The master haiku Poet Matsuo Basho by Makoto Ueda, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.
One day in the spring of 1681 a banana tree was being planted alongside a modest hut in a rustic area of Edo, a city now known as Tokyo. It was a gift from a local resident to his teacher of poetry, who had moved into the hut several months earlier. The teacher, a man of thirty-six years of age, was delighted with the gift. He loved the banana plant because it was somewhat like him in the way it stood there. Its large leaves were soft and sensitive and were easily torn when gusty winds blew from the sea. Its flowers were small and unobtrusive; they looked lonesome, as if they knew they could bear no fruit in the cool climate of Japan. Its stalks were long and fresh- looking, yet they were of no practical use.
The teacher lived all alone in the hut. On nights when he had no visitor, he would sit quietly and listen to the wind blowing through the banana leaves. The lonely atmosphere would deepen on rainy nights. Rainwater leaking through the roof dripped intermittently into a basin. To the ears of the poet sitting in the dimly lighted room, the sound made a strange harmony with the rustling of the banana leaves outside.
Basho nowaki shite A banana plant in the autumn gale - Tarai ni ame o I listen to the dripping of rain Kiku yo kana Into a basin at night.
The haiku seems to suggest the poet's awareness of his spiritual affinity with the banana plant.
Some people who visited this teacher of poetry may have noticed the affinity. Others may have seen the banana plant as nothing more than a convenient landmark. At any rate, they came to call the residence the Basho ("banana plant) Hut, and the name was soon applied to its resident, too: the teacher came to be known as the Master of the Basho Hut, or Master Basho. It goes without saying that he was happy to accept the nickname. He used it for the rest of his life.
I. First Metamorphosis: From Wanderer to Poet
Little material is available to recreate Basho's life prior to his settlement in the Basho Hut. It is believed that he was born in 1644 at or near Ueno in Iga Province, about thirty miles southeast of Kyoto and two hundred miles west of Edo. He was called Kinsaku and several other names as a child; he had an elder brother and four sisters. His father, Matsuo Yozaemon, was probably a low-ranking samurai who farmed in peacetime. Little is known about his mother except that her parents were not natives of Ueno. The social status of the family, while respectable, was not of the kind that promised a bright future for young Basho if he were to follow an ordinary course of life.
Yet Basho's career began in an ordinary enough way. It is presumed that as a youngster he entered the service of a youthful master, Todo Yoshitada, a relative of the feudal lord ruling the province. Young Basho first served as a page or in some such capacity.1 His master, two years his senior, was apparently fond of Basho, and the two seem to have become fairly good companions as they grew older. Their strongest bond was the haikai, one of the favorite pastimes of sophisticated men of the day. Apparently Yoshitada had a liking for verse writing and even acquired a haikai name, Sengin. Whether or not the initial stimulation came from his master, Basho also developed a taste for writing haikai, using the pseudonym Sobo. The earliest poem by Basho preserved today was written in 1662. In 1664, two haiku by Basho and one by Yoshitada appeared in a verse anthology published in Kyoto. The following year Basho, Yoshitada, and three others joined together and composed a renku of one hundred verses. Basho contributed eighteen verses, his first remaining verses of this type.
Basho's life seems to have been peaceful so far, and he might for the rest of his life have been a satisfied, low-ranking samurai who spent his spare time verse writing. He had already come of age and had assumed a samurai's name, Matsuo Munefusa. But in the summer of 1666 a series of incidents completely changed the course of his life. Yoshitada suddenly died a premature death. His younger brother succeeded him as the head of the clan and also as the husband of his widow. It is believed that Basho left his native home and embarked on a wandering life shortly afterward.
Various surmises have been made as to the reasons for Basho's decision to leave home, a decision that meant forsaking his samurai status. One reason which can be easily imagined is Basho's deep grief at the death of his master, to whom he had been especially close. One early biography even has it that he thought of killing himself to accompany his master in the world beyond, but this was forbidden by the current law against self- immolation. Another and more convincing reason is that Basho became extremely pessimistic about his future under the new master, whom he had never served before. As Yoshitada had Basho, the new master must have had around him favored companions with whom he had been brought up. They may have tried to prevent Basho from joining their circle, or even if they did not, Basho could have sensed some vague animosity in their attitudes toward him. Whatever the truth may have been, there seems to be no doubt that Basho's future as a samurai became exceedingly clouded upon the sudden death of his master.
