The 325th Anniversary of Matsuo Bashō’s Death

November 28, 2019

He was not old by Japanese standards of the 17th century. The Tokugawa shogunate had established peace and tranquility throughout the land. One could expect live to a Biblically allotted time span of 70 years.

But Matsuo Bashō died young, at the age of 50, perhaps worn out by his many travels, the journeys that made him famous.

In this early death, he resembled other famous writers including the Chinese Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, who died at 58; English playwright, William Shakespeare, who died at the age of 52;  or the American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who also died at the age of 58. She, explaining in a poem the nearness of death, wrote that:

My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light!

Bashō’s Final Journey

Today, November 28, 1694, marks the 325th anniversary of the death of Japan’s greatest haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō. He must of anticipated his death for he made a final  journey home in the fall of 1694. Having spent time in Ueno, his birthplace, and Kyoto, where he spent time as a student,  he arrived in Osaka, where he took ill.

One final haiku:

Stricken on my journey
My dreams will wander about
On withered fields of grass

Tabi ni yande/ Yume wa kareno wo/ Kakemeguru
旅に病んで 夢は枯野を かけ廻る

Bashō’s Final Illness

The news of his illness had spread to friends and students. And they gathered around his bed as his spirit left to wander this world. The image was one that was familiar to Basho, for he had often attended the Noh (能) theaters in Edo and, no doubt, in Kyoto where he learned the art of haiku as a student. Noh theater is a peculiar Japanese art form, popularized by Zeami Motokiyo, that includes only male actors who wear masks to represent emotions and typecast figures. Noh drama includes music, physical expression, and dance. The stories often relate to dreams, supernatural worlds, ghosts and spirits.

Life is a lying dream, he only wakes who casts the world aside.
Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443).

Bashō’s Dream

In an earlier haiku (June 29, 1689), Bashō alluded to a well-known Samurai figure, Minamoto no Yoshitsune who was treacherously killed in battle by the last Fujiwara lord, and the subject of a Noh play,

summer grass
and a warrior’s dreams
are what remains
natsukusa ya/ tsuwamono domo ga/ yume no ato
夏草や   兵どもが   夢の跡

 

Bashō’s Burial

Matsuo Bashō wanted companionship on his wanderings in the spirit world; and in accordance with his last wishes, his body was taken to Gichuji Temple, near the banks of Lake Biwa, where he was buried next to the famed Samurai Minamoto no Yoshinaka.

Yasuraka ni nemuru
安らかに眠る

Rest in peace!

banana-trees

Autumn Wind – aki kaze

From East to West
Oh, the Feeling is One
Autumn Wind

(Autumn wind – a cold, biting wind that brings rain and loneliness)

higashi nishi  / aware sa hitotsu / aki  no kaze

東西    あはれさひとつ      秋の風

Hiroshige-Atake-detail

Autumn 1688

This is a repeat post.

Written by Matsuo Bashō in the autumn of 1688, on hearing of the death of Mukai Chine 向井千子, the sister of Bashō’s friend and disciple Mukai Kyorai 向井去来. She too was a poet who died at the young age of 25.  Higashi is Bashō in the East (Edo, the east capital) – nishi is Kyorai in the West (Kyoto, the western capital, and Nagasaki, his far western home).

Kyoto is home to two Buddhist temples, Nishi Hongan-ji  and Nishi Hongan-ji.

Notes of translation

Bashō’s introductory greeting, higashi nishi, parallels the traditional greeting made in Kabuki theater, Tozai, tozai, “to” meaning east, and “zai” meaning west. Aki no kaze is the biting cold autumn wind that brings loneliness.

Autumn’s End – aki no kure

Like a crow landed
on a withered branch
autumn ends

a withered branch
a perched crow
autumn ends

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

枯朶に   烏 のとまりけり   秋の暮

crow on a withered branch basho

Autumn of 1680*

At least six of Matsuo Bashō’s haiku contain the phrase aki no kure. And of those that can be dated, they bear a date that falls within the last 10 days of the 9th lunar month (thus, the end of autumn). These haiku are thus a contemporaneous accounting of the poet’s feelings at that time of year.

