letter at the end of 1692, Bashō told a potential caller that he was busy on the eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth, and asked if he could come on the thirteenth or the eighteenth.56 In addition, he began caring for an invalid nephew named Yūshi, who died in the spring of 1693,57 as well as a nun named Jutei and her children. She may have been Bashō's mistress in his youth.

Bashō's fame and success were entangling him in social and familial relations which were totally incompatible with his wandering, sabi life. Most distracting of all, perhaps, were the constant meetings for composition at his hut of disciples who came from all over the country.58 Along with these increasing entanglements we find a growing sullenness creeping into Bashō's poems:

Samidare ya
Kaiko wazurau
Kuwa no hata
Constant rain—
The silkworms are sick
In the mulberry fields.

(KNBZ, 66)

Bashō had come full circle. He had originally come to grips with the problem of isolation with nothing short of a massive achievement of wandering communion with nature, an achievement so great that he found the role of a sought-after spiritual and haiku leader thrust upon him. As this role ripped open again the immanently sacred fabric in which he had clothed himself, Bashō's sabi-filled world became simply another, more profound context from which he suffered longing isolation.

His first response was to rebel against his ‘official identity’ by simply locking out the world from mid-July to mid-August of 1693. He expressed his feelings at this time in a relatively long haibun, or prose piece ending with a haiku.59 In it, he shows he is slipping into impending old age, but with numerous senseless things still pulling at his mind and heart. With an overall tone of desperation, he describes how even an artist can cling to the perfection of his art, earn a living, and drown without escape in the sewer of the mundane world. As time becomes short, he feels he is being drawn into useless talk and meddling in other people's lives. He wants to discipline himself and writes:

Asagao ya
Hiru wa jō orosu
Mon no kaki
Morning glory—
At midday a lock is clamped
On the gate of my yard.

(NKBT, 209)

At first he thought that merely cutting himself off from people would permit him to appreciate the morning glory and find the intimacy with nature which he had found in Oku no Hosomichi. Eventually, however, he must have discovered that enforced seclusion was not sufficient to return him to his earlier, sabi-filled world, but only led to confinement and further isolation. He ended his lock-out with the following poem, incredible for the famed ‘nature poet’:

Asagao ya
Kore mo mata waga
Tomo narazu
The morning glory—
This, too, is no longer
My friend.

(KNBZ, 286)

Caught between his new ‘official identity’ as a haiku master and his inability to return to his earlier life of sabi precisely because he had achieved so much, Bashō became severely embittered. We find the same sense of having accomplished nothing which had gripped him in the early 1680s in the following poem:

Toshi toshi ya
Saru ni kisetaru
Saru no men
Years and years—
The monkey keeps wearing
A monkey's mask.

(KNBZ, 276)

There was nothing to do but try again. Developing his life of sabi had taken eight years. This time he had only a few months to live, and so we have only the beginning threads of the new context in which he was trying to wrap himself. Instead of sabi, the aesthetic term he emphasized was karumi, or ‘lightness’.60 This referred to a sympathetic and often humorous reflection of the lives of common people and everyday social life. From this we can suspect Bashō was taking the attitude that, if he could not escape his ‘official identity’ of haiku master, he would turn his poetic powers to that new, social life. Through haiku, he would try to find among the human beings who surrounded him a new sacred context of sympathetic communion in which to envelop himself. Due to his early death, we cannot know any more. Poems produced in this period include:

Kuratsubo ni
Kobōzu noruya
Daikon hiki
On the horse's pack
The little kid sits—
Radish pulling.

(KNBZ, 292)

With this new poetic attitude, Bashō set out on a journey back to Iga, as he had done before when trying to pull his life together in a new fashion. He may have even desired to go as far as the southern tip of Japan. In contrast to his gate shutting of the previous year, it appears that he met freely with people. He was even able to write occasional poems showing remarkable serenity:

Shiragiku no
Me ni tatete miru
Chiri no nashi
A white chrysanthemum,
Holding my eyes—staring,
Not a speck of dust.

(KNBZ, 325)

At the same time, however, Bashō was writing more poems showing a sense of unfinished business, of wanting to keep going in the face of old age and death:

Kono aki wa
Nande toshiyoru
Kumo no tori
This autumn,
Somehow I'm getting older;
Into the clouds, a bird.

(KNBZ, 324)

Kono michi ya
Yuku hito nashi ni
Aki no kure
This road
Which no one travels,
The autumn dusk.(61)

(KNBZ, 324)

These same sentiments of being alone and wanting to keep going are found even in his death poem quoted at the beginning of this essay. His road, however, was cut short by his chronic intestinal problem near Osaka in 1694, his fiftieth year. While his disciples surrounded their master, the man Bashō died, having failed to complete his reconciliation with that role they had thrust upon him.62

This last period of Bashō's life had brought on his ultimate loneliness. This time his loneliness arose not through isolation from the intimate sacrality of a social nexus, but through his isolation from the sabi-filled world of meaning he had discovered through poetry on his travels. For his disciples, however, he had become a master, having opened up the possibility of this new world of meaning for others who could perfect their haiku along his path. Ironically, Bashō's isolation from his world of sabi was in large part due to his becoming their ‘master’. In his very lifetime, then, there was a disparity between Bashō, the master of a haiku world of meaning, and Bashō, the man unable to fulfill that role, who became isolated from his own of meaning. After his death, however, the image of him as master lived on while the lonely man was forgotten, at least until that image of master was broken. The disparity of master and man in life grew into the disparity of a cultic memory and an historical man. Bashō's ultimate loneliness, then, reflects an isolation from his own legacy.

One of the important contributions the study of personalities can make to an understanding of religious traditions is the investigation of the relationships of historical individuals to the sacred life ideals remembered by traditions. The case of Bashō suggests that the impact of a personality upon the establishment of a life ideal for a tradition does not necessarily reflect the successful living of that ideal by the founder. Nor can the difference between the life ideal remembered by the tradition and the historical life of the founder necessarily be ascribed solely to the enhancements, fantasies, confusions, and so forth, of later followers. Instead, as in the case of Bashō and the haiku life ideal, the very disparity between the life ideal seen by a tradition in its founder, and his actual life, may itself have roots in the vicissitudes of that original personality.


  1. Akutagawa Ryūnosuke Zenshū (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1934-1935), II, pp. 105-120.

  2. KNBZ,’ followed by a number refers to the page number in Volume XXX of Koten Nihon Bungaku Zenshū (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1961), the source for the poems in this essay.

    NKBT’ refers to Volume XLVI of Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1959), the source for the prose passages and poems from the diaries.

  3. ‘Kami’, of course, are the Japanese deities never severely separated from the world of humans.

  4. Tōsei was one of Bashō's professional names. ‘Reishin’ means literally ‘spirit deity’. Other names given, including the first one by the court, were: Hana no Moto Myōshin (Bright Deity Under the Blossoms), Shōfu Shūshi (Religious Teacher of the Correct Style), and Hion Myōshin (Bright Deity of the Jumping Sound, after Bashō's most famous haiku on the sound of a frog jumping into an old pond). For these names and their occasions, see Abe Kimio, Matsuo Bashō (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1961), pp. 232-233, and the Nihon Bungaku Daijiten (Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 1951), VI, pp. 48-49.

  5. This information, with an original text, can be found in Ishida Motonosuke, Haibungaku Ronkō (Kyoto: Yōtokusha, 1944), pp. 219-222.

  6. From ‘Biwaen Kushū’, in the Nihon Haishū Taikei (Tokyo: Nihon Haishū Kankō Kai, 1927), XIV, p. 504.

  7. See Abe Kimio, Matsuo Bashō, p. 228.

  8. These mounds, perhaps deriving from beliefs in kami descending upon mountains, were a traditional means of enshrining a deity in Japanese folk belief. There is evidence that Shingon hijiri and wandering yamabushi also used mounds as altars. See Otsuka Minzoku Gakkai, Nihon Minzoku Jiten (Tokyo: Kōbundo, 1972), p. 459.

  9. See Abe Kimio, pp. 227-228; Bungaku Jiten VI, p. 48; and especially Ishida, pp. 233-240.

  10. Quoted in Abe Kimio, p. 232.

  11. Nihon Haishū Taikei, XII, p. 74.

  12. Ibid., p. 226.

  13. Shiki Zenshū (Tokyo: Kaizōsha, 1930), VI, pp. 131-132.

  14. Akūtagawa Ryūnosuke Zenshū, VI, p. 310.

  15. In reviewing this extremely brief history of the image of Bashō, we can see the force of individual personalities in the shaping of the direction of that history. Those haiku poets who gathered annually around their statues of Bashō must have felt the pressures for group solidarity and belonging, which have been so strong in Japan, and were also drawn to a man whom they thought had found fulfillment in haiku. It will soon be apparent that there were circumstances in Issa's life which were like Bashō's. Shiki demanded an individual expression under the influence of Western thought, an idea which undercut the importance of Bashō. Akutagawa was profoundly interested in the integration of life and art, even killing himself as a supreme artistic act. This led to his fascination with Bashō, a man in whom he saw the disparity of artistic ideals and actual life.

  16. Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958), p. 54.

  17. Ibid., p. 16.

  18. Ibid., p. 74.

  19. See Yamamoto Tadaichi, ‘Bashō Bungaku no Shūkyō Sei’, Bukkyō Bungaku Kenkyū, ed. Bukkyō Bungaku Kenkyū Kai (Tokyo: hōzokan, 1964), II, pp. 248, 251-253.

  20. Cf. Hayashi Ranzan (1583-1657); Nakae Tōju (1608-1648); Yamazaki Ansai (1618-1682); Yamaga Sokō (1622-1685).

  21. A thorough, although controversial, discussion of Tokugawa values is Robert Bellah, Tokugawa Religion (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1957).

  22. Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Bashō (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970), p. 20. See also the more detailed genealogical information in Abe Kimio, pp. 3-10.

  23. This school was founded by Teitoku (d. 1653). See Harold Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1958), pp. 11-13.

  24. See, for example, his poem for the parents of a dead infant, beginning ‘Shiore fusu ya’ (KNBZ, 8).

  25. For this, and the speculations of others as well, see Ueda, p. 21.

  26. Later he was to claim to have desired at times to be a scholar or hold an official post, and these statements may refer to this period. See Ueda, p. 22.

  27. See Abe Kimio, pp. 27-29, for these early successes.

  28. George Sansom, A History of Japan, 1615-1867 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963), p. 114.

  29. See Ueda, p. 23. From his poems, there is no indication that he was anything but a willing participant in city culture at this time. This contradicts an often held opinion that he was somehow separated from that gay life, as is suggested from an analysis overly based on class in Hirosue Tamotsu, Genroku Bungaku Kenkyū (Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppan Sha, 1955), pp. 17-27.

  30. This school was founded by Sōin (d. 1682). See Henderson, pp. 13-14. The ‘scattered showers’ verse is not strictly Danrin, but shows definite Danrin influence on Bashō.

  31. For a discussion of the allusions involved in this name, see Donald H. Shively, ‘Bashō—The Man and the Plant’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, XVI (1953), pp. 146-161.

  32. This poem was in reference to the gourd in which disciples donated rice.

  33. The cuckoo was an important poetic bird about which even a poetic hack should have been able to write a poem.

  34. A man was said to be fully grown at forty. The moon, of course, is full on the fifteenth day. Even so, it is strange that he should refer to himself as a child.

  35. Donald Keene points out that if Bashō were moved according to formal filial piety, he should have left earlier to be in time for the memorial service. See his ‘Bashō's Journey of 1684’, in his Landscapes and Portraits (Tokyo and Palo Alto: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1971), pp. 94-103. This article is also in Asia Major, VII (1959), pp. 131-144.

  36. Joseph M. Kitagawa, ‘Three Types of Pilgrimage in Japan’, Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem, ed. E. E. Urbak, et. al. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967), pp. 155-164.

  37. Ibid., p. 164.

  38. Ibid., p. 164.

  39. Cf. Victor Turner, ‘The Center Out There: The Pilgrim's Goal’, History of Religions, XII, 3 (February, 1973), especially pp. 204-205, where he speaks of the pilgrim's path as ‘increasingly sacralized at one level and increasingly secularized at another’. Also of interest is his observation (p. 207 and elsewhere) that the pilgrim moves from particularistic to universal bonds, such as ‘brother’. We will find Bashō doing this to an extraordinary degree as he has no particularistic bonds to return to.

  40. Donald Keene, ‘Bashō's Journey to Sarashina’, in his Landscapes and Portraits, p. 124. This article is also available in Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, third series, V (Dec., 1957), pp. 56-83.

  41. See H. Byron Earhart, A Religious Study of the Mount Haguro Sect of Shugendō (Tokyo: Sophia University Press, 1970).

  42. His self-description is in Nozarashi Kikō (NKBT, 58).

  43. NKBT, 75.

  44. This discussion of technique and the idea of impersonality owes a heavy debt to Makoto Ueda, Literary and Art Theories in Japan (Cleveland: Western Reserve University Press, 1967), pp. 145-172. Yamamoto, pp. 257-259, describes Bashō's participation in mujōkan, or ‘transitoriness’, in somewhat similar fashion.

  45. See Ueda, Literary and Art Theories, p. 156. Also, Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkōkai, Haikai and Haiku (Tokyo, 1958), pp. XIX and XVII.

  46. While it is true that Bashō revised many of his works, at no time did this seem to lessen the importance of experiencing everything he tried to express, and composing on the spot.

  47. Albert Craig, ‘Introduction: Perspectives on Personality in Japanese History’, Personality in Japanese History, ed. Albert Craig and Donald Shively (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), p. 23.

  48. Erikson, Young Man Luther, p. 100.

  49. Craig, ‘Introduction’, p. 17.

  50. Quoted in Craig, p. 18.

  51. Bashō, Nozarashi Kikō (Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton, 1684-1685, dates reflecting the time of the trip).

    ———, Kashima Kikō (A Visit to Kashima Shrine, 1687).

    ———, Oi no Kobumi (Records of a Travel Worn Satchel, 1687-1688).

    ———, Sarashina Kikō (A Visit to Sarashina Village, 1688).

    ———, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1689).

    The translations of these titles are borrowed from those in Nobuyuki Yuasa's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1966). In addition to travel diaries, Bashō continued to write other haiku, renku, and short sketches called haibun.

  52. Several poems from this period have Buddhist overtones, but are most often composed in temple settings and can be seen as being simply appropriate to the place in which Bashō found himself. There is no evidence that Bashō had more than a very general popular understanding of Buddhism, filtered through his reading of ancient literature and Nō drama. He would draw upon this understanding during visits to famous Buddhist temples, but only as part of his general concern with historical and literary background in every place he went. At one point in Nozarashi Kikō, he seems irritated when he cannot get into the Ise Shrine because he is mistaken for a Buddhist priest. Bashō had briefly flirted with Zen in Edo under a master named Buccho. This priest, however, moved away in 1682, and, while Bashō remained fond of him, it is impossible to think that he practiced Zen for more than the shortest period of time.

  53. Earl Miner, Japanese Poetic Diaries (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), p. 45. Here, too, is the suggestion of the whole trip as a destination.

  54. Ueda, Literary and Art Theories, pp. 149 ff.

  55. One version of this begins, ‘Sabishisa ya’, or ‘loneliness’. See KNBZ, 182.

  56. Quoted in Abe Kimio, p. 189.

  57. Ibid., pp. 15-16.

  58. Ibid., pp. 186 ff.

  59. Heikan no Setsu (NKBT, 208-209).

  60. See Ueda, Literary and Art Theories, pp. 165 ff., and Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkōkai, Hakai and Haiku, p. XX.

  61. Ueda, in Matsuo Bashō, p. 61, notes that this was written at the peak of his fame, while he was surrounded by disciples.

  62. I suspect that Kyōrai, Bashō's truest disciple, did not take many students because he realized what had happened to his master.

Lucien Stryk (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3111

SOURCE: Introduction to On Love and Barley: Haiku of Bashō, translated by Lucien Stryk, Penguin Books, 1985, pp. 9-19.

[In the following essay, Stryk discusses Bashō's poetic style and notes the lack of didacticism in his Zen-inspired verses, which celebrate all things and seek to wrest the eternal from the concrete world.]

It is night: imagine, if you will, a path leading to a hut lost in a wildly growing arbour, shaded by the basho, a wide-leafed banana tree rare to Japan. A sliding door opens: an eager-eyed man in monk's robe steps out, surveys his shadowy thicket and the purple outline of a distant mountain, bends his head to catch the rush of river just beyond; then, looking up at the sky, pauses a while, and claps his hands. Three hundred years pass—the voice remains fresh and exciting as that moment.

Summer moon—
clapping hands,
I herald dawn.

So it was with Matsuo Kinsaku (1644-94), the first great haiku poet, who would later change his name to Basho in honour of the tree given him by a disciple.

Basho appeared on the scene soon after the so-called Dark Age of Japanese literature (1425-1625), a time of the popularization of purely indigenous verse forms, and the brilliant beginning of the Tokugawa era (1603-1867). The haiku was already well established, with its own distinct rules, but in the hands of rulesmiths (as in the sonnet of Western verse) it was expiring of artificiality. Almost alone, Basho reinvigorated the form. How he did so is, fortunately, well known, for among his many admirers were a few far-seeing enough to record his comments, literally to catch him on the run, for he was always a compulsive traveller, wandering all over Japan in search of new sights and experiences.

He wrote at least one thousand haiku, as well as a number of travel sketches, which contain some of his finest poems. One of the sketches, The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, begins with a most revealing account of what poetry meant to him:

In this poor body, composed of one hundred bones and nine openings, is something called spirit, a flimsy curtain swept this way and that by the slightest breeze. It is spirit, such as it is, which led me to poetry, at first little more than a pastime, then the full business of my life. There have been times when my spirit, so dejected, almost gave up the quest, other times when it was proud, triumphant. So it has been from the very start, never finding peace with itself, always doubting the worth of what it makes … All who achieve greatness in art—Saigyo in traditional poetry, Sogi in linked verse, Sesshu in painting, Rikyu in tea ceremony—possess one thing in common: they are one with nature.

Towards the end of his life Basho cautioned fellow haiku poets to rid their minds of superficiality by means of what he called karumi (lightness). This quality, so important to all arts linked to Zen (Basho had become a monk), is the artistic expression of nonattachment, the result of calm realization of profoundly felt truths. Here, from a preface to one of his works, is how the poet pictures karumi: ‘In my view a good poem is one in which the form of the verse, and the joining of its two parts, seem light as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed.’

Basho's mature haiku style, Shofu, is known not only for karumi, but also for two other Zen-inspired aesthetic ideals: sabi and wabi. Sabi implies contented solitariness, and in Zen is associated with early monastic experience, when a high degree of detachment is cultivated. Wabi can be described as the spirit of poverty, an appreciation of the commonplace, and is perhaps most fully achieved in the tea ceremony, which, from the simple utensils used in the preparation of the tea to the very structure of the tea hut, honours the humble.

Basho perceived, early in his career, that the first haiku writers, among them Sokan (1458-1546) and Moritake (1472-1549), while historically of much importance, had little to offer poets of his day. These early writers had created the haiku form by establishing the autonomy of the parts of haikai renga, sequences of seventeen-syllable verses composed by poets working together. Though their poems possessed the desired terseness, they did not adequately evoke nature and, for the most part, lacked karumi. Basho wove his poems so closely around this feeling of lightness that at times he dared ignore time-honoured elements of the form, including the syllabic limitation. The following piece, among his greatest, consists in the original of eighteen syllables:

Kareeda ni
Karasu no tomarikeri
Aki no kure
On the dead limb
squats a crow—
autumn night.

So rare in the history of haiku was such licence that three hundred years on, a new haiku school, the Soun, or free-verse, school, justified its abandonment of syllabic orthodoxy on the grounds that Japan's greatest poet had not been constrained by such rules. In most respects, however, Basho was a traditionalist, his poems following very closely the expected structural development: two elements divided by a break (kireji, or ‘cutting word’, best rendered in English by emphatic punctuation), the first element being the condition or situation—‘Spring air’, in the first of the following examples—the other the sudden perception, preceded by kireji (in these pieces a dash).

Spring air—
woven moon
and plum scent.
Early autumn—
rice field, ocean,
one green.
Unknown spring—
plum blossom
behind the mirror.

So the poet presents an observation of a natural, often commonplace event, in plainest diction, without verbal trickery. The effect is one of spareness, yet the reader is aware of a microcosm related to transcendent unity. A moment, crystallized, distilled, snatched from time's flow, and that is enough. All suggestion and implication, the haiku event is held precious because, in part, it demands the reader's participation: without a sensitive audience it would appear unimpressive. Haiku's great popularity is only partly due to its avoidance of the forbidding obscurities found in other kinds of verse: more important, it is likely to give the reader a glimpse of hitherto unrecognized depths in the self.

As we have seen, the sobriquet Basho, amusing even to his fellow countrymen, was taken by the poet from a tree planted by the hut in which he lived and met disciples, perhaps because it suggested the lightness he sought in life and art. He loved the name, making many references to it in writing. In Japan, too cold for the tree to bear fruit, the basho was thought exotic, and though its trunk had no practical use its big soft leaves offered fine shade in summer. Each of the three huts the poet was to own throughout his life was called the Basho hut, the tree transplanted wherever he settled. Even on his journeys he seemed never to be away from his hut, as the following poem suggests:

Banana leaves hanging
round my hut—
must be moon-viewing.

Little is known of the poet's early life. It is believed he was born in or near Ueno in Iga Province, around thirty miles south-east of Kyoto. He had an elder brother and four sisters. His father, Matsuo Yozaemon, possibly a low-ranking samurai, farmed in times of peace, making a modest yet respectable living. Of the poet's mother all we know is that it is unlikely that she was a native of Ueno. About the time of his father's death in 1656, Basho entered the service of the samurai Todo Yoshitada, a young relative of the local feudal lord. He was very well treated, and it was in these years that he began writing verse (his earliest known work is dated 1662). When Yoshitada died, prematurely, in 1666, the poet resigned his position and moved, it is thought, to Kyoto. A few of Basho's biographers mention a mistress (who was to become a nun named Jutei), even a child or two—but all concerning that part of his life is sheerest speculation.

It is known for certain that by 1672 Basho was in Edo (modern Tokyo), hoping for a literary career. He wrote, among other things, a pair of hundred-verse renku with another poet, critical commentaries for Haiku Contests in Eighteen Rounds, produced an anthology of his own and his best pupils' work, Best Poems of Tosei's Twenty Disciples (he was then called Tosei), and, like all haiku teachers then and since, judged one contest after another, including ‘The Rustic Haiku Contest’ and ‘The Evergreen Haiku Contest’. Soon he settled in his first Basho hut, built for him in 1680 by an admirer, Sampu, in Fukagawa, in an isolated spot near the Sumida river, and it was here that he began to attract, not pupils, but disciples. From the start of his career as an established master he drew the most promising young Edo haiku poets, who came seeking advice and, on occasion, to engage with him in composition of linked verse. Later, there were periods when he found visitors no longer bearable, so he would keep his gate locked:

Morning-glory trailing—
all day the gate-
bolt's fastened.

Basho loved and needed solitude: ‘I am like a sick man weary of society,’ he wrote. ‘There was a time I wanted an official post, land of my own, another time I would have liked to live in a monastery. Yet I wandered on, a cloud in the wind, wanting only to capture the beauty of flowers and birds.’ But from the start of his residence near Edo he engaged with disciples in profound discussion of the art of haiku, and was soon known as the foremost living theorist. Here, one of his disciples, Doho, writes of a conversation with the poet:

The master said, ‘Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo stalk from a bamboo stalk.’ What he meant was that the poet should detach his mind from self … and enter into the object, sharing its delicate life and its feelings. Whereupon a poem forms itself. Description of the object is not enough: unless a poem contains feelings which have come from the object, the object and the poet's self will be separate things.

To give an indication of the influence of such comments on subsequent practice of the art, a contemporary haiku school, Tenro, possesses a creed, Shasei (on-the-spot composition, with the subject ‘traced to its origin’), virtually based on the theoretical statements and practice of Basho. Tenro has some two thousand members all over Japan, and it is customary for groups to meet at a designated spot, perhaps a Zen temple in a place famous for its pines or bamboo, and there write as many as one hundred haiku in a day, attempting to enter the object, ‘share its delicate life and feelings’. As might be expected, there is much imitation of the master. Yet Basho was severe with disciples who did little more than imitate him:

Rhyming imitators—
musk melons
whacked to halves.

Basho's prose was as distinctive as his poetry, often taking the form of haibun (prose followed by haiku), characteristically concrete and imagistic. Writers of haibun used many Chinese characters (ideograms), which in contrast to phonetic Japanese have a strong visual effect. Thus the prose was consonant with the verse it accompanied. Perhaps Basho's finest prose, and most impressive haiku, can be found in the remarkable travel sketches he composed throughout his restless life, including The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton (1684-5), A Visit to Kashima Shrine (1687), The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel (1688) and, most ambitious of all, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, begun in 1689. In the best of these sketches, and always in the late ones, prose and verse work organically together, and though, following him, many have produced similar works in various forms and languages, his stand alone for their absolute naturalness.

It is especially in the travel sketches that the poet's profound debt to Zen is apparent. Like other haiku poets of his time Basho considered himself a Zennist, indeed was thought to be a Zen monk. It is known that he practised the discipline under the master Buccho, with whom, according to D. T. Suzuki in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism (1963), he had the following exchange:

Buccho: How are you getting along these days?

Basho: After a recent rain the moss has grown greener than ever.

Buccho: What Buddhism is there prior to the greenness of moss?

Basho: A frog jumps into the water, hear the sound!

It has been claimed that this exchange, inspiration for one of the poet's best-known poems, began an epoch in the history of haiku.

All his life a wanderer, Basho took full advantage of the safe-conduct—important to the traveller of his day—and mobility Zen priesthood offered. He gave up virtually all possessions, his only concern spiritual and artistic discovery.

First winter rain—
I plod on,
Traveller, my name.

Basho's discussion of poetry was always tinged by Zen thought, and what in his maturity he advocated above all was the realization of muga, so close an identification with the things one writes of that self is forgotten. As Zen's Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (637-712), put it, one should not look at, but as, the object. It is of course one thing to voice ideals, another to attain them. Basho's late poems demonstrate that, in spite of periods of acute self-doubt, he was able to achieve a unity of life and art, the great hope of Zen creators. ‘What is important,’ he wrote, ‘is to keep mind high in the world of true understanding, then, returning to daily experience, seek therein the true and the beautiful. No matter what the activity of the moment, we must never forget it has a bearing on everlasting self, our poetry.’ As D. T. Suzuki explains, haiku has always been one with Zen:

When a feeling reaches its highest pitch, we remain silent, even 17 syllables may be too many. Japanese artists … influenced by the way of Zen tend to use the fewest words or strokes of brush to express their feelings. When they are too fully expressed no room for suggestion is possible, and suggestibility is the secret of the Japanese arts.

Though inspired by Zen, Basho's haiku avoided the didactic tone of much classical Zen poetry, even the greatest:

                    Waka on the Diamond
Coming, going, the waterfowl
Leaves not a trace,
Nor does it need a guide.
Firm on the seven Buddhas' cushion,
Centre, centre. Here's the arm-rest
My master handed down. Now, to it!
Head up, eyes straight, ears in line with shoulders.
                    Waka on Zen Sitting
Scarecrow in the hillock
How unaware! How useful!

Written by Dogen (1200-1253), who in the Kamakura period introduced Soto Zen to Japan, such poems were meant to encourage disciples. Dogen did not think himself a poet: he was, like all Zen masters, a guide, whose mission was to point minds to enlightenment, and the poems he wrote were meant only to serve that end. Basho, on the other hand, was conscious of being an artist, and saw the conceptual, whatever its application, as the enemy of art.

Basho strove to place his reader within an experience whose unfolding might lead to revelation, the eternal wrested from the phenomenal world. As a mystic, he knew the unconditioned was attainable only within the conditioned, nirvana within samsara—that the illumination sought was to be found in the here and now of daily life. Throughout Zen's history, wherever practised, Zennists have perceived a process in all such matters, some relating it to doctrines such as the Avatamsaka, a Mahayana Buddhist sutra of great importance to the formation of Zen. Here, for example, is how the contemporary master Taigan Takayama interprets a poem by Japan's greatest living Zen poet, Shinkichi Takahashi. First, the poem:

                    The Peach
A little girl under a peach tree,
Whose blossoms fall into the entrails
Of the earth.
There you stand, but a mountain may be there
Instead; it is not unlikely that the earth
May be yourself.
You step against a plate of iron and half
Your face is turned to iron. I will smash
Flesh and bone
And suck the cracked peach. She went up the
To hide her breasts in the snowy ravine.
Women's legs
Are more or less alike. The leaves of the peach tree
Stretch across the sea to the end of
The continent.
The sea was at the little girl's beck and call.
I will cross the sea like a hairy
And catch the odour of your body.

Now, Taigan Takayama's comment:

Most interesting, from both the Zen and literary points of view. Let's begin with the former: an Avatamsaka doctrine holds that the universe can be observed from the four angles of (1) phenomena, (2) noumenon, (3) the identity of noumenon and phenomena, and (4) the mutual identity of phenomena. Now, whether he was aware of it or not, the poet depicted a world in which noumenon and phenomena are identical. Considering the poem with Zen in mind, the lesson to be drawn, I suppose, is that one should not loiter on the way but proceed straight to one's destination—the viewpoint of the mutual identity of phenomena. But from a literary point of view, the significance, and the charm, of the poem lies in its metaphorical presentation of a world in which noumenon and phenomena are identified with each other.

[Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews]

It is unlikely that Basho would have disagreed with Taigan Takayama, yet there is little doubt he would also have claimed that haiku, at its best, depicts a world in which ‘noumenon and phenomena are identical’. Indeed he might have insisted, with justice, that it exists to demonstrate such identity. Occasionally, to be sure, Basho wrote poems as explicit in their Zen intention as any master's:

Skylark on moor—
sweet song
of non-attachment.
Monks, morning-glories—
how many under
the pine-tree Law?
Four temple gates—
under one moon,
four sects.

Yet surely the chief reason for the poet's universal appeal is that he never leaves nature, which—East, West—is one, through all processes and manifestations the sole unchanging thing we know. Throughout his life as a wanderer Basho sought to celebrate: whether his eyes turned to mountain or gorge, whether his ears heard thunder or bird-song, whether his foot brushed flower or mud, he was intensely alive to the preciousness of all that shared the world with him. Even his final poem, written for disciples shortly before his death, reaches for the unknown:

Sick on a journey—
over parched fields
dreams wander on.

David L. Barnhill (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9414

SOURCE: “Impermanence, Fate, and the Journey: Bashō and the Problem of Meaning,” in Religion, Vol. 16, No. 4, 1986, pp. 323-41.

[In this essay, Barnhill considers Bashō's treatment of an abandoned baby in his travel journal The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton. The critic contends that Bashō regarded the infant's suffering as one that is shared by all, an idea that appears in several other travel sketches.]

The travel journals of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), one of Japan's great wayfaring poets, present a complex vision of the universe and a compelling way of life.1 It is generally agreed that this vision and way of life have religious significance, but what that religiosity consists of and how we can talk about it are perplexing issues.2

One passage that suggests the distinctive character of Bashō's religiosity comes near the beginning of his first journal, The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton (Nozarashi Kikō).

I was walking along the Fuji River when I saw an abandoned child, barely two, weeping pitifully. Had his parents been unable to endure this floating world which is as wave-tossed as these rapids, and so left him here to wait out a life brief as dew? He seemed like a bush clover in autumn's wind which might scatter in the evening or wither in the morning. I tossed him some food from my sleeve and said in passing,

Saru o kiku hito
sutego ni aki no
kaze ika ni
Those who listen for the monkeys:
what of this child
abandoned in the autumn wind?