Other surmises about Basho's decision to leave home have to do with his love affairs. Several early biographies claim that he had an affair with his elder brother's wife, with one of Yoshitada's waiting ladies, or with Yoshitada's wife herself. These are most likely the fabrications of biographers who felt the need for some sensational incident in the famous poet's youth. But there is one theory that may contain some truth. It maintains that Basho had a secret mistress, who later became a nun called Jutei. She may even have had a child, or several children, by Basho. At any rate, these accounts seem to point toward one fact: Basho still in his early twenties, experienced his share of the joys and griefs that most young men go through at one time or another.
Basho's life for the next few years is very obscure. It has traditionally been held that he went to Kyoto, then the capital of Japan, where he studied philosophy, poetry and calligraphy under well-known experts. It is not likely, however, that he was in Kyoto all during this time; he must often have returned to his hometown for lengthy visits. It might even be that he still lived in Ueno or in that vicinity and made occasional trips to Kyoto. In all likelihood he was not yet determined to become a poet at this time. Later in his own writing he was to recall "At one time I coveted an official post with a tenure of land." He was still young and ambitious, confident of his potential. He must have wished, above all, to get a good education that would secure him some kind of respectable position later on. Perhaps he wanted to see the wide world outside his native town and to mix with a wide variety of people. With the curiosity of youth he may have tried to do all sorts of things fashionable among the young libertines of the day. Afterward, he even wrote, "There was a time when I was fascinated with the ways of homosexual love."
One indisputable fact is that Basho had not lost his interest in verse writing. A haikai anthology published in 1667 contained as many as thirty- one of his verses, and his work was included in three other anthologies compiled between 1669 and 1671. His name was gradually becoming known to a limited number of poets in the capital. That must have earned him considerable respect from the poets in his hometown too. Thus when Basho made his first attempt to compile a book of haikai, about thirty poets were willing to contribute verses to it. The book, called The Seashell Game (Kai Oi), was dedicated to a shrine in Ueno early in 1672.
The Seashell Game represents a haiku contest in thirty rounds. Pairs of haiku, each one composed by a different poet, are matched and judged by Basho. Although he himself contributed two haiku to the contest, the main value of the book lies in his critical comments and the way he refereed the matches. On the whole, the book reveals hi to be a man of brilliant wit and colorful imagination, who had a good knowledge of popular songs, fashionable expressions, and the new ways of the world in general. It appears he compiled the book in a lighthearted mood, but his poetic talent was evident.
Then, probably in the spring of 1672, Basho set out on a journey to Edo, apparently with no intention of returning in the immediate future. On parting he sent a haiku to one of his friends in Ueno:
Kumo to hedatsu Clouds will separate Tomo ka ya kari no The two friends, after migrating Ikiwakare Wild goose's departure.
His motive for going to Edo cannot be ascertained. Now that he had some education, he perhaps wanted to find a promising post in Edo, then a fast- expanding city which offered a number of career opportunities. Or perhaps, encouraged by the good reception that The Seashell Game enjoyed locally, he had already made up his mind to become a professional poet and wanted his name known in Edo, too. Most likely Basho had multiple motives, being yet a young man with plenty of ambition. Whether he wanted to be a government official or a haikai master, Edo seemed to be an easier place than Kyoto to realize his dreams. He was anxious to try out his potential in a different, freer environment.
Basho's life for the next eight years is somewhat obscure again. It is said that in his early days in Edo he stayed at the home of one or another of his patrons. That is perhaps true, but it is doubtful that he could remain a dependent for long. Various theories, none of them with convincing evidence, argue that he became a physician's assistant, a town clerk, or a poet's scribe. The theory generally considered to be the closest to the truth is that for some time he was employed by the local waterworks department. Whatever the truth, his early years in Edo were not easy. He was probably recalling those days when he later wrote: "At one time I was weary of verse writing and wanted to give it up, and at another time I was determined to be a poet until I could establish a proud name over others. the alternatives battled in my mind and made my life restless."
