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

Who’s that knocking at my door?

great crested grebe

this lodging has a door
unknown
to the call of the kuina (water rail)

this lodging
is not even known
to the kuina’s knock

this hut
can the water rail find
its door

kono yado     wa kuina mo shiranu      toboso kana

この宿    は水鶏も知らぬ       扉かな

great crested grebe

Late Spring and early Summer, 1694

“Tyick, tyick, tyick,” who is that knocking at my door? Death would come knocking for Matsuo Bashō, but not until until November.

In the spring of 1694 Matsuo Bashō set out on his last journey to visit friends, making a trip home to his birthplace at Ueno, to Kyoto where he spent time as a student, and around beautiful Lake Biwa visiting shrines.

This haiku was supposedly written to Kosen (Fujimura Izu?), a Shinto priest who lived on the outskirts of Otsu, and, we may presume from the haiku, in a marshy area near Lake Biwa. The house was so remote it was unknown even to the marsh bird, known as kuina in Japanese, translated into English as a water rail.

The courtship cry of the kuina is a tyick-tyick-tyick, like the sound of one tapping (tataku) on a wooden door. The breeding season dates from late March into June.

Source, Matsuo Basho Archives

Notes on Japanese and Pinyin

Language can be an in-artful thing.

Arriving late and greeting his host, Kosen, Matsuo Bashō might have  apologized by composing this haiku, explaining that he heard the familiar tyick-tyick-tyick of the kuina bird, but couldn’t discover its secretive nest, i.e. his host’s lodgings somewhere along the shore of Lake Biwa.

The sound of “kono… kuina… kana” imitates the kuina’s call to its mate.

Shiranu 知らぬ , not knowing, as in the proverb, Shiranu ga hotoke (知らぬが仏), meaning ignorance is bliss, literally,  not knowing is Buddha.

 

 

 

October 1, 1691

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō

Such things as cherished tears
color
the scattered red leaves

尊がる涙や 染めて 散る紅葉
tootogaru namida ya somete chiru momiji

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō
Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō, near Kyoto

The Autumn Years

It is near the beginning of the end.

Beginning in 1690, Bashō was gone from Edo, living in quiet retirement at the Genju-an (the Phantom Dwelling), what had been an abandoned hut with a rush door, near Lake Biwa. He spent his days working on the book that would make him famous, Narrow Road to the Deep North and making short trips to visit friends and former students. On the first day of October he called on the Priest Ryu, at the Myosho-ji Temple in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture.

This visit inspired the above haiku.

After calling on his friend, Bashō returned to Edo to a new house near the old one in Fukagawa, complete with five banana plants. For the next three years, he would work on another anthology of poetry before setting out once more in the spring of 1694 for his birthplace.

On the way, at Osaka, he took ill and died, age 50.

Notes on translation

Momijigari, 紅葉狩り –  Maple viewing, a Japanese autumn tradition of visiting where the maple leaves have turned red. From momiji (紅葉) meaning the “maple tree” as well as “red leaves” and  “color changing”; and kari (狩り) “hunting”.

a charming wild violet

coming along a mountain path, somehow so charming – a wild violet

山路来て 何やらゆかし すみれ草

yamaji kite naniyara yukashi sumiregusa

wild-violet

Matsuo Basho wrote this haiku in his Journal of 1684, a travelogue of  his journey from Edo (Tokyo) to visit his birthplace in Iga Province after hearing of his mother’s death. The journey was on horseback and on foot, often over mountainous roads.

This haiku was written crossing the mountains near Lake Biwa on the way to Otsu. Basho observing a tiny wild violet in the grass was inspired.

Basho’s Journal of 1684, translated by Donald Keene (page 142)

Notes on translation

山路 yamaji, mountain path
来て kite, to come
何やら naniyari, somehow, for some reason
ゆかし yukashi, charming, admirable, enchanting
すみれ草 sumi regusa, wild violet; literally a violet in the grass

Further note

Enya wrote a song Sumiregusa about the wild violet, and performed it in Japanese – Sumiregusa: wild violet monono aware: attune to the pathos of things haruno hana to fuyu mo yuki: spring flowers and winter snow hara hara: the sound of falling snow.

Like a cloud in the wind

like clouds in the wind
a wild goose and his friend
depart

or,

like a cloud in the wind
like a wildgoose and his friend
life departs

雲とへだつ友かや雁の生き別れ

kumo to hedatsu tomo ka ya kari no ikiwakare

Descending Geese at Katata, Eight Views of Ömi Province, 1957, Utagawa Hiroshige
Geese descending at Katata on Lake Biwa by Utagawa Hiroshige, 18th c.

Master Basho explains

A summer’s day near Lake Biwa, the clouds drift by and at sunset the wildgeese descend to the lake. Master Basho and his friend watch the setting sun. “Look at the cloud in the wind, like a wild-goose from the flock, my friend we all too soon depart.”

Lake Biwa

Matsuo Bashō had several connections with Lake Biwa and the surrounding area. He was born in nearby, in Iga Province, and may have studied in nearby Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. Basho is know to have visited Lake Biwa in 1684 and again during the summer of 1690, enjoying the scenic views, the wild life, and nearby temples.

Basho departed this world in November of 1690.

Notes on translation

雲 kumo, cloud
雁 kari, wildgoose
や ya, kana word used to connect wildgoose and friend
友 tomo, friend, companion
生 yǒu, life
別れ wakare, farewell, depart

lake biwa, japan