REPRINT: The Narrow Thread by Anita Virgil
I feel lonely as I gaze at the moon,
Bashō (1680, age 36)1
On a day of fog when the world outside my window is gray and softly hidden, my thoughts turn to Bashō and the mystery of the man and his writing that more than three centuries after his demise still has the power to absorb us.
The words that come to mind are scope, power, simplicity, resonance, humanity, infinite sadness sparked by a few gleaming highlights of utmost beauty–gone again into the pervading gloom that haunts his probing mind. Distance, alienation, even as he attempts to find his way among his fellow man, even as he shares his discoveries with them. But for Bashō, always a kind of emptiness returns, a hollow spot that is occasionally filled by his mastery of words. And in the last decade of his life, these words grow in effectiveness to a level poets are still hard-pressed to attain.
Looking backward from a century in which the human mind has been explored as never before, a few more words nibble around the edges of Bashō's rarely relieved depression, allow us to speculate on what his journey into art signifies: an effort to resurrect the past? sublimation? therapy? escape from unresolved conflicts? equilibrium? salvation?
But what amazes me even more than his arduous struggle to adapt to what his life became, was his genius for absorbing through his studies the broad array of Japanese literature and the many-faceted culture that is Japan. And, like a funnel of aesthetic discrimination, draw forth in his maturity only what rings true to the production of enduring work! He is the nexus between the ancient disciplines and is at the apex of a nascent poetry which is to fan out beyond the confines of his own country, outward to the hearts of writers worldwide.
He began his life in 1644, six years after Japan closed itself off from the rest of the world. The Tokugawa regime had secured its position as a centralized mature feudal government. Peace was restored to this land of endemic warfare. His father, Matsuo Yozaemon, was likely to have been a low-ranking samurai. Of his mother nothing concrete is known. He had one brother and four sisters. At the age of twelve, Bashō was sent to serve Tōdō Yoshitada, the fourteen-year-old relative of the feudal lord who governed Iga Province.
Haikai was one of the pastimes of sophisticated men of the day. There is no question that it was a shared interest between the two young men. They both assumed pseudonyms: Bashō became "Sōdō," Yoshitada was "Sengin". From Yoshitada, Bashō became familiar also with the Taoist and Zen aesthetics encompassed by the Art of Tea. By the time Bashō was eighteen, a poem of his appeared in print. Two years later, two hokku (as haiku was then called) of his and one by Yoshitada appeared in an anthology published in Kyoto. A year later, "Bashō, Yoshitada, and three others joined together and composed a renku of one hundred verses. Bashō contributed eighteen verses."2 The unexpected death of Yoshitada when he was only twenty-two seemed to have had a devastating effect upon Bashō, his close companion for eight years. Except that it was forbidden under current law, noted an early biographer, he even considered self-immolation.3 The fact is, Bashō then left his home. (Some sources say for a monastery, others for Kyoto where he studied, others that he went back and forth between Kyoto and Ueno.) Bashō's decision to leave constituted the relinquishing of his samurai status. Whatever the truth about that time in his life, Bashō has been quoted as saying in retrospect: "There was a time when I was fascinated with the ways of homosexual love.”4
A decade of his life follows about which there is much conjecture. But the highlights of these years are traceable in his involvement in the study of and creation of poetry. Thirty-one of his poems appeared in a haikai anthology a year after Yoshitada's death. Between 1669 and 1671, his work appeared in three other anthologies. By 1672 Bashō compiled The Seashell Game in which he selected and critiqued pairs of hokku. "On the whole, the book reveals him to be a man of brilliant wit and colorful imagination, who had a good knowledge of popular songs, fashionable expressions, and the new ways of the world in general. . . .”5 Already he is making himself known as both critic and poet. Thereafter, Bashō headed for the new capital of Japan, Edo (Tokyo) where a "freer environment"6 was to be found.