Though he may have been in a dilemma Basho continued to write verses in the new city. In the summer of 1675 he was one of several writers who joined a distinguished poet of the time in composing a renku of one hundred verses; Basho, now using the pseudonym Tosei, contributed eight. The following spring he and another poet wrote two renku, each consisting of one hundred verses.. After a brief visit to his native town later in the year, he began devoting more and more time to verse writing. He must have made up his mind to become a professional poet around this time, if he had not done so earlier. His work began appearing in various anthologies more and more frequently, indicating his increasing renown. When the New Year came he apparently distributed a small book of verses among his acquaintances, a practice permitted only to a recognized haikai master. In the winter of that year he judged two haiku contests, and when they were published as Haiku Contests in Eighteen Rounds (Juhachiban Hokku Awase), he wrote a commentary on each match. In the summer of 1680 The Best Poems of Tosei's Twenty Disciples (Tosei Montei Dokugin Nijikkasen) appeared, which suggests that Basho already had a sizeable group of talented students. Later in the same year two of his leading disciples matched their own verses in two contests, "The rustic haiku Contest" ("Inaka no Kuawase") and "The Evergreen haiku Contest" ("Tokiwaya no Kuawase"), and Basho served as the judge. that winter his students built a small house in a quiet, rustic part of Edo and presented it to their teacher. Several months later a banana tree was planted in the yard, giving the hut its famous name. Basho, firmly established as a poet, now had his own home for the first time in his life.
II. Second Metamorphosis: From Poet to Wanderer
Basho was thankful to have a permanent home, but he was not to be cozily settled there. With all his increasing poetic fame and material comfort, he seemed to become more dissatisfied with himself. In his early days of struggle he had had a concrete aim in life, a purpose to strive for. That aim, now virtually attained, did not seem to be worthy of all his effort. He had many friends, disciples, and patrons, and yet he was lonelier than ever. One of the first verses he wrote after moving into the Basho Hut was:
Shiba no to ni Against the brushwood gate Cha o konoha kaku Dead tea leaves swirl Arashi kana In the stormy wind.
Many other poems written at this time, including the haiku about the banana tree, also have pensive overtones. In a headnote to one of them he even wrote: "I feel lonely as I gaze at the moon, I feel lonely as I think about myself, and I feel lonely as I ponder upon this wretched life of mine. I want to cry out that I am lonely, but no one asks me how I feel."
It was probably out of such spiritual ambivalence that Basho began practicing Zen meditation under Priest Butcho (1642-1715), who happened to be staying near his home. He must have been zealous and resolute in this attempt, for he was later to recall: "...and yet at another time I was anxious to confine myself within the walls of a monastery." Loneliness, melancholy, disillusion, ennui - whatever his problem may have been, his suffering was real.
A couple of events that occurred in the following two years further increased his suffering. In the winter of 1682 the Basho Hut was destroyed in a fire that swept through the whole neighborhood. He was homeless again, and probably the idea that man is eternally homeless began haunting his mind more and more frequently. A few months later he received news from his family home that his mother had died. Since his father had died already in 1656, he was now not only without a home but without a parent to return to.
As far as poetic fame was concerned, Basho and his disciples were thriving. In the summer of 1683 they published Shriveled Chestnuts (Minashiguri), an anthology of haikai verses which in its stern rejection of crudity and vulgarity in theme and in its highly articulate, Chinese-flavored diction, set them distinctly apart from other poets. In that winter, when the homeless Basho returned from a stay in Kai Province, his friends and disciples again gathered together and presented him with a new Basho Hut. He was pleased, but it was not enough to do away with his melancholy. His poem on entering the new hut was:
Arare kiku ya The sound of hail - Kono mi wa moto no I am the same as before Furugashiwa Like that aging oak.
Neither poetic success nor the security of a home seemed to offer him much consolation. He was already a wanderer in spirit, and he had to follow that impulse in actual life.
Thus in the fall of 1684 Basho set out on his first significant journey. He had made journeys before, but not for the sake of spiritual and poetic discipline. Through the journey he wanted, among other things, to face death and thereby to help temper his mind and his poetry. He called it "the journey of a weather-beaten skeleton," meaning that he was prepared to perish alone and leave his corpse to the mercies of the wilderness if that was his destiny. If this seems to us a bit extreme, we should remember that Basho was of a delicate constitution and suffered from several chronic diseases, and that his travel in seventeenth-century Japan was immensely more hazardous than it is today.
