Authors: Matsuo Bashō

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Japanese poet


Ueno, Iga Province, Japan

November 28, 1694

Ōsaka, Japan


Born Matsuo Munefusa into a warrior family in Iga Province in the year 1644, as a youth Matsuo Bashō—also known as simply Bashō—served in the house of Tōdō Yoshikiyo, warden of Ueno Castle, east of the ancient capital of Nara, as the personal retainer of Yoshikiyo’s son Yoshitada. Yoshitada was himself interested in the haikai, was a disciple of the poet Kitamura Kigin, and had the pen name of Sengin. Apparently this poetic activity stirred Bashō’s interest, for there are early poems of his which were evaluated and corrected by Kigin.

Matsuo Bashō

By Hokusai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yoshitada died in 1666, when Bashō was twenty-two. This was a turning point in Bashō’s life, for he abandoned further feudal service. He seems to have gone to Kyoto, and in 1672 he was in Edo (now Tokyo), where he found employment at the local water works. By this time he had acquired a number of disciples, and one of them offered him a small residence. From that time on he devoted his life to his art. Two schools of haikai poetry were prevalent in Edo at this time, the old Teitoku School and the newer, more liberal Danrin School headed by Nishiyama Sōin. Bashō preferred the latter, and he associated himself with the school’s members; eventually, however, he tired of their tendency to run to empty witticisms. Bashō began to form his own school around 1677, gathering around him numerous disciples who admired his attempts to merge the humor and lightness traditionally associated with haikai with a philosophical seriousness. His school brought haikai linked poetry, haibun (haikai prose), and the seventeen-syllable hokku, or haiku, to a new height.

His poems and writings show his love of nature. In 1684 he began his wanderings through various parts of Japan, composing haiku as he went, and writing his famous travel accounts and diaries. In the middle of 1694 he set out west on another trip, and after having visited various places on the way, he visited his childhood home in Ueno before going on to Ōsaka, where he fell ill and died. His master’s death and his later tribulations in Edo and on his wanderings had made him an introspective and moral man, although not devoid of humor.

The nom de plume which he used was Tōsei of the Hut of the Bashō. Bashō, meaning plantain, was the name of his residence because a plantain tree grew there. There are numerous schools of the haikai and haiku in Japan today, but they all stem from Bashō, so great has been his influence on Japanese seventeen-syllable poetry. He is one of Japan’s most highly esteemed poets and one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature.

Author Works Poetry: Sarumino, 1691 (Monkey’s Raincoat, 1973) Haikai shichibu-shū, no date Nonfiction: Nozarashi kikō, 1687 (The Record of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, 1966) Oku no hosomichi, 1694 (travel; The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1933) Sarashina kikō, 1704 (travel; A Visit to Sarashina Village, 1966) Oi no kobumi, 1709 (travel; The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, 1966). Miscellaneous: The Essential Bashō, 1999 Bibliography Aitken, Robert. A Zen Wave: Bashō’s Haiku and Zen. Weatherhill, 1978. One of the few studies of Bashō by a Western roshi, or master teacher of Zen. This overview evaluates the poet’s work in the context of Zen philosophy, offering the claim that Bashō’s haiku transcend mere nature poetry and instead serve as a way of presenting fundamental religious truths about mind, nature, and cosmos. Caws, Mary Ann, ed. Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading. Modern Language Association of America, 1986. Earl Miner’s chapter on Bashō has as its main thesis that Bashō has not been known in the West as he would have wished to be known. The focus of his discussion is the fact that the Western concept of mimesis, what is real and what is fiction, differs from its Eastern counterpart, opening the way to misunderstanding. Hamill, Sam, trans. The Essential Bashō. Shambhala, 1999. The introduction to this work represents Bashō as a consummate writer. In this work, religious issues are significantly downplayed. Instead Hamill presents his subject as a poetic and philosophical wanderer: someone engaged in a lifelong process of literary experimentation and discovery. Particularly fascinating is the overview of Bashō’s transformation from a highly derivative stylist to a powerfully original poet. Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō. Stanford UP, 1998. This work puts the poet in the position of cultural conservationist, arguing that Bashō’s poems drew upon deeply held concepts of nature. Ueda, Makoto, editor. Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary.Stanford UP, 1992. This work is a chronologically organized anthology of Bashō’s poems, each accompanied by the original Japanese text (transliterated into Western characters) and literal translations. Although this anthology offers little new insight into Bashō’s life or interpretations of his work, this volume does demonstrate the tremendous influence of translation on the written word. Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Bashō. Twayne, 1970. This study offers a brief biography as well as general perspectives on the author’s major works. In addition to the expected focus on haiku, it treats Bashō’s renku (long, collaboratively written poems) and prose works.

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