How Bashō supported himself during all these years is unknown. "The theory generally considered to be closest to the truth is that for some time he was employed by the local waterworks department.”7 As he was constantly involved with publishing verse, he may have been supported in this pursuit by patrons or by taking on pupils. "At one time I was weary of verse writing and wanted to give it up, and at another-time I was determined to be a poet until I could establish a proud name over others. The alternatives battled in my mind and made my life restless,”8 Bashō said. By 1680 when Bashō was thirty-six, he had achieved haikai master status. And he assumed a new poetry name: Tōsei. The Best Poems of Tōsei's Twenty Disciples appeared. It is also the year in which his students built the first house for him where a banana tree was eventually planted. The Bashō (banana tree) became both the name of the hut and the name, thereafter, of its inhabitant. But already at this time in his life when his stated ambition to "establish a proud name over others" had been accomplished, he confesses his private sense of constant loneliness. "I feel lonely as I gaze at the moon, I feel lonely as I think about myself, and I feel lonely as I ponder upon this wretched life of mine. I want to cry out that I am lonely, but no one asks me how I feel." Something has gone out of this man's life. Though at this time he is at the center of his poetic circle, among those who share a common interest and in a home they have built for him, the man is longing for companionship. Whose? In quest of a calmer mind, Bashō seeks out the Zen Buddhist priest, Butchō (1642-1715). The experience must have held much value for him. Ten years later, as Bashō enjoys a stay at the Unreal Hut on the shores of Lake Biwa, he writes: "As I look back over the many years of my frivolous life, I remember at one time I coveted an official post with a tenure of land and at another time I was anxious to confine myself within the walls of a monastery. Yet I kept aimlessly wandering on like a cloud in the wind, all the while laboring to capture the beauty of flowers and birds. In fact, that finally became the source of my livelihood; with no other talent or ability to resort to, I merely clung to that thin line. . . .”9
The subject of loneliness needs to be looked at in more than one way. As a criteria for friend and/or disciple, Bashō sought "a true poet at heart, one who was perceptive of the beauty of nature, sensitive to both the loneliness and the humor in human life, and indifferent to material luxury." 10 "Loneliness," as indicated here, seems to me to be that which is the lot of all mankind faced with his own smallness in relation to the universe. Individuals conscious of this, in all likelihood, would be of a more sensitive nature, and therefore the ones Bashō would choose. But when we reread the cry from Bashō about his loneliness, it goes far deeper. It is an entirely private angst which colors his inner life with gloom and alienation. No matter his attempts to cope with it through the discipline of study or socialization or years of wandering. It is still with him to the end of his life. His psychic pain and search for serenity are the well-spring of his poetry. In his The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, a journal of part of a westward journey in 1687-88, there is a passage which points a new commitment for Bashō:
"One thing permeates Saigyō's tanka, Sōgi's linked verse, Sesshū's painting and Rikyū's tea ceremony. That is the spirit of the artist who follows nature and befriends the four seasons. Everything he sees becomes a flower, and everything he imagines turns into a moon. One who does not see the flower is akin to a barbarian, and one who does not imagine the moon is no different from a beast. Leave barbarians and beasts behind. Follow nature and return to nature." 11
As they begin to rise again
A pile of leeks lie
He observes the plants and creatures who "simply endure what is given to them. . . . They never attempt to be other than themselves; they undeviatingly follow their destiny." 17
These poems show what R. H. Blyth calls "apparent objectivity but real subjectivity, their yūgen, their painful feeling, artistry, purity." 18 This manner of treatment is what moves us toward modern haiku with its ability to evoke mood through the "union of the expressed objective and unexpressed subjective" 19 which Bashō used in 1679 in his
On a withered branch
It was that poem which represented Bashō's “first step in breaking away from the Danrin School, and the setting up of his own." 21
Bashō's growth into a serious poet is consistent to the end of his life. No longer the pastime it used to be, he explores many possibilities for turning his hokku, his renga contributions and his prose journals and haibun into ever richer and deeper works. Because of his widespread fame, some who look to his work from the vantage point of centuries are, perhaps, led astray by the variety of phases his poems and prose represent. Anthologies present a mix of his work from early years to late. But it is not of equal quality. Early poems (and once in a while, later ones) reflect the Danrin School's influence on Bashō. There, witticisms, puns, conceits, animism were lauded, even as they strove to improve poetry beyond the Teitoku School which was its rival. He can be didactic, derivative, flippant. To read Bashō's work in which some of these elements persist accounts for why too many students of poetry, then and now, too easily satisfied, emulate this work–it is, after all, by Bashō. But it is the work of his last decade or so that displays his true genius. In it, he favors classicism and poignancy akin to the medieval poetry he revered. There is a wide sympathy and appreciation for the natural world, for its fragility and endurance, for the great and the small alike. There is an acute awareness of relationships of all kinds. All is handled with simplicity. Bashō has arrived at an ultimate recognition that real poetry can come from everyday life, and that the commonplace and the sublime coexist and can be transformed into significant poetry. The cups used in the tea ceremony "may be works of art, but they are made of nothing more extraordinary than clay.” 22
The melons look cool,
Azaleas in a bucket
In a life filled with stays at innumerable houses, Bashō seems most content to escape for summer-to-fall south of Lake Biwa in a secluded hideaway called the Unreal Hut. It is 1690, four years before his death, when he writes:
"In the daytime an old watchman from the local shrine or some villager from the foot of the hill comes along and chats with me about things I rarely hear of such as a wild boar’s looting the rice paddies or a hare's haunting the bean farms. When the sun sets under the edge of the hill and night falls, I quietly sit and wait for the moon. With the moonrise I begin roaming about, casting my shadow on the ground. When the night deepens I return to the hut and meditate on right and wrong, gazing at the dim margin of a shadow in the lamplight.” 26
What interests me about this beautiful piece is the contrast between Bashō the travelling man, the eternal visitor, indulging in conversation with "locals" (an easy, non-threatening interpersonal exchange typical of those among strangers)–and Bashō alone. Bashō ends his night wandering back to the hut meditating on "right and wrong." For a man who repeatedly wished to be free of all worldly involvements, it is evident they entangle him. The fragment ends in poetic sublimation: he makes his unresolved conflict, this blurry confusion, into "the dim margin of a shadow."
