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"Matsuo" was the poet's family name, but he is usually referred to simply as "Basho" without the surname. He was known as Kinsaku as a child, and Munefusa after coming of age. He took a number of pen names in his life. An earlier pseudonym, Tosei, means unripe peach (or peach in blue), a homage to the Chinese poet Li Po, whose name means plum in white. He took the name bashō, which means banana tree, from a tree given to him by a disciple and planted near his hut. It is said that the climate was too cool for this tree to bear fruit, and that he intended the pen name to evoke the idea of a useless poet, or at least of affection for what is useless.
Alternate romanizations for Basho are rare, but can include Matuo Basyou, using Nihon-shiki, or Matuwo Baseu using a romanization corresponding more closely to the orthography used during his lifetime.
He was born in Ueno, in Iga Province, near Kyoto. He was the son of a low-ranking samurai, and initially worked in the service of a local lord, Todo Yoshitada, who was only two years older than himself. They both enjoyed writing haiku, and Basho's first known work dates from 1662. By 1664 his first poems were published in Kyoto. Around this time he adopted the samurai name of Munefusa. In 1666 his master died, and Basho opted to leave home rather than to serve a new master. His father had died in 1656.
Traditionally he is thought to have lived in Kyoto for at least part of the next six years; he had poems published in several anthologies during this time. In 1672 he moved to Edo (now Tokyo). He continued to write, and by 1676 he was recognised as a master of haikai, publishing his own chapbook and judging poetry contests. He acquired a following of students, who built for him the first Basho hut in the winter of 1680.
Basho found his success unsatisfying, and turned to Zen meditation for solace. In the winter of 1682 the hut burned down, and his mother died early in 1683. In the winter of 1683 his disciples gave him a second hut, but he remained dissatisfied. In the autumn of 1684 he began a journey which he was later to call The Records of a Weather-beaten Skeleton (Nozarashi Kiko )—the title of a travel journal of prose and poems which he produced at the journey's end. The trip took him from Edo to Mount Fuji, to Ise, Ueno and Kyoto, before returning to Edo in the summer of 1685.
From his fast walking pace on trips, some believe that Basho may have been a ninja. His long journeys also allowed him to observe conditions in the various provinces and hear the latest news, information of interest to the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate, which did employ ninjas for such work. Basho's birthplace in the Ueno area of Iga Province was rich in the ninja tradition, and he may have been a bodyguard to Todo Yoshitada in his early life. However, few literary scholars take the suggestion that he was a spy for the Tokugawa Shogunate seriously.
The journey seems to have been successful in banishing some of his demons, and his writings of the next few years tell of his peaceful enjoyment of friendship and nature. He made a short journey to Kashima in the autumn of 1687, in order to observe the harvest moon there. Again he produced a journal of the excursion, A Visit to the Kashima Shrine (Kashima Kiko ).
In the winter of that year he began his next long journey, after being given a send-off that "looked like a dignitary's departure". He passed through Ueno, Osaka, Suma , Akashi, Kyoto, Nagoya, the Japanese Alps and Sarashina, where he saw the harvest moon. The trip from Edo to Akashi is recounted in The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel (Oi no Kobumi ), in which he sets out his belief in the haikai as a major art form. The Sarashina trip is described in A Visit to Sarashina Village (Sarashina Kiko ).
Towards the end of spring, 1689, he began a more challenging excursion to the wilds of northern Honshu. Stops on this trip included the Nikko Toshogu, Matsushima, Kisagata and Kanazawa, this last part of the journey passing Sado island. Again he produced a travel diary, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi), which is dominated by the concept of sabi: the identification of man with nature. Two further volumes developed the idea: Record of the Seven Days (Kikigaki Nanukagusa ) and Conversations at Yamanaka (Yamanaka Mondo ).
From autumn 1689 onwards, Basho spent two years visiting friends and making short journeys around the area of Kyoto and Lake Biwa. During this period he worked on an anthology being compiled by some of his pupils—The Monkey's Raincoat (Sarumino )—which expressed and followed the aesthetic principles which he had arrived at during his northern journey.
In the winter of 1691 he returned to Edo to live in his third Basho hut, again provided by his followers. However, he did not remain alone: he took in a nephew and a woman friend, Jutei, who were both unwell, and he had a great many visitors. He complained in one letter that this left him "no peace of mind". In the autumn of 1693 he refused to see anybody for a month, relenting only after adopting the principle of karumi or "lightness": a policy of non-attachment which allowed him to live in the world but to rise above its frustrations.
- Travelling, sick
- My dreams roam
- On a withered moor
It was Basho who raised the haiku from a comic verse, often written for light relief, to a serious form, imbued with the spirit of Zen Buddhism. Many of his haiku were in fact the first three lines of longer renga (which some critics consider his best work) rather than standalone works, but they have been collected and published on their own many times and his work was a great inspiration to later writers such as Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki. One of the most famous haiku attributed to him (Matsushimaya Aa Matsushimaya Matsushimaya, extolling the wordless beauty of Matsushima Bay) was actually written by a late Edo period poet, Tawarabo . Basho preferred writing on the twelfth day of the tenth month of the lunar calendar, and using Shigure (時雨), a cold fall rain as a kigo.
Basho travelled very widely during his life, and many of his writings reflect his experiences on his travels. His book Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道, The Narrow Road Through the Deep North), written in 1694 and widely seen as his finest, is an example of this. In it, prose descriptions of the landscape through which he travelled are interspersed with the haiku for which he is now most famous.
- Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, Stanford University Press © 1992 ISBN 0-8047-1916-0 cloth ISBN 0-8047-2526-8 pbk [457 pp. 255 hokku]
- Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō, Stanford University Press © 1998 ISBN 0-8047-3098-9 cloth ISBN 0-8047-3099-7 pbk [381 pp.]
- Oku no Hosomichi in Japanese and English with notes.
- Classical Japanese Database — various poems by Basho in original and translation
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