Matsuo Basho

1644‐1694

Matsuo Munefusa was born in Ueno, Iga Province, part of present‐day Mie Prefecture. One of six children, his father was a low ranking provincial samurai who made a living by teaching calligraphy. Basho entered into the service of a local ruling military house where he befriended the young heir, who enjoyed linked verse. Together they studied with Kitamura Kigin, one of the leading poets of the day. In a poetry anthology of 1664, Basho had two compositions published and his patron, one. Basho’s master died suddenly in 1666.

In 1672, at age 28, Basho set out for Edo (now Tokyo), the seat of the Tokugawa shoguns in order to make his career as a professional poet. His first book had been recently published, and about thirty of his verses were in anthologies. He hoped to gain income as a teacher and corrector of poetry.

Edo at the time had a population of six hundred thousand and was growing, but Basho’s early years there were not easy. For four years, he had to supplement his income through a post at the department of waterworks. Ultimately, Basho achieved success with his writing. Linked verse poetry anthologies sold well, and Basho’s poetry was often in them. Within eight years, he was asked to judge linked‐verse contests and publish commentaries upon them. As his number of students grew, Basho was able to publish their best poems in an anthology in 1680. An admirer helped establish Basho in a small cottage at Fukagawa in Edo. One of his followers, a year later, presented him with a banana plant, a Basho‐an. His cottage became known as the Hermitage of the Banana Plant, and the poet, who had been known by the pen name, Tosei, decided to use the name Basho. His house burned in 1682, and it was at this time that Basho began to study Zen at the Chokei Temple in Fukagawa. By 1683, his house was rebuilt and Basho returned to Edo.

This began a time when Basho began to travel. In 1684, he traveled to his birthplace which resulted in the work, The Weatherbeaten Trip. He also published a haiku collection, Winter Days, which was composed with his disciples. Basho described the abstract beauty behind the appearance of the world. The inner beauty of nature isn’t readily apparent to most people, but those able to view and understand that beauty gain a deeper understanding of the universe.

Two years later, Spring Days, was compiled by Basho’s followers, though Basho edited and revised the collection. The anthology contains his famous haiku verse: “old pond…/a frog leaps in/water’s sound”

Oku no hosomichi, his greatest travel diary, told of his trip through northern Japan in 1689. Traveling with his disciple, Kawai Sora, for over five months, Basho covered approximately 1,500 miles. He edited this work until 1694; it was published in 1702.

Two other anthologies, Wasteland, and The Monkey’s Raincoat, from 1689 and 1691 respectively, showed Basho’s mature work. In late 1691, Basho returned to Edo where a new house complete with another banana plant awaited him. For the next three years, he discussed poetry, met with his disciples, and edited work.

Spring 1694, Basho set off on his last journey – to his birthplace. While ill in Osaka, he wrote his final poem: “Stricken while journeying/my dreams still wander about/but on withered fields.”

Bibliography

“Matsuo Basho.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998.

“Matsuo Basho.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. 2108‐2111.

Center for Asian Studies, University of Colorado, 2010