Matsuo Basho

Matsuo Basho was born “Matsuo Kinsaku” in 1644, in the Iga Province of Japan. Though his father is believed to have been a samurai (which would have propelled Matsuo in the same direction), the boy became a servant to a man named Todo Yoshitada. Matsuo and his master were both drawn to poetry, and Yoshitada encouraged the boy to hone his skills as a writer. By 1662, Matsuo had published his first poem, and in 1664 a, entire collection of his poetry was published. His master Yoshitada died in 1666, leaving a confused Matsuo to decide what to pursue. His poems were then written mostly in the haikai no renga style, and he decided to continued to publishing them in anthologies from 1667-1671.

In 1672, Matsuo became well known in Nihonbashi, as he moved to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to pursue his poetry writing. He was taught by a homosexual Buddhist man named Kitamure Kigin, among others who shared a love for literature. Matsuo took a teaching position at this time, while submitting his work under the name Tosei. He developed a following of devoted student, whose poetry was published in a collected titled The Best Poems of Tosei’s Twenty Disciples. After eight years of teaching Matsuo decided to withdraw from public life, and moved to Fukagawa, overwhelmed with the recognition he’d received as a poet. There his students built him a modest hut, replete with a banana tree in the garden. This inspired Matsuo to change his name from Tosei to Matsuo Basho, meaning banana tree.

In an effort to gain mastery over his growing discontent and loneliness, Basho began a routine of Zen meditation, which was severely disrupted when his mother passed away and his hut burned down. After attempting to find peace living with friends and in a new home, Basho finally embarked on one of many journeys wandering through many dangerous roads in the countryside of Japan.

His travels brought adventure, new faces and fresh inspiration from the natural world, which was reflected in his poetry. Basho’s primary themes tended closely to nature, seasons, and the passing of time. He keenly felt a sense of change, loneliness and often chose subject like the moon, cold weather, autumn and barren roads and fields to convey the feeling.

Basho soon settled and began teaching again in Edo, though he repeatedly would venture on long journeys over the following years. One such journey, in 1687 was dedicated to observing the moon in the months of autumn; another in 1688 to observe the New Year. Truly gripped by an insatiable wanderlust, Basho and his then-apprentice Kawai Sore ventured on a trip through North Honshu, where they traveled for 150 days from 1689-1691. From these adventures, Basho’s word The Narrow Road to the Interior was published in 1694.

From 1691-1694 Basho returned to his quiet life in a new hut in Edo, where he fluctuated between hosting visitors, nursing an ailing nephew and friend for a time, and living as a recluse. He left Edo to go on one final journey, and after catching an illness in Osaka, Matsuo Basho died in 1694. He was surrounded by his loyal students, and had several works published posthumously.

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