Why did this happen? Were you hated by your father or neglected by your mother Your father did not hate you, your mother did not neglect you. This simply is from heaven, and you can only grieve over your fate.

NKBT 46:36-37

Bashō's response to the abandoned baby seems quite callous, and scholars have long debated his attitude. A critic as distinguished as Donald Keene has concluded that ‘perhaps the simplest explanation is that a waif by the roadside was a far more common sight in Bashō's day than in our own’.3

The search for the simplest explanation, however, can be a dangerous one, especially with a writer as complex as Bashō. His journals are not journalism. Though the journals are based on the journeys he took through Japan, he altered the details of his travels in order to construct works of literature. What this means, William LaFleur has said, is that ‘everything counts in a passage by Bashō. There are no throw-aways or gratuitous bits of unassimilated information’.4

The context of this passage accentuates the fact that the passage counts. The encounter with the baby is the very first episode presented after the departure scene and the crossing of the initial mountain barrier. It is, in a sense, the second opening of the journal. In addition, the passage echoes the ‘first’ opening of the journal.

I set out on a journey of a thousand leagues, packing no provisions. I leaned on the staff of an ancient who, it is said, entered into nothingness under the midnight moon. It was the first year of Jōkyō, autumn, the eighth moon. As I left my ramshackle hut by the river, the sound of the wind was strangely cold.

Nozarashi o
kokoro ni kaze no
shimu mi kana
Bleached bones
on my mind, the wind pierces
my body to the heart

NKBT 46:36

The journal begins with the image of bleached bones in a field, an image of someone who has died by the roadside. The impact of the scene upon Bashō is brought out by a particular poetic technique. The word kokoro here functions as a kakekotoba, a pivot-word that affects both parts of the poem: the field-exposed bones are on his mind (kokoro) and the wind penetrates his body (mi) to his heart (kokoro). As Ogata Tsutomu has said, the poem combines the pathos of nature (the autumn wind), human pathos (death), and the physical pain of the cold wind on the body.5

Certainly Bashō is imagining his own whitened bones: he foresees the possibility that he himself will die by the roadside and he accepts that fate. This identification of Bashō and the bones is emphasized by the fact that the poem is framed by the images of bleached bones and his body. In the prose section, however, he identifies himself with the wayfarers of old, in particular with the Sung dynasty Ch'an Buddhist monk Kuang-wen (1189-1263).6 Thus the poem's image of the bones also suggests other travellers who have died by the road. We are presented both with an image of wayfaring as a classical ideal Bashō is following and also with an image of death as its possible—or likely—result.7 Bashō recognizes and accepts the possibility as an integral part of the ideal of the wayfarer.

This introductory passage of the journal ties in closely with the abandoned baby episode. After crossing the barrier, Bashō immediately encounters a living—and dying—example of what he had previously only imagined. A traditional theme in Chinese and Japanese poetry was that of a poet listening to the mournful cries of monkeys, and Bashō adopts and adapts that theme. As Imoto Nōichi has said, Bashō combines the ‘fictional’ image of hearing monkeys cry with the ‘realistic’ image of encountering the wail of an abandoned baby.8 The poem thus ‘moves’ in the same way the journal does: the journal moves from the classical and fictional images of the ancient pilgrims and the bleached bones in the opening passage to the actuality of the abandoned baby, and the poem moves from the classical image of listening to the monkeys to the actuality of the crying child.

The poem ends with an incomplete question, ika ni (‘how’ or ‘what’), which draws the reader into the poem. We have to complete the question, and in so doing we take on some of the pained voice of the poem: how would the ancients feel about this child, and what would they do? The poem thus acts like a vortex combining the sorrow of the monkeys, the ancient poets, Bashō, the baby and the reader. To all these ‘cries’ is added the bitter sound and coldness of the autumn wind.

This image of the cold autumn wind emphasizes the identity between Bashō and the baby. In the opening poem the autumn wind pierces Bashō's flesh; in this poem the same wind bites into the baby's. Bashō's grief is aroused not simply from the recognition of another person's precarious condition but from the close affinity between his own condition and the baby's. The idea of death on the road—Bashō's death as well as that of the ancients—is embodied before him in the baby. Someday it may well be he who is dying by the roadside.

Bashō's sadness and his feeling of affinity with the child might make it more puzzling why he does not save the child. He does enact both his compassion and his identification with the child by throwing it some food, but this is done ‘in passing’: Bashō knows this will not save the child. His action and lack of action has been defended on at least two grounds. One argument, already seen in Keene's interpretation, is that scenes such as this were probably common in Bashō's time. Imoto, for instance, has argued that peasants of that time practised child abandonment and abortion because of widespread poverty.9 A second defense is that Bashō's rejection of responsibility for the child is no more callous than our own neglect of the orphans of our day. Yamamoto Kenkichi has stated that those wishing to condemn Bashō for not saving the child should give all their money to orphanages and veterans hospitals.10

Both arguments fail to account for the tone and sense of the passage. Bashō's presentation of the episode is charged with grief for the child and with a feeling of deep affinity. His response is not moral indifference to a common condition. In addition, he initially presents the suggestion that the child's condition might be a result of the difficult circumstances of its parents, but he concludes that it is heaven that is the cause.

This answer to his questions—that the baby's condition comes ‘from heaven’—is abrupt and almost elliptical. It seems more to raise questions than to answer them. Before trying to interpret the meaning of ‘from heaven’, however, it is worthwhile to ask what kind of passage this is. I suggest that this is an encounter with what Clifford Geertz, following Max Weber, has called the Problem of Meaning. Geertz develops the notion of the Problem of Meaning in his analysis of religious symbols, and his discussion helps clarify the nature of the passage:11

There are at least three points where chaos—a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability—threatens to break in upon man: at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his powers of endurance, and the limits of his moral insight.

For Geertz, these three parts of the Problem of Meaning—bafflement, suffering and the sense of intractable ethical paradox—are forms of impotence. They challenge ‘the proposition that life is comprehensible and that we can, by taking thought, orient ourselves effectively within it …’12

As Geertz notes, modern anthropologists have focused on suffering and ethical paradox.13 In this paper I will do the same. A close reading of Geertz's discussion of these two aspects reveals that each can be divided into two parts. The emotional problem in the Problem of Meaning (the second part mentioned above) consists of both how to give precision to one's feelings and how to endure those feelings and the world.14 Emotional impotence, then, involves what we can call perceptual and practical aspects: the inability to feel with some order or definition and the inability to endure one's suffering. If, in our experience of reality, we cannot feel with precision or endurance, then there is emotional chaos.

Similarly, the third part of the Problem of Meaning, moral impotence, is two-fold. Ethical paradox is found both in the problem of making moral sense out of a situation and also in finding some normative guides to govern our action.15 Thus the moral problem in the Problem of Meaning also has perceptual and practical aspects: the problems of how to interpret the ethical nature of situations and how to act morally. If the world is such that we cannot do these things, there is ethical chaos.

This double nature of the emotional and moral aspects of the Problem of Meaning is reflected in Geertz's notion of religion:16

Religious patterns such as those I have been discussing thus have a double aspect: they are frames of perception, symbolic screens through which experience is interpreted; and they are guides for action, blueprints for conduct.

For Geertz, religion is that part of culture where the perceptual and practical aspects of life become reflexive. The religious perspective, he says, ‘is the conviction that the values one holds are grounded in the inherent structure of reality, that between the way one ought to live and the way things really are there is an unbreakable inner connection’.17 Religion, then, is that which provides ‘the settled sense of moving with the deepest grain of reality’.18

Similarly, the emotional and moral aspects of the Problem of Meaning consist of the problem of how to ground our feelings and our ethics in the nature of reality. Emotions and ethics are meaningful in so far as they reflect and tie into the fabric of the universe. For the religious person the world has an emotional tenor and moral structure, and the Problem of Meaning is how to anchor our feelings and ethics into them.19

Geertz discusses the ethical aspect of the Problem of Meaning in terms of the traditional notions of good and evil. But certain passages in Geertz suggest that the practical aspect is broader than that. The problem of providing ‘normative guides to govern our action’ goes beyond questions of good and evil. ‘The way one ought to live’ includes, for instance, life style and vocation, whether it be a monk, sage or shaman.20 The Problem of Meaning is at work here too: if it is not possible to discover an unbreakable inner connection between one's general and fundamental mode of life and the way things really are, then the world doesn't make sense.21 The Problem of Meaning, then, involves how to feel, how to endure one's suffering, how to interpret the ethical character of the world, and how to act and to orient our lives—all in concert with the essential nature of reality.

Bashō's encounter with the abandoned baby is an encounter with all four of these aspects of the Problem of Meaning, but this fact emerges only when we investigate his enigmatic references to heaven. Two interrelated symbols that dominate his travel journals form the context for his notion of heaven: impermanence (mujō) and the journey. The notion of mujō has had a long history in Japanese culture and there have been many, quite different developments of this symbol.22 Indeed, it is probably more accurate to talk of many mujō's in Japanese culture rather than one. It is not surprising that a writer as complex as Bashō develops several distinct mujō's—more than we can discuss here.

One of the most common and primary elements found in his formulations of mujō, however, is the imminence of death. In his journal A Visit to Sarashina Village (Sarashina Kikō), Bashō graphically depicts this idea. He and his companions are making a steep climb to the village of Sarashina with Bashō on horseback. Out of pity for a monk who is burdened with an extremely heavy load, his companions pile the monk's bundles onto Bashō's horse. Bashō is left on top of these bundles, teetering on an uncertain mount as the mountain path narrows:

Overhead high mountains and strange peaks hung in layers. On my left a great river flowed; below was a precipice that seemed to drop a thousand feet. There was not a single piece of level ground, and I was terrified to be in the saddle. The fear simply would not leave.

NKBT 46:66

Bashō decides the situation is too much for him and dismounts. A servant, however, has no such fears and promptly takes Bashō's place.

We passed through Kakehashi and Nezame, then Sarugababa and Tachitōge of the ‘Forty-eight Turnings.’ The trail wound around as if on a pathway to the clouds. Even on foot I was dizzy and shaken, my legs trembling, yet the servant showed no signs of fear and kept dozing on top of the horse. Many times I thought he would surely fall; I was terrified as I looked up from behind. Gazing upon the sentient beings of this transitory world, the Lord Buddha must feel the same. When we reflect upon the unremitting swiftness of change, we can see why it is said: ‘the whirlpool of Awa is free of wind and waves.’

NKBT 46:66-67

The reference to the whirlpool of Awa derives from a popular Buddhist poem: ‘Compared to our journey through this world, the whirlpool of Awa is free of wind and waves’.23 Life is turbulent, change is inexorable and swift, but in particular we are all like the servant, riding precariously on the edge of death.

The imminence of death is not a momentary circumstance that occurs from time to time. It is an essential characteristic of human life. Bashō's descent from the teetering mount is ironic: he gets down because of the vertigo he feels at being so close to falling, yet he realizes in the end that the condition of imminent death in a transitory world defines the very nature of human existence. One cannot escape that condition as one can dismount from a horse.

Indeed, Bashō deliberately attempted both to symbolize and to expose himself to this condition in the life of a wanderer. The opening of The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi) deftly fuses the symbolic and the physical, the essential and the voluntary aspects of the journey.

Months and days are the wayfarers of a hundred generations, the years too, going and coming, are wanderers. For those who drift life away on a boat, for those who meet age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey, the journey itself home. Among ancients, too, many died on a journey. And so I too—for how many years—drawn by a cloud wisp wind, have been unable to stop thoughts of rambling. I roamed the coast, then last fall brushed cobwebs off the river hut. The year too gradually passed, and with sky of spring's rising mist came thoughts of crossing the Shirakawa barrier.

NKBT 46:70

Time, in the form of days, months, and years, is itself a wayfarer, and human life as a whole and everyday within it is a journey.

One can, however, choose to reflect and expose oneself to this condition by physically leading a journey life. There is irony also in the sentence ‘Among ancients, too, many died on a journey’. If ‘journey’ is the essential, inescapable condition of human life, then everyone ‘dies on a journey’. But the ancients embodied that condition by leading wandering lives, and this is what Bashō does. The word ‘journey’ thus acts somewhat as a kakekotoba does in Japanese poetry. The word ‘journey’ before this sentence refers to the essential condition of human beings, and after this sentence it refers to Bashō's actual wanderings through Japan. In this sentence, however, the word has both meanings.

Bashō thus sought a life in which his way of life and his understanding of the fundamental nature of reality were closely interwoven. Put in Geertz's terms, between the way one ought to live and the way things really are there was, for Bashō, an unbreakable inner connection. His view of the structure of reality and his programme for human conduct were mere reflexes of each other and the result was a settled sense of moving with the deepest grain of reality.24

To return now to the abandoned baby in the Nozarashi Kikō, Bashō has two sources for his action of leaving the baby by the roadside. First, the baby's condition of being like a bush clover that will soon scatter or wither is an inescapable one. When he meets the baby crying by the roadside he is initially puzzled that a child could be in such a situation. But as in the episode of the teetering horse he realizes that the condition of being on the edge of death is precisely ‘from heaven’, the fundamental condition of all life at all times. Second, in going on the journey Bashō had consciously decided to seek out for himself the very condition the baby is in: exposure not only to the elements (the autumn wind of both the Saru o kiku and of the Nozarashi o poems) but also the imminence of death. Bashō thus understands the child's condition as being neither absurd nor accidental but as explicable in terms of the basic nature of reality: life is impermanent and is a journey upon which one will die.

Bashō never explicitly answers the question that is implied in the poem, the problem of how emotionally to respond to the baby's suffering. The passage does present, however, two types of emotions that constitute Bashō's own response to this question: compassionate sorrow for someone in a shared condition, and resignation to that condition and its suffering. The feelings of compassion and acceptance reflect the nature of reality: the communal and inescapable condition of being on a journey and on the edge of death. Thus the symbols of mujō and the journey and the related symbol of heaven provide, in Geertz's terms, a cosmic guarantee for the ability to give definition to emotions, even in a situation as extreme as this. Because of the perceived pervasiveness and ultimateness of impermanence and the journey, Bashō can react to the child's distress not with a swirl of emotions but emotions that fit with the character of the universe: compassion and resignation.

The affective aspect of the Problem of Meaning involves the ability not only to feel suffering with precision but also to endure that suffering. As Geertz puts it, religious symbols must affirm the ‘ultimate sufferableness’ of the world.25

As a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering but how to suffer, how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat or the helpless contemplation of others' agony something bearable, supportable—something, as we say, sufferable.

Bashō can bear to contemplate the baby's suffering because he recognizes in it the manifestation of the universally shared condition of human existence. He tries to make the baby's suffering sufferable by the two acts of giving it food and telling it why it is suffering. The food could bring the baby only temporary relief, the words none at all. But the actions are portrayed as sincere, spontaneous acts of compassion, and they communicate to the reader Bashō's view that the baby's suffering is neither isolated nor absurd. Arising out of the very nature of the universe, the suffering is shared by all.

It is interesting to note what happens to the notion of ‘moral’ in Bashō's response to the Problem of Meaning. For Geertz, the Problem of Meaning provides a moral structure by ‘affirming, or at least recognizing, the inescapability of ignorance, pain, and injustice on the human plane while simultaneously denying that these irrationalities are characteristic of the world as a whole’.26 Here, as elsewhere, Geertz seems to identify rationality and justice (a tendency dating back to Socrates). For Geertz, the only alternative to moral chaos seems to be a world in which events are meaningful (grounded in the basic fabric of reality) and also tied to an overriding moral order. But these are two separable aspects of the Problem of Meaning. The first aspect yields the question: is the world a moral enigma or can we discover the reason for suffering and evil and how they are related to the nature of reality? The second aspect yields the question: is the good somehow preserved, is good rewarded and evil punished, as in the traditional notions of heaven and hell and karma?

Geertz does not seem to consider the possibility of an ordered, understandable world that is amoral. A world that exhibits knowable principles into which individual events can be grounded is not chaotic but meaningful in Geertz's sense of the term. Yet this fact does not entail that the world is moral.

Bashō's response to the abandoned baby seems to suggest an amoral order. For Bashō there does not seem to be cosmic protection of innocence or the good; the world is such that an innocent child can be left to suffer and die. No retribution sets things right, nor is there anyone to blame. Yet there is no moral chaos. The world is not ruled by whim; it manifests identifiable principles by which even such an extreme situation as the abandoned baby can be explained and accepted.

Had Bashō showed compassion for and resignation to the baby's plight without answering his initial puzzlement, the passage would have been merely an example of accommodation to moral chaos. But Bashō discerns in the baby's suffering recognizable universal principles of the universe. The world as a whole is not irrational; there is no chaos.

But do these principles—mujō and the journey—constitute a moral structure? Bashō's universe seems morally indifferent: individuals suffer from impermanence in various degrees and at various points in their lives without regard to their moral guilt or innocence. The structure seems to be amoral, not moral; the world may be meaningful, but it seems unjust.

In Bashō's journals, however, this injustice and moral indifference are substantially mitigated. In depicting the universal character of mujō and the journey, Bashō stresses the communal nature of the condition. Bashō's journals do not present resignation to shared misery but an affirmation of community and the life lived within it. The bond between Bashō, the baby, the ancients and the horseguide—and the months and days—is both wholly good and part of the fundamental fabric of the universe. Thus Bashō's recognition of mujō and even the sufferings it causes leads finally not to confusion and despair, or grim resignation, but to the celebration of life. Despite the vicissitudes of the journey-life, the community continues and as such the world is fundamentally whole and sound. In this sense the world is not unjust, for all people exist in a community and share the same condition. In this sense the world has a pronounced, if complex, moral structure.

A very different kind of scene in a much later work, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, suggests the same moral structure and sense of community.

Today we made our way through the most precarious parts of the north country, places such as Unseen Parents, Unwatched Child, Turned-back Dog, Retreating Horse. At night, exhausted, I sought out a pillow and was near to sleep when I heard the voices of two young women in the front, one room away. The voice of an old man mingled with theirs. From what I could hear they were courtesans from a place called Niigata in Echigo on their way to worship at the Ise Shrine. The old man had seen them off as far as this barrier and they had written letters and brief notes for him to take back to their village in the morning.

At one point I heard these words: ‘Cast adrift on the beach where the white waves break, daughters of the shore, we have fallen to a wretched life. Each night there are the fleeting pledges of love; what shameful karma do we carry from our past days?’ On they talked, and I drifted to sleep.

In the morning as we set off, they came pleading to us with tears falling. ‘We don't know which way to go on this sorrowful road, we are so worried and upset, could we follow your footsteps from off in the distance? By the mercy of your robes, grant us the blessing of your great compassion and we will be bound to the Buddha.’ ‘It is unfortunate’, I said, ‘but we are always stopping here and there. Just entrust yourself to the way others are going. Surely the gods will protect you from harm.’ With these words we left them behind, but for a time the pity of their situation would not leave me.

Hitotsu ya
yūjo mo netari
hagi to tsuki
In the one house
Courtesans, too, slept:
Bush clover and moon

I recited this to Sora, and he wrote it down.27

NKBT 46:91-2

The basic similarities between this episode and that of the abandoned baby episode are obvious. Like the baby, the courtesans are locked into a bitterly painful situation. Bashō is confronted with their fate and their tears and, as in the other passage, he shows compassion and remorse. He also leaves them in their grief. Differences between the two passages, though, are also apparent. The courtesans are adults, and they certainly do not have the baby's innocence. In the courtesan passage, Bashō does not seem to give an explicit interpretation of the basis and nature of their circumstance. Instead, the courtesans give their own interpretation: their fate is a result of karma.

What is their situation? In part they feel lost and helpless on their pilgrimage to Ise. Their fellow villager is returning home, and they feel in desperate need of someone to guide them on their way. Because Bashō appears to be a monk travelling to Ise, they believe and hope that he will show them compassion and help them find their way.

There is, of course, more to the courtesans' tears than their anxiety about travelling alone to Ise. The conversation Bashō overheard the night before makes clear their great distress about ‘having fallen to a wretched life’. Their grief and anxiety concerns not merely the way to Ise but also their way of life: the ‘sorrowful road’ they are lost on is their life as well as the road to Ise. Here too Bashō seems to be a possible source of aid, an opportunity to break out of the wretchedness of their lives. To understand this, however, we need to discuss one of the major themes of this passage: relationships.28

There are three primary types of relationships mentioned in the passage. The first is the courtesans' sexual relationships, characterized by ‘fleeting pledges of love’ (sadamenaki chigiri). Their life is thus filled with impermanent and vulgar relationships. To this is opposed a second type of relationship, a kechien, a term translated here as ‘bound to the Buddha’. A kechien refers to a connection to the Buddha made by an aspirant in order to aid in the attainment of Buddhahood. This type of relationship is the exact opposite of the ‘fleeting pledges of love’ because it is both permanent and spiritual. The courtesans, it seems clear, hope to establish this kind of relationship as an alternative to their fleeting pledges of love and in so doing break the total grasp that mujō and the vulgar world have on their lives. In this way the black-robed Bashō seems to them to be an opportunity to achieve release from the wretchedness of the fleeting, floating world.

In his very terse reply, Bashō refuses to help them bring about this kechien. Indeed, he seems to deny that the women have any problem at all. He does, however, encourage them to establish a third type of relationship: entrusting themselves to ‘the way others are going’. The significance of this reply begins to emerge when we consider a second theme of this passage, the idea of a way. Embedded in the courtesans' statement Bashō overheard during the night is an allusion to an anonymous classical poem:29

Shiranami no
yosuru nagisa ni
yo o tsukusu
ama no ko nareba
yado mo sadamezu
If I were a
daughter of the shore
who lives out her life on the beach
where the white waves break,
my dwelling too would be fleeting.

The use of the phrases shiranami no yosuru nagisa ni (on the beach where the white waves break) and ama no ko (daughters of the shore) by the courtesans in their conversation makes the allusion to this poem a very direct one. The words of the courtesans, however, differ from those of the original poem. Instead of the phrase yo o tsuku (‘we live out our lives’ on the beach where the white waves break), the courtesans in Bashō's passage use the term hōrakashi. This term means to ‘abandon’, ‘wander’ and ‘be wretched’ (in my translation it has become ‘cast adrift’). This change depicts the lives of the courtesans as unpleasant drifting. In order to avoid this condition of being aimless wanderers, they have embarked on a pilgrimage with a specific destination and goal, Ise. They want Bashō to help them stay on their course and reach the end of their pilgrimage.

Bashō rejects this plea and he rejects the ideal embodied in it as well. His reason for not guiding them is also a description of a type of journey very different from a pilgrimage to Ise. Bashō's journey has no specific goal or end, ‘always stopping here and there’. It is, in fact, very similar to the condition that the courtesans are trying to escape, with one major exception: Bashō accepts the condition. This is not to say Bashō never experiences fear or fatigue; the opening of the passage functions precisely to show how dangerous and exhausting his journey can be. Yet he feels no fundamental distress at being a guideless wanderer. It is in fact a condition that he has consciously sought.

In this light, Bashō's rather curt reply has a double meaning. In one sense his answer is utterly pragmatic: if you are heading towards Ise and don't know the way, ask anyone going there to help you. Bashō himself enlisted such short term guidance during his journeys. To the simple problem of finding their way to Ise, Bashō gives a simple answer.

To their deeper problem of finding their way through life, Bashō has the same answer but with a more subtle meaning. The Japanese literally read tada hito no yuku ni makasete yukubeshi, ‘just go, entrusting yourself to the going of others’. The ‘going of others’, Bashō has told us at the beginning of this journal, is to be on a journey, an endless journey in which we are always exposed to mujō. In his own life he sought to open himself to and embody what he saw to be the basic nature of life, an endless journey characterized by impermanence. In a very real sense, the courtesans have asked him to help them avoid these aspects of life: they seek a permanence of relationship, a kechien, cut off from the fleeting, vulgar world and they seek to change their drifting into a pilgrimage with a goal and end. Bashō refuses to help them. Instead, he advises them to accept the universal ‘going’ of others: the journey-ness of life and its impermanence. He does not try to dissuade them from going to Ise—Bashō himself made pilgrimages of this kind—but the words he uses suggest that their pilgrimage would best be part of an endless journey. In so doing, they can achieve the relationship Bashō offers as an alternative to a kechien: sharing with all others the fundamental condition of life.

I previously suggested that at first glance Bashō seems to be rejecting the idea that the women have a problem at all. At second glance the same point holds. Bashō accepts the courtesans' view that their life is characterized by impermanence and a journey without guide or goal. But he understands it not as a problem resulting from karmic retribution but as the universal condition of life reflecting the fundamental character of existence. Impermanence is not a problem to avoid but is a fact to ‘realize’ both in one's interpretation of life and in one's way of life.

One result of Bashō's view of life is the blurring of the distinction between the courtesans and himself. This notion can be seen especially in a third theme of this passage, the house or inn. This term first appears in a rather indirect way in the courtesans' allusion to the poem cited previously. The courtesans make the statement that their life is characterized by pledges that are sadamenashi: uncertain, unstable, fleeting. In the poem, the ‘daughters of the shore’ live in houses that are sadamezu:30 temporary dwellings. The allusion expands the courtesans' statement: knowing the classical poem we are made to think of the courtesans' life as characterized by impermanent dwellings as well as impermanent vows.

The theme of the impermanent dwelling is a rich one in Japanese culture. William LaFleur has analysed in detail this theme in terms of the literary topoi of the hermit's hut and the traveller's inn.31 What is important for this discussion is that there were traditional associations between the notions of the traveller's inn and courtesans and also between these two notions and mujō. The traveller's inn was a place of both temporary stays and temporary relationships because the traveller could often rent a yūjo, or ‘playgirl’, along with a room.

The locus classicus of this theme is a pair of poems by the priest poet Saigyō (1118-1190) which take the form of a dialogue between Saigyō and a courtesan.32

On the way to the temple called Tennō-ji, I got caught in the rain. In the area known as Eguchi I asked at one place for a night's lodging. When refused, I replied as follows:

yo no naka o
itou made koso
kari no yadori o
oshimu kimi kana
It is hard, perhaps,
To hate and part with the world;
But you are stingy
Even with the night I ask of you,
A place in your soon-left inn.

The response by a ‘woman-of-play’:

ie o izuru
hito to shi kikeba
kari no yado ni
kokoro tomuna to
omou bakari zo
It's because I heard
You're no longer bound to life
As a householder
That I'm loath to let you get attached
To this inn of brief, bought stays.

As LaFleur has noted, the first poem centers on the theme of relinquishment. As a monk he has abandoned the world, so the woman ought to relinquish the room—and herself—for the night. Her refusal, LaFleur points out,33

is not due to a lack of liberality but because she is concerned for his long-range welfare. Since he has adopted a vocation understood to be in harmony with mujō—that is, has left off being a householder—she doesn't wish to see him lose his freedom by becoming ‘attached’ to the house. The keen edge of her retort lies in the implication that, although all houses are temporary and cannot ultimately be ‘held’ by anyone, hers, as an inn (brothel), is especially a place of brief stays.

The notion of the inn is based on the double significance of kari no, a modifier that means both ‘temporary’ and ‘rented’.34

The idea is that the inn (brothel) makes manifest the truth about all houses—the ‘ie’ with which the woman's poem begins. It divulges the truth of the fundamental impermanence/instability that is, in reality, characteristic of them all.

This pair of poems gave rise to a magnificent Nō play by Kan'ami (1333-1384) entitled Eguchi.35 The play presents a travelling monk who comes across the grave of the courtesan of the Saigyō poems. A woman appears at the scene and later we find out that she is the spirit of the courtesan. The theme of the courtesan as teacher, present in the Saigyō poems, is developed in Eguchi and reaches perhaps its grandest expression in that play: the courtesan turns out to be an incarnation of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Fugen Bosatsu).

The encounter between Bashō and the two courtesans in The Narrow Road to the Deep North recalls this legend of the meeting of Saigyō and the Eguchi prostitute, but Bashō deftly turns the structure of that meeting inside out. In place of Saigyō's asking a favour of a courtesan, the courtesan begs Bashō for aid. In place of a request for a night's lodging, is a plea for guidance on a day's journey. Instead of the request from Saigyō, the priest, who has chosen his way of life and is at ease in it, the request comes from two women who are distraught about their way of life and are trying to develop an alternative to it. In both Saigyō's Eguchi poems and Bashō's passage, the request is denied, but inversion applies also to the content of this denial. The admonition by the Eguchi courtesan in her poem—repeated verbatim in the final speech in the Nō play Eguchi—is ‘do not set your heart on a passing shelter’ (kari no yado ni kokoro tomuna). Instead of being negative in form, Bashō's admonition is positive: ‘entrust yourself to the way others are going’. Instead of urging the avoidance of a relationship, Bashō urges the courtesan to establish one.

Another difference between Saigyō's meeting with the courtesan and Bashō's is the fact that Bashō's courtesans are travellers. As LaFleur has noted concerning the Saigyō poems and the Nō play Eguchi, ‘the courtesan in the inn matches her profession with her place of residence; both articulate impermanence/instability’.36 In The Narrow Road, however, the courtesans embody mūjo in a compound sense: they do not reside in a passing shelter, they themselves are travellers who stop over in the inn only one night. As we have seen Bashō also has presented them as travellers in a deeper sense, as being hōrakashi, cast adrift.

This depiction of the courtesans as travellers suggests a close affinity between them and Bashō. Despite the obvious differences between them, LaFleur suggests that a kind of parity and community is established between Bashō and the women.37 It is unclear whether or not it is ‘established’ because the courtesans do not seem to consciously experience it. They approach Bashō with a very hierarchical attitude, normally associated with the roles of lay person and cleric. Bashō's response rejects this hierarchy because, unlike the courtesans, he does recognize the common bond. Indeed, his words ‘go, entrusting yourself to the going of others’ seem to be an admonition: ‘see your parity and community with everyone and act according to that relationship’. Their fundamental bond with everyone consists precisely in being travellers in a world of impermanence along with all people, ‘each day a journey and the journey itself home’.

After expressing, however briefly, the deep affinity between himself and the courtesans, Bashō leaves them. The hokku near the end of the passage, however, recalls and emphasizes this affinity. It also returns us to the theme of the dwelling. The poem begins with the image of one house. Given the traditional association of the inn and mujō, the image of the one house suggests more than a particular building where an interesting encounter took place. As LaFleur has said, the impermanent nature of the inn manifests the truth about all houses and about the nature of life itself. Bashō and the courtesans slept—and always sleep—in the house of impermanence.

The use of the word mo (‘too’) in the poem is similar to the multiple use of mo in the opening passage of the journal. In that passage, mo joined the images of days and months, years, ancients and Bashō as embodiments of the impermanence and the journey aspects of life. In the Hitotsu ya poem, Bashō draws the courtesans into this company which, after all, includes everyone and everything in the world. The courtesans, Bashō and everyone sleep in this house of impermanence.

The traditional interpretation of this poem identifies Bashō with the moon and the courtesans with the bush clover.38 While this reading is valid, the emphasis in this passage on the fundamental affinity between Bashō and the courtesans suggests that the poem can be read another way as well. Both Bashō and the courtesans are presented as partly religious and partly secular in the conventional senses of these terms, although in a converse way: Bashō has all the appearances of a monk on a pilgrimage but he is not, while the two women are prostitutes yet are, in fact, on a religious pilgrimage. The structural distinction between cleric and commoner has broken down: Bashō and the courtesans can be associated with both the hagi and the moon.39

Embedded in Bashō's curt reply and his poem, then, is an interpretation of the nature and cause of the courtesans' situation and an appropriate course of action for both the courtesans and Bashō. The structure is the same as in the abandoned baby episode: someone in distress confronts Bashō, a convenional interpretation of the situation is given, Bashō gives an alternative interpretation, and then he walks away from the person in distress. The perspective—and, we might say, the point—is the same in both passages. Bashō and the distressed persons alike embody the fundamental aspects of reality: mujō and the endless journey. This perspective emphasizes the deep bond between Bashō and the baby and courtesans. It also leads Bashō to leave them as they were, abandoned and fully exposed to impermanence.

