Basho, by his infant name Kinsaku, was born in 1644 in Iga (now Iga City in Mie Prefecture, east of Nara, southwest of Nagoya.), the third child, preceded by a brother Hanzaemon and a sister name unknown, and followed by three sisters, with only the last one, Oyoshi, name known.
Basho gives us two glimpses at his childhood: one, this haiku with a footnote:
And two, his spoken word about a haiku written by a 17 year old boy from Iga; Basho was 47 at the time. The verse, DO NOT LET THE DOLL portrays the feelings little girls have for their playthings (see C-9 Age 3 to 7). Here I focus on Basho’s comment on the verse:
Tekishi’s verse made Basho feel natsukashi, “yearning for long ago”, three decades before, growing up in the midst of four sisters.
Basho first recorded haiku was written in 1662 when he was eighteen, and his first renku was a 100 stanza- sequence composed in 1665 with 18 stanzas by young Basho. Eleven of these appear in the article E-2 - 20 YEAR OLD BASHO where you can see that almost every one of these stanzas focuses on human life and experience. For instance here is Basho’s very first study of young girl sexuality and the young male’s response.
“Hair parted in the middle” suggests a girl before puberty. As she enters adolescence, hormones spread through her body to make her hair grow long and elegant, and her personality alluring and flirtatious. Basho is drawn to the woman whose face he cannot see; he “sees” through her back of her head to a vision of her face. He feels an “attachment” to this vision, he cannot separate from it. And remember he is just about twenty years old when he wrote this.
Basho’s older sister had married and joined her husband’s household, but he died, leaving her with two sons. She came back to her native home in 1665 with her boys, one of whom was Toin. For the seven years from 1665 to 1672 Basho lived at home, but frequently traveled to Kyoto to study. One pair of stanzas, both by Basho, tells of returning from Kyoto to Iga.
Walking from Kyoto to Iga, apparently he spent the night in Mika no Hara, a place in Kizugawa south of Kyoto, alongside the Kizu River which leads east to Iga. Already in his twenties Basho suffered from the bowel disorder that ended his life more than two decades later.
In his first recorded haibun, written in 1672, Basho dedicates his future poetry to the divine spirits in a shrine in Iga.
Tanka poetry in 31 sound-units has for a thousand years been recognized as soothing to the divine spirits. Poetry in 17 sound-units was at this time considered a mere game for amusement, without spiritual value. Basho prays for divine aid so that his own briefer poetry will “soothe the kamisama.” Basho, age 28, already sees what the future will consider his great contribution to world literature: the introduction of spirit into “these shorter poems.” We wonder a passage so personal and expressive of Basho’s thought has
not (as far as I can tell) been translated.
Many people believe Basho had a lover in Iga named Jutei (although this would have been the name she took when she became a nun more than 20 years later), and when he left town in 1672, he parted from her. Other folks believe Jutei was a woman he met in Edo. There is no mention of her in Basho’s letters until 1694 when she appears not as Basho’s lover, but rather the “wife” of his nephew Toin (see article B-18).
In any case, Basho moved to Edo in 1672 and for three years in the Big City only wrote one haiku.
I believe this to be a memory of Basho’s little sister playing with an ornamental toy with a picture she drawn on it of the “little princess” who grows up to marry the crown prince.
However from about 1675 he began gathering followers in his “school” of poetry. His first follower was Ransetsu, then Kikaku and Sampu, and these three stayed with him till the end. In 1676 Basho traveled back to Iga, stayed in town for about ten days, then escorted his nephew Toin to Edo where the young man disappeared, apparently because he was a fugitive from the law in Iga hiding out in the metropolis of Edo.
Basho through these years had a job – believed to be with the Edo water bureau – but at the end of autumn in 1680 he had some realization which changed his life, producing this haiku.
The sadness and desolation of this haiku is said to be characteristic of Basho, however it is actually only characteristic of the two years from the end of 1680 through 1681 and into 1682.
Basho now left his job and moved out across the Sumida River from downtown Edo to a warehouse supplied by his follower, the wealthy fish merchant Sampu, in rural Fukagawa, to live as a poet relying on his followers for food and drink. In Fukagawa, Basho discovered that a well-known Zen priest, Butcho, was staying only a few minutes walk away. Basho must have attended Butcho’s lectures and meditated under his supervision, however there is no evidence that Basho now or ever committed himself to Zen. (see Article E-5) It appears that Basho's interest was not Zen, but rather the philosophy of the ancient Chinese sage Chuang Tzu, co-founder of Taoism. Zen priests introduced Chuang Tzu to the Japanese, and books on Zen are where you read about Chuang Tzu, so we consider the possibility that Basho went to Butcho to learn not Zen but rather Chuang Tzu.
A number of linked verse written at this time refer to Chuang Tzu.
The “sewer rat” is himself trying to get a mouthful of water from his frozen water jug. The poems drip with desolate loneliness. Ueda says, “The hyperbolic style poeticizing loneliness is also from Tang verse…The elements of Chinese verse are made to serve his prime purpose: to present his own feelings.” Yes, to present his own feelings –his self-absorption in loneliness and misery.
This period of desolation lasted till the new year of 1683 when Basho wrote this haiku:
Basho is remembering that existential moment two years and one season ago, but saying this year is a new beginning.
