Every Day is a Journey

Matsuo Basho 1644-1694

Matsuo Basho
Born: 1644, Iga Province, Japan
Nationality: Japanese
Died: 28 November 1694, Osaka, Japan

Matsuo Bashō was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. He was recognized for his poetry in the hakai no renga form during his lifetime. Today he is considered the greatest hokku, haiku master. Bashō’s poetry is globally renowned and in Japan, his poems are reproduced on monuments and other traditional sites. Although justifiably famous for his hokku, he believed his best work was leading and participating in renku.

Introduced to poetry at an early age Bashō integrated himself into the intellectual scene of Edo (modern Tokyo) and quickly became well-known throughout Japan. He made a living as a teacher but renounced the social, urban life of literary circles to wander throughout Japan to gain inspiration for his poetry which was influenced by his own experiences of the world around him.

Born in the Iga Province, Japan, the Matsuo family were of Samurai descent and his father is thought to have been a musokunin, a class of landowner peasants granted privileges of Samurai. Very little is known of Bashō’s childhood, however, became a servant to Tōdō Yoshitada in his late teens, probably in some humble capacity, and was probably not promoted to the full samurai class.

Bashō shared Yoshitada’s love of the collaborative poetry composition, the haikai no renga. A sequence opened with a verse of 5-7- mora, the hokku, and centuries later it became the haiku presented as a stand-alone poem. The hokku would be followed by a related 7-7 mora verse by another poet. Both Bashō and Yoshitada used a haigō, a haikai pen name. Bashō’s was Sōbō, the Sino-Japanese reading of his adult name. In 1662 the first extant poem by Bashō was published.

In 1695, together with some acquaintances, Bashō and Yashitada composed a hyakuin, a one-hundred-verse renku. Yashitada’s death in 1666 brought an end to Bashōs peaceful life as a servant and it is believed Bashō gave up on the possibility of samurai status and left home. His poems continued to be published in anthologies in 1667, 1668, and 1671, and a compilation of his work and that by others, The Seashell Game in 1672. Also in 1672, Bashō moved to Edo to continue his study of poetry.

Quickly recognised in the fashionable literary circles of Nihonbashi, Bashõ’s poetry was acclaimed for its simple and natural style. He was inducted into the inner circles of the haikai professional in 1674 and received its secret teachings from Kitamura Kigin.

In 1675, Nishyama Sōin, leader of the Danrin School of Haiku, travelled to Edo from Osaka and Bashō was one of the poets invited to compose with him. Bashō gave himself the haigō of Tōsei and by 1680 he had a full-time job teaching his twenty disciples who went on to publish The Best Poems of Tōsei’s Twenty Disciples. That winter, Bashō moved across the river to Fukagawa and out of the public eye. His disciples built him a rustic hut and planted a Japanese banana tree in the grounds giving Bashō his first permanent home and a new haigō

Bashō grew lonely and dissatisfied despite his success and began to practice Zen meditation, however, it doesn’t seem that calmed his mind. In 1682 his hut burned down and early in 1683, his mother died. Following his mother’s death he travelled to Yamura to stay with a friend. Bashō’s disciples gave him a second hut in the winter of 1983, however, his spirits didn’t improve and in 1684 he left Edo on the first of four major wanderings.

Bashō travelled alone and off the beaten path of the Edo Five Routes which in medieval Japan were considered immensely dangerous. Initially, Bashō expected to die in the middle of nowhere or be murdered by bandits. His mood improved as his journey progressed and he began to enjoy being on the road. Bashō enjoyed the changing scenery and the seasons. His poetry became less introspective and more striking in his observations of the world around him. Bashō’s trip took him from Edo to Mount Fuji, Ueno, and Kyoto. He met poets who referred to themselves as his disciples and sought his advice. In the summer of 1685, he returned to Edo, writing more hokku and comments on his own life. On his return to Edo Bashō resumed his job as a teacher of poetry at his hut, however, he was already planning another journey.

The poets of Edo gathered at the bashō hut for a haiku no renga contest on the subject of frogs, which seems to have been a tribute to Bashō’s hokku which placed top of the compilation. Bashō stayed in Edo teaching and holding contests. In the autumn of 1687, he took an excursion to the countryside for moon watching, and in 1688 he made a longer trip, returning to Ueno for the Lunar New Year celebrations. By the time Bashō arrived in Ōgaki, Gifu Prefecture, he had finished the log of his journey. After editing and redacting it for three years, the final version, “The Narrow Road to the Interior,” was completed in 1694, and published, posthumously, in 1702. It is considered Bashō’s finest achievement, and was a great commercial success, with many poets following the path of his journey.

Bashō lived in his third bashō hut on his return to Edo in 1691, again provided by his followers. However, this time he was not alone; his nephew, Toin, and a female friend, Julei, both recovering from illness, lived with him. He also had many visitors. Bashō was uneasy and wrote to a friend that he had no peace of mind. He continued to earn a living from teaching and appearances at haikai gatherings until August 1693 when he shut the gate to his hut and refused to see anyone for a month. After adopting the principle of karumi he relented and regreeted the outside world instead of separating himself from it. He left Edo for the last time in the summer of 1694 spending time in Ueno and Kyoto before travelling to Osaka where he developed a stomach illness and died peacefully, surrounded by his followers.

falling sick on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over a field of dried grass

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