Matsuo Bashō

failed samurai, thoughtful servant, haiku master


Matsuo was born in Japan 1644. His father was most likely a low ranking samurai. It would have meant that Matsuo would join the military and not have much of a notable life. As a boy he became the servant to Tōdō Yoshitada. He and his new master were fans of haikai no renga, a form of collaborative poetry where an opening 5-7-5 verse is given then followed by a related 7-7 verse from another poet. The 5-7-5 verse, hokku, was later renamed haiku when the verse is stand alone. Tōdō and Matsuo published under pen names. When Tōdō died Matsuo could no longer live as a servant and he gave up on becoming a successful samurai. He left and in his travels he gained fame and followers. Matsuo was not satisfied with his fame he traveled dangerous roads expecting to die. As time went on he became happier and more comfortable on the road. Much later in his life he fell ill in his travels and many people came to see him on his death bed.

A monk sips morning tea

A monk sips morning tea,
it's quiet,
the chrysanthemum's flowering.

Originally written in Japanese the english translations rarely follow the 5-7-5 format of the hakui. Many of Matsuo's poems are of his surroundings. He may have seen these things one morning of his journey. The poem implies a peaceful morning in the spring.

Don't imitate me

Don't imitate me;
it's as boring
as the two halves of a melon.

Matsuo may be referring to his followers in this poem. He doesn't want them to copy him. If they did it would just be more of the same. Which is boring. Matsuo wants his followers to be unique, if they want to do something they should be different and not the other half of the melon.

Frog Poem

The old pond-
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.

Frog Poem is one of the most famous haikus ever written. There are hundreds of translations. I chose one written by Robert Hoss who has translated many haikus by Matsuo. The poem may represent the tranquility and stillness of nature broken by a simple action.

Basho Death Poem

Sick on my journey,

only my dreams will wander
these desolate moors

While Basho had not written a formal death poem his last haiku is considered as such. The poem describes how he got sick and foreshadows the end of his journey. Shortly after he wrote this haiku Matsuo became bedridden and died after that.