What could be causing the conflicts that plague him? Bashō’s comment on "right and wrong" smacks of Confucian overtones. Elements of duty, obligation, were part of the samurai code. And Tokugawa society itself was characterized by contradictions. It relished sensual pleasures at the same time that it subscribed to Confucian and Buddhist strictness. Whatever, from the standpoint of the human psyche, certain things are true. Bashō speaks of not having much to rely on except poetry. I do not think the following statement of his is self-deprecation but an honest appraisal: "With no other talent or ability to resort to, I merely clung to that thin line [of laboring to capture nature in poetry]." This becomes his livelihood. But of what does that consist? In large measure, as I read it, he is dependent for survival on his disciples for his very home, his food, his companionship, for intellectual stimulation. Outside of this, what life has he? (He certainly is no family man!) Indebtedness does not breed ease. So there is the potential for ambivalence in his relations with his followers. Close friendships do develop from time to time. Special attachments to some disciples: Kikaku, son of a wealthy merchant was one. Etsujin was his travelling companion of the 1680s, Kyorai at whose cottage he stayed in 1691 (the House of the Fallen Persimmons), Kyoroku who taught him painting was another. Surely the companionship of Sora must have been close and of long duration. Bashō has known him six years when he speaks of him and other disciples after banana trees had been transplanted into the garden of the third Bashō hut: "At one time, as if caught by a sudden whirlwind, I dashed out on a journey to the north and roamed about with a tattered hat on my head. Three years later I was back again to the east of the river in Edo where, sorrowfully gazing at the water that flowed in two different streams on an autumn day, I shed nostalgic tears over yellow chrysanthemum flowers. Then my disciples Sanpū and Kifū built this new hut for me out of the kindness of their hearts, and it has since been tastefully furnished, too, by the help of Sora and Taisui who love beautiful simplicity . . . People give me all kinds of things to enhance my enjoyment of life here; they keep my gourd filled with rice, and my bottle filled with rice wine."27 Another piece mentioning Sora appeared earlier, in 1686, and relates to a famous light-hearted haiku by Bashō.
"A man named Sora has temporary residence near my hut, so I often drop in at his place, and he at mine. When I cook something to eat he helps to feed the fire, and when I make tea at night he comes over for company. A quiet, leisurely person, he has become a most congenial friend of mine. One evening after a snowfall, he dropped in for a visit, whereupon I composed a haiku.
Will you start a fire?
A bit precious, to say the least, coming from a forty-two-year-old man to a new acquaintance–but there it is. In his own words he speaks of "dashing out" on a journey (travel being considered as a realm of perfect liberation by the Japanese). Do we also hear a bit of irresponsibility? Of escapism? Self-indulgence? Frustration? Boredom and a need for new faces and places? To what end? As grist for his poetic mill? But in terms of his inner life, what do these wanderings net Bashō? The world of the traveller is non-binding. There are no real and lasting commitments other than impromptu give and take. Certainly new places bring freshness and acute observations to Bashō's poetry. But he presses on, leaving behind the daily lives of those he has only glimpsed. Always seeking, visiting notable places, sights, shrines, attempting to distil from long-gone religious figures, poets–what? Their knowledge? Their experience? Their apparent composure, equilibrium? Bashō advises Kyoroku as they part in 1693: "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old: seek what they sought . . . it is true of haikai poetry as well." This, a year before Bashō's death. Yet he assumed a similar mode of life as that of ancient poet-priests. And, as the yearned-for calm, balance and detachment from worldly things are too infrequent, he is left at the same place he started from: running on emotional low much of the time. Disillusion remains with him–the more so at the end of his life. In late 1693 he complains: "Disturbed by others, I have no peace of mind." Shortly following on this he writes:
Year after year
He cannot seem to tear loose from his world of conflict. Appropriating to himself the objectives of the Art of Tea first learned from his beloved Sengin so long ago, the search for austerity, simplicity, a democratic attitude towards those he meets–high and low treated with the same respect, and artistry, it seems in his idealism he has overlooked an important fact. The very practice of Tea stemmed from the need in a tumultuous time of wars within Japan to create a place of quiet harmony (though only ten feet square) in which one could escape for a brief interlude, the world of conflict. It is all very marvelous, intellectually, to "seek what they sought," but in a sense there is a basic artifice about it. Bashō is committed (as we all are) to live in this world, imperfect, undemocratic, complex and primarily lacking in artistic perfection.
