A Tribute to Basho


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.  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.  He deeply loved nature and took long sojourns, on foot, all over the Japanese countryside.  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.  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!  They were fascinated by his peripatetic life, and they delighted in the immediacy of his tiny poems.  We read many of them and talked about how they made us feel, about the pictures they evoked in our minds.  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.  And they received it in the same spirit.  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.  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.  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.  This was considered a very dangerous act in medieval Japan.  Basho himself expected to die in the middle of nowhere or to be killed by bandits.

To the poet’s great surprise, the wandering life brightened his mood; his depression lifted.  Basho enjoyed his days spent walking, taking pleasure in the changing scenery and seasons.  His poems took on a less introspective tone, as he observed—and delighted in—the natural world around him.

But historians tell us that Basho never found lasting happiness.  He could never feel at peace with himself and was constantly in the throes of mental turmoil.  At one point, he wrote a friend, “ I am disturbed by others.  I have no peace of mind.”

I was surprised to learn of Basho’s deep discontent.  I wondered if his idealized wanderings were actually attempts to escape his inner torment.  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 Basho’s poems.  (note that, in translation, haiku can lose its 5-7-5 structure)

About nature:

A cicada shell;
it sang itself utterly away.

An ancient pond…
a frog leaps in
the splash of water.

A little irreverent:

Bush warbler
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 Basho’s final work, his masterpiece, THE NARROW ROAD TO THE INTERIOR.  “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise.  Seek what they sought.”April Moore






6 Responses to “A Tribute to Basho”

  1. Larry A. Scott Says:

    Thank you, dear April Moore. I appreciate very much your having shared this. I have been spending time on Quora.com, still looking at a computer, not at nature. There are people there from everywhere who share our interests as well as an almost infinite variety of other interests. Much love, and to Andy too. Larry

  2. Virginia Says:

    April, Your essay is a lovely gift for the new year. Wishing you and Andy health and joy in the days ahead. Love, Virginia

  3. Joan and Alan Brundage Says:

    Loved what you shared, April. Thanks. One of my favorite poets is Rumi.

  4. Laura Says:

    Thanks dear friend for sharing. The depth and beauty of your spirit never fails to touch me. Aren’t we blessed to be surrounded by such natural beauty. For some reason as I look out my window at the forest I remember an incident that Viktor Frankel tells of his life in a concentration camp. As he tended to a dying girl she told him of her deep gratitude at her friendship with the tree she could barely see through a window above her cot. She explained that she talked to the tree on a regular basis. When Frankl asked gently if the tree talked back she responded “oh yes. It tells me that there is life everlasting ” Laura

  5. April Says:

    Thanks, all. Laura, I don’t remember this from MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING, but I love being reminded of it!

  6. April Says:

    This comment is actually from Elizabeth Cottrell, who was unable to post on the site:

    How wonderful to learn of this marvelous poet and his life — while one wishes for everyone to be always happy, I somehow identify with him even more to know that he struggled against the vagaries of life and the things that — like us — he encountered those forces in life that would diminish our happiness. Nature is, indeed, a powerful antidote to those forces.

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