Falling Upon Earth

views updated

Falling Upon Earth

Matsuo Bashõ c. 1694

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

Written by the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashõ, “Falling Upon Earth” is a haiku, a form of poetry consisting of three lines totaling seventeen syllables. Considered one of Japan’s foremost haiku writers, Bashõ is often credited with revolutionizing the form, transforming it from a predominantly humorous poetry based on wit, puns, and word play into a means for evocative philosophical observations. Throughout his life Bashõ developed and perfected his art; his most accomplished haikus provide concise, powerful descriptions of nature and familiar events which also suggest an allegory on life’s deeper meanings. Bashõ’s work is known for its detachment and lack of sentimentality. His poems rarely include descriptions of people and urban scenes. However, “Falling Upon Earth” may have held a greater personal meaning, which accounts for its more somber and emotional tone. In Japanese literature the camellia flower often represents the samurai, as both lived short but brilliant lives. Bashõ originally trained as a samurai until his master and close friend died at a young age. This event transformed his life and led him to pursue the path of a poet. “Falling Upon Earth” may be a lament for his friend.

Author Biography

Little information exists about Bashõ’s early life. The son of a low-ranking samurai, Bashõ is generally

believed to have been born in 1644 in the Iga province of Japan. Bashõ became a page to, and formed a close friendship with, Todo Yoshi-tada, a young samurai two years his elder. Yoshi-tada shared Bashõ’s intense interest in haikai, a form of long poem from which haiku derives. Intending to become a samurai himself, Bashõ acquired the samurai name Munefusa, but he abandoned his training when Yoshitada died unexpectedly in 1666. Scholars believe both grief over his friend’s death and apprehension about a new, less amicable master led Bashõ to abandon his career as a samurai. Some also include an unhappy love affair as a factor which hastened his departure, although others consider this theory a romantic fabrication of Bashõ’s early biographers. What Bashõ did during the next several years is unknown, but he is believed to have lived for some time in Kyoto, which was then the capital of Japan, studying philosophy and poetry. Bashõ’s poetry was published in at least four anthologies between 1667 and 1671. He moved to Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1672 and began to write under the pseudonym Tosei. His reputation as a haiku master steadily increased in Edo, and he began to attract a large following of disciples, who supplied him with a small hut in which he could write and teach. A banana tree, exotic to Japan, was planted in front of the hut and pleased the poet so much that he took for his writing name “Bashõ,” the Japanese word for “banana plant.”

After about eight years, Bashõ increasingly felt a sense of purposelessness and spiritual disquiet after achieving artistic and material success. Consequently, he began the study of Zen Buddhist meditation and embraced an ascetic lifestyle. Seeking an exercise in spiritual and artistic discipline, in 1684 Bashõ undertook a pilgrimage on foot across the Japanese countryside. Although this journey proved to be physically trying for him, for the remainder of his life, Bashõ continued to make pilgrimages, visiting religious and secular sites, disseminating his ideas on haiku to fellow poets, and often begging alms for subsistence. His accounts and haiku recollections of these travels, especially The Narrow Road to the Deep North, are considered his most accomplished and lasting literary works. When he was not on a journey, Bashõ secluded himself in remote huts in the wilderness, until 1691 when he returned to Edo. Finding himself again besieged by followers, Bashõ struggled with a spiritual conflict between his religious desire to transcend worldly affairs and his poetic avocation which focused attention upon himself. Bashõ left Japan in 1693 to escape this conflict, but he returned the following year to begin a series of travels along the country’s Pacific coast. That spring, his health forced Bashõ to stop in Osaka, where he died of a stomach ailment in the summer of 1694.

Poem Text

Falling upon earth,
   Pure water spills from the cup
           Of the camellia.

