The Gift

A gift becomes his name — 松尾 芭蕉, Matsuo Basho.

bashō uete / mazu nikumu/ ogi no futaba kana

Planting this banana,
Now I hate
Sprouting Silvergrass

Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Basho-an, Spring 1681
Silvergrass, Ogi, Miscanthus

[Previously translated]

A Simple Gift

No gift had a greater impact on Matsuo Basho than the giving of a banana plant by his disciple Rika. Indeed, when he was given this gift in the spring of 1681, Matsuo was not yet Basho, a word that means banana plant in English. The occasion of the gift giving was Matsuo’s move from central Edo south across the Sumida River to the rural Fukagawa District.

The basho plant (芭蕉) was a housewarming gift.

The ogi, 荻 which once grew profusely near Matsuo’s cottage, dwarfing his tiny banana tree, had now become a threat to his new banana plant. The Latin name of the ogi is Miscanthus sacchariflorus, better known in a nursery as Amur silvergrass, that flowers in the fall and keeps its silvery silhouette throughout the winter.

As the banana plant thrived, Basho’s cottage would become known as Basho’an.

Becoming Basho

I can think of three reasons why Matsuo would choose Basho as his pen name. First, he was then writing under the name Tosei, meaning an unripe peach. Matsuo had by this time mastered much of what there was to learn about haiku, so it was time to become something more substantial.

A banana plant is anything but substantial, and that is probably what Matsuo liked most about this plant. Its broad leaves blew in the wind, and in a storm, they were often torn. Moreover, this particular banana did not produce fruit. It was decorative.

An artist’s view of himself or herself in society.

Finally, I will add this — the banana originated in China, in Sichuan to be more precise. And Matsuo owed a debt to his Chinese counterparts, the poets of the Tang dynasty like Li Bai and Bai Juyi.

The Basho plant, ばしょう

As Years Go By

Years later when the first Basho-an burned down, a second one was built. Basho brought to this new location a sprout from the original banana plant, then reflected:

What year did I come to nest here, planting a single Bashō
The climate must be good — around the first one new trunks have
grown up, their leaves so thick they crowd out my
garden and shade my house. People named my hut after this
plant. Every year, old friends and students who like my tree
take cuttings or divide the roots and carry them off to this place and that.

Matsuo Basho, Basho-an, 1683-84

Later that year Matsuo Basho left Basho-an on the first of four major wanderings.

Simple Gifts

The simplest gifts are the best gifts. The gifts that mean the most is the gift of family and friends.

Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

Simple Gifts, Shaker song, Elder Joseph Brackett, 1848

Of Jim and Della, it is said they were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he and she owned in order to buy a gift for the other. And discover the greatest gift is each other.

Being in Love,
their gifts were Wise ones
— the Gift of Each Other

O’Henry, The Gift of the Magi, 1905

Note. This post was written December 26, 2021, after all the gift giving has been done.


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