History of Literature


Eastern Literature

Japanese Literature

Matsuo Basho

Basho's Haiku

Matsuo Basho



Bashō, in full Matsuo Bashō, pseudonym of Matsuo Munefusa (b. 1644, Ueno, Iga province, Japan—d. Nov. 28, 1694, Ōsaka), the supreme Japanese haiku poet, who greatly enriched the 17-syllable haiku form and made it an accepted medium of artistic expression.

Interested in haiku from an early age, Bashō at first put his literary interests aside and entered the service of a local feudal lord. After his lord’s death in 1666, however, Bashō abandoned his samurai (warrior) status to devote himself to poetry. Moving to the capital city of Edo (now Tokyo), he gradually acquired a reputation as a poet and critic. In 1679 he wrote his first verse in the “new style” for which he came to be known:

On a withered branch

A crow has alighted:

Nightfall in autumn.

The simple descriptive mood evoked by this statement and the comparison and contrast of two independent phenomena became the hallmark of Bashō’s style. He attempted to go beyond the stale dependence on form and ephemeral allusions to current gossip that had been characteristic of haiku, which in his day had amounted to little but a popular literary pastime. Instead he insisted that the haiku must be at once unhackneyed and eternal. Following the Zen philosophy he studied, Bashō attempted to compress the meaning of the world into the simple pattern of his poetry, disclosing hidden hopes in small things and showing the interdependence of all objects.

In 1684 Bashō made the first of many journeys that figure so importantly in his work. His accounts of his travels are prized not only for the haiku that record various sights along the way but also for the equally beautiful prose passages that furnish the backgrounds. Oku no hosomichi (1694; The Narrow Road to the Deep North), describing his visit to northern Japan, is one of the loveliest works of Japanese literature.

On his travels Bashō also met local poets and competed with them in composing the linked verse (renga), an art in which he so excelled that some critics believe his renga were his finest work. When Bashō began writing renga the link between successive verses had generally depended on a pun or play on words, but he insisted that poets must go beyond mere verbal dexterity and link their verses by “perfume,” “echo,” “harmony,” and other delicately conceived criteria.

One term frequently used to describe Bashō’s poetry is sabi, which means the love of the old, the faded, and the unobtrusive, a quality found in the verse

Scent of chrysanthemums . . .

And in Nara

All the ancient Buddhas.

Here the musty smell of the chrysanthemums blends with the visual image of the dusty, flaking statues in the old capital. Living a life that was in true accord with the gentle spirit of his poetry, Bashō maintained an austere, simple hermitage that contrasted with the general flamboyance of his times. On occasion he withdrew from society altogether, retiring to Fukagawa, site of his Bashō-an (“Cottage of the Plantain Tree”), a simple hut from which the poet derived his pen name. Later men, honouring both the man and his poetry, revered him as the saint of the haiku.

The Narrow Road to Oku (1996), Donald Keene’s translation of Oku no hosomichi, provides the original text and a modern-language version by Kawabata Yasunari. The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat and Other Poetry of the Basho School (1981), a translation by Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri, presents a celebrated linked-verse sequence in which Bashō took part, along with a commentary.



Basho Matsuo

(1644 - 1694)

Basho Matsuo is known as the first great poet in the history of haikai (and haiku).

He too, wrote poems using jokes and plays upon words in his early stages, as they were in fashion, but began to attach importance to the role of thought in haikai (especially in hokku) from around 1680.

The thought of Tchouang-tseu, philosopher in the 4th century B.C., influenced greatly Basho, and he often quoted the texts of "The Book of master Tchouang" in his hokkus.

The thinker Tchouang-tseu denied the artificiality and the utilitarianism, seeing value of intellect low. He asserted that things seemingly useless had the real value, and that it was the right way of life not to go against the natural law.

To a leg of a heron
Adding a long shank
Of a pheasant.


