Matsuo Bashō by fellow poet and painter Yosa Buson via wikimedia
The Narrow Road to Oku surprised me. I hadn’t expected to enjoy the travelogue as much as I did and one aspect that I found fascinating was the figure of Matsuo Bashō himself. Having read the story about his arduous trip to the north of Japan, told with such grace, I wanted to know more about this figure. Who was he, what prompted him to set out on such a journey and to write about it in the way that he did?
The bare bones of his biography were not too difficult to uncover. Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644 in Ueno in the province of Iga into a family who were members of a low ranking samurai family. As a boy he entered the service of Tōdō Yoshitada, a member of the local ruling family and it was there that Bashō began to develop his literary talent under his new master who took a keen interest in poetry. Following the sudden death of Yoshitada, Bashō moved away from his home town, away from his status as a samurai, and travelled, first spending time in Kyoto. There he honed his poetic skills further before moving to Edo in his late twenties. In his Matsuo Bashō, Makoto Ueda suggests that, until moving to Edo, Bashō had not completely committed to writing poetry, possibly considering other more commonplace jobs. However, from the time of his move to Edo, Bashō dedicated himself to a poetic vocation. After establishing himself as master haiku poet and teacher, participating in renku competitions (at which he was an acknowledged master), and teaching groups of students, Bashō decided to test himself through travel, going on journeys and moving centrifugally from the areas around Edo to the northern provinces of Japan. Returning from his travels, he moved around the country, often staying with friends before finally settling back in Edo where he remained until his death.
However, like many biographies, the facts of his life are not very communicative for alongside this was a story of poetic development that intrigued me with its clarity of purpose and single-mindedness. It is tempting to trace this development in a series of decisions that he made: renouncing his samurai status; leaving Kyoto, the obvious cultural centre for a poet; writing in a deliberately formal and classical style, often looking back to the graceful dictates of Chinese poetry, when other writers were drawing inspiration from the world of the chōnin; treating travel writing with as much care and seriousness of purpose as a stylised haiku; setting out on difficult and dangerous journeys. In each case, the decision seems to be to clarify and simplify, to pare down and identify what really matters.
As Makoto Ueda has suggested, Bashō’s poetic development dovetails with, and is at times part of, a spiritual quest which is engaged with the problem of living itself. Bashō’s quest to develop himself spiritually and poetically was both inspiring and cheering to read about. It was whilst he was living in Edo that he first started living at the so called Bashō hut. Near his small house was a banana tree with leaves that were soft, useless for building, and easily torn by the wind. It seems an almost irresistible symbol for a poet and Bashō was so drawn to this tree that he took the name Bashō (banana tree) as a new pen name. He has left us a haunting image of himself in this house:
A banana plant in the autumn gale-
I listen to the dripping of rain
Into a basin at night
The sound of an oar beating the waves
Chills my bowels through
And I weep in the night
(both haiku from Ueda p.19 and p.45)
The years at the Bashō hut seem to have been ones of mental turmoil, full of loneliness and self-questioning. As he says “I feel lonely as I gaze at the moon, I feel lonely as I think about myself, and I feel lonely as I ponder on this wretched life of mine. I want to cry out that I am lonely, but no one asks how I feel” (Ueda p.24). But Bashō also reveals a determination to remain on the path he has chosen for himself: “I merely clung to that thin line” of poetry (Ueda p.120). The poet’s honesty as he feels his way through a troubled period in his life is immediately appealing and inspiriting.
The travels were, in part, an attempt to tackle the problems Bashō was encountering but they were also an attempt to answer the question of how one should live and write. From 1684 onwards he began to travel on a series of journeys that took him from the provinces around Edo and his home town of Ueno, gradually moving further east and north, going to destinations such as Sarashina to view the harvest moon. Ueda argues that Bashō’s travels were a way of testing both the man and the poet, forcing Bashō to reflect on his needs and his place within the wider world. Setting out on his hazardous journeys allowed Bashō to push himself out of his everyday existence and face himself head on. Bashō’s other journeys, wonderfully titled as The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel or, tellingly, The Records of the Weather-Exposed Skeleton record his attempts to shape his personal troubles into a philosophical and spiritual quest for the best way to live and into a poetic form that will communicate this new vision. “No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry” (Yuasa, p.28)
The loneliness that the poet encountered at the banana tree hut becomes, through his travels, an attempt to understand his place in the universe and express this with clarity and detachment in his poetry. It is moving to read of Bashō’s determined efforts to take his feelings of loneliness and wrestle them into something new. As Ueda argues, the importance of sabi (loneliness or solitariness) becomes central to Bashō’s maturing philosophy and poetic style. Travelling through Narumi in The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel he describes a darkening night where the calling of the birds “Invite me to stare/Into the darkness/Of the starlit Promontory (Yuasa, p.74). His detachment leads the focus away from the “me” of the traveller and towards a beautifully modulated, objective description, leaning towards the symbolic, yet grounded in real observation. Through confronting his solitude and putting the demands of the self to one side, Bashō finds a deeper connection to the world around him – one that brings clarity and also comfort. Through solitariness, it is possible to feel less alone.
The precisely observed, detached quality of Bashō’s writing fascinated me and I was intrigued to come across several expressions of his own literary theory. Bashō advocates control, detachment and a certain obliqueness, forcing the reader to work with the poet to create the meaning in the text: “the connecting link should be by means of shadow” (Ueda, p.104). There is also a real determination to see clearly: “you should put into words the light in which you see something before it vanishes from your mind” (Kato, p.159). Clarity of vision becomes poetic insight in an attempt to capture and recreate a fleeting moment.
As Bashō famously says:
Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural – if the object and yourself are separate then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit”. (Yuasa, p.33)
The writer must transcend the self; not only stand outside the object that is in view, but look more fully into it, opening up then eliding the gap between subject and object. In order to see clearly we must move beyond the self but also, somehow, return to it again cleansed of “subjective preoccupation”. What wise advice, both for writing and for living.
Makoto Ueda Matuso Bashō (Kodansha International, 1982)
Matsuo Bashō The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa, Penguin, 1966)
Shuichi Kato A History of Japanese Literature: From the Manyyoshu to Modern Times (trans. Don Sanderson, Japan Library, 1997)
Matsuo Bashō The Narrow Road to Oku (trans. Donald Keene, Kodansha International, 1996)