As in the abandoned baby episode, Geertz's notion of religion helps clarify the significance of the courtesan passage. In Geertz's terms, Bashō presents the courtesans' distress as a problem of meaning in which there is a desperate need for an explanation of the suffering and also for a way of responding to it. The courtesans see their suffering in terms of being trapped in the condition of being guideless wanderers in an impermanent world. For them this suffering arises from karmic retribution. While Bashō also sees their situation as one of being wanderers exposed to impermanence, he interprets it as arising not from the wheel of karma but from the pervasive and fundamental character of mujō. Thus they cannot escape from their situation, but it is sufferable for it arises from and reflects the basic character of reality. Their suffering makes sense.

Bashō's ‘normative guide for action’ is to ‘go, entrusting yourself to the going of others’. They must accept their condition of being wanderers in a world of impermanence and recognize their fundamental affinity with everyone else. A phrase in the opening passage of The Narrow Road could be turned into an admonition with the same meaning: ‘each day being a journey, make the journey home’ (hibi tabi ni shite, tabi o sumika to su). For Bashō, the courtesans must accept and continue their wandering. If they do, they too can achieve a settled sense of moving with the deepest grain of reality.

The affective aspect of the Problem of Meaning—how to feel—is not as central to this passage as it is to the abandoned baby episode where Bashō raises the question in the Saru o kiku poem. However, the courtesans' distress is an important problem: they seem to be on the verge of emotional chaos and an inability to endure their anxiety. Although the tones of the two passages are very different, the two primary aspects of Bashō's emotional response in the abandoned baby episode—compassion for their condition yet acceptance of it—are present in the courtesan passage as well. In the baby episode Bashō's compassion was paramount because the child was dying and it could not benefit greatly from his advice about accepting fate. In the courtesan passage, however, the primary problem is to bring the courtesans to accept their condition, to make their condition sufferable to them and to anchor their emotions in the nature of reality.

Although the term itself is never mentioned, the notion of ‘heaven's will’ or fate seems to be operative in this passage. Bashō rejects the courtesans' plea for aid for the same fundamental reason he leaves the baby by the roadside: their condition is heaven's will, the result not of the karma of their past but of the basic fabric of reality. The term ‘heaven's will’ does appear, however, in another section of The Narrow Road, one with important similarities to the passages on the abandoned baby and the courtesans. Again Bashō encounters suffering, but this time it is his own.

That night we stopped over at Iizuka. There was a hot spring there, and we bathed and rented a room. It was a crude, shabby place, with straw mats over a dirt floor. There wasn't even a lamp, so we bedded down by the light of the sunken fireplace. Night came, thunder rolled, rain poured down. The roof leaked over our heads and I was harassed by fleas and mosquitoes: I could not sleep. My old illness too cropped up and I almost fainted. Finally the sky of the short summer night began to lighten, and we set off once again. But the night's afflictions stayed with me and my spirits would not rise. We borrowed a horse and headed for the post town of Ko-ori. My distant journey remained, I was anxious about my illness, and yet this was a pilgrimage to far places, a resignation to self-abandonment and impermanence. Death might come by the roadside but that is heaven's will. With those thoughts my spirits recovered a bit, I began to step broadly on my way, and jauntily I crossed the Okido Barrier at Date.40

NKBT 46:76

This is perhaps Bashō's most vivid portrayal of his own sufferings on the road. The annoyances of travelling are mentioned in other passages as well but this passage presents a man at the edge of endurance. The chronic illness was a stomach ailment, possibly acute diarrhoea or haemorrhoids, and it both plagued and weakened him. The fact that this section comes fairly early in the journey emphasizes the seriousness of his situation and suggests how easy it would have been to be disheartened.

The passage is not simply an account of hard times and resolve. It is one person's encounter with the Problem of Meaning: how to understand suffering and, understanding it, how to endure it. Suffering becomes sufferable, as we have seen, when it can be understood and meaningful, rooted in the nature of the universe. As Geertz says of the Navaho sing, the need is to ‘give the stricken person a vocabulary in terms of which to grasp the nature of his distress and relate it to the wider world.’ A sing, he says,41

is mainly concerned with the presentation of a specific and concrete image of truly human, and so endurable, suffering powerful enough to resist the challenge of emotional meaninglessness raised by the existence of intense and unremovable brute pain.

Bashō finds the image of truly human and endurable suffering in the idea of a pilgrimage. It is a pilgrimage of a particular type, not the kind the courtesans undertook in which there was a defined goal and hopes of changing their essential condition. Bashō's was an endless pilgrimage, the full exposure of himself to and an embodiment of the essential condition of ‘abandonment’ and impermanence, the qualities which the baby and the courtesans grieved over. However brute and unremovable his pain, it became meaningful and sufferable because it was, like death on the road, heaven's will.

Heaven's will, understood in terms of the fundamental and pervasive character of impermanence and the journey, ties these three passages together. It also gives them a particularly religious character for, in each of them, suffering is presented as a Problem of Meaning which is solved by recourse to this particular notion of fate. By referring to the ultimacy and inescapability of mujō and the journey, Bashō explains suffering in terms of the fundamental nature of reality and also presents norms of conduct and types of feeling that accord with that reality. The final image of the Ōkido barrier passage is one that well characterizes Bashō's way of life and its religious character. If religion provides the settled sense of moving with the deepest grain of reality, and reality is ultimately understood as impermanence and an endless journey, then surely Bashō's religious life can be seen in the image of a wayfarer crossing yet another barrier.


  1. The texts used in this article are found in Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei, Tōkyō, Iwanami Shoten, 1959, vol. 46, abbreviated here as NKBT 46, followed by the page number. I would like to thank Professors Edwin Good and Susan Matisoff for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

  2. For four very different approaches to Bashō's religiosity see Robert Aitken, A Zen Wave: Bashō's Haiku and Zen, New York, Weatherhill, 1978, James Foard, ‘The Loneliness of Matsuo Bashō’, in Frank E. Reynolds and Donald Capps (eds), The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion, The Hague, Mouton, pp. 363-91, Richard Pilgrim, ‘The Religio-Aesthetic of Matsuo Bashō’, Eastern Buddhist, n.s. 10.1 (May 1977), pp. 35-53, and Makoto Ueda, ‘Impersonality in Poetry: Bashō on the Art of Haiku’, in his Literary and Art Theories in Japan, Cleveland, Western Reserve University Press, 1967, pp. 145-72. Among the many works in Japanese on this subject, see Umehara Takeshi, ‘Bashō to Shūkyō’, in Nakamura Yukihiko (ed.), Sakka no Kiban, Tōkyō, Kadogawa Shoten, 1970, pp. 269-314, and Yamamoto Tadaichi, ‘Bashō Bungaku no Shūkyōsei’, in Bukkyō Bungaku Kenkyū, 2 (1964), pp. 247-81.

  3. Landscapes and Portraits, Tokyo, Kodansha, 1971, p. 106, n. 15.

  4. The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983, p. 152. A comparison of Bashō's last travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi) with a factual record of the journey made by his travelling companion Sora reveals Bashō's fictionalizing of that journal. Unfortunately we have no such factual record of his other journeys. For an argument that Bashō probably did not alter factual details in his earliest journals, see Imoto Nōichi, Bashō: Sono Jinsei to Geijutsu, Tōkyō, Kodansha, 1968, pp. 109-11. However, without corroborative evidence such judgements are conjectural. In any event, we are dealing here not with historical questions about Bashō's biography but hermeneutical questions about his literary texts. The characters and events in his journals are ‘fictional’, literary constructions that may or may not reflect historical characters and events. Except in a few instances where I am clearly talking about Bashō as author, the term ‘Bashō’ in this paper refers to a persona in a literary work.

  5. Ogata Tsutomu, Matsuo Bashō, Tōkyō, Chikuma Shobō, 1971, p. 117.

  6. For a discussion of the allusions to Chuang Tzu and Kuang-wen, see Ogata, pp. 115-16. The ancient referred to in the opening passage of the journal is generally considered to be Kuang-wen.

  7. The image of wayfaring and death are also found in the opening of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. See page 6 for a translation.

  8. Imoto, pp. 111-12.

  9. Ibid., p. 111.

  10. Bashō, Tōkyō, Shincho, 1957, p. 55.

  11. The Interpretation of Cultures, New York, Basic Books, 1973, p. 100.

  12. Ibid., See also p. 108.

  13. Ibid., p. 100.

  14. Ibid., p. 104.

  15. Ibid., p. 106.

  16. Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1968, p. 98.

  17. Ibid., p. 97.

  18. Ibid., p. 102.

  19. The Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 104 and 108.

  20. Thus I use the term ‘ethical aspect’ in a broad sense that includes not only good and evil but also how things ought to be and how we ought to live.

  21. This is not to say there always is such a connection, or that it is always known, only that such a connection must be possible and knowable. See Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 100.

  22. Among the many discussions of mujō, see Isode Tadamasa, Mujō no Kōzō, Tokyo, Kodansha, 1976, Karaki Junzō, Mujō, Tōkyō, Chikuma Shobō, 1965, Nishida Masayoshi, Mujō no Keifu, Tōkyō,Ōfusha, 1970, Mujō no Bungaku, Tokyo, Nanawa Shobō, 1975, and William LaFleur, ‘Inns and Hermitages: The Structure of Impermanence’, in The Karma of Words, pp. 60-79.

  23. The poem is said to be by Kenkō. Translation by Keene p. 129.

  24. My contention is that Bashō felt this settled sense insofar as he was a wanderer. This does not rule out feelings of regret or anxiety stemming from other aspects of his life. The question of Bashō's tranquility—and lack of it—is a complex one and not at issue here.

  25. The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 104.

  26. Ibid., p. 168.

  27. Despite reference to Sora, this encounter is not mentioned in his record of the journey of 1689-90. It is presumed to be a fabrication by Bashō: the characters are probably fictional in a historical as well as literary sense. The term I have translated as ‘daughters of the shore’ is ama no ko. The term literally reads ‘child of the sea’ but means both ‘daughter of a fisherman’ and ‘prostitute’. This second meaning arose from the frequency of brothels at sea ports. See also the poem cited on p. 20.

  28. For another discussion of this theme, see LaFleur, p. 75.

  29. The poem is in the Shinkokinshū, no. 1701.

  30. The endings -nashi and -zu both indicate the negative.

  31. See his ‘Inns and Hermitages’.

  32. Translation by LaFleur, pp. 70-71.

  33. Ibid., p. 71.

  34. Ibid.

  35. For an English translation, see Royall Tyler, Pining Wind: A Cycle of Nō Plays, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University China-Japan Program, 1978, pp. 75-87.

  36. The Karma of Words, p. 74.

  37. Ibid., p. 173, n. 33.

  38. For a translation that makes this identification, see Nobuyuki Yuasa's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Baltimore, Penguin, 1966, p. 132. For interpretations that reject this identification, see Shigetomo Ki, Basho no Kenkyū, Tōkyō, Bunri Shoin, 1971, p. 324, and LaFleur, p. 77.

  39. In the Nō play Eguchi, the courtesan is closely associated with the moon.

  40. As he often does, Bashō plays on the meaning of the place name: Date means dandyish or jaunty.

  41. The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 105. The Navaho sing, according to Geertz, is a religious psychodrama dedicated to removing physical or mental illness.

Sam Hamill (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Bashō's Ghost,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 6, November 1989, pp. 49-54.

[In the following essay, the American poet Hamill explores Bashō's literary and spiritual lineage and maintains that while Bashō studied his predecessors scrupulously, he expressed his freedom by forging a new, truly elegant style that redefined haiku as a full lyric form capable of handling emotional and spiritual depth.]

The moon and the sun are travelers through eternity. Even the years wander on. Whether drifting through life on a boat or climbing toward old age leading a horse, each day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.

—Basho, Oku no hosomichi

Basho rose long before dawn, but even at such an early hour, he knew the day would grow rosy bright. It was spring, 1689. In Ueno and Yanaka, cherry trees were in full blossom, and hundreds of families would soon be strolling under their branches, lovers walking and speaking softly or not at all. But it wasn't cherry blossoms that occupied his mind. He had long dreamed of crossing the Shirakawa Barrier into the heart of northern Honshu, the country called Oku lying immediately to the north of the city of Sendai. He had patched his old cotton trousers and repaired his bamboo hat. He placed his old thatched-roof hut in another's care and moved several hundred feet down the road to the home of his disciple-patron, Mr. Sampu, making final preparations before embarkation.

On the morning of May 16th, dawn rose through a shimmering mist, Fujiyama faintly visible on the horizon. It was the beginning of the Genroku period, a time of relative peace under the Tokugawa shogunate. But travel is always dangerous. A devotee as well as a traveling companion, Basho's friend, Sora, would shave his head and don robes like a Zen monk, a tactic which often proved helpful at well-guarded checkpoints. Basho had done so himself on previous journeys. Because of poor health, Basho carries extra nightwear in his pack along with his cotton robe or yukata, a raincoat, calligraphy supplies, and of course hanamuke or departure gifts from well-wishers, gifts he found impossible to leave behind.

Basho himself would leave behind a number of gifts upon his death some five years later, among them a journal composed after this journey, his health again in decline, a journal made up in part of fiction or fancy. But during the spring and summer of 1689, he walked and watched. And from early 1690 into 1694, Basho wrote and revised his “travel diary” which is not a diary at all. Oku means “within” and hosomichi means “path” or “narrow road.” The no indicates a possessive. Oku no hosomichi: the narrow road within.

The Oku no hosomichi is not simply a travel journal. Its form, haibun, combines short prose passages with haiku. But the heart and soul of this little book, its kokoro, cannot be found simply by defining form. Basho completely redefined haiku, he transformed haibun. But these accomplishments grew out of arduous studies in poetry, Buddhism, history, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and some very important Zen training.

Basho was a student of Saigyo, a Buddhist monk-poet who lived five hundred years earlier (1118-1190); Saigyo is the most prominent poet of the imperial anthology, Shin-kokinshu. Like Saigyo before him, Basho believed in co-dependent origination, a Buddhist idea holding that all things are fully inter-dependent, even at point of origin; that no thing is or can be completely self-originating. Basho said of Saigyo, “He was obedient to and at one with nature and the four seasons.” The Samantabhadra-bodhisattva-sutra says, “Of one thing it is said, ‘This is good,’ and of another it is said, ‘This is bad,’ but there is nothing inherent in either to make them ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The ‘self’ is empty of independent existence.”

Basho, dreaming of the full moon as it rises over boats at Shiogama Beach, is not looking outside himself; rather he is seeking that which is most clearly meaningful within, and locating the “meaning” within the context of juxtaposed images, images which are interpenetrating and interdependent. The images arise naturally out of the kokoro or hsin—the heart/soul/mind.

Two hundred years before Basho, Komparu Zenchiku wrote, “The Wheel of Emptiness is the highest level of art of the Noh—the performance is mushin.” The art of artlessness, the act of composition achieved without “sensibility” or style—this directness of emotion expressed without ornament set the standards of the day.

At the time of the compiling of the Man'yoshu in the late 8th century, the Japanese critical vocabulary emphasized two aspects of the poem: kokoro, which included sincerity, conviction, or “heart”; and “craft” in a most particular way. The Man'yoshu poets were admired for their “masculinity,” that is, for uncluttered, direct, and often severe expression of emotion. Their sincerity (makoto) was a quality to be revered.

One of the first karon or literary criticism in Japanese is that of Fujiwara Hamanari (733-799), author of Kakyo-hyoshiki, an essay listing seven “diseases of poetry,” such as having the first and second lines end on the same syllable, or having the last syllable of the third and last lines differ. There were various dissertations on “poem-diseases,” all largely modeled on the original Chinese of Shen Yo (441-513). The idea of studying craft in poetry must have caught on quickly because by 885 the first uta-awase or poetry-writing contests were being held.

At the time of the compilation of the Man'yoshu, very little poetry was being written in Chinese; Hitomaro and Yakamochi, the great 8th century poets of the Man'yoshu, wrote without many allusions to Confucian and Buddhist classics, their poems drawing inspiration from the landscape and experience which is uniquely Japanese. Another court anthology contemporary with the Man'yoshu, the Kaifuso, represents the introduction of poetry written in Chinese, despite a few samples in the Man'yoshu. Through the influence of the monk Kukai, also called Kobo Daishi (774-835), the study of Chinese became the norm for what amounted to a Buddhist aristocracy. As founder of the Shingon or “True Word” sect in Japan, Kukai followed a tradition of secret oral teachings passed on from Master to disciple, and had himself spent two years studying in China under Hui Kuo (764-805). The later influence of Sugawara no Michizane established Chinese as the language of scholarly poets, so much so that upon his death, Michizane was enshrined as a god of literature and calligraphy. His followers found Japanese forms too restrictive for their multi-layered poetry. Every good poet was a teacher of poetry in one way or another, many taking on disciples. Michizane's influence was profound. He advocated both rigorous scholarship and genuine sincerity in composition, his own verses substantially influenced by the T'ang poet, Po Chu-i. The form was shih or lyric verse composed in five or seven character lines written in Chinese, but unlike most earlier Japanese poets, Michizane's poems were deceptively simple, and like the poetry of Po Chu-i, strengthened by a combination of poignancy and conviction. Poetry written in Chinese was called kanshi, and Michizane established it as a major force.

In his kana (phonetic alphabet) preface to the Kokinshu in the 10th century, Ki no Tsurayuki, author of the famous Tosa Diary, lists “six types” (rokugi) of poetry:

1. soe-uta: suggestive or indirect expression of feeling;

2. kazoe-uta: clear, direct expression of feeling;

3. nazurae-uta: parabolic expression;

4. tatoe-uta: expression that conceals powerful emotion;

5. tadagoto-uta: refinement of a traditional expression;

6. iwai-uta: poem expressing congratulations or praise.

Tsurayuki's list owes something to Lu Chi's “catalogue of genres” in his 3rd century Chinese Art of Writing (Wen Fu), which is itself indebted to various treatises on the classic Confucian poetry anthology, Shih Ching or Classic of Poetry. Much of the penchant for cataloguing and classifying types of poetry is the result of the Confucion classic, Ta Hsueh or Great Learning, in which Master Kung (Confucius) says “All wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name,” and that when “things are properly identified, they fall into natural categories and understanding [and, consequently, action] becomes orderly.” Lu Chi, the dedicated student of Confucius, reminds us that the art of letters has saved governments from certain ruin. He finds within the study of writing itself a way to set his own life in order. Studying Chinese, the Japanese literati picked up Lu Chi's habit of discussing poetry in terms of form and content. And from the 5th century Chinese scholar, Liu Hsieh, drew the term amari no kokoro, a translation of Liu's original yu wei or “after-taste.” As a critical term, it would be used and re-shaped, and used again, still a part of literary evaluation in the late 20th century. Narihira says of a poem in the Kokinshu,Kokoro amarite—kotoba tarazu,” or “Plenty of heart; not enough words.” Kuronushi says, “Kokoro okashikute, sama iyashi,” or “Interesting kokoro, but a rather common form.” The poet strives for a quality called amari no kokoro, meaning that the heart/soul of the poem must reach far beyond the words themselves.

For Basho, this most often meant a resonance found in nature. When he invokes the call of the little mountain bird, kankodori, the name of the bird invokes its lonely cry. Things are as they are. Insight permits him to perceive a natural poignancy in the beauty of temporal things—mono no aware. Aware originally meant simply emotion initiated by engagement of the senses. In its own way, this phrase is Japan's equivalent of William Carlos Williams's dictum, “No ideas but in things,” equally misappropriated, misapplied, and misunderstood. In The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris's study of The Tale of Genji, he says of aware, “In its widest sense it was an interjection or adjective referring to the emotional quality inherent in objects, people, nature, and art, and by extension it applied to a person's internal response to emotional aspects of the external world … in Murasaki's time [ca. 100 A.D.] aware still retained its early catholic range, its most characteristic use in The Tale of Genji is to suggest the pathos inherent in the beauty of the outer world, a beauty that is inexorably fated to disappear together with the observer. Buddhist doctrines about the evanescence of all living things naturally influenced this particular content of the word, but the stress in aware was always on direct emotional experience rather than on religious understanding. Aware never entirely lost its simple interjectional sense of ‘Ah!’”

David Barnhill (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Bashō as Bat: Wayfaring and Antistructure in the Journals of Matsuo Bashō,” in Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 49, No. 2, May 1990, pp. 274-90.

[In the following essay, Barnhill uses insights into social states and pilgrimage offered by the religion scholar Victor Turner to discuss Bashō's “outsiderhood” as exemplified in his travel writings. The critic contends that Bashō's particular idea of “wayfaring” is the product of a unique and complex religious vision that is rooted in Japanese literature and culture.]

The Japanese writer Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) is known in the West primarily as a haiku poet. But he was also a master of Japanese prose, both haibun (short pieces of poetic prose) and kikō (travel literature). It is in his prose, particularly his travel journals, that Bashō portrays a vision and a way of life that is profoundly religious.

Although it is clear that Bashō is religious, it is not easy to define the nature of that religiosity. He was certainly influenced by Buddhism, but to assume uncritically that he was a Buddhist is to risk masking the individuality of his vision and way of life. In fact, Bashō emphasizes the complexity of his religious orientation and contrasts it with conventional understandings of Buddhism. In doing so, he presents us with a religious stance, an orientation defined in part by its distinction from as well as its relation to the traditional norms of religious society.

If we are to understand Bashō's stance and its individuality, we need to examine closely those passages in his writings where he defines his particular orientation. One passage that suggests Bashō's understanding of his own religious stance comes at the beginning of the travel journal Kashima kikō (A visit to Kashima Shrine):

Cherishing the memory of a follower of the poetic spirit, I resolved to see the moon over the mountains of Kashima Shrine this autumn. I was accompanied by two men, a masterless samurai and a monk. The monk was dressed in robes black as a crow, with a bundle of sacred stoles around his neck and an image of the Buddha descending the mountain placed reverently in a portable shrine on his back. Off he strutted, thumping his staff, alone in the universe, no barriers between him and the Gateless Gate. I, however, am neither a monk nor a man of the world. I could be called a bat—in between a bird and a mouse.1

(NKBT 46:46)

In Bashō's characteristic delight in self-portraiture, he is introducing himself to us: he is a bat.2 Two contrasts dominate this passage. The first is between a lordless samurai about whom we are told very little, and a rather ostentatious Buddhist priest who appears almost in caricature. It is clear that these two figures represent a member of the secular mode of life (“a man of the world”) and a member of an established religious mode of life (“a monk”). The difference between these two ways of life is accentuated by the difference between the two figures: one is pompous, almost gaudy, and depicted in great detail; the other is humble in status and hardly described at all, which gives the impression that he is plain and unassuming. The two figures, like the modes of life they represent, are very different, yet they both are clearly recognizable as members of established cultural forms: the secular and the sacred as conventionally defined.

The second contrast is between Bashō and both of these figures, between his mode of life and the modes of the secular and the orthodox sacred. He is neither a priest nor an ordinary man: he lives outside, or between, these normal modes of life. He is neither the bird of a religious priest nor the mouse of a commoner.

This theme—being between the secular and sacred as they are conventionally defined—is found also in Bashō's first travel journal, Nozarashi kikō (The record of a weather-exposed skeleton):

I wear no sword on my hips but hang an alms wallet from my neck and dangle a rosary of eighteen beads in my hand. I resemble a priest, but the dust of the world is on me; I resemble a layperson, but my head is shaven. I am no priest, but here those with shaven heads are considered Buddhist friars and I was not allowed to go before the shrine.

(NKBT 46:37-38)

As does the previous passage, this one contrasts the secular (the sword-bearing samurai) and the sacred (the priest) as they are conventionally defined. Bashō is presented as both different from and similar to these two roles. His similarity to the priest is strongly emphasized: he carries an alms wallet and a rosary, his head is shaven, he is believed by others to be a Buddhist priest. Bashō clearly is presented as religious, yet he does not fit into either of the groups commonly recognized as the secular and the sacred.3

How do we talk about such a religious bat? The explicit betwixt and between theme in these passages recalls Victor Turner's studies of antistructure and liminality. In fact, Turner's discussions of antistructure and pilgrimage provide an initial vocabulary that helps specify Bashō's particular religious stance. We need, however, to add to that vocabulary by discussing a type of religious journey different from pilgrimage: wayfaring. Bashō's notion of wayfaring, discussed in terms of antistructure, helps to explain both his general religious orientation and his humorous yet serious distinction between the two winged creatures of religion, the bird and the bar.


Turner expanded Arnold van Gennep's classic study of rites of passage with the notions of structure and antistructure. For Turner, structure refers to “what Robert Merton has termed ‘the patterned arrangements of role-sets, status-sets and status-sequences’ consciously recognized and regularly operative in a given society” (Turner 1974:201). Structure “holds people apart, defines their differences, and constrains their actions” (Turner 1974:274). Antistructure, on the other hand, consists of states and processes that are “betwixt and between the normal, day-to-day cultural and social states and processes of getting and spending, preserving law and order, and registering structural status” (Turner 1979:94).

Turner identified four major forms of antistructure, but he spent nearly all of his research on one form, liminality, “a mid-point of transition in a status-sequence between two positions” (Turner 1974:237). The other three forms of antistructure—inferiority, marginality, and outsiderhood—do not necessarily share this transitional quality. They are not by definition processes that begin and end in structure; they may be permanent conditions outside of structure.

Inferiority designates not a low position within structure but the condition of being beneath, and therefore outside, structure. The untouchables in India are perhaps the clearest example (Turner 1974:234). Marginality refers to people who are “simultaneously members … of two or more groups whose social definitions and cultural norms are distinct from and often opposed to one another” (Turner 1974:233). Some examples Turner cites are migrant foreigners, second-generation Americans, and women in a changed, nontraditional role. He notes that “marginals, like liminars, are also betwixt and between, but unlike ritual liminars they have no cultural assurance of a final stable resolution of their ambiguity” (Turner 1974:233). Outsiderhood refers to “actions and relationships which do not flow from a recognized social status but originate outside of it” (Turner 1974:233). In effect, outsiderhood is any nontransitional antistructure that is neither marginality nor inferiority. Turner cites as examples shamans, prophets, monks, and gypsies.

In the analysis of religious journey, Turner's general approach is both a powerful tool and in need of clarification and development. Turner was primarily concerned with transitional rituals he termed liminal. In addition, at times he used the word “liminal” in a general, inclusive sense of antistructure instead of one of the four forms. This imbalance has lead to two results: marginality, inferiority, and outsiderhood—and the general notion of nontransitional, permanent antistructure—have largely been ignored, thus leaving the full nature of antistructure unanalyzed; and the notion of liminality has been identified with the broader concept of antistructure. Marginality, inferiority, and outsiderhood, however, remain distinct and important concepts in the analysis of religious phenomena. In particular, I suggest that Bashō's works exemplify outsiderhood, not liminality, although in his case outsiderhood takes on a complex form. To see this we need to discuss the nature of Bashō's journeys.


Pilgrimage has played a profoundly important role in Japanese religion, and there have been numerous studies of Japanese pilgrimage and its antistructural character (see, for example, Davis 1983-84; Foard 1982; and Matisoff 1979). This tradition helped reinforce the importance of travel in Japanese literature. Travel was an important poetic theme, and poetic accounts of journeys began as early as 935 with Ki no Tsurayuki's Tosa nikki (Tosa diary), which concerns a woman's return from an outlying province to the capital of Kyoto (McCullough 1985:263-91). The pilgrimage tradition undoubtedly also reinforced the tendency of poets, especially the religious poets of the medieval period (1185-1603), to make journeys a part of their way of life (Plutschow and Fukuda 1981). Before Bashō the poet who most clearly exemplified a life of religious journeying was Saigyō (1118-90), the poet Bashō most admired (LaFleur 1977, 1973).

Because of his frequent journeys, Bashō is often called one of the “pilgrim poets” of Japan. His journals present visits to holy sites; one could discuss at length how his journeys reflect qualities Turner cites as characteristic of pilgrimage: simplicity, equality, communitas, ordeal, intimacy with death. But even though Bashō's journeying is religious, it is not pilgrimage. It is instead a type of sacred journey never discussed by Turner: religious wayfaring. Like pilgrimage, wayfaring has been an important element in the Japanese tradition, and if we are to be precise in our interpretation of Japanese culture, we need to develop the distinction between these two types of sacred journey in some detail.

Pilgrimage has been defined as “a religious journey both temporary and long to a particular site or set of sites which are invested with sanctity by tradition” (Foard 1982:232). It is limited, then, both spatially and temporally. Turner has greatly amplified the notion in a typological study of its principal tendencies. He finds in pilgrimage a three-part structure that parallels the rites of passage of tribal societies: a separation from normal, structural life; a movement from the mundane center to the sacred periphery, which temporarily becomes central; and a reintegration into normal life (e.g., Turner 1979:153). The second stage—the actual journey—tends to manifest the characteristics of liminality and communitas that he observed in tribal rites of passage. As William LaFleur has noted, Turner's studies have

made it possible to see the phenomenon of pilgrimate from a new angle, to consider pilgrims not only in terms of where they are going but also in terms of what they have left behind. The pilgrimage has two geographical locations, “home” and the pilgrimage route; and it also has two contrasting social situations, the structured one which is left behind and the comparatively convivial, egalitarian, and unstructured one that comes into being along the way.

(LaFleur 1979:272)

Although the journeys described in Bashō's travel diaries have important similarities to pilgrimage as Turner has analyzed it, they also exhibit crucial differences. Some of these can be seen in the famous opening to his last travel journal, Oku no hosomichi (The narrow road to the deep north):

Months and days are the wayfarers of a hundred generations, the years too, going and coming, are wanderers. For those who drift life away on a boat, for those who meet age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey, the journey itself home. Among ancients, too, many died on a journey. And so I too—for how many years—drawn by a cloud wisp wind, have been unable to stop thoughts of rambling. I roamed the coast, then last fall brushed cobwebs off the river hut. The year too gradually passed, and with sky of spring's rising mist came thoughts of crossing the Shirakawa barrier.

(NKBT 46:70)

The journey described here is not defined by any particular sacred site or sites, nor is there a limited and limiting time frame. Both temporally and spatially this journey has neither beginning nor end. It is everywhere and always.

One can define wayfaring such as Bashō's as a mode of life that is constituted principally by a religious journey or journeys.4 It has an indefinite, unbounded quality, both spatially and temporally, whereas a pilgrimage is always a journey to a particular site or area and is defined by that place (e.g., a pilgrimage to Ise). Wayfaring may include journeys to specific places, even traditional pilgrimage sites, but it is not defined by them.

The temporal aspect of wayfaring is also unbounded: wayfaring has no defined end. This aspect reflects not only on the physical act of the journey but also on the general mode of life of the journeyer. I could, for instance, be a professor and spend several weeks of each summer walking through the Appalachian Mountains without an itinerary or destination or a predetermined time of return. But that would not be wayfaring—it would be wandering.5 If I wanted to become a true wayfarer, I would need to make wandering my primary and enduring mode of life: one cannot be both a full-time professor and a wayfarer. Unlike pilgrimage, wayfaring is not a temporary break from one's normal life; it is one's normal life, and thus temporally unbounded.