Throughout this time, Basho frequently gathered with other poets to produce sequences of linked verse. This cooperative poetry was his major poetic activity; haiku was a minor part of his work.
Haruo Shirane says,
Contrary to his popular image, Basho was not a social recluse. Instead he constantly cultivated a community of disciples and poets with whom he engaged in poetic dialogue.”
In early winter of 1684 Basho began his first journey for poetic purposes, the journey that produced the journal Account of a Withered Field. He returned to Edo in summer of 1685, then the next spring wrote the model haiku of the Basho style, and the most famous words in Japanese literature
This famous verse is discussed in C-15 Learning to Read and E-3 Lightness. Basho left Edo again in 1687 on his second long journey, and this produced the journal Backpack Notes. He returned to Edo in winter of 1688, but in spring the impulse to travel came upon him, this time to the Deep North of Japan. His five-month journey accompanied by Sora produced his masterpiece of prose, A Narrow Path in the Heartlands,which contains many of his most well-known poems. Much attention has been paid to this journal and haiku; just as much attention should be paid to his renku written on the journey such as this renku stanza pair Sora and Basho wrote in Fukushima.
In articles C-1 and C-2, I discuss this verse as one of the finest examples of Basho love poetry.
The journey ended in autumn in Gifu, where Basho's followers gathered to welcome him back, and
Basho wrote these words about them, and about himself:
but Basho went on traveling to Ise, his hometown, and then Zeze beside Lake Biwa where in Spring Basho wrote these magnificent words:
This spring Basho wrote this haiku which was also an opening verse to a renku:
I believe that Basho’s spoken word about this verse tell us a great deal about his mind:
This haiku is considered the birth of his poetic ideal, karumi, or Lightness – however from his first renku in 1665 to his last in 1694, Basho poetry is full of lightness; though only from 1690 did Basho begin calling it
Basho spent all of 1690 and three quarters of 1691 in Kansai, moving among Iga, Zeze, and Saga, west of Kyoto, where his followers Kyrai had a cottage among the bamboos. Basho considered this his leisure time, however participated in many renku gatherings and wrote some of his finest stanzas in this period (See Renku Anthology: article K-07). He also wrote an abundance of letters in which he expresses his heart’s experience. Such as this letter to Uko in autumn of 1690:
The word “joy” (yorokobu) appears frequently in Basho’s letters, and so the feeling appeared frequently in his life. At the end of autumn in 1691, Basho headed back to Edo where he stayed for two and a half years, constantly advocating for Lightness.
In a letter to Kyokusui soon after he arrived in Edo, he wrote,
Three years later, on his death bed, Basho requested that he be buried in Zeze at Gichuji Temple near the shore of Lake Biwa, where he remains today.
In 1692 he wrote these two stanzas which may be the most extraordinary expressions of his life-affirming pro-female and child-centered thought:
This peasant woman emerges from the “pond of knee-deep sludge, the consistency of a malted milkshake” to nourish her child from her breasts. Her entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday dirt and mud, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing ― yet she tries to keep her face clean and pretty, for baby to behold. Has any other male poet produced so exquisitely feminine a poem? Feminine in concern for facial beauty and cleanliness, the femininity of women at work, women with breasts, women nourishing life, and women’s hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines.
In 1693 he wrote
“Places” means not only geographical places, but rather situations and places in thought. Basho advises us to look beyond the material stuff the ancients left behind, to instead search for the moments of now.
However also in 1693, Basho's nephew Toin died of tuberculosis, and since there was no longer any danger of the authorities finding out where the fugutive was, Basho writes about him in his letters, and next year Toin's (common law) wife and her three children appear in Basho's letters.
Basho enjoyed his final spring in Fukagawa, expressing his joy in this stanza pair.
Single layer cotton cloth has been rinsed and is hanging on a line to dry in the breeze; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. The “flock” of girls in their pretty robes, going to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other, complement the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all rise up together. Japan idolizes the joyful sparkle of teenage girls – the sparkling quality which the girls in J-Pop groups are selected for -- and it is fascinating to see this consciousness in Basho 330 years ago.
On June 3rd 1694, he set forth on his final journey accompanied by his grand-nephew Jirobei, believed to be about 15 years old. Basho’s observations of Jirobei on this journey should be considered the first observations of child development in world literature.
Just before he left Basho defined Lightness to his followers in Edo.
Basho was in good enough health throughout this journey that he could travel 25 to 30 miles a day, though he did get tired quicker than on previous journeys. He also had enough energy to write long, long letters including Letter 198 To Sora, which I find the clearest journey through his mind. For instance, this passage:
We see Basho was not some “poet-saint” but rather just an ordinary guy interested in people and places.
Throughout his letters describing this final journey, Basho says nothing about visiting old temples and shrines, but only writes about meeting people. Basho – except when he is down – searches not for the old and fading, but for Newness and Lightness, looking forward with hope.
His final verse well expresses his search for positive, life-affirming visions:
The pine needles fall into the rushing water, swirl about, and rush away leaving no traces of their existence, no possibility of ever being seen gain. The flow never returns and what is gone is gone forever.
Basho’s lifelong affection for his friends is well-expressed in these words in his Will, dictated two days before his death.
His final expression of Lightness was this statement spoken with a smile seconds before he passed.
And so he died.