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Basho's Journey 3

 April 2012                                            

A Study of Basho

                Basho’s Journey : A Rumination

                  By Jamie Edgecombe

                Part Three & End



Basho’s first haibun continues: I gave my living quarters to someone and moved into Sampu’s villa . . . The physical journey, which is to make up the base, the grounding of the narrative, begins. The period of anticipation is over. The act of giving away his residence, of becoming of “no abode” (with its links to Buddhist scripture), is symbolic of entering the trails of those by-gone poets. Basho resists going any further, i.e. he doesn’t forsake his area of residence completely, yet (that is left to it’s own haibun, the second in the sequence) and, therefore, overloading his first haibun and negating the importance of the poem’s prior journeying. Instead, he stays with his rich friend (speculatively, to enjoy a last night of ease before the road) and to pay homage to his benefactor.

          The act of ‘giving away’ his hut is significant because it prevents the hut from being a symbol of return, a place waiting for him. As he writes earlier on, there is an anticipation of not-completing the circular trip and dying, like Saigyo, on the journey. With others occupying the house, it is no longer his: it is their’s. He does not present much information about this transfer, but, instead, applies a light touch that signifies his unattachedness.

Within the narrative order of the haibun, one then encounters the poem’s haiku.




          In Basho: The Complete Haiku, Reichhold says that the mark of a Basho haiku is his ability to “capture both the momentary and the eternal in a small poem.” As we shall see, studying Basho’s haiku in the context of his haibun provides new ways of thinking about the haiku.

          The first haiku reads:

kusa no to mo sumi-kawaru yo zo hina no ie

in my grass hut the residents change: [now] a doll’s house


(I find the “now” in the translation extraneous; there is no word for “now” in the original but the superposed line just occurs, which creates a sense of “now.”)  After the initial “shock” when the new inhabitants appear to be dolls, the reader’s attention is directed to nature of each of the two images. This illusion is caused by the possessive “no,” which can be translated as the ‘doll’s house’ or the ‘house of dolls.’

          In the base line, ‘in my grass hut the residents change,’ the image of the residents within the house is an obvious image of change; it is an image of movement, of a “believable” space, in literary time, being left and re-inhabited. There is an obvious sense of passing time. The hut has not changed its physical qualities, but the hut has changed: the line is at once distant from Basho, for he has left the hut, and intimate, because the hut is a symbol of him as poet. The fact that his poetic identity, via the pseudonym coined from the banana tree that was planted by his hut, directs us towards this intimate connection between place and poet, location and creation.

          However, there is a sense of temporality in the new occupants’ presence, due to the ghost-like omni-presence of Basho: he is writing the scene into existence.

          Furthermore, this sign of the new residents’ transience is further enforced by the way in which the hut is built out of grass. The grass hut, despite its change in owner, will not last. There is a return to the concept of proceeding generations, of generations moving on (Basho to the owners of the dolls etc), as we found in the haibun’s first line.

          In terms of the journey, there is the end to the residence of Basho within the hut, which simultaneously signifies the physical event of beginning the journey north, both in the sense of the literary, narrative journey, and the “physical,” spatial sense. Such an image of change reveals the constant tension of the becoming, of journey, due to the relational qualities of things. Indeed, although the image of the hut on its own would signify aspects of change, it doesn’t engage the participatory tensions, as explored previously: it needs another image – the dolls.

          Akin to the new human inhabitants of the hut, the dolls are an image of becoming, of change, transformation and a return to change, but in a very different way to the symbolism of the physical “movements” of the base line.

          When we encounter the superposed line, there is the instant temptation to read the image metaphorically, i.e. that the new occupants have the limited, merely objective, physicality-identity of dolls. However, Basho is concentrating in the leaving of the place, as opposed to its continuance – the reader is to focus on the journey. When we consider that the Dolls Festival (Hina-matsuri) is an annual celebration, that the image is a kigo, the proportions of the two images come more into focus. The festival of the dolls is but a day in the calendar year,  a definable “time” for the leaving of the house, the commencement of the journey into the interior. And, being a kigo, an annual event, the day becomes a symbol of the floatingness of days within the transcending order of time. The journey’s commencement has both a definitive and groundless beginning.