It was a long journey, taking him to a dozen provinces that lay between Edo and Kyoto. From Edo he went westward along a main road that more or less followed the Pacific coastline. He passed by the foot of Mount Fuji, crossed several large rivers and visited the Grand Shinto Shrines in Ise. He then arrived at his native town, Ueno, and was reunited with his relatives and friends. His elder brother opened a memento bag and showed him a small tuft of gray hair from the head of his late mother.
Te ni toraba Should I hold it in my hand Kien namida zo atsuki It would melt in my burning tears - Aki no shimo Autumnal frost.
This is one of the rare cases in which a poem bares his emotion, no doubt because the grief he felt was uncontrollably intense.
After only a few days' sojourn in Ueno, Basho traveled farther on, now visiting a temple among the mountains, now composing verses with local poets. It was at this time that The Winter Sun (Fuyu no Hi), a collection of five renku which with their less pedantic vocabulary and more lyrical tone marked the beginning of Basho's mature poetic style, was produced. He then celebrated the New Year at his native town for the first time in years. He spent some more time visiting Nara and Kyoto, and when he finally returned to Edo it was already the summer of 1685.
The journey was a rewarding one. Basho met numerous friends, old and new, on the way. He produced a number of haiku and renku on his experiences during the journey, including those collected in The Winter Sun. He wrote his first travel journal, The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton (Nozarashi Kiko), too. Through all these experiences, Basho was gradually changing. In the latter part of the journal there appears, for instance, the following haiku which he wrote at the year's end:
Toshi kurenu Another year is gone - Kasa kite waraji A travel hat on my head, Hakinagara Straw sandals on my feet.
The poem seems to show Basho at ease in travel. The uneasiness that made him assume a strained attitude toward the journey disappeared as his trip progressed. He could not look at his wandering self more objectively, without heroism or sentimentalism.
He spent the next two years enjoying a quiet life at the Basho Hut. It was a modest but leisurely existence, and he could afford to call himself "an idle old man." He contemplated the beauty of nature as it changed with the seasons and wrote verses whenever he was inspired to do so. Friends and disciples who visited him shared his taste, and they often gathered to enjoy the beauty of the moon, the snow, or the blossoms. The following composition, a short prose piece written in the winter of 1686, seems typical of his life at this time:
A man named Sora has his temporary residence near my hut, so I often drop in at his place, and he at mine. When I cook something to eat, he helps to feed the fire, and when I make tea at night, he comes over for company. A quiet, leisurely person, he has become a most congenial friend of mine. One evening after a snowfall, he dropped in for a visit, whereupon I composed a haiku:Kimi hi o take Will you start a fire? Yoki mono misen I'll show you something nice - Yukimaroge A huge snowball.
The fire in the poem is to boil water for tea. Sora would prepare tea in the kitchen, while Basho, returning to the pleasures of a little boy, would make a big snowball in the yard. When the tea was ready, they would sit down and sip it together, humorously enjoying the view of the snowball outside. The poem, an unusually cheerful one for Basho, seems to suggest his relaxed, carefree frame of mind of those years.
The same sort of casual poetic mood led Basho to undertake a short trip to Kashima, a town about fifty miles east of Edo and well known for its Shinto shrine, to see the harvest moon. Sora and a certain Zen monk accompanied him in the trip in the autumn of 1687. Unfortunately it rained on the night of the full moon, and they only had a few glimpses of the moon toward dawn. Basho, however, took advantage of the chance to visit his former Zen master, Priest Butcho, who had retired to Kashima. The trip resulted in another of Basho's travel journals, A Visit to the Kashima Shrine (Kashima Kiko).
Then, just two months later, Basho set out on another long westward journey. He was far more at ease as he took leave than he had been at the outset of his first such journey three years earlier. He was a famous poet now, with a large circle of friends and disciples. They gave him many farewell presents, invited him to picnics and dinners, and arranged several verse-writing parties in his honor. Those who could not attend sent their poems. These verses, totaling nearly three hundred and fifty, were later collected and published under the title Farewell Verses (Kusenbetsu). there were so many festivities that to Basho "the occasion looked like some dignitary's departure - very imposing indeed."