This well-known haiku was written in the autumn of 1680. Bashō had left Edo and just moved to Fukagawa on the east bank of the Sumida River, to escape the city’s din and the bright lights of Nihonbashi, the theater district. Basho is now 36 years old and has 14 years of life before his death.

In Asian countries, there is a festival celebrated on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month. As the number nine in Japan is yang, this is double yang, thus, an inauspicious date. In Japan, the festival is known as Chōyō or as the Chrysanthemum Festival. The festival wishes for a long life and observed by drinking chrysanthemum sake.

Matsuo Bashō’s haiku adds a dose of reality to the frivolity.

Notes on translation

kare eda ni may mean both a withered branch or a leafless branch. The haiku’s imagery is similar to  William Butler Yeats’ “tattered coat upon a stick”.

Karasu no tomarikeri, Basho’s crow karasu has come to rest for the moment.

Aki no kure, a familiar kigo phrase signifying the end of autumn, and winter’s approach.

Sources

As this is one of Basho’s oft repeated haiku there are many sources and interpretations.

A Crow on a Bare Branch by Elin Sütiste, a scholarly comparison of translations.

A Crow on a Withered Branch, my own prior post on the same haiku.

*Another source dates the haiku to the spring of 1681.

Compare

Tang dynasty Chinese poet, Zhang Ji, Mooring at Night by Maple Bridge

The moon sets, crows weep, and frost fills the sky.
In the maple trees by the riverside, the lights of a fishing boat, a troubled sleep.
At Gusu city, Hanshan Temple

William Shakespeare’s description of Autumn in Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Kawanabe_Kyosai_Crow-bkg

A dream within a dream, 夢のまた夢

As the dew appears
As the dew disappears
Such is my life, that Naniwa
Is a dream within a dream.

露と落ち     露と消えにし     我が身かな       難波のことは      夢のまた夢
tsuyu to ochi / tsuyu to kienishi / waga mi kana / naniwa no koto wa / yume no mata yume

[Death haiku of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598)]

Toyotomi-Hideyoshi-3

 

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 豊臣 秀吉

The author of this dream poem is Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), a military general in the late Warring States who succeeded in unifying much of Japan, and the precursor to the Tokugawa Shogunate. Hideyoshi died in 1598, but the final end to the Warring States came 15 years later at the siege of Osaka (大坂の役 Ōsaka no Eki), Hideyoshi’s dream castle called Naniwa.

Gentle reader, you are no doubt scratching the back of your neck, wondering why I have chosen to repeat Hideyoshi’s death haiku in a blog about Matsuo Bashō.

First, there is the obvious connection to Bashō’s own death haiku.

Second, I have wondered, as other scholars have, about Bashō’s claim to samurai status. Little is known. Little can be gleaned from Bashō’s own writings. We do know that Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644, near Ueno, in Iga Province. His brothers became farmers. Bashō became a servant to the samurai Tōdō Yoshitada, who had acquired the haikai name of Sengin. After Tōdō Yoshitada’s death, Basho traveled to Kyoto and studied haiku in earnest.

I have not come across a statement by Bashō himself that his father was of samurai status. He wrote about military battles often, and had a fondness for generals who died in battle. But the proof certain of his samurai status is not there.

There are at least two scenarios. First, that Bashō’s father Matsuo Yozaemon,or his grandfather fought for on the winning side with Tokugawa Ieyasu. Peace being established, the many armies were disbanded and low level samurai were given land to farm instead of swords to wield. It is also possible that the Matsuo clan fought with the opposing forces, with General Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was based in Osaka, then called Naniwa. Osaka and Naniwa is near Ueno in Iga province, and Iga castle where he served the samurai Tōdō Yoshitada.

We will never know and I do not know that it matters. The poetry is beautiful; and, after all, life is what we make it.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598)

Life as a dream

Life as a dream is a common metaphor. What are we to make of this?

William Shakespeare wrote plays about it. Lewis Carroll wrote about it in the delightful Alice in Wonderland. The 17th century Spanish poet and playwright, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, wrote a poem saying, “Man dreams the life that’s his,” and ending with “dreams themselves are dreams.” A dream within a dream.