          This sense of new beginning is then compounded by the fact that the dolls are a kigo for spring. This sense of the new season, which is itself a symbol of new life, is heightened by the dolls brightening effect within the dilapidated hut, but more importantly, through the particularity of nature of this beginning of an annual routine in this place. There is a tension between the poles of the cultural celebration and following of annual routine (the historical), which is a form of return and the newness of their placement in this spatial-temporal location. The dolls have taken on symbolic layers, depths of significance, while remaining just inert dolls. Basho’s understanding of dolls has altered, too, their association has shifted and developed. Perceptions, engaging with the Metaxy and the participatory creation of “reality”, shift. They, too, are mutable.

          Additionally, the image of the dolls is striking in that, traditionally, families set out the dolls of the festival in a specific way. The dolls represent the emperor and his court, placed in descending, hierarchical order and are usually brightly attired. The image of colourful, but strict courtly life placed against the transient, rustic, even poverty stricken, life of the hut forms a striking contrast: the world of high and low culture are levelled and maintained and therefore illuminate the alienation of culture. The symbol of culture here is presented as inert – it is Basho who is moving.  And yet as hierarchy, the dolls ironically mock Basho’s mortal desire for fresh knowledge of the sacred places.

          By placing the image of the inert dolls against images of the active change of the residents, the dolls take on both a greater sense of inertness (stillness as signified through opposition to motion). But the way in which the dolls have been placed in their celebratory display for the first time (the new residents would have placed them there) reflects how they take on the symbolism of change. The piled dolls are paradoxical symbols of stillness and movement, of tradition and change, of time and timelessness. The tensions of the base are repeated in the sudden image of the kigo, only the gap unifying the poem and the experience of the reader. This rigorous paradoxic structure has no equivalent in prose, no matter how “haiku” or poetic it is!

                   In terms of the journey and return complex within the haibun, the haiku leads the reader towards a new appreciation of the metaxical journey: that perceptions of things are in a continual sense of becoming, not just because we encounter new things / events, even when they are traditions, but that things (including objects and celebrations etc), while remaining on the surface unchanged, are mutable depending on their relationships to other things and the poet. The paradoxical structure of the haiku illuminates the movement in the Metaxy toward the Beyond.  The journey and return of zoka is in perpetual formation and reformation. Pursuing the tensions between these formations and reformations is the voyage towards truth, a voyage that flows from the gap between the two parts of the haiku and allegorically engages the universal journey.




The haiku, though, does not make up the final movement of the poem, which in itself raises a number of questions about haibun composition. Indeed, the poem ends with the line: I left the first eight links hung on a post of my hut. The eight links refers to the practice of renga, where a group of poets would take it in turns to write linked verses of poetry, alternating in a 5,7,5 then 77 pattern. The links were derived from a complex set of rules based around imagistic association. Usually, the final poem would be an accumulation of either thirty six, or one hundred linked poems: what is significant about this line as an ending (of the haibun) is that eight poems would not make up a complete chain. The poem remains unfinished.

          The symbolic overtones of such a gesture are numerous. Basho could be revealing how although the haibun has come to an end, the sequence, the journey to the deep north has not. Indeed, it has just begun. Seeing that the act of giving away his hut elicits a sense that he does not intend to return, the unfinished chain could be a reminder that the poetry of life goes on, even when a single poet has shuffled off this mortal coil. If the chain is intended to be one hundred links long, the journey / stage Basho has completed has only skimmed the tip of the iceberg. Poets after his “leaving,” are to return to his work, and continue down the trail he has taken, developing the form as they go.

          The journey, in the return, reforms the past and the continuance of the journey. Alternatively, Basho directs our attention to the haibun as a piece in a sequence of poems, and that is what they are: poems. They are poetic artifice. Therefore, we a directed to view the entire sequence as being held between the tension of an actual poet, a man, and the journey / journeys he took and the work as a piece of art. Again, we as readers are drawn to the metaxical tension between immanent (through the ecstatic memory of the personal duree) and the transcendental properties of art. The writing of the work is an event and experience of this tension, as is its reading.




If Basho’s haibun evokes the multifaceted and layered nature of life’s overlapping journeys (where immanence and transcendence entangle), is there an internal structure followed by Basho? Or does he just allow these immanent, imaginative, symbolic, projective spheres to float randomly?

          On examining the structure of the haibun, I feel there is a structure—that is, unity.

          Indeed, on exploring the composition of the haibun, one can see how Basho is directing our attention and illuminating the metaxical tension of journey-return.