This distinction between wayfaring and pilgrimage is reflected in their respective structures. As we have seen, pilgrimage has two geographic locations: home and the pilgrimage route; it consists of three stages: separation, liminality, and reintegration. In contrast, wayfaring has one location: the journey. There is no home to go back to. Similarly, wayfaring consists not of three stages but of one, which corresponds to the second stage of the pilgrimage process. Thus, properly speaking, it is not a stage at all but a state.

Despite their similarities, pilgrimage and wayfaring are of different logical categories. Pilgrimage is a ritual whereas wayfaring is a mode of life. Wayfaring is opposed not to pilgrimage but to other enduring modes of life such as householder, cenobite, and anchorite. Pilgrimage, however, is not a mode of life but a temporary condition within a mode of life. Pilgrims can be householders, even though they are temporarily separated from home and released from their structural roles and responsibilities.

Wayfaring is not liminal in the strict sense of the term. Instead, it is an example of outsiderhood: it is a permanent (or at least indefinite) separation from structure that does not have the structural inferiority of what Turner calls lowermost status or the simultaneous membership in two or more structures characteristic of marginality.6 Pilgrimage, then, is liminal while wayfaring is external.7


Perhaps the most direct and concise statement of the wayfaring character of Bashō's journeys is found near the beginning of his third journal, Oi no kobumi (The record of a travel-worn satchel):

Tabibito to
waga na yobaremu
will be my name;
first winter rain

(NKBT 46:52)

Traveling is not a transient break from normal life; it is normal life. The final image of the poem emphasizes the universal nature of Bashō's self-definition as well as its cost: he is departing on a long journey as winter rains begin; he is a traveler at all times and in all conditions.

In the opening of his first journal, Nozarashi kikō (The records of a weather-exposed skeleton), Bashō presents another compact statement of wayfaring: “I set out on a journey of a thousand leagues, packing no provisions. I leaned on the staff of an ancient who, it is said, entered into nothingness under the midnight moon” (NKBT 46:36). “Thousand leagues” is a symbolic number suggesting unbounded immensity. The journey is not defined by a particular site or sites but by its very indefiniteness. Unbounded in space and time, it becomes his mode of life. What is sanctified by tradition is not the sites visited or the rituals performed but the wayfaring itself and the experiences achieved.8

The notion of packing no provisions suggests not only the austerity of the travels but also the indefiniteness of the distance. The statement gains power from its allusion to the opening story of the Chuang Tzu, which centers on a huge bird P'eng, said to be able to fly ninety thousand li. The cicada and the dove scoff at this idea: they can barely make it to the next tree. The narrator, however, gives a rather biting retort:

If you go off to the green woods nearby, you can take along food for three meals and come back with your stomach as full as ever. If you are going a hundred li, you must grind your grain the night before; and if you are going a thousand li, you must start getting the provisions together three months in advance. What do these creatures understand?

(trans. in Watson 1968:30)

Bashō understands. Like the bird P'eng he is going on an immense journey. It is not a short trip within one's normal living area, the only kind the cicada and dove can comprehend, but an unbounded journey cut off from home. Packing provisions implies a home base from which one leaves temporarily. Going without such provisions, however, suggests a radical severing from one's preceding life and dwelling: the road itself is home. To the dove and cicada, such a life, such a world, is unimaginable.

The opening passages from three of Bashō's journals thus strongly suggest that wayfaring is central to his way of life. But two questions need to be addressed. First, does the notion of the religious journey change from his earlier to his later journals, or is the notion of endless wayfaring found throughout his travel diaries? Second, what are the distinctive features of Bashō's wayfaring ideal?

It is common to suppose that Oku no bosomichi presents a different ideal from the earlier journals. Hori Nobuo, for example, claims that there is a change in Bashō's journeys from angya (usually translated as “pilgrimage”) to hyōhaku (translated as “wayfaring” or “wandering,” although such translations lack the specific definition I have given above). He cites a decrease in the use of the former term and an increase in the use of the latter from the first to the last journal (Hori 1970:349-50).

This change, however, does not necessarily indicate a shift from pilgrimage to wayfaring as I use the terms. The change from angya to hyōhaku could indicate, for instance, a gradual recognition that the ideal he continues to embody does, in fact, differ from the conventional notion of pilgrimage. It also could indicate a shift in emotional tone from a more serious term to one that suggests free-floating (hyō means “to float”). In any event, this change was only a relative one, for Bashō uses angya in his later works as well, including Oku no bosomichi (NKBT 46:76).

In order to determine the continuity and change in Bashō's notion of the religious journey, we need to examine not individual terms but key passages in the journals that precede Oku no bosomichi. I cannot take up all the passages that refer to traveling, but a discussion of several, including some that seem to diverge from the notion of wayfaring, will help clarify the continuity of Bashō's ideal.

Near the opening of his first journal, Nozarashi kikō, for instance, Bashō explicitly names Edo (now Tokyo) as his kokyō, “hometown” or “native place,” and the journal, in fact, ends with his return to Edo. From this we might conclude that the journey described is a temporary break from life in Edo rather than the beginning of a life of wayfaring.

A closer look, however, reveals a predominance of wayfaring imagery. The opening statement concerning a journey of a thousand leagues is followed by an image of dying by the roadside:

nozarashi o
kokoro ni kaze no
shimu mi kana
Bleached bones
on my mind, the wind pierces
my body to the heart.

(NKBT 46:36)

As he sets out, he sees in his mind the bitter implication of the ideal that he had just proclaimed: even an endless journey can end—in death on the road.9 This poem is immediately followed by the one that refers to Edo as his hometown:

aki to tose
kaette Edo o
sasu kokyo
Autumn, ten years:
now it's Edo,
the old home.

(NKBT 46:36)

Bashō looks to the past and what he is leaving, rather than to the future and its conclusion. He was born in or around Ueno in Iga Province, but he had lived the past decade in Edo. It is important for him to name this new “old home.” As he departs on his unbounded journey he wants to name what he is separating himself from: a settled life in the thriving metropolis of Japan's new culture.

The Japanese term for retiring from life and entering the Buddhist order is shukke, literally, “depart from the home.” Shukke marks a break from one's household life and entrance into the life of a professional religious. Bashō is making the same kind of break here, although he is setting out to live not as a monk in the monastery but as a wayfarer on the road. He once left his life in his native village for the life of a rising poet in the city. Now he is leaving his second “old home” to enter the life of wayfaring.

The opening image of accepting death by the roadside as inevitable fate is almost immediately repeated in the famous passage of the abandoned baby. Soon after his departure from Edo, Bashō finds a baby left by the roadside. He laments the baby's circumstances, writes a mournful poem, and asks how it could have ended this way. He concludes that “this simply is from heaven, and you can only grieve over your fate” (NKBT 46:37). To the puzzlement of many commentators, he leaves the baby there to die. In fact, the baby manifests the very condition that he has set out to attain: life as a journey on the edge of death, with resignation to whatever fate brings (see Barnhill 1986).

The image of death on the journey comes up once again in Nozarashi kikō, but in a surprising way. Well into his journey but also well before its end, Bashō states: “That night I stayed over in Ogaki, with Bokuin my host. When I departed on this journey from Musashi Plain, I left with thoughts of bleached bones in a field.” Then he writes:

shini mo senu
tabine no hate yo
aki no kure
Not yet dead:
the journey's end—
autumn evening

(NKBT 46:40)

This poem seems to reverse the image, and the point, of the opening passage of the journal. But a closer look suggests that Bashō is actually refining, not reversing, his notion of death on the road. Donald Keene has stated that “Bashō may have felt that the most difficult part of the journey was over; otherwise hate is hard to understand” (Keene 1959:139 n.5). Hate would be hard to understand if Bashō considered the end of the journey to be a return to where he started. But if the “end” of the journey, in the sense of a goal, is simply to be on the road, the use of hate here is quite easy to understand. Death by the roadside will, in fact, come to the wayfarer, but until that time, the tabine no hate is to continue on the journey, staying at inns and the homes of friends. Bashō here completes the notion of journey's “end”: it is the continuing on the road as well as the dying beside it.

Nozarashi kikō concludes with Bashō back at his hut in Edo. Nobuyuki Yuasa translates the final prose passage as follows: “I reached home at long last towards the end of April” (Yuasa 1966:64). This translation follows the conventional interpretation—Bashō as a temporary wanderer, glad to be back home—more than it does the text. The text reads simply:

The end of April, I returned to my hut, and while resting from the pains of the journey,

imada shirami o
Summer clothes:
still some lice
yet to pick

(NKBT 46:44)

The journal ends with return and a cessation of the travel, yet there is neither a declaration of being “home” nor gladness for journey's end. Indeed, the final image suggests that the journey does, in a very mundane way, linger with him.

The fact that the journal ends with a return to his hut does, however, undercut the theme of endless journey that pervades most of the text. In his two other major journals, Oi no kobumi and Oku no hosomichi, Bashō presents a more unqualified image of wayfaring, and he never again ends a journal with a return. Oi no kobumi, as we have seen, opens with an explicit declaration of his self-identity as a wayfarer: “traveler will be my name.” Later in the journal he and a companion he met on the journey write on their hats: “two fellow wayfarers with no abode in heaven and earth” (“Kenkon mujū dōgyō ninin”; NKBT 46:58). This idea is repeated later when he states that “forsaking all fixed abodes, I had no desires for things to own” (“Sumiki o sarite, kibutsu no negai nashi”; NKBT 46:61; “Sumiki o sarite” literally means “leave the nest”).

Early in Oi no kobumi Bashō does refer to what seems to be a limited period. Because his friends help him get ready for departure, he states that “I didn't have to put any effort into the three months' preparations” (“Kano sangetsu no kate o atsumuru ni chikara o irezu”; NKBT 46:53). But the reference to three months' provisions actually suggests a limitless journey rather than a limited one. As he did in the opening of Nozarashi kikō, Bashō is referring to the phrase in the Chuang Tzu that states that a journey of a thousand leagues usually calls for three months' provisions. Once again Bashō is suggesting the notion of an immense journey. And indeed the journal ends while he is still on the road.

More passages could be analyzed, but the answer to the first question seems clear. Although Bashō's wayfaring ideal may be more thoroughly and consistently developed in Oku no hosomichi, the earlier journals are also primarily characterized by this ideal. The change in his journals is not a shift from one mode of religious journey to another but simply a growth in sophistication and uniformity of expression.

The second question concerns the specific nature of Bashō's own wayfaring ideal. Perhaps the two most interesting and important aspects are its double character and its noncompletion. The doubled character is seen most explicitly in the famous opening of Oku no hosomichi, cited above. The endless journey is not merely a personal mode of life; it is also the fundamental nature of all life all of the time. The passage expresses Bashō's attempt to fuse the two notions of endless journey. All people—and all things—are on a journey that ends only with death, but a person also can choose to realize that condition, to live intimately with it. Bashō's wayfaring is an attempt to embody physically and reflect symbolically the primary character of existence.

The structure of the passage mirrors the doubled structure of the endless journey. The first two sentences refer to the fundamental, universal condition of life. “And so I too …” refers to the physical act of traveling. But in the sentence beginning “Many ancients, too …” the notion of journey has a double function, much like a kakekotoba (pivot word) in a Japanese poem. Thus, the sentence is ironic. If journey is the essential, inescapable condition of human life, then everyone dies on a journey. But the ancients, and Bashō, sought to embody and reflect that condition, thus joining the symbolic and physical aspects of the journey.

Bashō's journals reflect an intense concern with death, and his doubled notion of the journey is intimately related to it. In the opening to Oku no hosomichi, his awareness of the journeylike character of life emphasizes the inevitability of death: the journey will end only with death. In a passage from Sarashina kikō (A visit to Sarashina village), the experience of traveling the backroads of Japan reveals the imminence of death. Bashō and his companions are making a steep climb to the village of Sarashina with Bashō on horseback. Out of pity for a monk who is burdened with an extremely heavy load, his companions pile the monk's bundles onto the horse. Bashō is left on top of these bundles, teetering on an uncertain mount as the mountain path narrows:

Overhead high mountains and strange peaks hung in layers. On my left a great river flowed; below was a precipice that seemed to drop a thousand feet. There was not a single piece of level ground, and I was terrified to be in the saddle. The feat simply would not leave.

(NKBT 46:66)

Bashō decides the situation is too much for him and dismounts. A servant, however, has no such fears and promptly takes his place.

We passed through Kakehashi and Nezame, then Sarugababa and Tachitoge of the “Forty-eight Turnings.” The trail wound around as if on a pathway to the clouds. Even on foot I was dizzy and shaken, my legs trembling, yet the servant showed no signs of fear and kept dozing on top of the horse. Many times I thought he surely would fall; I was terrified as I looked up from behind. Gazing upon the sentient beings of this transitory world, the Lord Buddha must feel the same. When we reflect upon the unremitting swiftness of change, we can see why it is said: “the whirlpool of Awa is free of wind and waves.”

(NKBT 46:66-67)

The reference to the whirlpool of Awa derives from a popular Buddhist poem: “Compared to our journey through this world, the whirlpool of Awa is free of wind and waves” (trans. in Keene 1971:129). Life is turbulent, change is inexorable and swift, and we are all like the servant, riding precariously on the edge of death.

Bashō's wayfaring not only reflects but also exposes him to the basic fabric of existence—and thus to the shared human condition. The unbounded journey that ends only with—and that always is close to—death is the essential bond between a horse guide and the ancients, the passing days and Bashō's passing life. In Turner's terminology, wayfaring as a symbol expresses “an essential and generic human bond” the foundation of communitas (“a relational quality of full unmediated communication, even communion”; Turner 1979:150). It expresses what is prior to structure: the boatman, horse guide, and poet are all—primarily—wayfarers. Structure may divide them into roles and statuses, but their fundamental unity remains. Where others may see only structural rules and roles, Bashō sees the underlying communitas of life.

Related to the doubled, symbolic nature of Bashō's wayfaring is another aspect: noncompletion. A pilgrimage climaxes in the visit to the sacred site, and it is completed by a return to home and structure. Wayfaring, however, is open-ended: there is neither climax nor completion.

In Bashō's writings, noncompletion is a developed and important theme. Certain passages and poems present imperfection and noncompletion as an essential part of his religious mode.

“Tomorrow I will become a cypress!” an old tree in a valley once said. Yesterday has passed as a dream; tomorrow has not yet come. Instead of just enjoying a cask of wine in my life, I keep saying “tomorrow, tomorrow,” securing the reproof of the sages.

Sabishisa ya
hana no atari no
among the blossoms
an asunarō

(NKBT 46:154)

The asunarō is an unusual tree that looks like a cypress whose wood is highly prized. It is not, however, what it appears to be. Literally, asunarō means “tomorrow I will become,” and the context implies “tomorrow I will become a cypress.” Because the asunarō seems to be what it is not, it falls short of what one might expect it to achieve. Standing among the beautiful blossoms, itself without any bright color or fruition, the asunarō evokes a sense of incompletion and loneliness.

Bashō's identification with the theme of noncompletion is explicit: he is incomplete, like the asunarō. Because the tree is old, it seems likely that completion will never come; its nature is to be unfinished. This is Bashō's nature as well.

The theme of noncompletion is seen in two of Bashō's poems:

Natsu kite mo
tada hitotsu ha no
hito ha kana
Summer comes:
just one leaf
on the one-leaf fern

(NKBT 45:121)

In summer, everything grows in full verdancy, and a plant that bears just one leaf stands out as incomplete. Bashō strongly emphasizes this disparity with the repetition of hito (one) and the use of tada (only). The dissimilarity between the fern and the rest of the scene evokes a sense of aloneness, also emphasized by the word hitotsu. It is a complex theme. Compared to others, the one-leaf fern appears incomplete, but because its true nature is to have only one leaf its “incompleteness” is true to that nature.

The theme of incompleteness is also embodied in this poem, and again a sense of loneliness is evoked.

Kochō ni mo
narade aki furu
na mushi kana
Autumn comes
without it becoming a butterfly;
the rape worm

(NKBT 45:191)

Autumn has come, leaves have become colorfully tinted, and beautiful butterflies have emerged from their cocoons. Yet the rape worm comes to no obvious transformation. Because it is different, it stands alone in a scene of bright beauty. But again, this noncompletion is not a temporary condition or the result of failure. It is the animal's true nature.

The nation of noncompletion is tied to Bashō's doubled notion of wayfaring. All things are wayfarers and each day is a journey. Life as a whole is a journey that is never complete but is simply stopped by death. One is always on the road: there is no climax or completion to life's journey.11

Bashō presents his notion of noncompletion in a complex, almost paradoxical way: the idea of an enduring condition is combined with a strongly transitional quality. Imperfection is neither a temporary state ending in perfection nor a state marked by stasis or stagnation. The rape worm, one-leaf fern, and asunarō always remain as they are, incomplete compared to what is traditionally prized. As images of perpetual transition, they also strongly suggest development.

This aspect of Bashō's orientation reflects an important quality Turner associates with liminality. Liminars are neophytes, “entities in transition” (Turner 1969:103). Bashō presents himself as a kind of neophyte, not yet fully developed. But for him this state is not liminal, part of a temporary ritual process. It is an essential part of his permanent condition.

Bashō's antistructure, then, combines the permanence of outsiderhood with the transitional quality of liminality. Moreover, the permanence of this betwixt and between status, which Turner usually associates with liminality, recalls his notion of marginality. A marginal, as we have seen, is a simultaneous member of two or more groups whose norms may be opposed to each other. In the first two passages cited in this article, and in other passages as well, Bashō presents himself not only as “betwixt and between” but also as “both and.” Thus, the bat has the qualities of both a bird and a mouse. Bashō's antistructure joins the transitional quality of liminality and the multiple but partial membership of marginality to the fundamentally exterior quality of wayfaring.


The nature of Bashō's wayfaring—the antistructual character, the doubled nature, the quality of noncompletion—helps explain a number of passages in his works. In his encounter with the Shinto shrinekeeper, Bashō is aware of himself as neither a layperson nor a member of an orthodox religious group, and the ambiguity of his identity is emphasized by the fact that the shrinekeeper mistakes him for a Buddhist priest. The shrinekeeper (like some anthropologists Turner criticizes) knows only structure: for him one must be either a layperson or a priest, and because Bashō is clearly religious but not Shinto, he must be a Buddhist monk.

The encounter is an excellent example of structure's effects. Structure, Turner says, is “all that holds people apart, defines their differences, and constrains their actions” (Turner 1974:274). The shrinekeeper's response certainly holds apart, defines (however incorrectly), and constrains.

Bashō presents himself as an antithesis to this kind of structural attitude. Instead of relating to people on the basis of their separate and separating roles, he considers all people fellow wayfarers on a journey that is ever close to, and only ends with, death. As the shrinekeeper passage suggests, Bashō's particular antistructural orientation consists of two primary qualities: he is clothed in religious robes and covered with dust—he is religious and incomplete. For him the two go hand in hand.

It is interesting to compare this self-portrait with the description of another man dressed in monk's robes, this one an actual Buddhist priest who obviously is not concerned about imperfection (see the opening quotation above). This bird of sectatian Buddhism, more like a cock than a crow, struts and thumps, displaying his self-satisfaction and pride. Confident of spiritual success, he carries its image on his back: a statue of the Buddha descending the mountain after enlightenment.

Because of this self-exaltation, he walks ahead of others and seems to be “traveling alone.”12 There is little communitas in him, no leveling, stripping, or communion. He is the very antithesis of these qualities, comfortably above and beyond the others and covered not with dust but with images of his superiority and distinction.

The monk is clearly an embodiment of structure: he literally carries it with him. It pervades his movements—his thumping and strutting—as well as his appearance. In contrast, Bashō places himself outside—and between—this structural mode and that of the layman. He takes on the “statusless status” (and also the role of critic of structure) that Turner saw in the shamans of Saora.

In extreme cases, such as the acceptance of the shaman's vocation among the Saora of Middle India … [the rite of passage] may result in the transformation of what is essentially a liminal or extrastructural phase into a permanent condition of sacred “outsiderhood.” The shaman or prophet assumes a statusless status external to the secular social structure, which gives him the right to criticize all structure-bound personae in terms of a moral order binding on all.

(Turner 1969:116-17)

For the sacred outsider Bashō, structure is not merely secular social structure but structural religion as well, exemplified by the priest and the Shinto shrinekeeper.13 The moral order binding on all is the fundamental unity of all things as wayfarers. Whatever their status may be, all people are on a journey that is never consummated but is merely cut short by death. Bashō sees completion and perfection neither in himself nor in any other person: his world simply does ot include it except as pretense, the object of irony and humor.

For Bashō noncompletion is universal and fundamental. All of us are rape worms, one-leaf ferns, and asunarō. All of us are wayfarers. We can, however, choose to reflect and embody these essential aspects of life by living as a wayfarer and recognizing the universally shared incompleteness of the spiritual journey. To do so is to exist outside the structural forms of the secular and sacred yet to partake of the imperfection of the one and the religious seriousness of the other. To do so, in other words, is to be a bat.


Bashō's ideal of wayfaring and antistructure is a product of a complex religious vision. The specific character of that vision is unique, yet it is also a development of certain traditional concerns and trends in Japanese religion and literature. Locating Bashō in his tradition cannot be done fully here, but it is appropriate to conclude by at least suggesting one aspect of Bashō's continuity with his tradition: his rejection of dualities. Such an abbreviated contextualizing of Bashō can also suggest something about the reason he developed his ideal of wayfaring and his batlike religious stance.

Clearly the practice of traveling the countryside was common in the religious and literary traditions of Japan. But that practice raises important questions for those who take it seriously. Is the primary and ideal form of religious traveling that of pilgrimage, in which the journey is directed toward and defined by a particular, holy place? Is it wandering, which, like pilgrimage, is a temporary break from one's primary lifestyle but, unlike pilgrimage, is not limited to a particular place of reverence? Or is it wayfating, in which one's basic life mode becomes that of traveling, in which one's “old home” is left and the journey is itself home?

Such questions become more acute when the traveler is a significant religious thinker, as Bashō certainly was. Bashō's ideal of wayfaring and his antistructural religious posture are not only his answer to the question of the ideal nature of religious journeying; they also constitute his resolution of two conventional dichotomies: practice and goal, and imperfection and perfection. Like others before him, Bashō undercuts the duality of process and goal. In the conventional understanding of Buddhism these two aspects of religious life function as dichotomies: a person practices to attain the goal, which constitutes the end of practice. But the tradition William LaFleur has called “dialectical Buddhism” (LaFleur 1983) has tended to reject the duality of such a view. The Zen master Dōgen (1200-1253), for example, is famous for his doctrine of the unity of practice and attainment (Abe 1985). Bashō's notion that the journey itself is home is a part of this unifying tradition, and the exact relation between his view and the views developed by others in the Japanese religious tradition remains an intriguing area for research.

A related dichotomy, between imperfection and perfection, also has been undercut in Japanese religion. Again, a comparative review of the tradition of joining perfection and imperfection would yield interesting results. On the one hand, the Buddhist doctrine of hongaku, “original enlightenment,” suggests that although we experience life as imperfect, we—and life—are in fact perfect. This doctrine—that in some sense imperfection is an illusion—is developed with particular subtlety by Dōgen. Others, however, have suggested that the dichotomy dissolves because in some sense imperfection is never-ending, and “perfection” consists in a complete recognition of and engagement in that imperfection. In the Amidist tradition Shinran (1173-1262) developed the Pure Land notion that we are so deeply entrenched in our weaknesses that we can never become enlightened. The ideal is to “give up” fully, to abandon completely—perfectly—any notion of achieving perfection by jiriki (self-power) (Bloom 1965). In the Zen tradition Suzuki Shōsan (1579-1655) espoused a doctrine of complete absorption in an attitude of ceaseless discipline of a flawed spirit, to the point of rejecting an experience that seemed clearly to be enlightenment (King 1986: esp. 4).

It is important to realize that such undercutting of dualities is not confined to Buddhism. The Shinto scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) presented another complex ideal of imperfection. For him the highest religious state is one that manifests clearly the emotional weakness of human nature. Anyone who appears without such weakness is being religiously dishonest (Barnhill 1988). An examination of the place of Bashō's ideal of noncompletion in the Japanese tradition of fusing imperfection and perfection would illuminate the extent and limits of his uniqueness.

Bashō's resolution of these dichotomies yields a powerful religious vision. For Bashō the wayfarer both literally and figuratively travels a never-ending road, a spiritual path that never brings a real sense of perfection. The wayfarer's only goal is to practice wayfaring in a fully authentic way. In the imagery of Bashō's journals, the goal is not to conclude the journey at a particular destination but to cross yet another barrier and live on the edge of death (see Barnhill 1986:339). Like a rape worm, a one-leaf fern, or an asunarō, he is continually incomplete but just as continually on the way, the only perfection being a full acceptance of unending incompleteness.


  1. The follower of the poetic spirit is Yasuhara Teishitsu (1610-73). The Gateless Gate refers to the Wu-men-kuan (Mumonkan in Japanese), a collection of koans named after the Chinese monk Wu-men (literally, “no-gate”; 1183-1260), who edited the collection. His poem in the preface to this work reads:

    The great path has no gates
    Thousands of roads enter it.
    When one passes through this gateless gate
    He walks freely between heaven and earth.

    (Trans. in Reps n.d.:88)

    The term translated here as “freely” also means “alone.”

  2. Because so much of Bashō's prose is written in the first person, it is easy to confuse the author of the works with the persona in them. It is important, however, to distinguish the two Bashōs. The texts are not objective autobiography (if such a thing is possible) but literature. The persona Bashō is a literary construct and in that sense “fictional.” Except where I am obviously referring to the author, the term “Bashō” in this article refers to the persona in the text.

  3. There is a long and important tradition in Japan of being both religious and outside the conventional, sectarian religious groups. Mezaki 1975a, for example, discusses the distinction between shukke and tonsei: shukke refers to a life within a monastic establishment whereas tonsei refers to a religious life unattached to monastic regime. A historical study of Bashō would locate him among what Mezaki calls suki no tonseisha: “aesthetic recluses.” In this essay, however, I am concerned not with Bashō's place within that tradition but with his singularity and the unique way he portrays himself in the travel journals.

  4. Foard 1982:232 notes the distinction between pilgrimage and religious wayfaring but he does not discuss the notion of wayfaring. I adopt his use of the term “wayfaring” as a form of religious travel distinct from pilgrimage, but I give it my own definition.

  5. The Japanese term most relevant to this discussion is hyōhaku. There have been several studies of the tradition of hyōhaku in Japan, including the hyōhaku of Bashō, which tend to conceive of the term as a journey without itinerary or destination. Although Bashō's journeys do have a significant degree of indefiniteness about their itinerary and destination, Bashō usually had specific sites he expected to see along the way, which at least loosely defined his itinerary. Wayfaring is indefinite not because it lacks a preconceived itinerary but because it lacks a climax at a particular site (as in pilgrimage) and a “fixed abode” to return to (as in wandering). For a collection of essays on Bashō's itinerant lifestyle, see Imoto 1970; for a general treatment of hyōhaku, see Mezaki 1975b.

  6. By designating this typological paradigm, I am not implying that historical instances of wayfaring cannot share some of the qualities of marginality or inferiority. In fact, I will argue that Bashō's outsiderhood has certain qualities of marginality and even liminality.

  7. Turner used the terms liminal, inferior, and marginal as adjectival forms of liminality, inferiority, and marginality. The only adjectival equivalent to outsiderhood he seems to have used is “external” (Turner 1969:116-17).

  8. The “ancient” referred to in the passage is generally considered to be the Ch'an Buddhist monk Kuang-wen (1189-1263). This passage also refers to the first chapter of the Chuang Tzu, “Free and Easy Wandering.” By referring to two figures of different religions and widely different historical periods, Bashō places himself in the general tradition of religious wayfaring in East Asia.

  9. Umebara Takeshi has noted that resignation to the inevitability of his death is central to Bashō's religious vision and poetic creativity, and it is present in his first journal as well as his last. See Umebara 1970:305.

  10. The asunarō is Thujopsis dolobrata, false Hiba cedar. The cypress, or hinoki, is Chamaecyparis obtusa. Toshihiko and Toyo Izursu initially brought to my attention this haibun and the two following poems; see Izutsu and Izutsu 1973. They argue, however, that these poems and the haibun suggest stagnancy, contentment, and complacency in Bashō. I suggest the opposite: perpetually incomplete transformation. If Bashō were complacent he would not keep saying “tomorrow, tomorrow” in the haibun.

  11. Bashō's theme of impermanence and his devotion to haikai no renga also suggest the idea of change that never climaxes or culminates. Gary Ebersole notes, “When one realizes that mujō is the natural state of things, a new world opens up. That is to say, when pushed to its logical conclusion one finds no primordial ‘being’ but shizen, nature or natural mujō or continuous becoming” (Ebersole 1981:561). It is also relevant that the source of Bashō's nom de plume, the bashō (plantain) tree, does not flower in central Japan.

  12. The word in both Bashō's passage and Wu-men's is doppo, which means both “walk alone” (the literal meaning of the characters) and “to be unsurpassed,” “the greatest.”

  13. Silber (1985:esp. 253) notes that monasticism has an ambiguous relationship to the notion of antistructure. Although it tends to involve withdrawal and some egalitarian aspects, it also tends to produce a highly institutionalized structure. As a result, monasticism is best seen not as antistructure but as alternative structure. In the episodes with the Shinto shrinekeeper and the crowlike Buddhist monk, Bashō seems to be exposing and quietly condemning the presumptions and distinctions of monastic structure.

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Makoto Ueda (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Introduction to Bashō and his Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, Stanford University Press, 1991, pp. 1-11.

[In the following excerpt, Ueda situates Bashō and his use of haiku in their historical and literary contexts; he also surveys the critical response to Bashō's poetry from eightheenth-century Japanese commentators to contemporary Western critics.]


As is well known, the Japanese verse form called hokku or haiku consists of three phrases (often referred to as “lines” in English) of five, seven, and five syllables. Historically it evolved out of renga, a major form of Japanese poetry that flourished especially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Renga, literally meaning “linked poetry,” was usually written by a team of poets under a set of prescribed rules. First the team leader, normally the honored guest at the gathering, would write a hokku (“opening verse”) in the 5-7-5 syllable pattern and including a word implying the season of the year. Next the host poet would write a wakiku (“accompanying verse”), using the 7-7 syllable form and extending or modifying the meaning of the preceding verse in some interesting way. This would be followed by the third poet's three-phrase, seventeen-syllable verse, then by the fourth poet's two-phrase, fourteen-syllable verse, and so forth, the two different syllabic forms always alternating with each other, until the poetic sequence reached its thirty-sixth, forty-fourth, fiftieth, or, as was most commonly the case, one hundredth verse. On certain special occasions, poets went on to compose a renga sequence of one thousand or even ten thousand verses.

In the sixteenth century, as more Japanese became literate and began participating in poetic activities, a variety of renga called haikai emerged and gradually gained popularity among all classes of people. Haikai, literally meaning “playful style,” was a lighthearted type of linked poetry that allowed more freedom of imagery and diction and a more relaxed aesthetic in general. The early haikai poets in particular aimed at eliciting laughter through the use of puns, witticisms, parody, slang terms, or vulgar subject matter. They produced no great literature, but they did help to democratize poetry. They also prepared the ground for the emergence of a major poet who, with his great innovative talent, would elevate haikai to a mature art form. Such a poet did indeed appear in the seventeenth century, namely Matsuo Bashō (1644-94).

While haikai was still establishing itself, hokku was steadily becoming more independent of the rest of the poetic sequence. The first renga anthology, compiled in the fourteenth century, had already separated hokku from other verses and collected them in a special section, but early renga poets always wrote them as “opening verses,” expecting wakiku to follow. As more renga anthologies appeared, and as poets had more opportunities to see hokku singled out in them, that expectation gradually lessened. Some hokku written in the late fifteenth century read almost like self-contained lyrics, expressing personal emotions the poets felt on specific occasions.