He followed roughly the same route as on his journey of 1684, again visiting friends and writing verses here and there on the way. He reached Ueno at the year's end and was heartily welcomed as a leading poet in Edo. Even the young head of his former master's family, whose service he had left in his youth, invited him for a visit. In the garden a cherry tree which Yoshitada had loved was in full bloom:
Samazama no Myriads of things past Koto omoidasu Are brought to my mind - Sakura kana These cherry blossoms!
In the middle of the spring Basho left Ueno, accompanied by one of his students, going first to Mount Yoshino to see the famous cherry blossoms. He traveled to Wakanoura to enjoy the spring scenes of the Pacific coast, and then came to Nara at the time of fresh green leaves. On he went to Osaka, and then to Suma and Akashi on the coast of Seto Inland Sea, two famous places which often appeared in old Japanese classics.
From Akashi Basho turned back to the east, and by way of Kyoto arrived at Nagoya in midsummer. After resting there for awhile, he headed for the mountains of central Honshu, an area now popularly known as the Japanese Alps. An old friend of his and a servant, loaned to him by someone who worried about the steep roads ahead accompanied Basho. His immediate purpose was to see the harvest moon in the rustic Sarashina district. As expected, the trip was a rugged one, but he did see the full moon at that place celebrated in Japanese literature. He then traveled eastward among the mountains and returned to Edo in late autumn after nearly a year of traveling.
This was probably the happiest of all Basho's journeys. He had been familiar with the route much of the way, and where he had not, a friend and a servant had been there to help him. His fame as a poet was fairly widespread, and people he met on the way always treated him with courtesy. It was a productive journey, too. In addition to a number of haiku and renku, he wrote two journals: The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel (Oi no Kobumi), which covers his travel from Edo to Akashi, and A Visit to Sarashina Village (Sarashina Kiko), which focuses on his moon viewing trip to Sarashina. The former has an especially significant place in the Basho canon, including among other things a passage that declares the haikai to be among the major forms of Japanese art. He was now clearly aware of the significance of haikai writing; he was confident that the haikai, as a serious form of art, could point toward an invaluable way of life.
It was no wonder, then, that Basho began preparing for the next journey almost immediately. As he described it, it was almost as if the God of Travel were beckoning him. Obsessed with the charms of the traveler's life, he now wanted to go beyond his previous journeys; he wanted to be a truer wanderer than ever before. In a letter written around this time, he says he admired the life of a monk who wanders about with only a begging bowl in his hand. Basho now wanted to travel, not as a renowned poet, but as a self-disciplining monk. Thus in the pilgrimage to come he decided to visit the northern part of Honshu, a mostly rustic and in places even wild region where he had never been and had hardly an acquaintance. He was to cover about fifteen hundred miles on the way. Of course it was going to be the longest journey of his life.
Accompanied by Sora, Basho left Edo in the late spring of 1689. Probably because of his more stern and ascetic attitude toward the journey, farewell festivities were fewer and quieter this time. He proceeded northward along the main road stopping at places of interest such as the Tosho Shrine at Nikko, the hot spa at Nasu, and an historic castle site at Iizuka. When he came close to the Pacific coast near Sendai he admired the scenic beauty of Matsushima. From Hiraizumi, a town well known as the site of a medieval battle, Basho turned west and reached the coast of the Sea of Japan at Sakata. After a short trip to Kisagata in the north, he turned southwest and followed the main road along the coast. It was from this coast that he saw the island of Sado in the distance and wrote one of his most celebrated poems:
Araumiya The rough sea - Sado ni yokotau Extending toward Sado Isle, Amanogawa The Milky Way.
Because of the rains, the heat, and the rugged road, this part of the journey was very hard for Basho and Sora, and they were both exhausted when he finally arrived at Kanazawa. They rested at the famous hot spring at Yamanaka for a few days, but Sora, apparently because of prolonged ill- health, decided to give up the journey and left his master there. Basho continued alone until he reached Fukui. There he met an old acquaintance who accompanied him as far as Tsuruga, where another old friend had come to meet Basho, and the two traveled south until they arrived at Ogaki, a town Basho knew well. A number of Basho's friends and disciples were there, and the long journey through unfamiliar areas was finally over. One hundred and fifty-six days had passed since he left Edo.