Even a children’s nursery rhyme speaks of life as a merry illusion:

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

Smoke! kemuri kana

At the festival of the spirits
And even at the crematory
Smoke!

Tama matsuri/ kyō mo yakiba no/ kemuri kana

玉祭り    今日も焼場の    煙哉

fire

I am writing this post on Halloween, an American festival celebrated with costumes, masks, and candy for the trick or treaters. It has become popular in Japan, but it has no true Japanese equivalent, since its roots are in Christianity. Halloween being a corruption of Allhalloween or All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Saints Day.

Obun festival

A Japanese counter part could be Okuribi (送り火).

It is the culmination of the Obon festival (matsuri) on August 16. In Kyoto, five giant bonfires are lit on mountains surrounding the city giving off both light and smoke. The fires signify the moment when the spirits of deceased family members, who visit the real world during O-Bon, return to the spirit world—thus the name Okuribi, roughly meaning  “send-off fire”.

In some parts of Japan, smaller okuribi fires are lit before the home to send off the ancestors’ spirits. Smoke fills the air. Incense called senko is added to the mix of smoke and fire. Sky lanterns are also sent into the night sky.

Probably, not Matsuo Basho’s best work, but a nod to the crematories who do their work daily sending souls to the spirit world.

Notes on translation

Tama matsuri  (玉祭りTama (玉) Spirit. Soul. Particularly, a pure, lofty soul. Tama matsuri is a festival held to pray to, give thanks to, and appease the souls of the dead. Matsuru is the verb form meaning to celebrate.

 

chinese-lanterns

Matsuo Bashō’s Death Haiku

Sick on my journey
my dreams will wander
this desolate field

旅に病んで 夢は枯野を かけ廻る

Tabi ni yande/ Yume wa kareno wo/ Kakemeguru

The Death of Matsuo Bashō

It came to an abrupt end in 1694.

Bashō, at the age of 50, was making a journey home. He left Edo (Tokyo) for the last time in the summer of that year, spending time in Ueno, where he was born, and Kyoto, where he studied as a young man, before arriving in Osaka, which he had often visited and no doubt had many friends and disciples. There his familiar stomach illness came on again. Bashō apparently had time to put his affairs in order, composing this final haiku.

It is said that Basho delivered this haiku on his deathbed to 60 of his disciples who had gathered to say a final goodbye. Four days later, he died.

Then, pursuant to his last wishes, he was buried at the temple dedicated to Minamoto no Yoshinaka in Gichū-ji. Yoshinka, a general of the Minamoto clan. Yoshinka was killed by his cousins at the Battle of Awazu in Ōmi Province in 1184. According to a play in the Theater of , his spirit wanders about.

milky-way-sea

 

Notes on translation

Tabi ni yande 旅に病んで,  sick on my journey; tabi 旅, meaning trip, travel, or journey

Yume wa kareno wo 夢は枯野を,  “like dreams on a withered field”. A second interpretation – the dream withers or dies on this field. Basho juxtaposes differing interpretations of death. In one scenario. life is extinguished and the dream dies. In the second, as in the Theater of , the spirit of the deceased wanders about.

Basho had the second idea in mind as he had discussed with his friends his wish to be buried near Yoshinaka, who was killed in battle, and was himself the subject of a play in the Theater of Nō where his spirit wandered about.

Kakemeguru かけ廻る, to run or rush about.

A crow on a withered branch

On a withered branch
A crow is perched
An autumn evening

枯朶に  烏のとまりけり  秋の暮

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

Kawanabe Kyōsa Crow on a snowy plum branch
Image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Bashō’s poetry

Written in the autumn of 1680. Matsuo Bashō was then living in Edo (Tokyo) and teaching poetry to a group of 20 disciples. In this wonderfully simple poem, a crow alights upon a withered branch, and Bashō is moved by the sight to write this haiku.

Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku
Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku

Kare eda ni

A withered branch, kare eda ni. Much is implied, little is said.

Karasu no tomarikeri

A crow, karasu, alighting on the branch, tomarikeri.

Beyond the obvious phonetic assonance of repeating “Ks” is the symbolism of a solitary crow. Normally we associate these noisy and annoysome birds with flocks.  In Japanese mythology the crow symbolizes the will of Heaven.

