(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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


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Harold Gould Henderson (essay date 1934)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 3635 words.)

R. H. Blyth (essay date 1951)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 2040 words.)

R. H. Blyth (essay date 1963)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 4640 words.)

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 10134 words.)

Nobuyuki Yuasa (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 10029 words.)

James H. Foard (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Lucien Stryk (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 3111 words.)

David L. Barnhill (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 9414 words.)

Sam Hamill (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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....

(The entire section is 1739 words.)

David Barnhill (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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,...

(The entire section is 8964 words.)

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Haruo Shirane (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 10978 words.)

Steven D. Carter (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 …...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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....

(The entire section is 380 words.)