The popularity of haikai among the masses in the sixteenth century further accelerated the trend. Many amateur poets found it easier and more enjoyable to write hokku than any other verse in a haikai sequence. Hokku, being the opening verse, could be written without paying attention to the bothersome rules of linkage. The game of matching individual hokku in a contest, which became widespread in the seventeenth century, also helped hokku to be viewed as autonomous poems. Although Bashō once intimated that he had more confidence in composing haikai than hokku, the fact remains that he compiled a hokku contest book in his youth and went on to write a number of hokku with no wakiku to follow. Yosa Buson (1718-83) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), two major poets in the post-Bashō era, poured their creative energy more into hokku than into haikai. It can be said that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the writing of independent hokku was just as popular as, and often more popular than, the composition of haikai.

It was natural, then, that in the late nineteenth century the poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) should come to advocate distinguishing between the hokku as the opening verse of a haikai sequence and the hokku as an independent, self-contained poem. To make the distinction clear, Shiki gave the name haiku to the latter type of hokku. The new name became prevalent in subsequent years, and all autonomous poems written in seventeen syllables today are called haiku. This has created a problem, however. What should we call a 5-7-5 syllable verse that Bashō wrote to start a haikai sequence, but that we now read and appreciate as an independent poem? Until about ten years ago, it was more common to call it a haiku. In today's Japan, the situation seems to be the reverse. In this book, therefore, I have used the term “hokku” to designate all seventeen-syllable verses written before the end of the Edo period (1600-1868), regardless of whether they actually opened haikai sequences. The word “haiku,” as employed in this book, denotes an independent 5-7-5 syllable poem written in the modern period.

It must be remembered, however, that Bashō himself did not distinguish between the two types of hokku as clearly as Shiki did. In Bashō's mind, a hokku was at once an autonomous poem and a verse that could begin a haikai sequence. As a matter of fact, there are instances where he wrote a hokku spontaneously in response to a specific scene or incident and then, at a later date, used it as the opening verse of a haikai sequence. Conveniently, the Japanese language has the all-inclusive word ku, which designates a haiku, a hokku (in both of its senses), or any haikai verse. Commentators on Bashō's work make frequent use of the word, thereby keeping the semantic ambiguity intact. Needless to say, the term has no English equivalent, for the word “poem” implies a self-contained piece of composition, while the term “verse” usually refers to a stanza or section of a poem. In this book, then, I have translated ku as “poem” when the commentator is clearly treating the hokku as an independent entity and using the term in that sense. In all other cases, I have employed the word “verse.” A “verse” in my usage, therefore, covers a wider area of meaning than it normally does in English, for at times it has to signify something halfway between a poem and a stanza. The notion may seem a little nebulous to those who are used to making a clear distinction between a part and a whole, but it is integral to the basic nature of hokku.


The historical significance of Bashō is obvious. He demonstrated, to an extent never known before, the poetic potential of the seventeen-syllable form. Prior to his time, haikai had been more an urbane game or pastime than serious poetry, and hokku was part of it. With his keen literary sensitivity and superb command of the language, Bashō explored all the potential that had been dormant in the verse form. He was a daring explorer: he used slang terms, he borrowed from classical Chinese, he wrote hokku in eighteen, nineteen, or more syllables. Even more important, he endeavored to make hokku true to actual human experience, to what he saw, thought, and felt, with all sincerity and honesty. He never completely rejected the playfulness characteristic of haikai, but he demonstrated that hokku was capable of embodying, in its brief form, all the various sentiments and moods of human life. In brief, he created serious poetry out of what had largely been an entertaining game.

Bashō's significance as a poet, however, is more than historical, for what he poured into his poetry has universal and lasting appeal. Readers have tried to explain that appeal in different ways, but they tend to agree that Bashō's poetry, seen in its totality, reveals his lifelong effort to find a meaning in life. Born in a family just below the ruling class and failing early in his attempt to climb up to that class, he went through a period of youth ridden by self-doubts, anxiety, and even despair. Yet, living in a postmedieval age, he had too much confidence in human potential to turn to a self-abnegating religion. In his extensive search for a viable scheme of salvation, he probed deep into Taosim and Zen Buddhism. Eventually he found, or thought he found, what he sought in what he called fūga, an artist's way of life, a reclusive life devoted to a quest for eternal truth in nature. The sincerity with which he pursued fūga is deeply moving. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that he had lingering misgivings about its redemptive power. To his last days, he did not seem able to merge poetry with belief completely.

The inflow of European literature into Japan since the late nineteenth century has not diminished the appeal of Bashō's poetry. Rather, it has helped the Japanese to reappraise his writings from new perspectives. Romantics in early modern Japan, who tried to write in the manner of Wordsworth and Byron, conceived Bashō as a kind of Childe Harold, a solitary wanderer who would travel to many distant towns and evoke people and events of the past wherever he went. Symbolist poets following the footsteps of Baudelaire and Mallarmé thought of Bashō as their Japanese predecessor, a poet who probed into the mysteries of nature and gave them literary expression through subtle, evocative images. Autobiographical writers, who thought they were emulating European naturalist literature, valued Bashō's tireless efforts to be honest with himself, to improve himself as both man and poet, and to record his spiritual quest with the utmost candor.

With the increasing interest in hokku and haiku outside Japan, the appeal of Bashō's poetry is now international. Early in this century, Anglo-American poets associated with the imagist movement were attracted to the poetic language of Bashō and his followers for its objectivity and precision as well as for its ability to present what Ezra Pound called “an intellectual and emotional complex” in a fraction of time. Such language also caught the eye of Sergei M. Eisenstein, because it seemed to utilize the same technique of montage with which he was experimenting in his film work. He called hokku “montage phrases,” and the first example he cited was Bashō's famous poem on the crow. Many poets of the Beat Generation were drawn to Bashō's poetry, primarily because they thought hokku were literary expressions of Zen. That view is still held by some Western admirers of Bashō today, but, in general, images of Bashō in the West have grown much more diverse. Recent readers have detected in him something of an existential philosopher, a psychological realist, an alienated intellectual, and a religious mystic. There is no doubt that many more portraits of Bashō will be drawn by his readers in and outside Japan in the years to come.

Ultimately, the greatest charm of Bashō's poetry resides in the scope and depth with which it represents human experience. He contains multitudes, so that his readers can see in him whatever they want to see. And yet they often feel they have not seen the whole of what they wanted to see, since a Bashō poem refuses to simplify the experience it represents. Because of its brevity, a hokku tends to be ambiguous, but even more so when the author is Bashō, for he tried to present life with all its complexities, pointing his finger at its mystery and depth but avoiding the attempt to force an analytical intellect on it. While that may or may not be a sign of greatness, it has proved to be a steady source of attraction to readers for the last three hundred years.


Not surprisingly, a great many readers have been moved to record their feelings about Bashō's hokku. The amount of such critical commentary accumulated over the years is more massive than that found for any other Japanese poet. It must be noted, however, that a long history of interpretive criticism had existed prior to Bashō's time. Man'yōshū (The collection of ten thousand leaves, 8th c.), the earliest surviving anthology of Japanese poetry, already includes explanatory notes following some of the poems. Early books on the art of poetry also contain author's comments on the wording and style of the poems cited. One such example is the commentary accompanying the poems quoted in the famous preface to Kokinshū (The collection of ancient and modern poems, 905), although neither its authorship nor its date of composition is known. Commentary became more pointed and evaluative when poetry contests gained popularity during the Heian period (794-1185). In such contests a waka, a thirty-one syllable poem that by then had become the dominant verse form, was matched with another waka on the same topic, whereupon a referee decided which poem was the winner. Naturally, the referee had to explain the reasons for his decision, and he often did so in writing (or else his oral explanations were recorded by someone else).

By the late Heian period, earlier anthologies such as Man'yōshū and Kokinshū had come to be regarded as literary classics worthy of scholarly attention. At the same time, a number of expressions appearing in those anthologies had become obsolete and incomprehensible. Thus scholars in the eleventh century, many of whom wrote poetry themselves, began to annotate archaic words and phrases for the benefit of less learned readers. They also studied earlier customs and manners in order to reveal the poems' social background. They were especially eager to seek out any specific work of Chinese or Japanese literature to which a given poem alluded, for that allowed them to display their erudition to the fullest extent. The practice of writing scholarly commentary was well established in the twelfth century, opening a path for many excellent books of waka annotations to appear in later centuries.

When renga replaced waka as the most viable poetic form in the fourteenth century, critical remarks on linked verses began to appear in books on the art of renga as well as in records of renga contests. The commentators' focus of attention initially tended to be on the manner in which two sequential verses were linked to each other, because that was where the central interest of renga poets lay. But, with the increasing independence of hokku, critics gradually began to pay more attention to the opening verse—especially after haikai became the mainstream of renga. Comments and discussions on hokku proliferated even further when hokku contests came to be held frequently in the seventeenth century.

Indeed, the earliest comments on Bashō's hokku that survive today are found in a hokku contest book compiled by Bashō himself. Entitled Kai Ōi (The seashell game, 1672), the book includes two samples of young Bashō's work in the 5-7-5 form, each followed by a critical comment he made as the contest referee. In his mature years, however, Bashō seldom wrote about his own poetry in a formal manner. He did make some casual remarks about it in the letters he sent to his friends and disciples. Also, he seems to have discussed his verses in conversations with his students, and a good number of the comments he made have been recorded in the students' writings. Of those, the ones by Mukai Kyorai (1651-1704) and Hattori Dohō (1657-1730) are the most reliable. Bashō's remarks cited in other disciples' books should be read with caution, because they may have been distorted by the author for one reason or another. These comments by Bashō and his students are valuable, as they often reveal something about the process by which a poem was created. Knowing the circumstances of composition is helpful, especially when the poem is only seventeen syllables long.

A large amount of critical commentary on Bashō's hokku appeared in the next two centuries. Mostly written by haikai poets, it shows two main characteristics. First, it reflects a major effort by the commentators to seek out classical sources and allusions. Obviously they were aware of the earlier interpretive tradition that had been established by scholars on waka and renga; they also knew that Bashō was well read in Chinese and Japanese classics. Thus such commentators as Ishiko Sekisui (1738-1803), Shoshian San'u (18th c.), and Moro Nanimaru (1761-1837) searched far and wide to discover poems, passages, and phrases to which a given hokku by Bashō might have alluded. Although they sometimes went too far in this direction, their work is valuable in making us aware of hidden references and connotations in a hokku and enriching our appreciation of it. Second, those premodern commentators were prone to overpraise Bashō's poetry, consciously or subconsciously shutting their eyes to its flaws. To them, Bashō was a poet-sage whose work was beyond reproach. Indeed, partly because of their effort, the Shinto hierarchy deified him in 1793, and the imperial court granted a similar honor thirteen years later. To say something derogatory about his work became quite literally sacrilegious.

The situation changed radically toward the end of the nineteenth century, when Western literature flowed freely into Japan and dazzled the Japanese. In the new age, Bashō was no longer a divine poet but merely a major world poet, one who showed weakness as well as strength in his work. Thus, such critics as Masaoka Shiki and Naitō Meisetsu (1847-1926) began to publish candid, sometimes adverse remarks on Bashō's poetry; Shiki especially came to be well known for his attacks on Bashō. It should be remembered, however, that the attacks were based on Shiki's Western-inspired notion of poetry and had the effect of showing that Bashō's work was universal enough to be discussed in the context of world literature.

This recognition of Bashō's universality also led to his liberation from the small world of haikai and hokku, inviting a wide variety of readers to study his poetry and make comments on it. One notable result of this was the formation of a discussion group by leading Japanese intellectuals, such as Abe Jirō (1883-1959), Abe Yoshishige (1883-1966), and Watsuji Tetsurō (1889-1960), who took up Bashō's hokku one by one and scrutinized them at regular meetings held over a period of four and a half years. Novelists like Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927) and Murō Saisei (1889-1962) and free-verse poets like Hagiwara Sakutarō (1886-1942) and Noguchi Yonejirō (1875-1947, known as Yone Noguchi outside Japan) also published essays showing their intuitive understanding of Bashō's hokku. Even those who were known primarily as haiku poets, such as Ogiwara Seisensui (1884-1976) and Katō Shūson (b. 1905), wrote comments on Bashō's hokku from a broad, humanistic viewpoint not restricted by the past haikai tradition.

In the meantime, the introduction of Western literary studies helped Bashō scholars to make rapid progress in textual and biographical criticism. Verses that had been mistakenly attributed to Bashō were carefully weeded out. Of the variant versions, the one that seemed to be Bashō's final draft was selected through a rigorous process of scholarly authentication. Scholars also aimed at maximum objectivity in determining dates and places of composition by scrutinizing the historical and biographical evidence that had survived. Their critical comments on Bashō's hokku help us to see the poems in terms of the situation in which they were written. A great many scholars made contributions in this area, most notable among them being Shida Gishū (1876-1947) and Ebara Taizō (1894-1948).

Japanese studies on Bashō's hokku reached a peak with the work of Yamamoto Kenkichi (1907-88), who was neither a poet nor a novelist nor a resident of academia. His brilliant book Bashō: sono kanshō to hihyō (Bashō: Appreciation and criticism of his work), which was published in three volumes in 1955-56, selected 147 representative hokku and attempted a detailed explication of each. Well versed in world literature, Yamamoto derived his basic methodology from the works of the New Critics in the West, basing his comments on scrupulous textual analysis. He did not reject historical and other methodologies; rather, he incorporated them into his approach. Ultimately, however, the strength of his commentary lies in his incisive intellect, keen literary sensibility, and rich knowledge of both Eastern and Western literature, all of which he applied to unraveling the complex mind of Bashō.

Insightful commentary on Bashō's hokku, made by such scholars as Imoto Nōichi (b. 1913) and Ogata Tsutomu (b. 1920), continued to appear after Yamamoto's monumental work. Yamamoto himself published a new book on Bashō's hokku in 1974, this time choosing a far greater number of poems for study but considerably shortening his comment on each. In general, however, Bashō's hokku do not seem to have attracted as much critical attention in the last several decades. Some scholars even assert that the peak period of Bashō criticism has passed, as far as his hokku are concerned. Current scholarship pays more attention to his works in other genres, which, with the exception of travel journals, had not received due attention before. Also, the huge accumulated mass of past commentary on Bashō's hokku is enough to intimidate any scholar. Probably those who have the greatest potential to contribute at present are non-Japanese readers of Bashō's hokku, who have been reared in a radically different cultural tradition. In order for their comments to be valuable, however, they need to be thoroughly familiar with the Japanese language and culture, and they should be capable both of synthesizing the past Japanese commentary and of adding to that synthesis their own insights. The task would not be easy, but I believe it can be done.


Bashō's hokku, together with those of other Japanese poets, began to appear in English translation around the end of the nineteenth century. It seems that the earliest translator to publish Bashō's hokku was Lafcadio Hearn, who, in his book Exotics and Retrospectives (1898), introduced the famous poem about a frog jumping into the old pond (Hearn saw more than one frog in this poem, however). He also included hokku by Bashō in subsequent books, such as Shadowings (1900) and Kwaidan (1904). W. G. Aston's A History of Japanese Literature (1899) contained eight Bashō hokku in translation, together with a brief biographical sketch and an interesting—but unauthenticated—anecdote about the traveling poet. Basil Hall Chamberlain, who thought of hokku poems as nothing more than “a litter of bricks, half-bricks in fact” in comparison with Tennyson's great Palaces of Art, nevertheless went on to translate some thirty hokku by Bashō. His long essay entitled “Bashō and the Japanese Poetical Epigram” (1902), which included those translations, was the first in-depth treatment of hokku to appear in English and, if one can discount his Victorian literary taste, is still worth reading for its many perceptive comments.

Already in those early days the style of translation varied considerably with the translator. Consider, for example, the treatment of Bashō's well-known hokku on sémi (cicada), a relatively simple poem as far as its meaning is concerned.

Never an intimation in all those voices of sémi
How quickly the hush will come—how speedily all 
          must die.(1)
The cry of the cicada
Gives no sign
That presently it will die.(2)
Nothing in the cicada's voice
Gives token of a speedy death.(3)

Evidently the three translators understood Bashō's meaning in the same way, but the result was three different poems!

In the years that followed, as more people tried their hands at translating hokku, stylistic variations proliferated still further. On the whole, each translator's style seems to have been determined by two main factors: his conception of the basic nature of hokku and his choice of English poetic models. To use the same Bashō hokku for illustration, Harold G. Henderson, who saw the essence of hokku in its rigid, condensed, tension-filled form, rendered it as

So soon to die,
          and no sign of it is showing—
                    locust cry.(4)

while Frank Livingstone Huntley, who recognized in this hokku what he called “an arc of Zen,” came up with

Busy cicadas chirp and cry
On brilliant August days,
Zzurr, zzurr—
In this ignorant haze
They think they'll never die.(5)

In the final analysis, translation is a form of literary criticism as well as artistic creation, and no matter how hard the translator may try to become transparent, some presence inevitably shows through.


  1. Lafcadio Hearn, Shadowings (Boston: Little, Brown, 1900), p. 100.

  2. W. G. Aston, A History of Japanese Literature (London: Heinemann, 1899), p. 295.

  3. Basil Hall Chamberlain, “Bashō and the Japanese Poetical Epigram,” Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 30 (1902). Reprinted in Chamberlain, Japanese Poetry (London: John Murray, 1910), p. 220.

  4. Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958), p. 43. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

  5. Frank Livingstone Huntley, “Zen and the Imagist Poets of Japan,” Comparative Literature 4 (1952): 175. Reprinted by permission of Mr. Huntley and Comparative Literature.

Haruo Shirane (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10978

SOURCE: “Matsuo Bashō and the Poetics of Scent,” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1, June 1992, pp. 77-110.

[In the following essay, Shirane explores the “link by scent” technique used by Bashō, in which a verse “carries the atmosphere of its predecessor,” much as the fragrance of a flower is carried by the wind. This essay originally contained ideographic characters, which have been silently removed for this reprinting.]

Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) was first and foremost a haikai linked verse poet, and it is this poetic form, with its sequence of alternating seventeen and fourteen syllable verses, which lies at the heart of his literature. Bashō composed in a variety of haikai styles—first that of the Teimon school and then that of the Danrin school—before developing his own approach, the “Bashō style” (Shōfū), which continued to evolve until the end of his career. The most salient characteristic of this haikai style, particularly as embodied in Sarumino (Monkey's Straw Raincoat, 1691), the most influential haikai anthology of his school, is the “link by scent” (nioi-zuke), a phrase intended to suggest the way in which a verse carries the atmosphere of its predecessor much as the fragrance of a flower is carried by the wind. What then are the characteristics of nioi-zuke? How did it emerge? How is it related to earlier techniques of linking? What are its implications for understanding Basho's poetry and prose?

Kyoraisho, a record of Bashō's teachings edited by Mukai Kyorai, one of his chief disciples, defines three types of haikai links: mono-zuke (“lexical link”), kokoro-zuke (“content link”), and nioi-zuke (“scent link”).

The Master said, “The hokku has changed repeatedly since the distant past, but there have been only three changes in the haikai link. In the distant past, poets valued lexical links. In the more recent past, poets have stressed content links. Today, it is best to link by transference, reverberation, scent, or status.”1

Bashō associates the three types of links with three different historical periods: the “distant past” of Teimon haikai, the school established by Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1653), which dominated the haikai world for a half century from 1625 to about 1674; the “recent past” of Danrin haikai, the school founded by Nishiyama Sōin (1605-1682), which flourished from 1673 to 1681; and the haikai of “today,” that of the Bashō school, which came to the fore in the 1680s.

In Kyoraishō, mono-zuke, or kotoba-zuke (“word link”), as it is often called, refers to a link in which the “added verse” (tsukeku) is joined to the “previous verse” (maeku) by some form of verbal association: either by the codified yoriai in which, for example, the “warbler” (uguisu) and “plum blossoms” (ume) are associated by the classical tradition, by the more wide-ranging engo (“word associations”), in which words such as “bow” (yumi) and “to stretch” (haru) are culturally associated, or by some form of homophonic association (kakekotoba). In the kokoro-zuke the “added verse” is connected to the “previous verse” by “content” or “meaning” (kokoro): the tsukeku usually explicates, expands upon, or alters the setting, the dramatic circumstance, or the character presented in the “previous verse.” “Transference” (utsuri), “reverberation” (hibiki), “scent” (nioi), and “status” (kurai) are all terms that can be subsumed under the rubric of nioi-zuke, or “link by scent,” in which the tsukeku is connected to the previous verse by overtones or shared connotations rather than by lexical associations or “content.”

The difference between a kokoro-zuke and a nioi-zuke is revealed in two different responses to a hokku, or opening verse, composed by Bashō in Genroku 3 (1690).

ki no moto ni
shiru mo namasu mo
sakura kana
Beneath a tree:
          clear soup, pickled fish,
                    and cherry blossoms too!


asu kuru hito wa
kuyashigaru haru
A spring that brings regret
to tomorrow's visitor


Apparently dissatisfied with this sequence, Bashō presented the same hokku on another occasion.

ki no moto ni
shiru mo namasu mo
sakura kana
Beneath a tree:
          clear soup, pickled fish,
                    and cherry blossoms too!


nishibi nodoka ni
yoki tenki nari
A sun setting gently in the west:
Great weather!


This second attempt pleased Bashō so much that he placed the thirty-six verse kasen at the beginning of Hisago (published 1690), a major Bashō-school anthology. In the first sequence, which is a typical kokoro-zuke, the added verse is direct narrative extension of the “contents” of the previous verse: tomorrow's visitors will be disappointed to discover that the cherry blossoms have already fallen. In the second sequence, by contrast, the tsukeku dilates only on the mood of the maeku, matching the balmy, festive spring atmosphere implied but not stated in the maeku. The result is the mutual resonance characteristic of “scent links.”

Sanzōshi, a record of Bashō's teachings edited by Dohō, gives two examples of nioi-zuke.

akikaze no
fune o kowagaru
nami no oto
kari yuku kata ya
Shiroko Wakamatsu
Fearing the boat
          in the autumn wind—
                    sound of the waves
Where go the wild geese?
To White Child? Young Pine?(2)

The added verse takes up the overtones of the previous verse and gives it expression in a scene.

itachi no koe no
tanamoto no saki
hōkigi wa
makazu ni haete
shigeru nari
Cries of a weasel
beneath the kitchen sink
Never seeded,
          the broom grass has grown
                    high and thick.(3)

Taking up the faint scent of poverty in the previous verse, the second verse expresses it in the thick, unseeded broom grass and the dilapidated house.

(KNBZ 51:586)

In the first sequence someone (a woman?) unaccustomed to travel by sea is afraid of a boat being rocked by the autumn wind. In the added verse, the speaker, watching the flight of wild geese, wonders if they are headed for Shiroko (White Child) or Wakamatsu (Young Pine), two places on Ise Bay. The heart that follows the crying geese (traditionally associated with nostalgia) as they fly over water toward distant places is implicitly a heart that longs for home. The tsukeku creates a nioi-zuke in that it echoes the psychological and emotional implications of the previous verse, specifically the loneliness and fear of a distant journey. In the second sequence, the wild hōkigi (grass used to make brooms), in a similar fashion, suggests the atmosphere of poverty and neglect implicit in the previous verse.

The following sequence (No. 15-17) appears in a kasenIn the Town (Ichinaka wa)—in Sarumino (1691).

uikyō no
mi o fukiotosu
Scattering the seeds
          of the fennel plant—
                    an evening gale


sō yaya samuku
tera ni kaeru ka
A priest growing cold
as he returns to a temple?


saruhiki no
saru to yo o furu
aki no tsuki
Monkey trainer
          passing through life with a monkey—
                    an autumn moon


The second verse adds a human figure—a priest growing cold after a day of begging for alms—that corresponds in mood to the lonely autumn scene presented in the previous verse. The third verse, which, by the rules of linked verse, must move away from the first verse (called the uchikoshi) and create a new unit with the previous verse, also draws on the overtones of the maeku. The scenes in the second and third verses—the priest and the monkey trainer, who is fated to pass the rest of his life with a monkey—are directly related dramatically or rhetorically, and yet they are linked by overlapping connotations: the solitude and sadness of those who stand outside the warm embrace of society. The symmetrical juxtaposition of the otherworldly priest and the worldly monkey trainer also adds a touch of haikai humor.

In a fashion typical of traditional poetic treatises, Bashō school commentaries such as Sanzōshi and Kyoraishō do not define and explain the structure of a particular link. Instead, they cite one or more example approved by the Master as models to be studied and emulated by his followers. The only critical term that consistently appears in regard to nioi-zuke is “overtone” (yosei), or rich connotations. As Shikō, one of Bashō's disciples, notes in Jūron'i benshō (published 1725): “What is called an overtone (yosei) in classical poetry is called scent (nioi) in haikai.” According to Kyoraishō,

Kyorai noted, “In the linked verse of the Bashō school, one avoids tsukeku that draw directly on the content of the previous verse. Instead, after carefully assessing the scene and the person, the person's occupation, and the person's circumstances, one should let go of the previous verse.”

(NKBZ 51:508)

In contrast to a kokoro-zuke, which is directly based on the “content” of the previous verse, the nioi-zuke “lets go of the previous verse,” creating a significant gap or distance between the verses. Modern Japanese scholars usually define nioi as a manner of linking in which the mood, atmosphere, or emotion of the previous verse is carried over to the added verse or made to move back and forth between the two. Like “overtone,” however, “mood,” “atmosphere,” and “emotion” are vague terms that refer more to the aesthetic effect of a nioi link than to the structure of the link itself.

Roman Jakobson has argued that literary discourse develops along two fundamental lines of verbal behavior, selection and combination, that is to say, a metaphorical axis, in which words are linked by substitution, similarity, or dissimilarity, and a metonymic axis, in which words are joined by contiguity, particularly as a combination of elements in a grammatical or narrative sequence.4Nioi-zuke excluded linkage by lexical associations, that is to say, metonymy either through yoriai, the codified lexical associations derived from the classical tradition, or through the wider-ranging engo (word associations) found in earlier haikai, particularly that of the Teimon school. An ideal nioi link also did not depend on metonymy in its more general forms of cause and effect, narrative continuity, character portrayal, or dilation on an existing scene.

Instead, nioi poetics favored a more metaphorical juxtaposition in which the maeku and the tsukeku intersected on a shared connotation, often in montage fashion. “Lexical links” (kotoba-zuke) also depended on shared connotations, but these connotations were usually commonplaces, either fixed by literary convention, as in yoriai, or culturally familiar to all educated readers, as in engo. Bashō's ideal link by scent, by contrast, was based on analogies that were distant, that is to say, not readily apparent and non-conventional, but that, once made, were all the more striking, novel, and compelling. Nioi, in short, was a rhetorical trope in which the two linked verses often had the function of mutual metaphors. These were not metaphors in the traditional sense of the word, in which a direct transference was made between one image and another. Instead, the nioi link relied on selective juxtaposition, in which the connections were only suggested.


Nioi in the broad sense is a comprehensive term used to describe a cluster of overlapping links—nioi, hibiki, utsuri, kurai—each of which represents a different application of the principle of scent. Nioi in the narrow, restricted sense is a link by scent that is quiet or gentle in mood (such as the priest/monkey trainer or the weasel/broom grass sequences). A link by hibiki (“reverberation”), by contrast, is highly dramatic. Kyoraishō explains:

A hibiki link is like hitting an object so that it reverberates.

kure'en ni
gin kawarake o
mihosoki tachi no
soru koto o miyo
On a veranda,
          smashing to bits
                    a silver-painted bowl
Watch him twist the blade
of the sabre, ready to draw!(5)

The Master gave this link as an example and explained, his right hand going through the motion of smashing a bowl and his left hand pretending to draw a sabre.

(NKBZ 51:504)

A decorative bowl (kawarake) being smashed on a mansion veranda suggests a dispute in an upper-class setting. This dramatic tension “reverberates” in the second verse, in which a narrow sabre (mihosoki tachi), the type worn by aristocrats, is about to be drawn, presumably in preparation for a violent struggle. In contrast to nioizuke, which is often associated with a subdued atmosphere, a hibiki link implies an excited, dramatic mood in which the second verse reflects the emotional intensity and tension of the previous verse.

Utsuri is written either with the character for “shift/transference” or with that for “reflection”. The former character suggests that the mood moves in one direction, from the maeku to the tsukeku, as opposed to mutual interaction. Sanzōshi gives the following example.

tsuki miyo to
kami aogasuru
usumono no tsuyu
“Look up at the moon!”—
          Aroused from slumber,
                    she blushes.
Attendants fanning her hair,
a thin silk robe wet with dew(6)

The appearance of the woman in the previous verse is transferred to the second verse, which depicts a lady-in-waiting at the imperial palace.

(NKBZ 51:585)

In the first verse, which suggests a Heian tale of love, a woman is awakened by someone (a lover?) asking her to enjoy the moon and finds herself in an embarrassing position. The feminine, erotic mood of the maeku “transfers” to the second verse, where a court lady, wearing only a thin silk robe (usumono), is having her attendants fan her hair dry.

When written with the graph for “reflection,” utsuri suggests that the maeku and the tsukeku “reflect” upon each other, thereby deepening the overtones of both. Yamanaka shū (published 1704), which records Bashō's activities in 1689, gives the following example.

shiba karikokasu
mine no sasamichi
matsu fukaki
hidari no yama wa
suge no tera
Chopping down brushwood
on a bamboo path to the peak
Deep amidst the pines—
          a thatch-roofed temple
                    on the mountain to the left

The Master said, “As a reflection (utsuri) of ‘Chopping down brushwood,’ one should have ‘Hailstones pouring down’ in the first five syllables of the added verse.”

The tsukeku subsequently was changed in accordance with Bashō's advice.7 In the revised version, “Hailstones pouring down” (arare furu), a violent winter image, “reflects” the brute action suggested in the previous verse. When defined as mutual reflection, utsuri becomes synonymous with nioi in the broad sense. Indeed, in Kyoraishō Bashō uses utsuri and nioi together as if they refer to the same phenomenon. Utsuri also becomes inseparable from hibiki when the mood reflected in the link is emotionally or dramatically tense. Indeed, the entire cluster of links could have been referred to as the poetics of “mutual reflection” (utsuri) rather than, as it traditionally has been, that of scent.

Another type of link mentioned in Kyoraishō and associated with nioi-zuke is the kurai (literally, “rank” or “social status”) link in which the two verses are joined by social connotations—deriving from clothing, material possessions, or other signs.

Bonen asked, “What is kurai?

Kyorai answered, “When one grasps the social status of the previous verse and adds an appropriate verse. Even if a verse is superb, if it does not match the social status found in the previous verse, the result will be disharmony. Allow me to explain, using a love verse by the Master.

uwaoki no
hoshina kizamu mo
uwa no sora
uma ni denu hi wa
uchi de koisuru
Even while chopping
          dried vegetables for the rice,
                    her heart was aflutter
On days when he does not take
the horse out, he makes love at home.(8)

In the first verse, the woman is neither someone's wife nor a female attendant in the house of a samurai or townsman. She is a maid working at a post station or a warehouse.

(NKBZ 51:504-5)

Hoshina (“dried vegetables”)—usually dried radish leaves—was placed on top of a bowl of rice to make an inexpensive dinner. Realizing from the food that the person in the maeku is a woman of extremely low station, perhaps a maid working in a warehouse, Bashō matches her with a groom, a man of equally low social stature. Links by scent, reverberation, and transference may also be kurai links. For example, a direct social correspondence (aristocratic background) exists between the silver-painted bowl smashed on the mansion veranda and the slender sword, worn only by aristocrats. And the verse on the weasel beneath the sink echoes that on overgrown broom grass: both suggest lower-class, impoverished life.