Gentle reader, I ask: Is Basho the crow, imposing his knowledge and will upon his disciples?

Aki no kure

The final line is aki no kure, autumn evening. This completes the harsh repetition of the K sound, and imitates the cacophonous call of the crow.

Timeline of the poem

Let us visit for a moment with Bashō in Edo. It is still autumn and the leaves are turning red and gold. Winter is about to come.

Perhaps we can imagine Matsuo Bashō sitting on a log in one of the many gardens of Edo surrounded by his student disciples. He is dressed in black, or they are. It is a cool autumn evening and the leaves are gathering at their feet. The students wait in anticipation of what the master is going to say.

Bashō’s poetry was developing its simple and natural style. The point of view in many of Bashō’s haiku is that life (the human condition) is best described as a metaphor. Bashō died at the early age of 50. Perhaps at the age of 36 when this haiku was written he was feeling both the effects of age and the anticipation of death.

Rhyme, rhythm, and assonance

For those who focus more on rhyme, we could translate as follows: “On a withered bough a crow is sitting now.” It is not a choice I like. Better yet, On a cracked and broken branch sits a crow. Some may think of Edgar Allen Poe’s the raven gently tapping… Others may call to mind Yeats line, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick…”.

What do my neighbors do?

Autumn deepens, next door, what does my neighbor do?

秋深き / 隣は何を / する人ぞ

aki fukaki / tonari wa nani wo / suru hito zo

Matsuo Basho on the 26th day of the Ninth Month, 1694

Basho was now 51 years old. In the summer of 1694, he left Edo (Tokyo), and after stops in Ueno, his place of birth, and Kyoto, he went to Osaka where he stayed at a country inn. Here he became ill. He was well enough earlier to visit the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine (住吉大社), but by evening decided against attending a poetry gathering at a disciple’s house and sent this poem.

He died a few weeks later on the twelfth day of the tenth month.

Autumn deepens, the man next door, what does he do for a living?

Zen, which aims at the perfection of the person-hood, must acknowledge the impossibility of knowing someone else. Still, one is curious about others and what they do. Gentle reader, I am curious about you. Are you curious about me?

cropped-basho.jpg

East West 東西 higashi nishi

East or west
Just one melancholy thing –
Autumn wind.

東西 あはれさひとつ 秋の風
higashi nishi / aware sa hitotsu / aki no kaze

japanese-couple

Explanation of Basho’s haiku

East and west, it is all the same sorrow when one so young dies so soon.

Basho lived in Fukagawa, Edo (the East Capital), and his disciple Mukai Kyorai 向井去来 in Kyoto (the West Capital). In the summer of 1686, Kyorai and his younger sister Chine went on a journey to the Ise shrine.

They kept a journal, the Ise Journal* that begins:

“The sun hot yet wind cool on our heads,
I take my younger sister on a pilgrimage to Ise.”

Chine replied:

“Until Ise
such good companions,
morning geese.”

Chine died two years later at the young age of 25 on the 15th day of the 5th lunar month.

She wrote a final haiku:

Easily glows and easily goes a firefly
もえやすく又消やすき蛍哉
moe yasuku mata kie yasuki hotaru kana

In tribute, Basho wrote his haiku in the eighth lunar month.

Notes on translation

あはれさひとつ aware sa hitotsu could also be translated as “our sorrow is the same”

East or west / our sorrow’s the same / an autumn wind

An autumn wind (秋の風 aki no kaze) is understandably melancholy, summer is over and winter near. In another haiku, Basho references the Autumn Wind – Shake even the grave, My wailing is the autumn wind, 塚も動け我が泣聲は 秋の風, tsuka mo ugoke waga naku koe wa aki no kaze.

Americans and Japanese of the World War II generation are, no doubt familiar with the term Kamikaze, 神風, “divine wind” or “spirit wind”. The historically ancient term Kamikase refers to the 13th century wind that saved Japan from a Mongol invasion.

*Kyorai’s Ise Journal, Ise Kiko. See also the well-written post The Life and Death of Chine, by Writers in Kyoto .