No poet in Japan has had a greater effect upon his contemporaries or his posterity or has been accorded greater acclaim and honor than Matsuo Bash. Throughout Japan, wherever his poetic wanderings took him there are stone memorials, more than three hundred altogether, inscribed with his compositions and many mounds believed to contain objects he owned. Although his remains were buried in a Buddhist temple, on his centennial and sesquicentennial anniversaries he was deified in at least three Shinto shrines, one of which was actually named after two of the words in his famous poem:
Furu-ike yaKawazu tobi-komuMizu no oto.
Many have tried it, but no one has successfully translated this poem. However, it seems to refer to the sound of the water when a frog jumps into a pond. Thus, the name of the shrine might be translated as “Shrine of the Jump-sound.”
Born the third (some say the second) son of a warrior family, Bash not only studied haikai poetry, but also read widely in the Japanese and Chinese classics and poetry. He was a student of Zen Buddhism, calligraphy, and painting, and had at one time been a student of Taoism and of medicine. With this rich and varied background Bash, after a few youthful indiscretions common to his age and society, developed into a man of high virtue, possibly because of the shock he experienced at the death of his feudal lord and fellow poet, the privations he met during his wanderings, and his serious studies in Zen Buddhism.
Haikai, the origins of which may be traced back to the very beginnings of Japanese poetry, developed from a form in which a series of seventeen-syllable verse were linked together. During the middle of the sixteenth century, this form split into the seventeen-syllable haiku and linked verse (renga), the former a humorous, sometimes bawdy, type of epigram. By the middle of the seventeenth century, haiku had again split into two schools, one emphasizing the form itself, the other seeking greater freedom for the expression of wit and the unusual at the expense of form. Ibara Saikaku (q.v.) was in his verse a follower of the latter school. Neither school, however, produced superior poetry.
Bash lived in a peaceful period following a century of wars and internecine strife. More than half a century before, Ieyasu had unified Japan under the rule of his house. The warriors who had fought under him and their descendants now were busy with peaceful enterprises. There was also a rising moneyed class made up of merchants in the urban trading centers of Osaka and Edo, now Tokyo. The concentration of power and resources in the shogunate, the concentration of cash money among the merchants, the philosophical clashes between the rigid codes of feudal loyalty on the one hand and the power of money on the other, and peaceful times, produced three of the greatest literary figures in Japanese history almost at the same time. Bash was the poet among them, and the only one who forsook material wealth for matters of the spirit.
In 1666, when Bash...
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