He, like the creature the Japanese like to cage as a pet, is left alone "hanging" from that which holds him in one place: his human status. From that there is no escape, no retreat, even as we occupy ourselves with "friends" and acquaintances along the way.
In his art, Bashō portrays the human condition–but it is done most often in veiled ways, oblique ways, with protective emotional distancing that both projection and objectively presented occurrences provide. Two years before his death Bashō speaks of the banana trees just planted around his third hut: "I love those leaves that are so easily torn by the wind and the rain." 32 He might as well have proclaimed, I am those leaves. His own vulnerability lies at the heart of his compassion for some "vulnerable" things of the world, though it is not as broad as Issa's. Bashō can walk away from a crying abandoned child at the edge of a river after tossing it some food. He writes of the child later and concludes. "All this has been Heaven's will; you have nothing but your ill fate to grieve for.” 33 Yes, infanticide was practiced in Japan then and later, but even so. The following poem was written at the end of his life. Coming from a man who advocated learning "from the pine about the pine," from the man who travelled widely meeting new and old friends constantly (he had about 2000 followers), this strikes an equally jarring note:
It is deep autumn:
Despair exudes from so many of the haiku of his mature years.
Whenever I speak out
In 1690 Basho espoused a quality he called "lightness" (karumi) that is to be reached for in haiku. He gives a solitary example of it. His poem, an idyll in which nature is all encompassing:
Under the cherry-trees,
Man fits within this tender benevolence; he is a part of the whole scene. Yet, this aesthetic principle, so upbeat in its objectives, does not carry through into Bashō’s life. In 1693, Bashō said in parting from a favorite pupil, Kyoroku: “Did not the retired Emperor Go-Toba say of (Saigyō's) poetry that it contained truth tinged with sorrow? Take strength from his words and follow unswervingly the narrow thread of the Way of Poetry.” 40
Suppose we were to look at the obverse of this declaration; not to follow the narrow thread would cause one to lose his strength–to falter. Again, Bashō's dictums repeat a subliminal note from Bashō to himself. That "narrow thread" represents to me Bashō's lifeline. Keeping to it is safety–he has purpose, he is functional, revered. But poetry aside, what is there for Bashō? Even the title of Bashō's most famous travel journal sets up a companion metaphorical echo in my ears: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Additionally, the latter half of that title is weighted with more latent subjectivity when one realizes he is exploring "the neglected northern half of the country, the lonely beauty of half-forgotten places." 41) And in the Unreal Hut in 1690 he spoke of clinging (his word) "to that thin line" by which he meant writing beautiful poetry. There is a desperate note underlying this recurring image.
On Bashō's final journey, just thirteen days before his death, he still participates in writing with a group of poets. The topic for their poems is love. Bashō's poem was entitled "Accompanying a Handsome Youth under the Moon." I quote it, not because it comes anywhere near his great work, but because I think it an extraordinarily telling choice of subject matter.
How serene the moon!
Let us digress a bit to examine a famous poem of Bashō's that I care for as little as the one above. But first, let us take a hard look at Bashō's words about the poem that "reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent we never tire of." 43 I feel certain Bashō was theorizing about poems of unalterable integrity which contain a great deal more growth potential than their primary images disclose. Such an interpretation is consistent with Basho's own principle of "surplus meaning" (yojō). However, I would guess this quotation has given more poets and critics an alibi for defending vague or incomplete efforts as "those we never tire of”! Or, in the case of the following poem, private ciphers with deep significance only for the individual creating it. Bashō wrote quite a few "thin" poems such as the one to be discussed which happened to be an on-the-spot-offering. (The mark of its weakness as a haiku is that substitutions for its final noun are infinite.) With all this in mind, let us make use of the "leap method" common to haiku, haibun and renga, and allow our minds to "go and return" as in the technique of surprising comparison.
