Thursday, March 19, 2009

Basho - A Man of Few Words-


Matsuo Basho pronounced (bah shoh), lived in Japan from 1644 - 1694.

He is known as the first, great poet of haikai and haiku.

The title of my blog is taken from Basho's haiku called, The Entrance of Spring.

The scene is almost set for spring to come

A hazy moon and blossoms on the plum.

What do we know of the gifted poet?

Basho was introduced to poetry at a young age. Born to a low ranking samurai/farming family he became a servant to the local Lord, Todo Yoshitada, who shared with Basho a love for haikai no renga.

Haikai no renga is a collaborative form of poetry writing where two or more poets alternate writing the stanzas. The hokku or introductory stanza conforms to the 5 - 7 - 5 syllable pattern that we are familiar with in composing haiku.

The End of Autumn

At evening on a withered bough

A solitary crow is sitting now

When Basho was aged twenty two the Lord Yoshitada died suddenly and Basho decided at that juncture to leave home. He continued writing and publishing his work and moved first to Kyoto and then on to Edo, present day Tokyo, to further his studies in poetry, philosophy and calligraphy.

Basho took the pen name of Tosei and quickly progressed in his studies becoming a teacher with a group of disciples.

Spring departs

Birds cry

Fishes' eyes are filled with tears

Throughout his lifetime Basho fluctuated between enjoying the company and camaraderie of others and the limelight that fame brought and his need for quiet and privacy.

At one time he became reclusive and his disciples in Edo built him a small rustic hut. Alongside the hut they planted a banana palm. Basho adopted the word for banana, basho, as his new haigo, (writing pseudonym).

A banana plant in the autumn gale

I listen to the dripping

Into a basin at night

Basho became interested in Zen meditation but continued to feel lonely and dis-spirited even though he had achieved his goals: - respect as a poet and material comfort.

In 1684 at the age of forty he left Edo on the first of four major wanderings.

Initially he was very anxious on the road as travel in medieval Japan was very dangerous, but he met many friends and supporters. He called his journey - the journey of a weather beaten skeleton, thinking that if he should be the recipient of ill fortune his body would weather away to dust along the roadside.

Travelling gave Basho a new lease on life. He grew to enjoy the changing scenery and the seasons. We can hear that he is relaxing into travelling in the following haiku:

Another year is gone

A travel hat on my head

Straw sandals on my feet

Basho writes in a dramatic manner exaggerating the expressions of humour, depression, ecstasy or confusion. He likes to draw attention to the smallness of human existence compared to the greatness of nature's power. In his writings Basho aims to reflect his real environment and his emotions. We see that he has a quirky wit coupled with a colourful imagination.

In 1686 he wrote what has become his most remembered haiku.

An ancient pond

a frog jumps in

the splash of water

On his journeys he wrote haibun - prose and poetry travelogues - The Narrow Road to the Interior, being his most well known. His numerous journeys garnered many images to inspire contemplative poetry. He said that the Gods of travel beckoned him.

The bee emerging

from deep within the peony

departs reluctantly

As Basho's fame was widespread he was treated with courtesy and generosity wherever he went in Japan. With fame came many friends and well wishers and at times Basho found his time was no longer his own. Some of his most enjoyable times were those he spent in out of the way huts where he could write and meditate alone without intrusion.

Back home in Edo he decided one time to lock his gate to all guests.

The morning glory

in the day time , a bolt is fastened

on the front yard gate.

A month later he faced the world with a new perspective of lightness, feeling that while he belonged to the mundane world he could remain detached and stand apart as a spiritual by- stander.

His verses and collections and anthologies from that time take a calm carefree attitude to the things of daily life, often exuding lightheartedness.On his last journey he looked forward to travelling as a self disciplining monk rather than as a renowned poet.

As Basho's health faded he continued to write excellent verses.

This autumn

Why am I aging so

Flying toward the clouds, a bird

The following is claimed to be his final recorded haiku.

Falling sick on a journey

my dream goes wandering

over a field of dried grass

Basho died of a stomach illness on his final journey, in 1694.

Fuyu no hi ~ Winter days

Winter Days is one of Basho's renga or co-operative poems. It has 36 stanzas shared by Basho and five other poets. Basho was given the honour of writing the hokku or the first introductory stanza and six other stanzas. The hokku of these renga often became a stand alone poem , known as a haiku.

In 2003 director Kihachiro Kawamoto selected 35 animators to develop a movie based on Basho's renga of the same name.

If you click below you will see a beautifully animated minute movie of Basho's haiku. I like to think that the likable old character with the straw hat is Matsuo Basho off on another journey.

My sources for this story include:
History of Haiku
Narrow Road to the Deep North by Makto Ueda


  1. I have loved Basho's writings for a long time and have recently renewed my interest and started rereading my collection of poetry. It is great to find someone else to share it with.

  2. Hello there Violet, How are you?
    Well that's great to have a fellow Basho blogging aficionado. There are a number of haiku on my side bar already and I will add more as I tell my Japan- Nakasendo stories.

  3. Look, I have been wondering about haiku, ever since we met. Did I understand correctly that it is 5-7-5 syllables? Some seem to differ, or am I a complete ning-nong?

  4. Hello Natalie,
    Thats a good question. When written In English or Japanese traditional haiku follows the 5-7-5 syllable rule, however in translation from Japanese to English it is hard to find the same nuance of meaning when restricted by that formula hence the variation.

    In addition contemporary Haiku deviates from the rule. I sometimes like to work in 10-10 syllables. If you look at Late Victory, by Shiki, in my sidebar you will see it falls into a 10-10 rhythm, as does End of Autumn and Entrance of Spring.

    Have a go...

  5. Good evening Delwyn did you go for a paddle?..I have tried this afternoon to come up with a haiku but wondered why it does not resonate so much with me?.. my native tongue is dutch so when I started translating into dutch Haiku became a different story! language is very different from yours...I will look out for a book where I can read Haiku in dutch.
    Interesting story happy to know a bit about Basho.

  6. Hi Mona, no- it would be a perfect night for a paddle though the river is like glass tonight.

    I'm glad to hear that you are trying haiku but not happy that it is proving tricky for you.
    Yes reading in Dutch will be a good idea.
    Have a happy night

  7. Many thanks for such an interesting and informative post. I had heard of haiku before, but very little. I used to run a session (for four years I did) near where I live where poets and performers got together to share their work. I remember a particular poet who was inspired by the philosophy behind haiku and I was mightily impressed by his poems. Many thanks for such a good and thorough post.

    Greetings from London.

  8. Now, I'm off to read more Basho! I had no idea he was the father of haiku. Nice post.

  9. Spare elegance. Why use many words when a few cut to the heart of the matter?

  10. Hello Willow - great that this post has inspired you to read some more Basho..happy days

  11. Meri, "Cut to the heart of the matter"
    that really is the essence...

  12. What a wonderful post. Thank you for this.

    I'm so sorry to hear about your dog. What a strange week this has been.

  13. this was a great history lesson and i watched several of the video/cartoons. Really fantastic post...

  14. Hello Reya
    Thanks for your thoughts, One dogless day over...It will get easier but it is lonely in the house by myself all day.

  15. Runmotman, glad to see you again,

    I'm pleased you enjoyed the little lesson, I loved researching it too.

    And I am particularly glad you liked the animation. You are the only person to mention it so it makes me wonder if readers skip over links. It was well worth a look I thought.
    Happy Days

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