Matsua Basho (1644 - 1694) is one of the most celebrated Japanese poets. His reputation extends from Japan to include a nearly global recognition. Basho is considered to be the master of the haiku. His work is praised for its brevity and clarity; its ability to capture the most suddle transitions is astounding. Many monuments in Japan bear his poems. His works include The Seashell Game, A Shriveled Chestnut, Record of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, Winter Days, Spring Days, A Visit to Kashima Shrine, Record of a Travel-Worn Satchel, A Visit to Sarashina Village, Wasteland, The Gourd, The Monkey's Raincoat, Saga Diary, On Transplanting the Banana Tree, On Seclusion, A Sack of Charcoal, The Detached Room, Narrow Road to the Interior, and The Monkey's Raincoat, Continued) . To earn a living, Matsuo Basho was employed as a teacher.
Matsuo Basho began writing poetry when he was young. He quickly became a fixture amongst the intelligentsia of Edo-era Japan. However, he rejected urban life and its literary circles. He was known to take to the countryside to wander in the wilderness. His experiences and observation of nature fueled his work. Stylistically, Matsuo Basho sometimes rejected the strict stylistics of kigo in favor for his hokku. Basho felt he could reveal nature and emotion more directly. Matsuo Basho is also given credit for developing the haiku as a free standing poem. Despite the fact, Matsuo Basho did not always work in the most popular style of poetry, he was widely admired in his lifetime. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Japanese interest in his work became a national obsession. His reputation was so inflated that Shinto bureaucrats made negative critiques of his poetry blasphemy. In the twentieth century, translations of Matsuo Basho’s work into European languages expanded his influence. His writings would influence Imagist poets (including Ezra Pound) as well as the Beat Generation writers. His use of image has, perhaps, been duplicated but never rivaled.
In 1644, Matsuo Basho was born in Iga Province, close to the city of Ueno. He was name Matsuo Kinsaku. His father was probably a samurai, though not one of high reputation. If this is true, Basho would have easily been embraced in the military. Yet when Matsuo Basho was still a child, he came to serve Todo Yoshitada. Yoshitada nurtured the boy’s literary and poetic interests. His master encouraged Basho to take part in the collaborative haikai no renga—a collaborative style of poetry from which the haiku was to be derived. In 1662, Matsuo Basho’s first poem was published. In 1664, Matsuo Basho’s first collection of hokku was released.
In 1666, Yoshitada died. His master’s death released his from the enjoyable security that the servitude provided the young poet. Many believe that it was at this point that Matsuo Basho rejected his samurai status and left his father’s home. This time was one of confusion for the poet, and the historical record gives no clear reason for his action. Suggested reasons include a possible infatuation with a Shinto miko (priestess) or curiosity about the concept of love for one’s own sex. He was also unclear about whether he wanted to devote himself to his craft or if he wanted to join the governmental apparatus. His reluctance to throw himself completely into his poetic craft was in part due to the low standing of poetry. The styles of poetry Matsuo Basho practiced at the time (renga and haikai no renga) were considered social diversions and not serious pursuits. Throughout the period of indecision, Basho continued to publish collections of his work.
In 1672, Matsuo Basho moved to Edo to continue his studies into poetry. He began to make a reputation for himself in the literary community of Nihonbashi. By 1674, Matsuo Basho had become an intimate of those in the haikai profession. He had also received instruction from Kitamura Kigin—a Buddhist intellectual who taught that homosexuality was more natural for priests. Although Kigin’s configuration of homosexual love was more like that of Classical Greece, than the homosexual love of the post-Freudian, post-Liberation era.
During this period, Matsuo Basho adopted the nom de plume Tosei. He began to teach. The work of his students would eventually be collected in The Best Poems of Tosei’s Twenty Disciples. Matsuo Basho’s reputation was so significant that the students wanted to promote their connection to the master. In 1680, Basho began to move away from the literary public. He relocated his home to Fukagawa. His students constructed a home for him and planted a banana tree for him. In honor of this event, he adopted the name Matsuo Basho, which means banana tree.
Matsuo Basho was unnerved by his success and loneliness. In an attempt to bring order to his mind, he became a practitioner of Zen meditation. He entered a period of personal turmoil when in 1682 his house burnt down, in 1683 his mother died. He went to Yamura to live with a friend for a short while. His students rebuilt his home, but he could not shake his negative mindset. He soon undertook the first of his four major peregrinations. This undertaking was dangerous because of the lawlessness of the period. Many anticipated that Matsuo Basho would be murdered by highway men or (if lucky) simply expire in the wastes between cities. However, Basho met many people and found joy in the experiences of nature. Basho’s poems became less interior as he began to focus on the natural world, the exterior world, in a more focused way.
The first trip led him from Edo to Mount Fuji to Ueno and finally to Kyoto. Many poets he met claimed to be his devotees. The clamoured for his wisdom and advice about their poetry. His main advice was to ignore the literary fads of Edo, and to ignore even the work of his that the amateur poets had found in his recent publications. When Basho returned to Edo in 1685, he embraced his role of instructor and began to hold poetry contests. Throughout this period he would alternatively crave and reject visitors. But some of his work revealed a certain whimsy and humor that went beyond his temporary bouts of melancholy.
In 1686, Matsuo Basho wrote a poem describing a frog leaping into water. This work, with its myriad of English translation, became the most famous of Basho’s famed literary production. This haiku is seen by many as representing the vast possibility of the subtleties of the genre. In honor of the greatness of this work, a contest was held for haikai no renga that dealt with frogs. These works were collected with Matsuo Basho’s poem as their keystone.
In 1688, Matsuo Basho returned to the city of his youth, Ueno. There he celebrated the Lunar New Year. When he returned to his home, he returned to his reclusive ways. In 1689, Basho and his student Kawai Sora would travel through the northern provinces. This journey would be memorialized in The Narrow Road, which was published in 1694.
When Matsuo Basho returned to Edo, he was more sociable allowing a nephew and a sick woman to leave with him. He also opened his home to visitors again. At this time in his life, Basho practiced karumi (lightness). With this frame work, he accepted the everyday normalcy of the world, foregoing his rejection of society. In 1694, Matsuo Basho would travel one last time to Ueno, Kyoto and Osaka. Illness struck him. He died in the company of his students.