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.
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.
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.
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.