Bashō's poetics of scent and mutual reflection may be compared to the montage in modern cinema in which a succession of seemingly unrelated shots are closely linked by connotation or overtone. Sergei Eisenstein, a pioneer in film production and theory, once defined montage as “an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots” and that may result in “emotional dynamization.”9 A montage equivalent of the meditative nioi link—nioi in the narrow sense—might be the scene of a young aristocratic lady strolling across a well-manicured garden followed by a shot of a swan gliding across the water, the subdued but elegant moods of the two gently intersecting. A hibiki montage, on the other hand, with its dramatic tension or emotional intensity, might be the cinematic juxtaposition of an explosion rocking a brick building and a sleepy-faced lion suddenly roaring. A cinematic utsuri (“transference”) link could be a scene of a couple kissing followed by a shot of an avocado being peeled. The second scene, while unrelated to the first, is obviously “colored,” given a definite sexual resonance. The sense of sexuality is transferred from one scene to the next. A kurai link might be the juxtaposition of a shot of a beggar on a city street with the shot of a dog emerging from a mud puddle. In the montage, the second shot deepens a particular emotional effect found in the first shot, or vice versa, the combination often creating Eisenstein's “emotional dynamization,” an emotional reverberation that neither of the shots by itself could produce.10


The poetics of scent should be understood in the larger historical context, in relationship to the development of both haikai and classical renga. Basho's nioi-zuke is reminiscent of the “distant links” (soku) found in classical waka, particularly that of the Shinkokinshū, and then later in the classical renga of the Muromachi period (1392-1573). The terms soku (“distant link”) and shinku (“close link”) were first used in Kamakura-period waka treatises such as Sangoki and Guhishō to define the relative distance between the seventeen-syllable “upper part” (kami no ku) and the fourteen-syllable “lower part” (shimo no ku) of the thirty-one syllable waka. In Sasamegoto (1463), Shinkei (1406-1475), an advocate of “distant links” in classical renga, gives the following waka by Jien in the Shinkokinshū (No. 1780) as an example of a “distant link.”11

omou koto
nado tou hito no
aogeba sora ni
tsuki zo sayakeki
Why does no one
          inquire about
                    my dark thoughts?
When I gaze up:
a clear moon in the sky

The “upper part,” which is highly emotive and subjective, stands at a distance from the “lower part,” which presents a natural scene, thereby causing the reader to bridge the gap, to bring together the overtones and connotations of the two parts (in this case, the implied enlightenment of the moon and the darkness of the human heart). Unlike his famous predecessor Sōzei (d. 1455), a renga master known for his rhetorically elaborate, homophonic, lexically oriented links, Shinkei advocated distant links that eschewed intricate word play, that emphasized the unstated, and that resulted in elegant and mysterious overtones. The following sequence by Shinkei appears in Shinsen tsukubashū (Vol. 1, Spring I, #85-86), a renga anthology compiled in 1495.

urasabishiku mo
haru kaeru koro
moshio yaku
keburi ni kasumu
kari nakite
Somehow lonely
as spring passes away
From the burning seaweed
          smoke rises in a mist
                    where the wild geese cry

Transforming the word “somehow” (ura) in the maeku to mean “bay” (ura), the added verse presents a landscape—the burning seaweed, spring mist, and wild geese on a bay—that distantly suggests, by its connotations, the emotions stated in the previous verse. Sōgi (1421-1502), while often engaging in the kind of verbal play that Sōzei was famous for, further developed the renga of overtones advocated by Shinkei. A good example is the following sequence (verses six and seven) in Minase sangin (1488), a hyakuin (“hundred verse”) sequence composed by Sōgi, Shōhaku, and Sōchō.

shimo oku nohara
aki wa kurekeri
Fields of white frost—
autumn coming to a close.


naku mushi no
kokoro to mo naku
kusa karete
Ignoring the hearts
          of the crying insects,
                    the grass withers


The speaker implicitly wishes to keep listening to the sound of the autumn insects, but the grass, which the insects depend on for survival, heeds neither the insects nor the speaker. The two verses are joined at various levels: by yoriai, “frost,” “insect cries,” and “withered grass” being closely associated in the classical tradition; by scenic extension or “content” (kokoro); and by overtones, by a common mood of autumnal forlornness, sorrow, and sense of transience, which derives in large part from the hon'i, or the fixed connotations borne by words derived from the waka tradition.

Muromachi haikai, specifically that of Yamazaki Sōkan and Arakida Moritake (1473-1549), two haikai pioneers, was essentially close-link haikai and was consciously opposed to soku, to the distant links found in classical renga. Moritake senku (1536-40), a thousand-verse haikai sequence by Moritake, begins with the following verses.12

tobiume ya
karogaroshiku mo
kami no haru
ware mo ware mo no
karasu uguisu
Flying plum blossoms—
          ever so lightly,
                    a divine spring
Crows, warblers, crying
“Me too! me too!”

The hokku, which puns on the word kami (“divine spirit” and “paper”), describes the legendary plum blossoms that flew to distant Dazaifu out of longing for their exiled master Sugawara no Michizane, whose divine spirit caused such miracles: the plum blossoms are flying as lightly (and divinely) as paper. The added verse transforms the word karogaroshiku (“ever so lightly”) to mean “impetuously”: crows and warblers—and implicitly everyone—clamor madly to follow the flying plum blossoms. In Moritake style, the verses are closely linked by engo (“divine spirit” and “crow”) and yoriai (“plum blossom” and “warbler”).

Like Muromachi haikai, Teimon haikai, the first major Tokugawa school of haikai, depended heavily on lexical association. In Tensuishō (ca. 1644), a Teimon secret treatise, Matsunaga Teitoku, the founder of the Teimon school, notes,

In classical renga, the main objective is to create a verse of superior quality even if it is slightly distant from the previous verse. Haikai, however, is different. No matter how good a verse may be, if it does not adhere to the previous verse, one can not consider it a good verse. In haikai, one must compose with the new verse closely adhering to the previous verse even if it means creating an inferior verse.13

By “close links” Teitoku means haikai links based on verbal association, particularly yoriai, engo, kakekotoba, and torinashi-zuke (literally, “taking by force”), in which the content of the maeku is radically altered by homophonic play, a love verse on “resentment” (urami), for example, suddenly becoming a travel verse on “viewing a bay” (urami), or “fields of heaven” (ama no hara) turning into “the stomach of a nun” (ama no hara). In Haikai no chū (1642), Yasuhara Teishitsu (1610-1673), a leader of the Teimon school, asserts that “Haikai must center on links by torinashi.14 Other popular Teimon linking techniques include honkadori, which drew on words from classical poetry, and kokoro-zuke (not to be confused with the “content links” by the same name), which allude to events in classical monogatari and Chinese literature. Teitoku hyakuin dokugin jichū (published 1659), a famous solo hyakuin with self-commentary by Teitoku, begins with:

uta izure
Komachi odori ya
Ise odori
doko no bon ni ka
oriyaru Tsurayuki
sora ni shirarenu
yuki furu wa
tsukiyo nite
Which songs are better?
          Those of the Komachi Dance
                    or those of the Ise Dance?
To which Festival of the Dead
will Tsurayuki return?
Unnoticed by the sky,
          snow is falling beneath
                    the evening moon(15)

In the opening verse, the speaker cannot decide which of two popular folk dancers/songs is superior, the two implicitly being as equally matched as Ono no Komachi and Lady Ise, two famous Heian women poets. In the second verse, the speaker wonders to whose house (the Komachi Dancers' or the Ise Dancers'?) the spirit of Ki no Tsurayuki, who can act as a poetic judge, will return during Bon (Festival of the Dead). Tsurayuki, a famous Heian poet, is linked to Ono no Komachi and Lady Ise by engo as are Bon, “dance,” and “moon.” In torinashi fashion, the third verse, which alludes to the following Tsurayuki poem in the Shūishū (No. 64), takes the yuki in Tsurayuki's name to create a verse about “snow” (yuki).

sakura chiru
ko no shitakaze wa
sora ni shirarenu
yuki zo furikeru
Beneath the cherry trees,
where the blossoms scatter,
the breeze is not cold—
Unnoticed by the sky,
snow is falling!

In contrast to Tsurayuki's poem, in which the cherry blossoms scatter like snowflakes, the ground lit by the bright evening moon—where people are dancing at the Bon festival—looks like snow.

As the above example suggests, Teimon links were usually a combination of “content links” and “lexical links.” Indeed, in an effort to raise the aristic level of haikai and bring haikai closer to classical renga, Teitoku disallowed various kinds of close links found in earlier haikai. Teitoku's haikai handbooks—such as Gosan (published 1651) and Shinzō Inutsukubashū (published in 1643)—forbid the use of yū-zuke (“function links”), in which the added verse describes some “function” or “aspect” () of the main “topic” (tai) in the previous verse. (For example, “stretch” (haru), “push” (osu), and “tip” (sue) were considered “functions” () of “bow” (yumi).) Nor should the tsukeku use a homonym (dōi)—such as tamazusa and fumi, both of which mean “epistle”—of a word in the maeku. Identical Chinese characters (dōji) or syllables were also forbidden. Such links, which had also been banned in classical renga, generally failed to create the movement and change that he considered vital to linked verse.

In contrast to the intricate, tightly controlled extended sequences found in Teimon haikai, Danrin haikai links were freer, less bound by rules, and stressed “content links” (kokoro-zuke). It also reemployed some of the close link techniques found in Muromachi haikai but later banned by Teitoku such as yū-zuke and uwasa-zuke (“rumor links”), in which the tsukeku directly explicates the previous verse or resembles it in conception. Danrin haikai was more distant than Teimon haikai in that it gave greater stress to “content links” (kokoro-zuke) over lexical association, but it too continued to rely heavily on engo, kakekotoba, and yoriai, including an occasional torinashi. Perhaps the most characteristic type of Danrin link was the nuke (sometimes called nukegara or nuki), in which the key word or topic linking the added verse to the previous verse is deliberately “left out” (nuke) of the tsukeku.16 The following sequence appears in Ōsaka dokugin shū (1674), in a solo hyakuin by Etsushun, with commentary by Sōin.

aoao to
shikimi wa haru no
ki narubeshi
kasumu yamazaka
michi gojutchō
Deep green,
          the star anise is surely
                    a mark of spring!
Misted mountain road
Fifty blocks long

Atago is fully expressed without being mentioned.17

The word “Atago Mountain” (Atagosan), which was associated with “star anise” (shikimi) in classical poetry and which provides the critical link between the two verses, is deliberately left out. Contemporary readers knew, however, that the phrase “road fifty blocks long” (michi gojutchō) meant the distance up to the famous shrine on the peak of Atago. A more “content”-oriented link, referred to as kokoro no nuke, is the following from Saikaku haikai ōkukazu (1677), an extended solo sequence by Saikaku.

sannin narabi ni
sakite no monodomo
chirimen no
ura fukikaesu
kizukai shiyaru na
myaku ga naotta
Three in a row,
foot soldiers at the front
Wearing a long coat,
          the silk lining exposed
                    by the wind
“No need to worry!
Your pulse is all right now.”(18)

The first and second verses present foot soldiers marching at the head of a daimyo procession. The second and third verses, however, transform the scene into one in which a doctor is attending a patient, though the key figures—the doctor and the patient—are left unmentioned. As a form of “lexical linkage” (kotoba-zuke), nuke represents a further extension of the close links and word associations found in Teimon haikai, but in stressing missing “content”—in suggesting but not stating—the nuke link, particularly the kokoro no nuke, represented a critical step away from Teimon haikai and toward distant links, especially the poetics of “overtones” that was soon to be developed by Matsuo Bashō.

The “Chinese style,” which emerged in the early 1680s, marks the beginning of the transition from the close link haikai of the Teimon and Danrin schools to the distant links found in the more mature Bashō style. The following verses (no. 11-14) appear in a fifty-verse sequence in Jiin (1681) called “Feet of the Snowy Heron” (Sagi no ashi) composed by Bashō and his acquaintances.

kogarashi no
kojiki ni noki no
shita no kasu
Lending space
          beneath the eaves to a beggar
                    in the winter winds


senso o mishiru
shimo no yogatari
Discovering common ancestors
while chatting on a frosty night


tomoshibi o
kuraku yūrei o
yo ni kaesu nari
Dimming the lamp
          and beckoning ghosts
                    back to this world


furuki kōbe ni
katsura hikkake
Placing a wig
on an ancient skull

Bashō (NKBZ 32.361-62)

The sequence creates a narrative montage: a conversation with a beggar, which leads to a hyaku monogatari, in which ghost stories are told by lamp light, followed by the appearance of a ghost placing a wig on an old skull. In the fashion of a kokoro-zuke, each added verse builds on the “content” of the previous verse, amplifying some implied or submerged element of the maeku without relying on lexical linkage. Indeed, the extensive use of Chinese graph compounds and kundoku grammar in this “Chinese style” made it almost impossible to employ the verbal play found in Teimon and Danrin haikai. Instead, the poets depended more on the connotations generated by the juxtaposed images, which tended to be more subdued. The couplet format and parallel lines of Chinese poetry also appear to have encouraged a poetics of mutual correspondence.19

By the Jōkyō period (1684-88), when the Bashō style was established, the distance between the verses had increased to the point where they were called “scent links.” The following sequence comes from the opening of “Kite's Feathers” (Tobi no ha), a kasen in Sarumino (Monkey's Straw Raincoat, 1690), the Bashō school anthology most closely associated with the poetics of scent.

tobi no ha mo
Even the kite's feathers
          are tucked in tight—
                    first winter showers


hitofuki kaze no
ko no ha shizumaru
Blown by a gust of wind,
the tree leaves come to rest


momohiki no
asa kara nururu
kawa koete
Trousers soaked
          from early morning:
                    crossing a river


tanuki o odosu
shinohari no yumi
Bamboo poles bent back,
set up to scare racoons


mairado ni
tsuta haikakaru
yoi no tsuki
Vines crawling
          over the lattice door—
                    an evening moon


hito ni mo kurezu
meibutsu no nashi
Not offering even the visitors
the famous pears


The hokku suggests a winter scene in which even a tobi, a bird whose feathers are usually puffed out, has pulled in its wings during the “first winter showers” (hatsushigure), a seasonal word associated with loneliness. The second verse develops the overtones of lonely desolation by adding the wet tree leaves that have settled down after the winter showers. The third verse, which presents someone repeatedly crossing a river since early morning, carries on the wet, cold feeling of the previous verse. The fourth verse places the river near a farm or mountain lodge with bamboo poles bent back, ready to scare off racoons. In the fifth verse, the wild vines and evening moon—coupled with the bamboo scene in the previous verse—suggest a quiet, abandoned dwelling deep in the mountains. The sixth verse casts the farmer or mountain dweller in the maeku as an eccentric who does not even offer visitors the pears for which the place is famous. The haikai sequence moves metonymically, from one setting to another, and yet each verse is closely joined to the previous verse by overlapping moods, particularly a sense of quiet loneliness and desolation, an aesthetic inherited from the medieval poetic tradition but expressed here in haikai fashion, with vernacular, “low” words never found in classical poetry.

As this brief survey of haikai linkage suggests, the view of literary history presented in Kyoraishō, which identifies three successive haikai schools—Teimon, Danrin, and Bashō—with three different types of links (kotoba-zuke, kokoro-zuke, and nioi-zuke), represents only a programmatic ideal and is in fact a serious distortion. Teimon poets, while frequently employing lexical associations, also relied heavily on links by “content” (kokoro) and even regarded kokoro-zuke as an ideal. Danrin poets, while stressing links by “content,” particularly in the rapid yakazu solo sequences, continued to make extensive use of “lexical links” and word play. And while Bashō identified his school with “links by scent,” he and his disciples relied extensively on “content links” and sometimes even used “lexical links,” usually mixing all three types of links in the course of a thirty-six verse kasen. Nioi-zuke represented a poetic ideal rather than a constant. In fact, too many successive nioi-type links could seriously retard the progress of a sequence.

Instead of rejecting “content links,” Bashō pushed this particular type of link to the point where it often became a yosei-zuke, a “link by overtone,” in which the primary focus was on the shared connotations rather than on the narrative or scenic continuity. Bashō-school haikai, while creating a form of “emotional dynamization,” differed from cinematic montage in that most verses were a combination of a “content link” and a “scent link.” The following verses (No. 17-18) appear in “Horsebean” (Soramame), a kasen in Sumidawara (Genroku 7, 1694), considered the last great anthology of the Bashō school.

yuki no ato
Lingering snow,
          blown and stripped away
                    beneath a misty moon


futon marugete
mono omoi oru
Rolling up the bedding,
sunk in melancholy thoughts


The added verse, which suggests the emotions of a neglected lover (possibly an abandoned woman), draws on the overtones of the previous verse, particularly the classical association of “misty spring moon” (oborozuki) with erotic longing, thereby making the spring landscape in the previous verse an implicit metaphor for the feelings of the woman “sunk in melancholy thoughts.” The tsukeku is thus linked to the maeku both metonymically—by scenic extension, in which the woman rolls up the bedding beneath the misty spring moon—and metaphorically, by connotative or emotive associations.

Inui Hiroyuki and Shiraishi Teizō, two modern scholars, have separately argued that classical renga died as an active and influential genre in the Genroku period (1688-1704) and that the emergence of distant-link haikai at this time is related to its demise.20 Until the Genroku period, haikai existed in an antithetical, polar relationship to classical renga, being largely defined by its differences with the classical tradition. For poets such as Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1653) and Nishiyama Sōin (1605-1682), who were raised and educated in the classical tradition, haikai stood in a problematic relationship to classical renga and waka. (Sōin in fact returned to classical renga at the end of his career.) By contrast, the haikai poets who emerged in the Kanbun era (1661-73) and who matured in the Genroku period were not former waka poets like Teitoku or classical renga masters such as Sōin. Though they probably studied these classical genres, they did not practice or teach them professionally. Unlike Teitoku or Sōin, Bashō was never a renga master and probably never composed classical renga. For these Genroku poets, haikai was a legitimate poetic genre that no longer stood in the shadow of the classical renga. Teimon and Danrin haikai depended on the polarity between haikai and classical renga for its comic inversions. By the 1680s, however, this oppositional poetics had subsided, allowing Bashō to ignore the traditional distinctions and absorb aspects of classical renga into haikai, particularly the notion of distant links and overtones.

But while Bashō drew on medieval poetics and aesthetics, he did not attempt to imitate the classical renga of Shinkei or Sōgi. Instead, his poetics of scent grew directly out of his experience as a Teimon and Danrin haikai poet, particularly his experimentation with the “Chinese style,” and retained the distinctive features of comic linked verse: the use of non-classical diction, including both vernacular and Chinese, the constant search for “newness” in subject matter and approach, and a sense of humor (albeit more subdued and ironic than that of his haikai predecessors). In contrast to classical renga of Shinkei and Sōgi, which recreated the imaginary world of the Heian classics with elegant diction and which was almost completely divorced from everyday Muromachi life, Bashō's haikai drew directly on the language and subject matter of late seventeenth-century Tokugawa Japan. Bashō transcended the long-standing association of classical renga with “high” (ga) culture, elegant diction, and subtle overtones, and haikai with “popular” (zoku) language and society by seeking out the “high” in the “low,” particularly “high” poetic overtones and medieval aesthetics—such as sabishisa, or quiet, meditative “loneliness”—in “low” everyday, commonplace topics and language. Basho generated overtones, or “scent,” out of contemporary words that had rarely been used in poetry, that were even considered anti-poetic, and that did not have the hon'i (“poetic essences”), or fixed associations, found in classical diction.


Haikai based on distant links flourished during the Genroku period and became the hallmark of the Bashō style, but it was not to last long. By the end of the Kyōhō era (1716-36) haikai linked verse as a whole was in rapid decline.21 The danger of links by scent was that they could easily become incomprehensible, the connections too distant. As the following passage from Kyoraishō suggests, many of Bashō's followers either misunderstood the original intent of the soku link or failed to live up to the difficult ideal established by Bashō.

Shikō said, “A tsukeku is supposed to connect to the previous verse. But today there are many tsukeku that are not joined to the previous verse. The Master's verses never failed to connect.”

Kyorai said, “Unless a tsukeku is joined to the previous verse, it is not a tsukeku. To connect too closely, however, is a vice. Nowadays, poets tend to believe that close connections are to be left to beginners. As a consequence, many poets compose verses that do not connect at all. Afraid of being criticized for a lack of understanding, many informed observers do not criticize a verse when it fails to connect to the previous verse and laugh when a verse is well connected. This is contrary to what I learned from the Master.”

(NKBZ 51:507-8)

As Kyoraishō suggests, Bashō's followers often made the mistake of turning the link by scent into a super-soku, which lost all contact with the preceding verse. This tendency, along with the emergence of alternative practices such as maeku-zuke, a two-verse capping game, led to the collapse of extended haikai linked verse. The poetics of scent, however, continued to live within the form of the independent hokku—the haiku in the modern period—which eventually overshadowed and replaced comic linked verse.


The toriawase (“combination”), a juxtaposition of disparate images, is one of the fundamental techniques used by Bashō in his seventeen-syllable hokku and bears a direct relationship to the nioi poetics found in his linked verse. The kireji, one of the formal requirements of the hokku, “cuts” the hokku, severing the semantic, grammatical, or rhythmic flow of the verse and often generating the dynamics of a maeku and a tsukeku within the bounds of a seventeen-syllable hokku, or opening verse. Haikai linked verse requires the reader to move back and forth between the previous verse and the tsukeku. In Sanzōshi, Dohō argues that the hokku should have this same movement, which he refers to as the “spirit of going and returning.”

The hokku is characterized by a spirit that moves in a specific direction and then comes back. An example of this type of poem is:

yamazato wa
manzai wa ososhi
ume no hana
In the mountain village
          the New Year's dancers are late:
                    plum blossoms

After stating “In the mountain village / the New Year's dancers are late,” the speaker reveals that the plum trees are already in bloom. The hokku moves toward the “New Year's dancers” and then suddenly turns to the “Plum blossoms”—a movement that we can call the “spirit of going and returning.” If the poem were simply, “In the mountain village / the New Year's dancers are late,” it would have no more force than an added verse in a linked verse sequence.

The Master said, “One should understand that a hokku combines two or more elements in a single verse.” This is spelled out in a certain haikai handbook. “Finding a good combination of elements within the circumference of the same topic is rare; and even if one does discover something, it is usually old-fashioned.”

(NKBZ 51.592)

The manzai are the costumed performers who make an annual visit to the village to perform songs and dances in celebration of the New Year and as a prayer for long life. The New Year comes at the beginning of spring, when the plum blossoms appear, but no literary or social convention joins the manzai and the plum blossoms. Dohō observes that if one simply writes: “In the mountain village / the New Year's dancers are late,” the verse would be the functional equivalent of an isolated verse in a haikai sequence. If one adds “Plum blossoms,” however, the verse assumes the dynamics of a proper hokku. To borrow Dohō's metaphor, the reader first “goes to” a particular image (the late arrival of the manzai), explores its connotations, and then “returns” by another route (the plum blossoms), seeking to find a common path, or shared connotations, between the two parts. The toriawase thus produces the effect of the maeku and tsukeku within the context of a single verse. Bashō also observes that the two parts of the toriawase should not fall within the sphere of fixed associations (yoriai) possessed by a topic in the classical tradition. A toriawase may take up a popular topic from the classical tradition (such as “plum blossoms”) but the other part (in this case, the manzai) should be drawn from outside the sphere of conventional overtones so as to create a novel, non-canonical link or association. Though neither Bashō nor his disciples used the word nioi to describe the structure of the hokku, Dohō's comments on the process of “going and returning” suggest that the Bashō school conceived of the hokku, or at least one type of hokku, in a similar fashion.

In Metaphor and Reality, Philip Wheelwright makes a distinction between two fundamental kinds of metaphors, which he calls “epiphor” and “diaphor.” The word epiphor comes from Aristotle, who argues in Poetics that metaphor is the “transference” (epiphora) of a name to some other object. In Wheelwright's words, the essential mark of ephiphor “is to express a similarity between something relatively well known or concretely known (the semantic vehicle) and something which, although of greater worth or importance, is less known or more obscurely known (the semantic tenor).”22 By contrast, the diaphor produces new meaning by juxtaposition alone. Wheelwright provides a comic example:

My country 'tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
          Higgledy-piggledly my black hen.

The poet's intention here is obviously to make an anti-patriotic utterance, but there is nothing unpatriotic about any of the lines taken by themselves. Instead, it is the combination of parts—the juxtaposition alone—that creates the anti-patriotic sentiment. Ezra Pound's “In a Station of the Metro,” which was influenced by Japanese haiku, is a more serious example.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

As Wheelwright shows, metaphors are rarely, if ever, purely epiphor or diaphor but rather a combination of the two. Pound's poem, for example, suggests, in epiphoric fashion, a similarity between the petals and the faces in the crowd. Bashō's toriawase, like his links by scent, tended to be highly diaphoric, avoiding the direct comparison of epiphor and the inherently hierarchical relationship between the tenor and the vehicle. Instead, he relied on the creative power of juxtaposition or verbal montage, which could suggest mutual resemblances or emotional congruence.

The following poem was written by Bashō in 1680.

kareeda ni
karasu no tomaritaru ya
aki no kure
On a withered branch,
          crows have come to rest—
                    evening in autumn

Modern readers tend to read this poem metonymically, as a single continuous scene, in which an autumn evening—or late autumn (aki no kure can be read both ways)—forms the temporal and spatial setting for the crows (one crow?) that have come to rest on a withered branch. Bashō's contemporaries, however, apparently read this poem as a toriawase, a “combination” poem divided by the cutting word ya, in which the two parts—the crows on the withered branch and the autumn evening—reverberate metaphorically against each other. In Hakusenshū (1698), a collection of Bashō's hokku, the poem is preceded by the title, “On Evening in Autumn” (Aki no kure to wa), which makes the verse, specifically the first part, a response to a topic found in classical waka since the time of Fujiwara no Shunzei (d. 1204) and closely associated with “melancholy” (mono no aware) and “loneliness” (sabi). Crows perched on a withered branch, on the other hand, was a popular subject in medieval ink-paintings (suibokuga) and was associated with Chinese poetry and Shinkei's medieval poetics of yase (“the emaciated”) and hie (“the frozen”). Here the two topics, one classical and another medieval, are linked by scent, by overlapping connotations, to create a diaphoric metaphor.

Kyoraishō reveals how toriawase were sometimes created.23

Shimogyō ya
yuki tsumu ue no
yoru no ame
Southern Kyoto—
          Over the white snow gently
                    falls the evening rain(24)

Initially, the first five syllables were missing. Everyone, beginning with Bashō, tried his hand at capping the verse, and the Master finally decided on this version. Though Bonchō acquiesced, he was still not convinced. In response, the Master said, “Bonchō, cap this verse and reveal your talent. If you can find a better alternative, I will never discuss haikai again.”

(NKBZ 51.434-5)

It is tempting to read Bashō's hokku mimetically, as a depiction of a particular scene. The compositional process reveals, however, that the bottom part of the poem does not necessarily describe Southern Kyoto (Shimogyō), the area south of Sanjō (Third Ward). Instead, the relationship between the two parts—“Over the white snow gently / Falls the evening rain” and “Southern Kyoto”—resembles a nioi link. The image of rain quietly falling on a white blanket of snow creates an atmosphere of warmth. The same is true of the place name. In contrast to the aristocratic, northern half of Kyoto, Southern Kyoto was plebeian, occupied by a bustling society of middle and lower-class merchants.

The following poem, composed by Bashō in 1688 and included in Sarashina kikō (Record of a Journey to Sarashina), is also a toriawase.

mi ni shimite
daikon karashi
aki no kaze
Penetrating deep,
          the sharp taste of white radish—
                    winds of autumn

The speaker tastes a daikon, a white radish, which is so sharp and spicy that it seems to pierce the body. The first five syllables, “Penetrating deep” (mi ni shimite), are related not only to “The sharp taste of white radish” (daikon karashi) but to “The winds of autumn” (aki no kaze), which also penetrate the body. The two parts of a toriawase interact in the manner of a hibiki link, in which the emotional and sensory intensity of the previous verse “reverberates” in the added verse. The whiteness of the daikon is also echoed in “The winds of autumn,” traditionally referred to as “colorless wind” (iro naki kaze). The fatigued metaphor of “autumn wind,” a cliché from the classical, “high” (ga) tradition, is here reenergized by the visceral, unusual metaphor of “the sharp taste of radish” (daikon karashi), a haigon from everyday, “low” (zoku) culture. The heterogeneous images combine to form a larger metaphor for the hardship and bitterness of travel.

The influence of nioi poetics is also apparent in the following hokku, composed by Bashō in 1694.

kiku no ka ya
Nara ni wa furuki
Chrysanthemum scent—
          in old Nara the ancient
                    statues of buddha

The chrysanthemum (kiku), which blooms amidst the bright leaves of autumn, possesses an old-fashioned but refined fragrance. The dignified, elegant statues of buddhas that fill the temples of the old capital of Nara have no metonymic connection to the scent of chrysanthemums—the statues are not surrounded by flowers—and yet the overtones of the two parts fuse: both possess antique and elegant atmospheres. The two parts of the toriawase—the fragrance of the chrysanthemum and the ancient buddhas—are not related by literary or lexical association (as in a mono-zuke) or by dramatic situation (as in a kokoro-zuke) but rather by non-canonical connotations.

A more complex example of nioi poetics is the following hokku, which appears in Oku no hosomichi (Journey into the Deep North).

hitotsu ya ni
yūjo mo netari
hagi to tsuki
In the same lodging
          sleep also women of leisure—
                    bush clover and moon

The poem juxtaposes two toriawase. In the first, the speaker, on a pilgrimage through the Deep North, unexpectedly finds himself lodging with two prostitutes. The second toriawase combines two traditionally unrelated natural images: moon and bush clover. Some readers interpret the last five syllables mimetically, as describing an actual scene before the speaker: a bright moon shining down on the dainty bush clover. Others allegorically equate the speaker with the moon (traditionally associated with otherworldliness and enlightenment) and the women of leisure (yūjo) with the bush clover (hagi). This kind of reading, however, casts the speaker in the unlikely role of a superior being who looks down, with moral condescension, upon the prostitutes. The poem is better understood in terms of nioi, in which the mood created by the unexpected meeting of the pilgrim and the women echoes that created by the heterogeneous natural images.

In some instances, the two parts of the toriawase are closely related by setting or literary convention but stand at enough distance to create a nioi link, as in the following hokku, composed by Bashō in 1691 and included in Sarumino:

                                                            On a picture
yamabuki ya
Uji no hoiro no
niou toki
Yellow mountain roses—
          when the ovens at Uji give off
                    the fragrance of tea leaves

The two parts of the toriawase are closely connected: Uji, a village south of Kyoto, was noted for both its tea and its yamabuki (“yellow mountain roses”). In spring, when the yamabuki bloom, the freshly picked tea leaves were placed in ovens to dry, thus creating a memorable aroma. The headnote suggests that as the speaker gazes at the yamabuki in the painting, he is reminded of Uji and the aroma of tea leaves in the spring. An even more profound connection can be found, however, at the level of a mutual, diaphoric metaphor: the glow of the yellow flowers of the yamabuki (kerria) synesthetically resembles the warm fragrance of the new tea leaves being dried and roasted at Uji and vice versa.

Another striking instance of nioi poetics occurs in the following hokku, composed by Bashō in 1689.

On an evening in mid-autumn, I stopped at Tsuruga. Since it was raining, I wrote:

tsuki izuko
kane wa shizumite
umi no soko
Where is the moon?
          The bell has sunk
                    to the ocean bottom.