This poem parodied the following text in "The Book of master Tchouang": "When you see a long object, you don't have to think that it is too long if being long is the property given by the nature. It is proved by the fact that a duckling, having short legs, will cry if you try to draw them out by force, and that a crane, having long legs, will protest you with tears if you try to cut them with a knife."

By playing on purpose in this haiku an act "jointing legs of birds by force" which Tchouang denied, he showed the absurdity of this act and emphasized the powerlessness of the human being's intelligence humorously.

Basho's haikus are dramatic, and they exaggerate humor or depression, ecstasy or confusion. These dramatic expressions have a paradoxical nature. The humor and the despair which he expressed are not implements to believe in the possibility of the human being and to glorify it. If anything, the literature of Basho has a character that the more he described men's deeds, the more human existence's smallness stood out in relief, and it makes us conscious of the greatness of nature's power.

The wind from Mt. Fuji
I put it on the fan.
Here, the souvenir from Edo.

Edo: the old name of Tokyo..

Sleep on horseback,
The far moon in a continuing dream,
Steam of roasting tea.

Spring departs.
Birds cry
Fishes' eyes are filled with tears

Summer zashiki
Make move and enter
The mountain and the garden.

zashiki: Japanese-style room covered with tatamis and open to the garden.

What luck!
The southern valley
Make snow fragrant.

A autumn wind
More white
Than the rocks in the rocky mountain.

From all directions
Winds bring petals of cherry
Into the grebe lake.

Even a wild boar
With all other things
Blew in this storm.

The crescent lights
The misty ground.
Buckwheat flowers.

Bush clover in blossom waves
Without spilling
A drop of dew.

Originally, Basho didn't write the poem "To a leg of a heron..." as a hokku, but as one of verses in a haikai-renga.
This verse suggests the intention to laugh at himself: "What a stupid deed like drawing out a heron's leg it is to product one more series of haikai! Because it is produced so often."

Ryu Yotsuya




Type of work: Verse and poetic prose
Author: Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)
First published: 1672-1748


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 Basho. 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 ya
Kawazu tobi-komu
Mizu no oto.

Many have tried, but no one has successfully translated this poem, which refers 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, Basho 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 Basho, 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 poems or stanzas 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. Neither school, however, produced superior poetry.
Basho 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. Basho was the poet among them, and the only one who renounced material wealth for matters of the spirit.
In 1666, when Basho was twenty-three, his feudal lord died. Basho left feudal service in spite of the fact that such a step made him a semi-outcast from his society, and in 1672 he arrived in Edo already versed in the two schools of the haiku. For the rest of his life he devoted himself to bringing this form back to true poetry and, in the course of this effort, created a third school which is named after him. In the three centuries since, haiku poetry has had its vicissitudes, but each revival has been a movement back to Basho. His influence is felt not only in his own school but also in the other two. His death anniversaries are still strictly observed by his followers, and admiration for him amounts to bare idolatry. The latest revival was begun by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). haiku poet and novelist, in the 1890's.
There is no single adequate word for the essence of Basho's poetry, but it has been described as the illustration of an old man girding on his armor and fighting on the battlefield, or clothing himself in the richest brocades to attend a banquet. In either case he cannot hide the fact that he is beyond his physical prime. The liveliest of Basho's haiku contain an element of lingering pathos, but such pathos is not to be gained by seeking it per se. It must be a development of one's nature as the result of the varied experiences of life.
The best of the poems by Basho and his disciples are collected in the Haikai Shichibu-shu (Seven Collected Works) in twelve volumes. The seven collections contained are Fuyu no Hi (Winter Days); Haru no Hi (Spring Days); Arano (Fields of Wilderness); Hisago (The Gourd); Saru Mino (Coats of Straw for Monkeys); Sumi-dawara (Bags of Charcoal); and Zoku Saru Mino (Saru Mino, Continued).
Other well-known collections of his verse and prose writings include Kai-oi, a collection of sixty haiku in pairs, each like the two shells of a clam, which gives this collection its title. The verse of thirty-seven persons contains Basho's comments as well. The preface is dated 1672, when Basho was twenty-eight. The poems combine snatches of popular songs and expressions of the time, and Basho's comments indicate that if he himself did not indulge in an unrestrained life in his youth, he was at least in sympathy with those who did. This work is representative of his earlier years.
The remaining books are accounts of his wanderings and journeys, each liberally sprinkled with poems. These include Nozarashi Kiko {In the Face of Wind and Rain), 1685, an account of a trip from Edo to the Kyoto-Nara-Ise area, particularly Nagoya in 1684-1685; Kashima Kiko {Moon Viewing to Kashima), 1687; Oi no Obumi {Scraps from my Letterbox), 1687, an account of a journey in the Yamato area, believed to show Basho at his peak as a poet and philosopher; Sarashina Kiko {Moon Viewing to Sarashina), 1688, a brief work like the Kashima Kiko and similar in style; Oku no Hoso-michi (The Narrow Road of Oku), an account of a trip in 1689 from Edo to Sakata in northeastern Japan via Nikko and Mat-sushima, and thence down toward the Japan Sea to Kan-azawa, Tsuruga and then southward to Ise, covering about 1,467 miles in seven months. This work, the greatest of Basho's travel accounts, inspired numerous followers, both of his own time and later (including at least one American), to make trips by the same route. The Saga Nikki {Diary at Saga), 1691, is Basho's diary written during a month's stay in 1691 at the Rakushi-sha, a modest residence in Saga, near Kyoto. The style reveals Basho at his best in describing his enjoyment of a simple, uncluttered life.
Selections from Basho's poetry and prose are widely available in English translation. Indeed, much of his work is available in several different versions, so that the reader is not limited to the perspective of a single translator.