The travel marked a climax in Basho's literary career. He wrote some of his finest haiku during the journey. The resulting journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi), is one of the highest attainments in the history of poetic diaries in Japan. His literary achievement was no doubt a result of his deepening maturity as a man. He had come to perceive a mode of life by which to resolve some deep dilemmas and to gain peace of mind. It was based on the idea of sabi, the concept that one attains perfect spiritual serenity by immersing oneself in the egoless, impersonal life of nature. The complete absorption of one's petty ego into the vast, powerful, magnificent universe - this was the underlying theme of many poems by Basho at this time, including the haiku on the Milky Way we have just seen. This momentary identification of man with inanimate nature was, in his view, essential to poetic creation. Though he never wrote a treatise on the subject, there is no doubt that Basho conceived some unique ideas about poetry in his later years. Apparently it was during this journey that he began thinking about poetry n more serious, philosophical terms. The two earliest books known to record Basho's thoughts on poetry, Records of the Seven Days (Kikigaki Nanukagusa) and Conversations at Yamanaka (Yamanaka Mondo), resulted from it.
Basho spent the next two years visiting his old friends and disciples in Ueno, Kyoto, and towns on the southern coast of Lake Biwa. With one or another of them he often paid a brief visit to other places such as Ise and Nara. Of numerous houses he stayed at during this period Basho seems to have especially enjoyed two: the Unreal Hut and the House of Fallen Persimmons, as they were called. The Unreal Hut, located in the woods off the southernmost tip of lake Biwa, was a quiet, hidden place where Basho rested from early summer to mid-autumn in 1690. He thoroughly enjoyed the idle, secluded life there, and described it in a short but superb piece of prose. Here is one of the passages:
In the daytime an old watchman from the local shrine or some villager from the foot of the hill comes along and chats with me about things I rarely hear of, such as a wild boar's looting the rice paddies or a hare's haunting the bean farms. When the sun sets under the edge of the hill and night falls, I quietly sit and wait for the moon. With the moonrise I begin roaming about, casting my shadow on the ground.
Basho had another chance to live a similarly secluded life later at the House of the Fallen Persimmons in Saga, a northwestern suburb of Kyoto. The house, owned by one of his disciples, Mukai Kyorai (1651-1704), was so called because persimmon trees grew around it. There were also a number of bamboo groves, which provided the setting for a well-known poem by Basho:
Hototogisu The cuckoo - Otakeyabu o Through the dense bamboo grove, Moru tsukiyo Moonlight seeping.
Basho stayed at this house for seventeen days in the summer of 1691. The sojourn resulted in The Saga Diary (Saga Nikki), the last of his longer prose works.
All during this period at the two hideaways and elsewhere in the Kyoto-Lake Biwa area, Basho was visited by many people who shared his interest in poetry. Especially close to him were two of his leading disciples, Kyorai and Nozawa Boncho (16?-1714), partly because they were compiling a haikai anthology under Basho's guidance. The anthology, entitled The Monkey's Raincoat (Sarumino) and published in the early summer of 1691 represented a peak in haikai of the Basho style. Basho's idea of sabi and other principles of verse writing that evolved during his journey to the far north were clearly there. Through actual example the new anthology showed that the haikai could be a serious art form capable of embodying mature comments on man and his environment.
Basho returned to Edo in the winter of 1691. His friends and disciples there, who had not seen him for more than two years, welcomed him warmly. for the third time they combined their efforts to build a hut for their master, who had given up the old one just before his latest journey. In this third Basho Hut, however, he could not enjoy the peaceful life he desired. For one thing, he now had a few people to look after. An invalid nephew had come to live with Basho, who took care of him until his death in the spring of 1693. A woman by the name of Jutei, with whom Basho apparently had had some special relationship in his youth, also seems to have come under his care at this time. She too was in poor health, and had several young children besides. Even apart from these involvements, Basho was becoming extremely busy, no doubt due to his great fame as a poet. many people wanted to visit him, or invited him for visits. for instance, in a letter presumed to have been written on the eighth of the twelfth month, 1693, he told one prospective visitor that he would not be home on the ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth, suggesting that the visitor come either on the thirteenth or the eighteenth.3 In another letter written about the same time, he bluntly said: "Disturbed by others, Have no peace of mind." That New Year he composed this haiku:
Toshidoshi ya Year after year Saru ni kisetaru On the monkey's face Saru no men A monkey's mask.