According to the headnote, the moon is the mid-autumn harvest moon (meigetsu), which appears on the 15th of the Eighth Month and which was traditionally admired and long awaited. In a stance reminiscent of the classical tradition, the speaker longs for a moon obscured by rain and clouds. The poet seems to have heard about a local bell that has sunken to a depth where it can no longer be recovered. The moon does not—as an allegorical reading would suggest—hide behind the clouds in the same way that the bell lies hidden at the bottom of the sea. Instead, the two parts become mutual, diaphoric metaphors that intersect on the shared connotation of regret. The familiar topos of longing for the hidden moon is revitalized by an unusual desire: nostalgia for a bell that can no longer be heard.

The notion of nioi, of diaphoric metaphor, also informs the relationship between Bashō's independent hokku and their prose headnotes (maegaki). In Haikai mondō (1694), Kyoriku, one of Bashō's disciples, states:

In the past and in recent years, headnotes have been used to explicate hokku. The function of a true headnote is different. A poem that depends on the explication of a headnote is not a good poem. Instead, the headnote should add light to the poem.25

Kyoriku then goes on to give the following headnote (which Bashō added when he inserted the hokku in Sarumino) as an example of how a headnote should “add light” to a poem.

                              Upon parting from a priest
chiru toki no
kokoroyasusa ya
keshi no hana
When they scatter,
          they go quietly, in peace!
                    the poppy flowers

The poem and the headnote may be interpreted allegorically, with the poppy flowers representing the priest, or read like a nioi link in which the quiet scattering of the delicate poppy petals echoes the mood of parting from a priest, whom one will probably never see again. Brief maegaki appear in earlier collections of hokku, but for the most part they function metonymically, simply indicating the time, the place, and the occasion for the poem.26 In Bashō school anthologies, by contrast, the headnotes appear with great frequency, are sometimes of considerable length, and often create, as this one does, a metaphorical resonance.

The same is even more true of Bashō's haibun prose vignettes and their poetry. The following passage comes at the end of Genjūanki (Account of An Unreal Dwelling, 1690), generally considered to be Bashō's finest haibun.

This is not to say that I sought to escape into the mountains and fields out of a love for quiet and loneliness. I am simply like someone who, growing ill, finds it tiresome to be with people and turns his back on the world. When I look back over the years, I am painfully reminded of my shortcomings. I once coveted public office with a tenure of land. At another time, I decided that I should enter the priesthood. But desiring to capture the beauty of the birds and beasts, I was swept away by the floating clouds and drifting winds. For a while that alone was my life. Now, at the end, I cling, without talent or ability, to this one thread: the art of poetry. Po Chu-i, it is said, exhausted his five organs composing poetry; and Tu Fu grew lean doing the same. Needless to say, I have none of their wisdom or poetic talent. But is there anyone who does not live in an illusory dwelling? With those thoughts, I lie down.

mazu tanomu
shii no ki mo ari
natsu kodachi
For now, I will turn
          to the large oak tree—
                    a grove in summer

(NKBZ 41.504)

As a kind of epilogue, the hokku suggests that a shii (large oak) tree stands beside Bashō's thatched hut and that Bashō will turn to this large tree for temporary shelter from the hot sun. When read in the context of the following waka by Saigyō (Sankashū, No. 1401), however, the speaker is a bird coming to rest on a large oak tree.

narabi ite
tomo o hanarenu
kogarame no
negura ni tanomu
shii no shitaeda
Always side by side,
never parting from its mate,
the small sparrow seeks
out a nest in the lower
branches of the oak tree.

In the fashion of “scent link,” the mood of weariness expressed by Bashō in the prose is echoed in the image of the bird (a symbol of the perpetual traveler) coming to rest in a grove of trees. The prose does not, like that of uta-monogatari (poem-tales) or other Heian prose fiction, elaborate on the circumstances for the composition of the poem. Nor does it explain the meaning or significance of the poem. Instead, the prose and the hokku stand apart as separate but metaphorically related texts, forcing the reader to “leap” from the haibun to the hokku and back.

The poetics of scent also informs the relationship between the descriptive prose and the embedded hokku in Bashō's travel literature. The following passage, for example, appears toward the beginning of Oku no hosomichi.

On the first of the Fourth Month, we visited the holy mountain at Nikkō. From the distant past, this holy mountain had been called Futara Mountain. When the Great Master Kūkai built a temple here, the name of the holy mountain was changed to Nikkō, Light of the Sun. Perhaps the Great Master had been able to look a thousand years into the future. Now its holy light shines brightly over the entire land, and its benevolence extends to the most remote corners of the country. The dwellings of the four classes—the warrior, the farmer, the artisan, and merchant—are safe, and the world is at peace. I have more to write, but out of respect, I will stop here.

ara tōto
aoba wakaba no
hi no hikari
          on dark green, light green leaves,
                    the light of the sun

(NKBZ 41.345)

The initial version of the hokku, recorded by Bashō's travel companion Sora, is:

ara tōto
ko no shitayami mo
hi no hikari
          Reaching even the dark tree base,
                    the light of the sun

The earlier version, in which the light of the sun symbolically reaches even the darkness beneath the trees, is a direct extension of the prose, paying tribute to the deity at the Tōshōgū Shrine and elaborating on the “content” (kokoro) of the previous passage. The final version found in Oku no hosomichi, by contrast, echoes the prose passage from a distance, by “scent”: the sight of the rays of the summer sun pouring down on the dark evergreen leaves (aoba) and the light deciduous leaves (wakaba) fills the speaker with the kind of awe and reverence that deities inspire.

The relationship between the prose and the poetry in Oku no hosomichi also applies to the prose itself. If the extended clauses of the following passage were placed parallel to each other, they would resemble a haikai linked verse sequence: many of the clauses and sentences are closely tied by imagery or narrative syntax, but others stand at a greater distance, connected only by connotation or emotional congruence.27 The passage immediately follows the famous “Stone Monument” (Tsubo no ishibumi) section.

From there I visited the Jeweled River of Noda and the Rock-in-the-Offing. At Sue-no-matsu Mountain, they have built a temple called Last Pine Mountain. And yet all that is visible between the branches of the pines are graves; the realization that those who, crossing their wings and intertwining their branches, had pledged eternal love were ultimately destined to this fate filled me with sorrow; I heard the tolling of the evening temple bells at Shiogama Bay.

(NKBZ 41:359)

The clauses move paratactically from one subject or place to another—Jeweled River of Noda to Sue-no-matsu Mountain to Shiogama Bay—without any overt explanation or connecting phrases. Indeed, the gap in the third sentence between the clause that ends with “this fate filled me with sorrow” and “I heard the tolling of the evening temple bells at Shiogama Bay” may leave some readers wondering if a sentence is missing. Almost every extended clause, however, has connotations that merge with those in the previous phrase. In the second sentence, Sue-no-matsu Mountain, a famous utamakura (poetic place), reminds the narrator (and, it is hoped, the reader) of the following poem from the Kokinshū (No. 1093).

kimi o okite
adashi kokoro o
waga motaba
sue no matsuyama
nami mo koenamu
If my heart were ever
to turn fickle and leave you
behind for another,
the waves would cross over
Sue-no-matsu Mountain.

The association of Sue-no-matsu Mountain with pledges of eternal love leads to the next clause, which laments the ultimate fate of all lovers. That sorrow, in turn, reminds the narrator of the loneliness of the evening temple bells (a symbol of the impermanence of all things) at Shiogama Bay, an utamakura made famous by poems such as the following by Ki no Tsurayuki (Kokinshū, No. 852).

kimi masade
keburi taenishi
shiogama no
ura sabishiku mo
miewataru kana
Shiogama Bay,
where the smoke has died away
and you are now gone—
With a sense of loneliness,
I gaze across the waters.

Those readers with an intimate geographic knowledge of the Deep North may know that Sue-no-matsu Mountain and Shiogama Bay are adjacent to one another, but for most readers the only bridge between the clause about Sue-no-matsu Mountain and the last clause on Shiogama is the shared connotations of solitude and impermanence.

The aesthetics of nioi is by no means limited to Bashō. It can be found in a variety of traditional Japanese arts, from landscape gardens to architecture to flower arrangement, and forms a part of the larger medieval aesthetics of resonances. The notion of nioi, for example, is critical to understanding gasan, poetry added to paintings, a practice that has a long tradition in China and Japan. Japanese bunjin (literati), who were well versed in Chinese literature and arts, painted on topics found in Chinese poetry. In these instances, the relationship between the Chinese poem and the painting tended to resemble that of kokoro-zuke, in which the tsukeku directly elaborated on the content of the maeku. When a waka or hokku was placed on a painting, however, the relationship often resembled that of the nioi link.28 Haikai poets such as Bashō and Yosa Buson (1716-83) worked in both genres. In many instances, the poem and the painting created a montage effect, in which the poetry and the painting were joined, not by content, but by shared overtones, which often resulted in Eisenstein's “emotional dynamization.”


  1. Ijichi Tetsuo, Omote Akira, and Kuriyama Riichi, eds., Rengaronshū, Nōgakuronshū, Haironshū, NKBZ 51.503. Dohō's Sanzōshi makes a similar observation: The Master said, “Haikai should be based on links by scent, reverberation, shadow, transference, or conjecture, on links that emerge from no particular form.”

  2. By Kyokusui and Bashō. From a kasen—Ki no moto ni shiru mo namasu mo sakura kana—composed in Genroku 3 (1690) and later anthologized in Hisago.

  3. By Hairiki and Bashō. From a haikai sequence—Arearete sue wa umi yuku nowaki kana—composed in Genroku 7 (1694) and recorded in Kyō no mukashi.

  4. Roman Jakobson, “Two Aspects of Language: Metaphor and Metonymy,” in Vernon Gras, ed., European Literary Theory and Practice (New York: Dell, 1973), 119-27.

  5. By Shigenari and Ryūgen, in a sequence in Izayoi.

  6. By Sora and Bashō, in a kasen—Arigataya yuki o kaorasu kaze no oto—composed in Genroku 2 (1689), during Bashō's journey to the Deep North.

  7. Composed by Bashō and Kitae. For text and commentary of the revised version, a kasen called Uma karite, composed in 1689 (Genroku 2), see Abe Masami, Bashō renku shō, 7 (Meiji shoin, 1981), 446-47.

  8. By Yaba and Bashō. The seventh and eighth verses of Furiuri no gan aware nari ebisu kō, a kasen in Sumidawara.

  9. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Forum Essays in Film Theory and Film Sense, trans. Jay Leyda, A Meridian Book (Cleveland/New York: The World Publishing Company, 1957), 49, 57.

  10. Nose Tomoji, Renku no geijutsu no seikaku (Kadokawa shoten, 1970), 19-20.

  11. Shinkei divides renga links into two broad categories: yoriai, fixed lexical associations, and kokoro-zuke, “which abandons the configuration and words of the previous verse and links only by content.” Kokoro-zuke is divided yet further into “close links” (shinku) and “distant links” (soku). Shinkei regards these three types of links—yoriai, shinku, and soku—to be progressively more difficult, with the yoriai suited for the beginner and the soku for the master.

  12. For partial text and commentary, see Inui Hiroyuki and Shiraishi Teizō, Renku e no shōtai, Yūhikaku sensho (Yūhikaku, 1980), 126-43.

  13. Teimon haikai shū II, Koten haibungaku taikei, 2 (Shūeisha, 1971), 420.

  14. Teimon haikai shū II, 391.

  15. Kaneko Kinjirō, Teruoka Yasutaka, Nakamura Shunjō, eds., Renga haikai shū, NKBZ 32.283. Oriyaru is a haigon meaning “to return.”

  16. The following analysis of nuke links is indebted to Ogata Tsutomu, “Nukefū no haikai,” Haikaishi Ronkū (Ōfūsha, 1977), 108-129.

  17. Katsumine Shinpū, Danrin haikai shū jō, Haisho taikei, 15 (Shunjūsha, 1929), 32.

  18. Danrin haikai shū I, Koten haibungaku taikei, 3 (Shūeisha, 1971), 361.

  19. Nose Tomoji, “Bashō no hairon,” in his Haikai kenkyū, Nose Tomoji chosaku shū, 9 (Shibunkaku shuppan, 1985), 142.

  20. Inui Hiroyuki, “Tsukeai no shōchō,” in his Kotoba no uchi naru Bashō (Miraisha, 1981), 333-72, and Shiraishi Teizō, “Shinku soku no ron,” in Bashō II, Nihon koten bungaku kenkyū shiryō sōsho, (Yūseidō, 1977), 1-10.

  21. Inui and Shiraishi, Renku e no shōtai, 37-38.

  22. Philip Wheelwright, Metaphor and Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962), 9.

  23. The same episode appears in Haikai mondō (“Jitoku hatsumei ben”). Shōmon hairon haibun shū, Koten haikai bungaku taikei, 10 (Shūeisha, 1970), 147.

  24. By Bonchō. The poem appears in Sarumino.

  25. For text and commentary, see Minami Shin'ichi, ed., Sōshaku Kyoriku no hairon (Kazama shoin, 1979), 264-65.

  26. Yokozawa Saburō, “Shōō no geijutsu,” in his Haikai no kenkyū: Bashō o chūshin ni (Kadokawa shoten, 1967), 9.

  27. Asada Zenjirō and Yayoshi Kan'ichi, Bashō: Koten to sono jidai (San'ichi shobō, 1962), 187.

  28. Yokozawa Saburō, “Nioi, utsuri, hibiki,” in his Haikai no kenkyū: Bashō o chūshin ni, 108.

Steven D. Carter (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10261

SOURCE: “On a Bare Branch: Bashō and the Haikai Profession,” in American Oriental Society, Vol. 117, No. 1, January-March 1997, pp. 57-69.

[In the essay below, Carter briefly examines the careers of Shōtetsu and Ino Sogi, two poets who preceded Bashō, and argues that the professional conduct exhibited by these and other literary figures had a great influence on Bashō's practice as a poet. He states that many of the choices Bashō made in his life that scholars have assumed to be intensely personal—such as deciding to take up the solitary life—can thus be seen as actions of someone at the highest rank of his profession.]

To Margaret … the station of King's Cross had always suggested Infinity.

E. M. Forster, Howard's End

Many things about the career of Matsuo Bashō seem remarkable. Not the least of these is his decision in the winter of 1680, at the age of only thirty-seven, to abandon his literary practice in Nihonbashi and move across the river to Fukagawa, literally opting out of haikai “high society” in favor of a life both less conspicuous and less materially prosperous. But should we take that act truly to signify Bashō's realization that, in the words of Ueda Makoto, fame “was not what he wanted”—especially when we remember that fame was what he got?1 In this paper I will attempt to think through this question by examining Bashō not merely as a poet, in the inevitably romantic sense of that appellation, but as a haikai professional.2 Among other things, this may help us to understand some of his activities—particularly his activities after 1680—in new and interesting ways.

But what does it mean to see Bashō as a professional? A useful approach to that question may be to look at the careers of two earlier poets, both of whom prefigure Bashō in some ways. The first, Shōtetsu (1381-1459), had no direct, documentable influence on Bashō's work, while the second, Inō Sōgi (1421-1502), was clearly a model to whom Bashō looked for instruction.3 Both, however, affected Bashō in the way their own professional acts affected subsequent literary institutions. More than in the texts we now refer to as their “work,” then, they, and countless others like them, affected Bashō in his approach to his literary practice—a word whose affiliations to other professional discourses I intend at least provisionally to invoke.

As is the case with many other professional artists of the late medieval age, Shōtetsu began his working life as a monk, being placed in a Nara monastery while still in his mid-teens by his father. Since the literary and clerical fields clearly shared a disciplinary border in late medieval Japan, however, it should surprise no one that in his early twenties he decided to pursue poetry as a vocation. Despite occasional clerical disparagements of poetry as “wild words and fancy speech,” Buddhist temples, especially major Zen temples such as Tōfukuji, where Shōtetsu served as a scribe for some years beginning in 1414, were literary enclaves. The progression from cleric to poet, albeit often depicted as a transgression by religious institutions, had become a common professional transition long before Shōtetsu's time and would continue to be so in the future.

When Shōtetsu made the decision to pursue poetry as his livelihood, that is, to become “a specialist who lives from his work,”4 he went through the standard motions, including rites of passage. First, he pursued training under two recognized “masters” of the uta form: the warrior-poet Imagawa Ryōshun (1326-1420) and the court noble Reizei Tamemasa (1361-1417), of whom the latter could trace back his genealogy to Fujiwara no Teika, the ultimate source of legitimacy in the late medieval age. Since Shōtetsu was not of noble lineage, he could not hope to practice his profession at court; hence it was to Ryōshun, a man of the warrior classes who offered access to a more amenable market, at least in practical terms, that he chiefly looked for guidance. Under Ryōshun's tutelage, Shōtetsu studied poetic composition and the court classics, submitted work for critique, engaged in various tests of competence and received esoteric teachings and training. The similarity of the new profession to the clerical profession must have prepared him well and made the prevailing patterns of literary practice seem familiar. Finally, he was certified by his master and designated with the professional name of Seigan Shōgetsu'an, which identified him as an authority. All this happened before 1420. Thereafter, for the next forty years, until his death in 1459, he lived in various cottages in the capital, thus signifying his affiliation with earlier monk-poets. All indications are that poetry was his chief occupation, as well as a major source of income. At a time when poets could make little from the circulation of their works, he—like most other commoner literati—depended instead on his work as a teacher and authority to make a living. Rather than selling books, he sold himself.

Shōtetsu's personal anthologies of poetry and his treatise-memoir Shōtetsu monogatari (Conversations with Shōtetsu, 1450?) offer us a clear picture of his professional duties and how he carried them out. To begin with, these texts reveal that he must have spent a good deal of his time in private study and practice of his art. Concurrently, however, they show that such work was generally undertaken in preparation for performance in a public setting, a feature of literary life in his period that should never be forgotten. Over and over again, for instance, the headnotes to his poems indicate that they were composed for tsukinamikai, or monthly poetry meetings, held at the homes of important patrons among the military clans and in temples. These were social events with ritual features that called upon Shōtetsu as an expert to provide leadership in certain prescribed ways, such as providing the set of topics (dai) on which poems would be composed or acting as lector (kōshi) or judge in questions of proper usage or vocabulary, in the same way that a court scribe might serve as a source of specialized knowledge in the context of various deliberations. A brief note—and it is one among many—from Shōtetsu monogatari speaks eloquently for his role as the voice of authority:

II, 54. For the topic “A Fire in the Brazier,” one may treat either buried embers or a burning fire, but for the topic “Buried Embers,” one may not treat a fire in the brazier.5

The source of the “rule” Shōtetsu invokes here we do not know, although it could easily have come from either Ryōshun or Tamemasa; but that he accepted it, as well as his duty to proclaim it, seems beyond question. The nature of his identity as a professional was after all to use his knowledge and skill—his proven competence—to respond to the contingencies of practice in the kind of social setting that was the primary site of poetic composition in his time. In his own chambers he could perhaps dispense with such considerations, although there is little evidence that he did; at a poetic gathering, social and genre conventions were his stock in trade. Indeed, in quotes like the following, again from Shōtetsu monogatari, he represents himself as one whose task is the maintenance of a discipline that clearly sustains a specific social hierarchy:

I, 9. The leading poem for an extemporaneous set of a hundred poems should be deferred to the person of appropriate status—the master of the house, or the most accomplished poet. However, when choosing by lot the topics for a set of twenty or thirty poems on the seasons, the leading poem may be composed by anyone.6

I, 95. On formal public occasions, the lector withdraws as soon as all of the poems by the courtiers have been read out loud. Not until these poems are being read does the sovereign take his own poem-slip from the folds of his robe and hand it to the regent or chancellor, upon which a new lector comes in. He reads the sovereign's poem seven times. For those in the imperial entourage as well, poems by the regent and the highest court nobles are read three times. Poems by members of the shogun's family have also been read three times in recent years.7

II, 14. At an impromptu poetry gathering, the poem-slips of the younger members of the group are written last and submitted first. When old and young are in attendance, one or two inkstones are pushed from one person to the next, with the elders and seniors writing first and the young ones in the lowest seats writing last. Notwithstanding, they must be the first to pass in their poem-slips to the master of the topics. No matter how quickly they may think of their poems, the junior members must not write them down before the senior members have finished. This rule must be scrupulously observed …8

II, 57. Women and girls, when they write poems on pocket paper, should not leave a blank space at the bottom. It is all right to leave any amount of blank space at the top.9

After reading such statements, one can easily imagine Shōtetsu seated in a poetic gathering with a diverse group of people—a noble of middling rank; a daimyō, or warlord, and his wife or sister; a few samurai; the abbot of a temple, a few of his own disciples, from various backgrounds—if not in this order, at least in some specific order. In such a group the professional poet would act as arbiter, source of knowledge, and master of ceremonies. And even in his own hut, sitting only with students anxious to obtain such “knowledge” along with tidbits of lore and esoteric commentary, Shōtetsu performed a similar function—all in pursuit of a literary profession that may have seemed to represent only an aesthetic tradition but in fact articulated and reinforced a highly stratified social structure. The poems he left us, which are usually “recontextualized” in collections that note only the conventional topics upon which they were composed, may only hint at this dimension of their existence; but what we know of his practice makes it clear that his “work” was often a kind of performance with social ends and social consequences.

Was Shōtetsu aware of his role? Or, more interestingly, was he satisfied with it? These are questions to which complete answers of course cannot be given. The only thing one can say with confidence is that, like any professional in any time, he must have accepted many of the conventions of his practice as at least proper and perhaps even “natural.” But comments such as the following reveal that he was sometimes impatient with the standards of his day.

II, 65. In poetry there are many vexations. Winding up loose ends and thinking of the future—things never turn out as one had intended. If one continues to compose poems of the sort that everyone else considers good, one must remain forever at that ordinary level. On the other hand, when one writes poems whose essence is profound and difficult, others fail to understand them, and this is frustrating. No doubt what is generally called good would seem to be good enough, I suppose.10

Thus, with some diffidence, Shōtetsu hints at his feelings about the status quo. And one must add that his attitude was duly noted by those at the pinnacle of poetic reputation, the court families—meaning most prominently the Asukai—by whom the discipline of poetry in the mid-fifteenth century was governed, so to speak, from the top. Already excluded from a leadership role in the upper social reaches of his profession by his lack of aristocratic pedigree, his “arrogance” resulted in a sort of banishment from poetic society for a time in the 1430s and thereafter to a life on the fringes of court society, where he engaged in stylistic experiments that often alienated him from the grand tradition as practiced at court.11 In terms of his profession, then, his attitude led to a kind of social censure—an exclusion imposed upon him externally but partially at his own request, despite his acknowledged professional skill.

Yet it is important to note at this point that Shōtetsu never gave up his activities as a master of poetry. For even in his own time Shōtetsu's critique of the status quo did not constitute a repudiation of the profession. Indeed, my purpose in evoking these statements is to show how by alienating himself from certain poetic circles he was simply opting for a change in his career that would identify him as a semi-recluse,12 allowing him to make statements such as this:

I, 1. In this art of poetry, those who speak ill of Teika should be denied the protection of the gods and Buddhas and condemned to the punishments of hell.

Teika's descendants split into the two factions of the Nijō and Reizei, and these with Tamekane's faction make up three schools … It is my opinion that a person should pay no attention whatever to these schools …13

Elsewhere I have characterized this declaration as a turn away from teachers of the present toward a teacher of the past.14 But, however one may choose to conceptualize it, Shōtetsu's act signified a professional choice, with attendant religious overtones that will surprise no student of medieval poetry and that were by his time already conventional—the choice of affiliation with a number of earlier figures whose names are specifically mentioned in Shōtetsu monogatari, including Fujiwara no Shunzei, Tonna, and Yoshida no Kenkō, most conspicuously.15 These names also constituted a kind of authority, indeed an authority that claims to be transcendent in some ways.16 That Shōtetsu seeks to identify with them is evidence enough that he still thought of himself as a professional, although a professional of an ideologically higher order. For as Pierre Bourdieu notes in a consideration of “rites of institution,” the highest articulation of professional authority often involves what looks like self-sacrifice.17 I would argue that Shōtetsu's turn away from the professional factions of his time and toward Teika and his “spiritual” heirs was just such an act of symbolic sacrifice, a self-exclusion aimed at a kind of distinction that derives from the authority of religious ideals and the special status accorded to those who find themselves on the margins.18

If historical status may be elicited as a measure of success, one must say that Shōtetsu's bold act of self-exclusion paid off. For complex political reasons, he gained the support of powerful patrons such as Ichijō Kaneyoshi (1402-81) and was able to maintain a reputation for himself, especially among the military houses. One of the ironies of his career, however, is that he succeeded in one of the most vital of professional duties—namely, self-replication—most noticeably not in his genre of choice, the uta, but in linked verse, or renga. For among his students it was the renga masters Chiun (d. 1448), Sōzei (d. 1455), and Shinkei (1406-75) that gained greatest professional prominence, eventually going on to replicate themselves in a number of other masters, including most preeminently Inō Sōgi (1421-1502).

Since I have written at great length about the topic in other places, I will say only this about Sōgi's career: that he, like Shōtetsu, came from a commoner background; that he, too, began his professional life by entering a Buddhist monastery; and than then, after choosing renga poetry as a profession in his thirties, he went on through the usual steps of instruction and initiation to receive various certificates of authority and become a socially recognized master of linked verse with numerous students, some even among the old nobility.19 Although he is well known for his affiliation with the more conservative literary families at court, he also studied under several of Shōtetsu's students, with whom he had much in common professionally and whose reputations he did much to further during the course of a long and active career.20

Unlike Shōtetsu, Sōgi never repudiated the literary factions of his day, nor was he ever ostracized by patrons or clients for arrogance. To the contrary, one might almost say that he represents those who in Shōtetsu's words are content to make do with what the world calls “good enough.” But I would contend that at least one of his actions late in life constitutes a kind of self-exclusion that links him to Shōtetsu. I refer to his decision in the last month of 1489 to retire as Steward of the Shogunal Renga Master (sōshō)—an official sinecure granted by the shogun himself that brought with it financial rewards as well as social prestige—after less than two years in that office.21

To be sure, there may have been many factors that went in to Sōgi's decision, many of which the documents of the time do not reveal to us; but it is nonetheless clear that quitting the office that was the pinnacle of the renga profession after so short a stint was an act of self-exclusion. In a word, it was an act that declared to the world a kind of “retirement,” but a retirement that, when we see it in the light of his later activities, seems not to have signalled any withdrawal from the usual professional obligations. For during the years after his resignation, Sōgi, living much of the time in his cottage in northern Kyōto, was more active than ever before as a master involved in all the primary tasks of a literary professional: teaching, collecting, copying, composing, judging, supervising.22 Moreover, he was thoroughly involved in another activity that might also be considered an extension of his profession, and one—not by chance, I would argue—that he might not have been able to pursue so fully as Shogunal Master: namely, travel, which occupied fully half of his time from 1490 to 1502.23

So prominent is travel as a literary activity (and topos) in medieval literature that one can easily forget that not all poets actually spent much time on the road. Shōtetsu, for instance, seems to have stayed near home in Kyōto virtually all of his life; likewise, Sōgi's student Shōhaku was a sedentary type, as were most court poets. Sōgi, however, was on the road constantly, on journeys that took him everywhere from Shirakawa Barrier in the north to Dazaifu in the south. In his early years such travels had doubtless been a professional necessity, for travel was after all a way to meet patrons, to test competence, to do business. But the remarkable thing in Sōgi's case is that he continued traveling long after he could have settled into a lucrative literary practice in the capital, especially after his appointment as shogunal steward. In other words, I take his later travels to be less a product of necessity than of choice: again, a signal of his desire to gain an additional measure of quasi-religious authority, in his case via symbolic affiliation not with Teika or Shunzei, as had been true of Shōtetsu, but with other patron saints of poetry who were renowned as travelers—most importantly the monks Nōin (988-1050?) and Saigyō (1118-90).

Like Shōtetsu's condemnation of petty factionalism, then, I would argue that Sōgi's later travels—whatever their practical purposes—may be interpreted, along with his resignation as Shogunal Renga Master, as symbolically potent declarations of his professional ambitions. Retiring from the highest of bureaucratic offices, with attendant duties that would have kept him in the capital much of the time, was for Sōgi an act of self-exclusion that allowed him to play the professional role of mendicant, a kind of roving recluse. And this again was a step up to a higher order, a sacrifice that brought with it the promise of distinction.

After Sōgi, the poetic professions went through a series of transformations that paralleled changes taking place in Japanese society as a whole. Increased urbanization, economic diversification, rising rates of literary, and the advent of new publishing technologies opened up new fields of discourse as surely as they created new markets. Poetic institutions, in other words, could not remain untouched by social change. One of the results of all this was a new genre, haikai renku, a form of linked verse whose formal origins can be traced back to the linked verse of Sōgi but whose immediate associations in the 1600s were more plebeian. But the old genre of renga retained its importance in the highest social circles; and some other things, too, remained remarkably the same. Still students wanting to pursue poetry as an occupation studied under masters, still those masters served as figures of authority who constituted an élite cadre of specialists. Styles and stylistic trends changed, as did relationships between the cadres and other political and economic institutions, but poetic work in the early Edo period was still directed by socially sanctioned professionals.

The man we know as Matsuo Bashō—who is known in early records as Kiginsaku, Hanshichi, Tōshichirō, Tadaemon, Jinshichirō, and, most prominently, Munefusa—was born in the fourth decade of the Edo period, in the year 1644, near the castle town of Ueno in Iga province, the son of a wealthy landholder of samurai stock. We know virtually nothing of his life until his late teens, when he entered the service of Tōdō Yoshikiyo, heir of the Tōdō clan, feudal lords of Iga. Tradition says that he served on Yoshikiyo's kitchen staff, although no positive proof of that has ever been produced. In any case, for a young man of his background to enter into such service at one level or another was commonplace; and it was just as commonplace for one in such a situation to seek out an entrée into one of the artistic professions, as the young Munefusa, who had already shown a talent in haikai poetry, seems to have done.

Tōdō Yoshikiyo was an amateur haikai poet himself, who had taken the pen-name Sengin to declare his affiliation with Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705), one of the most prominent masters in nearby Kyōto. That Sengin and the young Munefusa should develop a special relationship was therefore only predictable. Probably through another local disciple of Kigin, Munefusa himself was affiliated with that Kyōto master, an adherent of the Teimon School of haikai. In 1666, he and his patron participated together in a linked verse sequence marking the anniversary of the deathdate of Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1653), Kigin's teacher. Thus Munefusa was poised to gain entry into haikai society.

In 1666, Sengin died, leaving his literary companion (who now called himself Sōbō, a pen-name created by simply reading the characters of Munefusa in Chinese instead of Japanese) bereft in more ways than one. For of equal significance to the emotional blow of losing a fellow poet was the blow of losing an employer and patron. Contrary to popular stories that have him wandering for some years trying to come to terms with the death of Sengin, he seems to have stayed in Ueno for the next four or five years, probably living with his family.

Although it seems certain that Munefusa continued composing poetry and that he remained in contact with Kigin, we do not know precisely what he did with his time during these years, that is, until 1672, when he presented a thirty-verse hokku awase as a votive offering to the Tenmangū Shrine in Ueno. No doubt that act had private significance as well; but to us it is important because such an offering was one of the conventional steps taken by those embarking upon the haikai profession. Before, he had remained something of an amateur; after 1672 he was clearly asking to be known as a professional haikai poet.