Take this exceptionally brief and crude summary of the structure:

1. Universal journey engaged

2. General / symbolic nature of unending journeys, the quest

3. Those whose have sought and been lost to the journey, the quest, before

4. Desire to journey to the past to join those lost

5. Desire to join those have been lost to the journey by going on an actual journey, to continue the journey, the quest for the Way

6. Decision to journey

7. Preparation for the journey

8. Haiku – the paradoxic structure of the moment of departure in consciousness

9. Hope of return / or the hope of others continuing his journey, symbolically engaged.

          What emerges from this break down is that there is precisely the haibun as a “whole.”  Basho starts with the universal, of the universal journey. Each of the following movements form “tests” or qualifications of this concept, which seek to explore and expose the symbolisms, intertextualities, and well as the personal nature of Basho own life and poetry in the face of the universal journey. There is a progression from generality, from heritage and its unstable, evolving nature, to the alignment of a poet to his tradition, to the poet who becomes part of that tradition by extending it.

          Through the haibun, Basho does not loose himself to essence; he does not arrive at its perfect encapsulation; the haibun is not purely about the here-and-now; nor is the haibun purely speculative and imaginary. It has arisen out of memory, out of reading, out of one’s physical and spiritual life – out of one’s journeys and returns, where one’s sense of antonymous self is shattered into a paradox of the perceiving-body and the thinking-body. Our lives are a journey; we are part of others’ journeys; as readers we are part of an artistic journey; we are part of an infinite journey. We are mutable. We participate in Zoka; through an act of imagination, the whole is illuminated from the Beyond.

          This grand theme is sketched by Basho in his letter to the samurai poet, Suganuma Kyokusui (d.1717), translated by Sato and included in his translation of the Narrow Road (22). In the letter Basho criticises those poets who write for money, or who write for lowly entertainment, such as gossiping or technical point-scoring. Instead, he suggests that:

poetry writing is another vehicle for entering the Way, to explore the spirit of [the tanka poets, as symbolised by a reference to Fujiwara no Teika], trace the intent of Saigyo, examine the heart of Lo-t’ien [Chinese poet, also known as Po Chu-yi (772-846)]and enter the mind of Tu Fu [Chinese poet (712-770)].

Basho here not only directs poets towards the importance of spiritual exploration, but also towards intertextuality and reading--the return. His verbs, however, also illuminate the questing nature of these returns: enter, explore, trace, examine, enter. Basho is illustrating possible tests of the journey, while also exposing the metaxical tension of the journey-return. Each test is both active, participatory, and therefore within the poet, but also outside of the poet. The two spheres of experience entangle, and reveal each others’ depths and beauty, where poetry can continue, form and develop the quest into the mysterious, ineffable universal journey towards the Beyond. It is this form of poetry which we find in Oku no Hosomichi.




Barnhill, David L (2005): Basho's Journey: The Literary Prose Of Matsuo Basho, State University of New York Press, NYC.


Barnhill, David L (2006): Zoka: The Creative in Basho’s View of Nature and Art, featured in Kerkham, Eleanor (2006): Matsuo Basho's Poetic Spaces: Exploring Haikai Intersections, Palgrave Macmillan; Tra edition, USA.


Bird, Isabella (1984 – original, 1880): Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Virago, London.


Cobb, David interviewed by Rees, Lynne (2008): Worth Saying: David Cobb on Haibun, Woodward, Jeffery (ed.): Haibun Today, [blog], Sunday, February 24, 2008, available at http://haibuntoday.blogspot.com/2008/02/worth-saying-david-cobb-on-haibun.html


Donegan, Patricia (1998): Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master, Tuttle, Tokyo.


Hass, Robert (ed) (1994): The Essential Haiku, The Ecco press, New Jersey.


Kamen (1997): Utamakura and the Intertextuality of Place in Japanese Poetry, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.


Reichhold, Jane (2008): Basho: The Complete Haiku, Kodansha International, Tokyo


Ross, Bruce (ed) (1998): Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun, Charles E. Tuttle and Co., Inc, USA.


Sato, Hiroaki (trans) (1996): Basho’s Narrow Road: Spring and Autumn Passages (Narrow Road to the Interior), Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley.


Shirane, 1998, Traces of Dreams; Stanford University Press, USA.


Qui, Peipei (2005): Basho and the Dao, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.


Voegelin, Eric (2000): Order and History (Volume 5): In Search of Order (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 18), University of Missouri Press, USA.



 Read also :

Basho's Journey Part 1

Part 2