Basho's Haiku

Translated by Robert Hass


A bee
staggers out
of the peony.

A caterpillar,
this deep in fall--
still not a butterfly.

Moonlight slanting
through the bamboo grove;
a cuckoo crying.

Heat waves shimmering
one or two inches
above the dead grass.

Winter garden,
the moon thinned to a thread,
insects singing.

The morning glory also
turns out
not to be my friend.

Staying at an inn
where prostitutes are also sleeping--
bush clover and the moon.

Teeth sensitive to the sand
in salad greens--
I'm getting old.

Winter solitude--
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.

The oak tree:
not interested
in cherry blossoms.

How admirable!
to see lightning and not think
life is fleeting.

When the winter chrysanthemums go,
there's nothing to write about
but radishes.

Taking a nap,
feet planted
against a cool wall.

attached to nothing,
the skylark singing.

What fish feel,
birds feel, I don't know--
the year ending.

Spring rain
leaking through the roof
dripping from the wasps' nest.

This old village--
not a single house
without persimmon trees.

the cicada's cry
drills into the rocks.

The dragonfly
can't quite land
on that blade of grass.

The squid seller's call
mingles with the voice
of the cuckoo.

Wrapping the rice cakes,
with one hand
she fingers back her hair.

Fleas, lice,
a horse peeing
near my pillow.

Blowing stones
along the road on Mount Asama,
the autumn wind.

Autumn moonlight--
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.

Fleas, lice,
a horse peeing
near my pillow.

Coolness of the melons
flecked with mud
in the morning dew.

At a hermitage:

A cool fall night--
getting dinner, we peeled
eggplants, cucumbers.

Bush warbler:
shits on the rice cakes
on the porch rail.

A field of cotton--
as if the moon
had flowered.

First day of spring--
I keep thinking about
the end of autumn.

Awake at night--
the sound of the water jar
cracking in the cold.

First winter rain--
even the monkey
seems to want a raincoat.

A monk sips morning tea,
it's quiet,
the chrysanthemum's flowering.

A snowy morning--
by myself,
chewing on dried salmon.

Cold night: the wild duck,
sick, falls from the sky
and sleeps awhile.

First snow
on the half-finished bridge.


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