The steps the young poet took toward acquiring the full privileges of the profession were entirely “conventional” in the sense of that term employed by Bourdieu and other sociologists. First, he sought further instruction from Kigin, eventually receiving secret teachings that conferred upon him a socially recognized authority.24 Next, he left his hometown and went to a cultural center, in this case Edo, which was at the time still a young, lively, and open city where a young man could make a name for himself more easily than in Kyōto—a choice clearly dictated by professional ambitions.25 Then he did what Shōtetsu or Sōgi or Kigin would have counseled him to do: he practiced, in order to establish his reputation. Early on, he seems to have relied chiefly on acquaintances from Iga and other disciples of Kigin for the social connections necessary to gain access to sources of symbolic power. To make ends meet, he took several clerical jobs, one in the City Waterworks Department, another as the scribe to a senior poet.26 But records make it clear that his dedication was to haikai as a profession. By 1675, under the pen-name Tōsei, he was gaining recognition through his participation in haikai gatherings and representation in haikai anthologies and had even begun to attract students. Like most young poets of the time, he became a devotee of the Danrin school, headed by Nishiyama Sōin (1605-82). Although this was a decision some scholars want to see as deriving from purely artistic motivations, it seems undeniable that it was also a necessary move for a young poet seeking professional recognition.

In the spring of 1477, Tōsei held a thousand-verse gathering and probably put out his shingle as a sōshō, or “master.” By this time he was acting as judge and teacher, after shaving his head bonze-style, another symbolic act signaling his identity as a professional. In a word, then, he had achieved “mastery,” in all senses of that term. By 1680 he was living in the Nihonbashi area—a haven for haikai poets—and working full time as a tenja, or “marker,” a licensed haikai poet to whom work could be submitted for review and “marking” with judgments of excellence (ten). Most of his students were of course amateurs whose job in the economy of things was to provide him with a living; but a number of them were also becoming deshi or shitei, or in other words, disciples who would more obviously assure the social and cultural continuity that is essential to any professional group.

But in the winter of 1680 Tōsei did something that at first glance seems extraordinary: as noted at the beginning of this paper, he left Nihonbashi and took up residence in an area east of the river Sumida, giving up his nascent “practice” as a marker, an act that one scholar describes as tantamount to quitting the profession as a livelihood, another as an act of professional suicide.27 Concurrently, he also seems to have made what scholars characterize as other “departures” from the expected haikai pattern—turning away from the Danrin style, taking up the study of Daoism and Chinese poets, and even studying Zen under Butchō, a monk living nearby. Likewise, it was around this time that he developed new relationships with his chief students, relying on them more for material sustenance, but through an informal, less superficially “secular” mode of reciprocation that permitted both master and disciple to think of the relationship in more idealistic terms.28

The usual way to account for this turning point in Bashō's life is to see it as motivated by either stylistic or spiritual concerns, which in either case are understood as expressing a new “seriousness” of purpose—the kind of seriousness evident in a famous hokku composed by Tōsei that very year:

On a bare branch
                    a crow has settled down to roost.
In autumn dusk.(29)

This stark image is a powerful one, perhaps even powerful enough to tempt one toward a reading that sees the crow as the poet opting for an ascetic existence among the bare trees, a convenient metaphor for the modest “hut” with the plantain tree that would soon give its occupant the name Bashō. And no doubt his “retirement” did entail stylistic and spiritual changes that might be characterized as in some ways “de-professionalizing,” to use the terminology of a prominent sociologist.30 But I would like to depart from precedent and consider Tōsei's move across the river, his reincarnation as Bashō, as in fact a move that was from the beginning enabled, or made possible, by his profession. For despite the characterizations of most of his biographers, it is clear that after 1680 Bashō still depended upon haikai for his occupation. His new residence, belying its status as a hermitage (an), was not located off on a mountainside, but in the city; and he still had students—Sugiyama Sampū (1647-1732), Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707), Hattori Ransetsu (1654-1707), and others—who looked to him for guidance and were in financial terms absolutely essential to his continued practice.31 His act was not simply a capitulation, then, or an abandonment; it was, however, an act of self-exclusion, similar to the acts of self-exclusion that we saw in the careers of Shōtetsu and Sōgi and could find in the careers of many other poets before Bashō's time.

In this sense Bashō's retirement was a thoroughly professional act with implications that were no doubt communicated to the social world that was the only possible arena for his art—the world of haikai society, meaning poets, both amateur and professional, as well as patrons, publishers, scholars, and other consumers of his work. It was not, then, an unprecedented act, but one that I believe the profession allowed for: a turn away from the commercial toward what ideologically were understood as the higher goals of the aesthetic and the religious, but which was also an attempt to gain greater esteem in the professional world, to reach a place reached by only a few. In a word, it was a way to reach out for fame, although a kind of fame that was always vouchsafed under a rule of modesty and self-effacement.

To those who study patterns of professionals and their institutions, such a characterization of Bashō's action may not be surprising. As one scholar, speaking for many others, says, it is routine for professions to define themselves in ways that pretend to “transcend the self-interest of business and market relations.”32 But for reasons that are equally transparent, literary scholars have been reluctant to analyze writers in terms of the social institutions that enable their work, assuming instead that their subjects of study should be understood individually, as isolated “artists” rather than as members of preconstituted communities.33 Thus Shōtetsu, Sōgi, and Bashō often appear in literary histories as hermits in huts, bent over their writing desks in pursuit of a private inspiration that sets them apart from their contemporaries, producing “works” that are seldom analyzed in ways that relate to the concrete conditions of their professional practice.

With others, I would argue that there are many reasons to reject such a solipsistic view of literary work in any genre. But in the case of Bashō the reasons for abandoning such a view are particularly compelling. For Bashō's genre of haikai renku—a form of “linked verse” that was composed by anywhere from two ot a dozen or so participants in a communal setting—was an art form that quite literally could not be pursued in the absence of a social context. Obscuring this fact, scholars even today tend to concentrate on Bashō's hokku rather than on his sequences; but any study of his life must deal with the fact that much of his professional time was spent pursuing his art in concert with other people—professionals and laymen, of necessity. And, as said above, this was as true after his move to Fukagawa as it had been before. That he stopped working as a tenja did not mean that he stopped practicing as a poet. And we can be certain that his students, both amateur and professional, saw his choice to move out of Nihonbashi as a step up and not a step out. Indeed, I would maintain that his move may be understood as an instance of what those in the highest ranks of a profession are often wont to do, i.e., to test their competence in a wider arena, and by so doing to claim a transcendent status for themselves and their occupations.34

Records of Bashō's life make the social dimensions of his existence abundantly clear to the student who looks beyond his “works” as mere representations of stylistic ideals to what they reveal about his practice.35 But perhaps the most direct way to approach the subject is to examine his travel journals. For he wrote more of these—six, in fact—than any other major haikai poet; and, significantly, all of them were written after his retirement as tenja, indicating that for some reason—a professional one, I will argue—he felt the need to invest a good part of his time and much of his newly metamorphosed identity in life on the road. For these reasons the travel journals recommend themselves as useful resources for study of Bashō the professional.

The first of Bashō's extended journeys began in 1684, the autumn and winter of which he spent travelling from Edo to Ise, Yoshino, Nara, Kyōto,Ōgaki, Nagoya, returning to Edo via Kiso and Kai in the late spring of 1685. The next two years he spent in Edo, setting out again in the eighth month of 1687 to visit Kashima in the east, with Sora (1649-1710) and other disciples accompanying him, returning in the twelfth month of the same year. Over the next seven years until his death in 1694, other journeys—some shorter, some longer—took him everywhere from his hometown of Ueno in the Kansai to Matsushima and Sado in the north. Like Sōgi, he therefore quite literally spent half of his last years on the road, returning to Edo only for short visits, proving that, as he says at the beginning of a journal written in 1689, he had indeed fallen “prey to wanderlust some years ago, desiring nothing better than to be a vagrant cloud scudding before the wind.”36 He died—quite fortuitously—inŌsaka, in borrowed rooms, surrounded by disciples.

Bashō's earliest travel record, which he named Nozarashi kikō, or “Exposure in the Fields,” was written in 1685, as a chronicle of his first journey alluded to above. It was followed by Kashima kikō (A Journey to Kashima) in 1687, Oi no kobumi (Backpack Notes) in 1688, Sarashina kikō (A Journey to Sarashina) in 1689, and Oku no hosomichi (The Narrow Road of the Interior) in 1694. Saga nikki (Saga Diary), written in 1691, is the slim record of a few months spent in the Saga area of Kyōto in the early summer of that year. Thus while he stopped short of recording all of his wanderings, the extant travel writings taken together tell us much about his literary practice during his final years.

On a first reading, these records seem to reveal little that is useful to the student of Bashō as a professional. The focus is more on poems and on the aesthetic experience they represent than on the social circumstances in which those poems were created. Some pages, such as the following from Nozarashi kikō, in fact do little but record hokku with brief introductory notes of the sort found in imperial poetry and anthologies.

Chanted on the road into Nagoya:
          A madcap verse:
          A wind-battered tree—
          such is my body, just like
                    old Chikusai's.
          Grass for my pillow:
          Is that a dog, weeping with the rain?
          A voice in the night.
Walking around looking at the snow:
          Hey, you townspeople!
          Let me sell you this straw hat—
          a hat made of snow.
Seeing a traveler:
          Even a horse
                    gets a stare—when snow is falling
                              in the morning.
Spending a day at the beach:
          The sea grows more dark—
          the voices of the ducks sounding faintly white.(37)

Here, in patterns familiar to any student of Japanese poetry, we confront a record that reduces experience to the slim figures of a highly aestheticized response to natural scenes. And those same patterns are repeated constantly in the other travel records. Predictably, then, there are allusions to old poems, old places, and old poets and historical figures, along with some references to other sights along the road; but, just as predictably, overt references to the professional activities of Bashō's itinerary are scarce. In fact, reading the following passages from the beginnings of four of his most famous records one might conclude that the only motivation he admits to is a desire to see that most poetic of sights, the moon:

“Setting out on a thousand-mile trek, I have no provisions for the road—casting my lot with the emptiness of the midnight moon.” So said the man of old whose staff I took as my support as I left my hut by the river in the eighth month of the first year of Jōkyō.38

Nozarashi kikō

It seems that when Teishitsu of Kyōto went to see the moon at Suma Bay, he said this: “In a pine's shade / beneath the fifteenth moon— / the Middle Counselor.” With fondness for that same madman of old, I decided this autumn to go and see the moon in the mountains of Kashima.39

Kashima mōde

Swayed into action by the importunings of the autumn wind, I set out to see Sarashina Village and the moon over Mount Obasute …40

Sarashina kikō

I myself fell prey to wanderlust some years ago, desiring nothing better than to be a vagrant cloud scudding before the wind. Only last autumn, after having drifted along the seashore for a time, had I swept away the old cobwebs from my dilapidated riverside hermitage. But the year ended and before I knew it, I found myself looking at hazy spring skies and thinking of crossing Shirakawa Barrier. … By the time I had mended my torn trousers, put a new cord on my hat, and cauterized my legs with moxa, I was thinking only of the moon at Matsushima.41

Oku no hosomichi

Remote and ethereal, the moon is a perfect object of contemplation, as countless earlier poets had proven. To say that the desire to enjoy its light is the foremost motivation for any activity is to claim a familiar dedication to concerns that are almost wholly aesthetic.

Almost—but not all. For we should note that the same declaration also proclaims an affiliation with earlier poets, including Saigyō and Sōgi and a host of others whose names Bashō drops repeatedly. And in other ways too Bashō's travel records contain glimpses of the professional affiliations that formed the primary material and social context of his travels. As had been true in the age of Sōgi, going on the road was for any poet a way to renew acquaintances with old students and patrons, as well as create new ones. And if this makes him sound like an oroshiya, or traveling salesman, I would submit that the comparison is not entirely unfortunate. For we should not allow the aesthetic preoccupations of the verses from Nozarashi kikō quoted above to obscure the fact that at least three of them were originally the hokku, or “initiating verses,” for full sequences, composed in linking sessions in which Bashō served as master, supervising a few of his traveling companions and local amateurs of the merchant and samurai classes who were clearly patrons.42 Nor should we in our rush to get to the poems simply pass over passages like the following from Oku no hosomichi:

At Obanazawa, we called on Seifū, a man whose tastes were not vulgar despite his wealth. As a frequent visitor to the capital, he understood what it meant to be a traveler, and kept us for several days, trying in many kind ways to make us forget the hardships of the long journey.43

Precisely what Bashō means by saying that his patron Seifū (1615-1721), whom other sources describe as a dealer in silk, tobacco, rice, and dyes with the lay name of Suzuki, “understood what it meant to be a traveler” we cannot be sure; but surely as a traveling poet Bashō expected to be welcomed—with rest, lodging, and food, at the least. And we can be sure that there were expectations of Seifū's side as well. While in Obanazawa Bashō would engage in his occupation by acting as master of the art in sessions involving Seifū and other local poets and patrons. Of these sessions we have only fragments, but fragments not so small as to disguise all that is behind them—namely, the patterns of Bashō's poetic practice.44

None of this surprises students of Bashō's life, of course; scholars have always known that Bashō visited patrons on the road, and that as a poet he was involved in the world of commerce. My point in drawing attention to these activities in this specific context, however, is to argue that Bashō's reticence in treating worldly matters in his travel records, and his corresponding attention to legend, history, and aesthetic experience, result less from happenstance or personal style than from a professional imperative that is somewhat predictable. His “style,” in other words, is predetermined by a code inherited from the past—from Shōtetsu, Sōgi, and a host of others—but also observable in other times and places, a code that requires those at the true pinnacle of the profession to represent themselves as operating from “high motives of altruism, or glory, or of moral, spiritual or aesthetic commitment, rather than for mundane gain.” Not surprisingly, this “ideological covering” is seen rather routinely in many professions until this day.45

Now, this same ideology is of course observable in Bashō's activities back in Edo as well. But it is in the nature of travel records—especially so in their prose sections—to reveal both more cracks in the aesthetic surface and more overt statements of professional ideology, as in the following from the beginning of Oi no kobumi:

Within the hundred bones and nine orifices of my body is something that I will give the name Furabō—“the Monk of Gossamer on the Wind”: which is to say that it is a thin fabric easily torn by the wind. Since long ago Furabō has loved mad verses, eventually making them the means of its way through life. Sometimes it grew tired of poetry and almost cast it aside; other times it was caught up in pride, thinking it had triumphed over others. In its breast a conflict raged, for which its body suffered. For a while it sought to establish itself, but was prevented; then it studied in order to realize its ignorance, only to be defeated once more, ending up following—without skill, without talent—this one lone way. The waka of Saigyō, the renga of Sōgi, the paintings of Sesshū, the tea of Rikyū—the thing that runs through all of these is one and the same. For elegance follows creation, befriends the four seasons. What it sees—never is that not a flower; what is thinks of—never is that not the moon. If the form be not a flower—that is the same as being a barbarian; if the heart be not a flower—that is to be among the birds and beasts. Go out from among the barbarians, depart from the beasts! Follow creation, return to creation.46

Any student who has thought about professions as social institutions will not miss the signs of special pleading at work in this famous passage, in which the poet presents himself—in terms that almost deny him any volition in the matter—as dedicated to beauty, to the great poets of the past and their high ideals, and to the ultimate legitimizing power of nature, while failing to make any mention of the more mundane features of his practice. Nor will that student be surprised to read the sentence and poem that immediately follow the passage:

At the beginning of the godless month the skies were unsettled, and I felt like a leaf on the wind, destination unknown.

A traveler—
by that name will I be called,
amidst first showers.(47)

It need hardly be said that the definition of travel presented here is central to Bashō's professional aspirations. As Bourdieu might say, the amount one is ready to “suffer” is the measure of one's commitment—acknowledged or not. Clearly, Bashō was ready to “accept the sacrifices that are implied by privilege.”48 His devotion to the profession—or at least to its idealized image—was total. Another passage—this one from Oku no hosomichi—says it all:

We lodged the night at Iizuka … Thunder rumbled during the night, and rain fell in torrents. What with the roof leaking right over my head and the fleas and mosquitoes biting, I got no sleep at all. To make matters worse, my old complaint flared up, causing me such agony that I almost fainted.

At long last, the short night ended and we set out again. Still feeling the effects of the night, I rode a rented horse to Kōri post-station. It was unsettling to fall prey to an infirmity while so great a distance remained ahead. But I told myself that I had deliberately planned this long pilgrimage to remote areas, a decision that meant renouncing worldly concerns and facing the fact of life's uncertainty. If I were to die on the road—very well, that would be Heaven's decree.49

There is no reason to doubt the reality of the pain that Bashō describes here, nor the strength of the resolve that he articulates, any more than there is a reason to deny the power and beauty of his poems, whatever their status as part of his practice. But we should at least recognize that what he is communicating, to his own students, as well as to the whole haikai profession and beyond, is a particular kind of resolve that is ideologically significant: a professional resolve that is meant to connect him with the élite of the past and to show his worthiness to be counted in their number in the present. For such dedication was virtually a prerequisite for anyone aspiring to ultimate fame. What looks like self-denial, even if the self-denial is sincere, even if it is self-delusion—is in fact, then, also a claim for special status. Travel in the late seventeenth century was not as dangerous as it had been for Sōgi; but it was, in ideological terms, still a rite of passage that had to be represented as entailing hardship.

It is important to note that going on the road did, quite literally, involve trials: professional rites of passage need not be empty of real challenge in order to function as rites of passage. To borrow the words of Samuel Weber writing about professionals of another time and place, the road was an arena of real struggle—“the struggle to assimilate the shocks and intrusions of experience” according to conventions.50 But the point is that the trials were not an impediment to Bashō's purposes; they were part and parcel of those purposes. Thus, as he traveled, Bashō's competence as a master of poetry was continually tested—in linking sessions where he had to show his leadership skills, his command of rules and conventions, and his creative capacities in a way that justified both the appropriateness of his position as a professional and the appropriateness of his companions as disciples or laymen; in encounters with famous places that demanded skillful poetic responses, in addition to a thorough knowledge of the responses of predecessors in the profession; and, not least importantly, in the conversion of the raw material of experience into a travel journal that would be judged against earlier works as part of the attempt for lasting reputation. In this sense, a knowledge of the patterns of professional conventions that gave structure to his practice is no more sufficient to explain his place in history than is a knowledge of the rules of his genre of linked verse sufficient to account for the excellence of his poetry. But noting those patterns—patterns almost never explicitly revealed—is still worthwhile for the new vantage point it affords those concerned with Bashō and his world.

What, then, can an analysis of Bashō as a professional offer? First, it can help us see the patterns of his existence in terms of the institutions in which he participated. Remembering that he was a professional whose practice was in many ways like the practice of other professionals may help us understand his existence more completely. It may help us to see that his poems and other writings were not produced or read solely as aesthetic artifacts, but also as statements of status within a literary community that was socially constituted, with its own agendas. It will also show that his “works”—meaning the artifacts he left behind—should not be regarded as fully identical with his practice. Every linked-verse sequence was in the beginning a social event, albeit one that often remains for us impossible to reconstruct fully.

So the profession Bashō chose for himself was constituted by stratifications and hierarchies within which he opted at a certain point for the ultimate distinction, probably knowing the challenges and loyalties such a choice would entail. Among other things, this means that we cannot agree with those who see a desire for freedom—at least in the naive sense—as the true motive for his travels any more than we can see a desire for freedom as the motive behind his decision to leave Nihonbashi for Fukagawa.51 In fact, his motive in going on the road may have been, in a way, the opposite—to exert authority symbolically and materially, bringing new students under his sway and subjecting new spaces to his power.52 He was, after all, a Master. And this also means that we should not be surprised to find him adopting a conservative attitude on important literary issues of his day, explaining why, in contrast to Saikaku, for instance, he turned so resolutely away from the new urban market that increasingly demanded literature as entertainment rather than a tool for the education of the sensibility; or why he adhered so steadfastly to the classical canon of aristocratic literature, condemning as vulgar even recent poets in his own genre such as Matsunaga Teitoku and Nishiyama Sōin.53

Finally, to return to his travel records. I believe that a consideration of Bashō's place in the literary hierarchy of his day will help us see his “mastery” in terms that situate him and his profession more clearly in the discourses of his time. His insistence on the identity of rice-planting songs with the larger poetic tradition, his careful noting of the unexpected refinement of village urchins or farmwives, his praise for the inherent honesty of innkeepers or rural guides: all of these things, viewed in the context of the strategies that legitimized his profession, will be seen no longer as quaint characterizations or vehicles of style but rather as articulations of a conservative discourse whose genealogy can be traced back at least as far as Ki no Tsurayuki. Not surprisingly, the perceived contours of that discourse succeeded in keeping poetry out of debates—overtly, at least—on politics, ethics, and other issues of value by granting it a place “outside” the realm of more “engaged” discourses. Judging from the way Bashō and other professional poets are still analyzed, one must say that that strategy has succeeded. For scholars dealing with literary texts—and I include myself here—have long resisted the idea of “reducing” poetry to the status of political rhetoric of the sort one finds in the “popular” media.54 But to deny poetry any place in the larger discourses of its time is simply to deny its power in another way. Bashō and other poets do their best to keep their art safely in the margins, exempt from certain kinds of scrutiny, almost demanding to be viewed by what Bourdieu calls the “pure gaze”,55 if we insist on leaving it there—leaving the crow in his bare tree—we end up having to ignore the implications of statements like this, taken from a description of his 1689 visit to Nikkō, the funeral shrine of the reigning Tokugawa clan:

On the first day of the fourth month, we went to worship at the shrine. In antiquity, the name of that holy mountain was written Nikōsan [Two-Storm Mountain], but the Great Teacher Kūkai changed it to Nikkō [Sunlight] when he founded the temple. It is almost as though the Great Teacher had been able to see a thousand years into the future, for today the shrine's radiance extends throughout the realm, its beneficence overflows in the eight directions, and the four classes of people dwell in security and peace. This is an awesome subject of which I shall write no more.

Ah, awesome sight!
On summer leaves and spring leaves,
the radiance of the sun!(56)

The trees here, so to speak, are not bare, but full of social and ideological significance. Is this an endorsement of the shogunal institution? Of its dogmas? Perhaps so; perhaps not. The question of course needs further analysis. I am suggesting that one way to begin this process is to say, first, that Bashō the professional poet must have recognized an ideologically constituted affiliation with the Great Teacher, and, second, that study of the dynamics of other professions should make us pay special attention when any professional marks a subject so holy that about it he will “write no more.” I do this not to debunk but to demystify, or in other words, to begin to understand the socio-economic world in which Bashō operated as a poet, and the ideological and social dimensions of his professional work in ways not dominated by those traces we are accustomed to calling his art.


  1. Ueda Makoto, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1992), 53.

  2. I have found the following helpful in thinking through the question of how the term “professional” might be conceptualized when applied to late medieval and early modern Japan: Magali Sarfatti Larson, The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1977): Michael Burrage and Rolf Torstendahl, Professions in Theory and History: Rethinking the Study of the Professions (London: Sage Publications, 1990); Samuel Weber, Institution and Interpretation (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987); Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, tr. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991); idem. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, tr. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984).

  3. Bashō's consciousness of Sōgi as a model is apparent in his famous hokku:

    To grow old is enough—
    and then to have to watch showers
    from Sōgi's hut.

    and from references in his travel records. See below.

  4. Weber, 25.

  5. Robert H. Brower and Steven D. Carter, Conversations with Shōtetsu (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, Univ. of Michigan, 1992), 142.

  6. Ibid., 119.

  7. Ibid., 104.

  8. Ibid., 122.

  9. Ibid., 144.

  10. Ibid., 147.

  11. See ibid., 26-30, for details.

  12. One could argue that this step was not available in the same way for courtier poets, whose role in the bureaucratic system made withdrawal professionally impossible. For an analysis of the phenomenon of “semi-reclusion” in Japanese Zen that helps make sense of Shōtetsu's actions, see Joseph D. Parker, “The Hermit at Court: Reclusion in Early Fifteenth-Century Japanese Zen Buddhism,” Journal of Japanese Studies, 21.1 (1995).

  13. Brower and Carter, 61-62.

  14. Steven D. Carter, “‘Seeking What the Masters Sought’: Masters, Disciples, and Poetic Enlightenment in Late Medieval Japan,” The Distant Isle: Studies and Translations of Japanese Literature in Honor of Robert H. Brower (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, Univ. of Michigan, 1996).

  15. Although both Tonna and Kenkō were opponents in the sense that they were devotees of the Nijō school at court, Shōtetsu—predictably—shows respect for both as professionals. See Carter and Brower, 68, 95-96, 105-6, 163.

  16. Stylistically, this transcendence may have a correlative in the ideal of yūgen, or “mystery and depth,” that Shōtetsu argues “is something that cannot possibly be explained in words or distinguished clearly in the mind.” Brower and Carter, 161-62.

  17. Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, 117-26.

  18. Ibid.

  19. See Steven D. Carter, Three Poets at Yuyama (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, Univ. of California, 1983), 12-34.

  20. Sōgi studied with both Sōzei and Shinkei. In the 1470s he put together an anthology of linked verse by those and several other prominent students of Shōtetsu's, entitled Chikurinshō. That a disciple of the conservative Tō no Tsuneyori (1401-84) should undertake such a labor on behalf of poets such as Shinkei who were of the opposite camp is further evidence of the way professional loyalties often transcend philosophical or stylistic differences.

  21. Earlier commissioners had stayed much longer, Sōzei for six years, Nōa (1397-1471) for fourteen years, and Sōi (1418-85) for at least a decade. Sōgi's successor, Kensai (1452-1510), also held the office for more than a decade.

  22. His last personal collections appeared in 1496 and 1499, and Shinsen tsukubashū (The New Tsukuba Collection)—an imperially commissioned anthology for which Sōgi was given chief responsibility—was submitted for imperial review in 1495. During his final years he also taught a number of students, lectured in the capital and in the provinces on the court classics, and continued to act as master at numerous linked verse sessions.

  23. His travels took him to Settsu,Ōmi, Echigo, Echizen, Kii, and also the Kantō.

  24. The date given for transmission of the secrets is 1674.

  25. Yonetani Iwao, “Bashō to sono jidai,” in Bashō, ed. Imoto Nōichi, vol. 28 of Kanshō Nihon koten bungaku (Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 1975), 436.

  26. Takano Yūzan (d. 1702).

  27. See Abe Masami, 465, 472, and Kon Eizō, “Bashō no seikaku,” in Bashō kushū, vol. 51 of Shinchō nihon koten shūsei (Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 1982), 366.

  28. It appears, for instance, that his disciples literally provided him with a “hut” and with food—as gifts rather than “payments.”

  29. Matsuo bashō shū, ed. Imoto Nōichi et al., vol. 41 of Nihon koten bungaku zenshū (Tokyo: Shōgakkan, 1972), 61.

  30. See Randal Collins, “Market Closure and the Conflict Theory of the Professions,” in Burrage and Torstendahl, 26-29.

  31. We know that by 1683 Bashō was living in a tenement apartment—still referred to as a hut—purchased by students.

  32. Weber, 27.

  33. The desire to grant writers independence from socio-political contests may of course arise from a desire for a similar status among scholars themselves. See Scott Wilson, Cultural Materialism: Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995), 4-8.

  34. Cf. Weber and Collins.

  35. To conflate practice with artifacts is particularly constricting in the case of haikai poets, whose “works” amount to only a skeletal record of their professional activities.

  36. Helen Craig McCullough, tr., “The Narrow Road of the Interior,” in Classical Japanese Prose (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1990), 522.

  37. Tr. Carter.

  38. Tr. Carter.

  39. Tr. Carter. Teishitsu (1610-73) was a disciple of Matsunaga Teitoku (1571-1653). The “Middle Counselor” of his poem refers to Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893), the author of a famous poem about Suma.

  40. Tr. Carter.

  41. McCullough, 522.

  42. The first verse was composed for a session involving the Nagoya merchants Jūgo (d. 1717), Yasui (d. 1743), and Tokoku (d. 1690); the third verse for one involving hōgetsu; and the last one for one involving Tōyō (d. 1712), a rich man of Atsuta City. One of Bashō's companions at the time was Boku'in (1646-1725), a wealthy shipper from nearby Ōgaki.

  43. McCullough, 539.

  44. Bashō records four hokku written during his time with Seifū, three by himself and one by Sora. We know from other sources that he also participated in a number of haikai renku sequences.

  45. See Collins, 35.

  46. Tr. Carter.

  47. Tr. Carter.

  48. Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, 122.

  49. McCullough, 531.

  50. Weber, 23.

  51. Yonetani, 441.

  52. See Weber, 18-32, for an analysis of professional conventions that draws on Peirce and Freud to see those conventions as a means of combat anxiety and the fear involved in confrontations with alterity.

  53. For Bashō's criticisms of Saikaku, see Yonetani, 442. No doubt the career of Saikaku, too, could be analyzed in the context of professional patterns, but it seems clear that in opting for the new genre of “fiction” he was openly embracing commerce in ways that Bashō did not. For an article that deals with a similar historical period and similar professional choices, see Siegfried J. Schmidt, “Conventions and Literary Systems,” in Rules and Conventions, ed. Mette Hjort (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992).

  54. I should admit also a desire to avoid two other kinds of reductivism pointed out by Michael Burrage, Konrad Jarausch, and Hannes Siegrist, in “An actor-based framework for the study of the professions,” an essay included in Burrage and Torstendahl. The first they describe as a tendency, derived from naive readings of Foucault, to treat “the professions as ‘a field of discourse’, as though they were dominated by disciplinary concerns and never had to practice their profession” (p. 216). The second, not unrelated to the first, is to treat professionals as mere agents of repression who enjoy “excessive power and privileges” and whose “ethical codes are bogus and a cover for the pursuit of their material interests and so on” (p. 223).

  55. See Bourdieu, Distinction.

  56. McCullough, 525.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 380


Aitken, Robert. A Zen Wave: Bashō's Haiku and Zen. New York: Weatherhill, 1978, 192 p.

Translation of Bashō's Zen poetry; includes a brief biography and notes on the haiku form.

Chamberlain, Basil Hall. “Bashō and the Japanese Poetical Epigram.” Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan XXX (1902): 241-362.

First comprehensive study of Bashō's poetry in English. Offers some insightful comments, but maintains that Japanese verse falls short of the greatness found in English poetry.

Fujikawa, Fumiko. “The Influence of Tu Fu on Bashō.” Monumenta Nipponica 20, Nos. 3/4 (1965): 374-88.

Examines Bashō's indebtedness to the Chinese poet Tu Fu as revealed in phrases and imagery from the poems and the poet's own comments.

Kawamoto, Koji. “Bashō's Haiku and Tradition.” Comparative Literature Studies 26, No. 3 (1989): 245-51.

Examines how the haiku can function as a serious poetic work, and compares its use of tradition to that of Western poets, including T. S. Eliot.

———. “The Use and Disuse of Tradition in Bashō's Haiku and Imagist Poetry.” Poetics Today 20, No. 4 (1999): 709-21.

Comparative stylistic and semiotic analysis of representative works by Bashō and the European Imagist poets.

Miner, Earl. Naming Properties: Nominal Reference in Travel Writings by Bashō and Sora, Johnson and Boswell. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996, 319 p.

Compares the travel writings of the Japanese poets Bashō and Sora and English writers Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.

Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998, 381 p.

Detailed study of Bashō's life and works, touching on his poetic development, poetic ideals, linked verse technique, use of haiku as poetic dialogue, and reception in the West.

Terry, Patricia. “Mallarmé and Bashō.” In Mallarmé in the Twentieth Century, edited by Robert Greer Cohn, pp. 264-73. Madison, Wis.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.

Notes that Bashō and the French poet had in common their lofty aspiration for poetry.

Ueda, Makoto. Bashō and his Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, compiled and translated by Makoto Ueda, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992, 458 p.

Presents 255 representative haiku by Bashō, each with accompanying critical commentary from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Additional coverage of Bashō's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: DISCovering Authors: Modules—Poets Module; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 3.

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