The poem has a touch of bitterness unusual for Basho. He was dissatisfied with the progress that he (and possibly some of his students) was making.
As these responsibilities pressed on him, Basho gradually became somewhat nihilistic. He had become a poet in order to transcend worldly involvements, but now he found himself deeply involved in worldly affairs precisely because of his poetic fame. The solution was either to renounce being a poet or to stop seeing people altogether. Basho first tried the former, but to no avail. "I have tried to give up poetry and remain silent," he said, "but every time I did so a poetic sentiment would solicit my heart and something would flicker in my mind. Such is the magic spell of poetry." He had become too much of a poet. Thus he had to resort to the second alternative: to stop seeing people altogether. This he did in the autumn of 1693, declaring:
Whenever people come, there is useless talk. Whenever I go, and visit, I have the unpleasant feeling of interfering with other men's business. Now I can do nothing better than follow the examples of Sun Ching and Tu Wu-lang,4 who confined themselves within locked doors. Friendlessness will become my friend, and poverty my wealth. A stubborn man at fifty years of age, I thus write to discipline myself.Obviously, Basho wished to admire the beauty of the morning-glory without having to keep a bolt on his gate. How to manage to do this must have been the subject of many hours of meditation within the locked house. He solved the problem, at least to his own satisfaction, and reopened the gate about a month after closing it.Asagao ya The morning-glory - Hiru wa jo orosu In the daytime, a bolt is fastened Mon no kaki On the frontyard gate.
Basho's solution was based on the principle of "lightness," a dialectic transcendence of sabi. Sabi urges man to detach himself from worldly involvements; "lightness" makes it possible for him, after attaining that detachment, to return to the mundane world. man lives amid the mire as a spiritual bystander. He does not escape the grievances of living; standing apart, he just smiles them away. Basho began writing under this principle and advised his students to emulate him. The effort later came to fruition in several haikai anthologies, such as A Sack of Charcoal (Sumidawara), The Detached Room (Betsuzashiki) and The Monkey's Cloak, Continued (Zoku Sarumino). Characteristic verses in these collections reject sentimentalism and take a calm, carefree attitude to the things of daily life. they often exude lighthearted humor.
Having thus restored his mental equilibrium, Basho began thinking about another journey. He may have been anxious to carry his new poetic principle, "lightness," to poets outside of Edo, too. Thus in the summer of 1694 he traveled westward on the familiar road along the Pacific coast, taking with him one of Jutei's children, Jirobei. He rested at Ueno for a while, and then visited his students in Kyoto and in town near the southern coast of Lake Biwa. Jutei, who had been struggling against ill health at the Basho Hut, died at this time and Jirobei temporarily returned to Edo. Much saddened, Basho went back to Ueno in early autumn for about a month's rest. He then left for Osaka with a few friends and relatives including his elder brother's son Mataemon as well as Jirobei. But Basho's health was rapidly failing, even though he continued to write some excellent verses. One of his haiku in Osaka was:
Kono aki wa This autumn Nan de toshiyoru Why am I aging so? Kumo ni tori Flying towards the clouds, a bird.
The poem indicates Basho's awareness of approaching death. Shortly afterward he took to his bed with a stomach ailment, from which he was not to recover. Numerous disciples hurried to Osaka and gathered at his bedside. He seems to have remained calm in his last days. He scribbled a deathbed note to his elder brother, which in part read: "I am sorry to have to leave you now. I hope you will live a happy life under Mataemon's care and reach a ripe old age. There is nothing more I have to say." The only thing that disturbed his mind was poetry. According to a disciple's record, Basho fully knew that it was time for prayers, not for verse writing, and yet he thought of the latter day and night. Poetry was now an obsession - "a sinful attachment," as he himself called it. His last poem was:
Tabi ni yande On a journey, ailing - Yume wa kareno o My dreams roam about Kakemeguru Over a withered moor.