One of my truly sweet memories from a mostly unhappy year of teaching fourth grade was when I taught my students about a Japanese poet who wrote beautifully about nature.
Basho, the seventeenth century master of haiku, is beloved in Japan still, more than 300 years after he lived.
I had long taken pleasure in Basho’s haikus, these 17-syllable slivers of nature, lovingly and creatively wrought. Â But only when I found myself enchanted by the description of him in the fourth grade literature book did it occur to me to share him with my students.
Through tender story-telling and rich illustrations, the lit book portrayed Basho as a kind and gentle soul. Â He deeply loved nature and took long sojourns, on foot, all over the Japanese countryside. Â And in these woodland wanderings he found inspiration for his poems.
Although Basho did not invent haiku–the three-line poem with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third–it is fair to say that he popularized it. Â And in addition to his many nature-themed haikus, Basho also wrote humorous ones, some gently poking fun at himself.
My students responded wonderfully to Basho! Â They were fascinated by his peripatetic life, and they delighted in the immediacy of his tiny poems.Â We read many of them and talked about how they made us feel, aboutÂ the pictures they evoked in our minds.Â And we had fun writing our own haikus.
I know that much of why I found sharing Basho with my students so rewarding is that I was giving them something I truly love. Â And they received it in the same spirit.Â Kids can readily tell when their teacher’s enthusiasm for a subject is real, when he or she is coming from the heart.
Recalling this experience from more than a decade ago made me decide to learn more about the nature-loving Basho. Â So I was surprised, although I probably shouldn’t have been, to learn that the real Basho’s life was not as ideal as that portrayed in an elementary school literature book!
While Basho was famous and revered in his lifetime, he was often lonely and dissatisfied. A star in fashionable literary circles, he later renounced the social, urban, literary life to live instead as a recluse. Â But the solitary life did not make him happy either.
It was after his little hut that some disciples had built for him burned down and his mother died, that Basho decided to take to the road.Â This was considered a very dangerous act in medieval Japan.Â Basho himself expected to die in the middle of nowhere or to be killed by bandits.
To the poetâ€™s great surprise, the wandering life brightened his mood; his depression lifted. Â Basho enjoyed his days spent walking, taking pleasure in the changing scenery and seasons.Â His poems took on a less introspective tone, as he observedâ€”and delighted inâ€”the natural world around him.
But historians tell us that Basho never found lasting happiness.Â He could never feel at peace with himself and was constantly in the throes of mental turmoil.Â At one point, he wrote a friend, â€ś I am disturbed by others.Â I have no peace of mind.â€ť
I was surprised to learn of Bashoâ€™s deep discontent.Â I wondered if his idealized wanderings were actually attempts to escape his inner torment.Â Perhaps like me, and many others, he was able to lose himself in nature, there to live in the moment, not plagued by the worries and obsessions that plagued him at other times.
Here are a few of Bashoâ€™s poems.Â (note that, in translation, haiku can lose its 5-7-5 structure)
A cicada shell;
it sang itself utterly away.
An ancient pondâ€¦
a frog leaps in
the splash of water.
A little irreverent:
shits on the rice cakes
on the porch rail.
A little self-deprecating:
Now then, let’s go out
To enjoy the snow. . . .until
I slip and fall.
Finally, I love this line from Bashoâ€™s final work, his masterpiece, THE NARROW ROAD TO THE INTERIOR.Â â€śDo not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise.Â Seek what they sought.”—April Moore