How many, many things
Blyth says of this, "Bashō renounced the world on the death of Sengin, that is, Tōdō Yoshitada, son of Tōdō Shinshiro, who was in charge of Ueno Castle. Twenty years later, in 1687, he was invited by his former master Tōdō Shinshiro, and the above verse was the result. Looking at the same garden where he had spent his youth with his friend, Bashō felt what Wordsworth says in the mouth of the Wanderer:
I see around me here
Cherry blossoms . . . their associations for Bashō . . . under cherry trees, on soup and fish-salad and all . . . blossoms drifting wherein just perhaps Bashō and Sengin share the earth again? haikai? Tea? We shall never know, but then, at the last, the fact remains Bashō thinks of a handsome youth when the subject is love.
Within the legacy of work left to us are poems of broad range–when one includes Bashō's heavy involvement with renga writing. But the following haiku contain isolation and loneliness reflecting, more often than not, the soul-state of this poet.
The rough sea–
*an island west of Honshu where political prisoners were sent
But then, what I think of as "gleam" poems emerge:
Under the crescent
Suddenly the sun rose,
Plates and bowls
Underneath the eaves
In the twilight gloom
In the twilight of dawn,
The following are "nothing more extraordinary than clay."
Ah! the uguisu [bush warbler]
A midday nap;
In my summer clothes,
A tiny crablet
A monk sipping
The sound of a water jar
Whether they are poems drenched in moodiness, poems that gleam with outright beauty, poems of everyday life, poems with a light humor, poems depicting a cameo of the delicacy of life–or of its harshness, all derive their extraordinary power and depth from the variously utilized aesthetics intrinsic to their composition. It is these which bestow significance from overtones that go beyond the simply presented images. These are at the core of Bashō's "surplus meaning" (yojō). These move the poems toward universality. The quality of sad loneliness (sabi)–aware's gentle melancholy, the profound poignancy and painfulness of the ancient concept of yugen. Interconnections may be achieved by employing a blending of the senses as in synesthesia, e.g.:
The sea darkens;
or by internal comparison which, by using various linking methods derived from renga (those Bashō calls "reverberation," "reflection," "fragrance") add even more to the primary juxtaposed images. Bashō plays on every key at his intellectual disposal. It is the command of his medium which allows for the appearance of utter simplicity and artlessness. Ease.
I clap my hands
The opening passage in Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine came to mind when I discovered the poem above. The main character in this nostalgic trip into childhood is a twelve-year-old boy. The town he lives in is "covered over with darkness and at ease in bed . . . the breathing of the world . . . long and warm and slow." The boy wakes in his grandparents' house in a cupola high above the street "in this sorcerer's tower." He stands before the open window, takes a deep breath and exhales. "The street lights, like candles on a black cake, went out. He exhaled again and again and the stars began to vanish. . . . He pointed a finger. There, and there . . . . Now over here, and here. . . . houselights winked slowly on. . . . Douglas, conducting an orchestra, pointed to the eastern sky. The sun began to rise. . . He gave the town a last snap of his fingers. Summer 1928 began.”66 Ah, that glorious brief omnipotence and delicious naiveté shared by the sophisticated 17th century poet and the 20th century boy that must have become Ray Bradbury!
Finally, this poem of Bashō's. I never read it without a rush of wonder. Enigmatic, its starkness seems to leap the centuries into tomorrow. It is unique and so modem, yet it resounds with both the vacuum of space and earthly stolidness.
The moon has sunk below the horizon:
Despite the miles Bashō the poet travelled, his final journey shows Bashō the man still ailing, still roaming in dreams a withered moor. The narrow thread of the Way of Poetry ran through his life as a discipline, a trail towards self-discovery, an escape path, a tenuous lifeline over the abyss, a strand that held together the pearls he produced of his pain. At the end, Bashō must have found that "wherever I wander, I am there." The narrow thread becomes a thin wail unwinding into eternity.
One of the most helpful books I have read is Makoto Ueda's Matsuo Bashō. I refer readers to this work for complete coverage of Bashō's talents, for its depth of poetic insight, and for its welcome clarity. Because such a work exists, it has allowed me the freedom to venture out on a limb of my own choosing.
1. Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Bashō (New York. Twayne Publishers. Inc., 1970),
Copyright © Anita Virgil 2004