Tokugawa Art and Culture

The Battle of Sekigahara (1600)


Linked Verse

A Master of Haiku Poetry
Basho (1644-94)

Basho is most famous for a travel-journal called The Narrow Road of Oku in which he attempts to resolve the difficulties associated with living in the dusty world of samsara (i.e. the Buddhist notion of rebirth that is contrasted with the enlightenment of nirvana). According to one biographer:
Through the journey he wanted, among other things, to face death and thereby to help temper his mind and his poetry.  He called it “the journey of a weather-beaten skeleton,” meaning that he was prepared to perish alone and leave his corpse to the mercies of the wilderness if that was his destiny.” [Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho, 25-6]
This gave him a unique perspective on the aesthetic principle of sabi, which he reinterprets as:
…the concept that one attains perfect spiritual serenity by immersing oneself in the egoless, impersonal life of nature.  The complete absorption of one’s petty ego into the vast, powerful, magnificent universe…” [Matsuo Basho, 30]
This approach to sabi is well-expressed in the following haiku from The Narrow Road of Oku:

Araumi ya
Sado ni yokotau

The rough sea—
Extending toward Sado Isle,
The Milky Way.

[Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho, pp. 30 and 54]

In order to bring out the full meaning of these haiku, Basho provides a prose account of the context in which he wrote the poem, as in the following exerpt:
The three generations of glory of the Fujiwara of Hiraizumi vanished in the space of a dream.  The ruins of their Great Gate are two miles this side of the castle; where once Hidehira’s mansion stood are now fields, and only the golden cockerel Mountain remains as in former days.
    We first climbed up to Castle-on-the-Heights, from where we could see the Kitagami, a large river that flows down from the north.  Here Yoshitsune once fortified himself with some picked retainers, but his great glory turned in a moment into this wilderness of grass.  “Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain.  When spring comes to the ruined castle, the grass is green again.”  These lines went through my head as I sat on the ground, my bamboo hat spread under me.  There I sat weeping, unaware of the passage of time.

Natsugusa ya
Tsuwamono domo ga
Yume no ato

The summer grasses—
Of brave soldiers’ dreams
The aftermath.

  [Anthology of Japanese Literature, 369]

Composing Haiku

Haiku are non-rhyming poems written in three lines with 5-7-5 syllables.  The only other rules are that there should be one word which somehow evokes a season, as well as a “cutting word” that provides a break in the poem like the hyphen in the above examples from Basho.  Further composition hints can be found at:

kutabirete/yado karu koro ya/fuji no hana
As I seek a bower [i.e. a rustic cottage]
Weary from travel, I find
A wisteria flower

Additional Resources
Haiku: In Basho’s Footsteps
[Video: on order]

Theater in Japan
[AV. 792.0952 T34f video

Tradition of Performing Arts in Japan:
The Heart of Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku
[AV. 792.0952 T67s video