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BASHÔ (1644-1694)


SAIKAKU (1642-1693)


by Matsuo Bashô (1644-1694)

Bashô the Traveler
Matsuo Bashô is commonly referred to by his given name, Bashô, rather than his family name, Matsuo. This is the custom with certain Japanese writers.

Donald Keene :: Bashô is known to the Japanese today not only because of his haiku, but because of the prose compositions he wrote.

The most famous of his travel accounts is his journey to the north of Japan, which, prior to this time, was considered to be a very unromantic place. It was a cold and desolate place. But because of Bashô, it is now the most popular object of pilgrimages, films, and so on.

Haruo Shirane :: What's interesting about this is that Bashô at a certain point in his career started to take on the poetic persona of the traveler, of a particular kind of traveler, and that was the traveling priest in the Noh plays. [Noh is a traditional Japanese dramatic art form.]

And what happens in Oku No Hosomichi or Narrow Road to the Deep North, which is his great masterpiece, is that Bashô the traveler not only travels around Japan composing poetry and composing on everyday life, but he takes the pose of the traveling priest and encounters the spirits of the past. So he's traveling both geographically around Japan, as well as traveling back into the past.

Donald Keene :: But, for him, going to these places was a stimulus for composing new poetry. It was an excitement at being in places which he had heard about but had never seen, and it was an occasion for composing some of his greatest poems. I think if you were to choose Bashô 's ten greatest poems, assuming there are ten greatest ones, I think at least six or seven of them would be ones that were composed on this journey.

[Excerpt from Narrow Road to the Deep North]

Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives traveling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind filled with a strong desire to wander.

Excerpt from Yuasa, Nobuyuki, trans., The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1966), p. 97.