Poem Summary

Line 1

The subject of “Falling Upon Earth” is readily apparent. In a rural setting, perhaps upon an isolated Japanese mountain, the observer sees rain water fall from the white petals of the camellia blossom. However, from the word choice, imagery, and what we know of Bashõ’s style, this haiku likely has a deeper meaning; it is not merely a description of nature. Dew or rain water on camellia blossoms was probably not an unusual sight and yet clearly Bashõ finds great symbolism in the scene. Some background information will make the poem’s meaning clearer. In Japanese literature the camellia flower symbolizes the samurai warrior, a professional soldier in feudal Japan who was charged with the task of defending his clan leader. Samurai, like the knights of Europe, often had short lives. The flower of the camellia plant also has a short life and after a few days falls to the earth in one piece, reminiscent of the fallen soldier. Bashõ had trained as a samurai until his samurai master and friend died unexpectedly at a young age. Bashõ begins the first line of his poem with a dramatic verb that sets a somber tone: falling. It is even more ominous because we do not know what is falling to the earth and this ambiguity strengthens the poem’s allegorical message. Instead of using the less formal word “ground” Bashõ chooses “earth,” perhaps to connote images of death and burial, as if the soldier is returning to the earth.

Lines 2-3

The subject of the poem, found at the beginning of line two, is very significant. Bashõ does not simply say “water” but adds the adjective “pure,” suggesting that it is a worthy, even blameless person who has died. In line two Bashõ employs another strong verb: “spills.” This verb evokes a sense of finality, unexpectedness, and regret. Unlike such alternative words as “drops” or “pores,” the word “spills” matches the dramatic tone of the first line and completes Bashõ’s allegory of a life ended unexpectedly.



Readers who are familiar with only a few particular types of poetry may fail to recognize the beauty of the haiku, and, for the same reason that the poem’s beauty escapes them, its reflection on the general subject of beauty may also be missed. The key is simplicity. Poetry constantly struggles against the commercial value system that assumes that the goal of life is “more,” that bigger is better. Many good poems feed this idea, offering intricate descriptions with adjectives chained together, all in the service of making the objects they represent easier to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. The purpose of a short form such as haiku, though, is to focus the reader’s attention on the

Topics for Further Study

  • Japanese haiku is all about implying much in a few words. Pretend that you are Matsuo Bashõ and that you observed the event that is described in this poem: write a letter to a friend explaining what you saw, how you felt when you saw it, and why you think it is worth telling people about it.
  • The falling action described in this poem is unique to camellias, whose flowers fall off whole, as one writer put it, “like severed heads.” Read up on the botany of the camellia and develop a scientific explanation for why these flowers die in such a strange and poetic way.
  • Explain why you think “falling upon earth” is mentioned first in this poem, when chronologically it should come at the end.

quickest, most fleeting occurrences, and in this way recognize the fact that uniqueness is as worthy of our admiration as permanence. Bashõ gives us here a vision that exists in all cultures—that flowers die and that a drop of water can be held in the tiny cup of a bloom but will eventually spill out. The beauty of the camellia is that it is able to contain any water, that it is even able to flower before death; the beauty of the poem is that it is able to convey such a clear, thought-provoking image before its abrupt end.

The technique Bashõ uses to establish the flower’s purity—and what could be more beauty than a pure flower?—is called metonymy, or the use of something closely related to represent an actual object. There could be no pure water in a decaying or damaged flower, but by saying “pure water” instead of “the pure camellia” he is able to extend the feeling of purity beyond just one object, and stretch the reader’s sense of reverence to span the entire poem.

Cycle of Life

The fact that a haiku is able to provide one clear visual image in its seventeen syllables is a tremendous enough feat, but in this poem Bashõ manages to imply the camellia’s entire life cycle by pointing out the suddenness of its end. Read in terms of human life, this poem provides us with a short drama that border’s upon tragedy: a flower bud, with petals open enough to hold water, dropping abruptly to the earth, like a person in perfect health and productivity dropping dead in the street. Nervous about our fates, we wonder why this happens. The flower is not like the person, however, in that we do not suspect that foul play is afoot or that a mistake has been made; instead, we accept the transformation as nature taking its course. That the camellia falls is no surprise, since camellia flowers are known to do that, just as spontaneously as is presented here, the action springing at the reader in the poem’s first word. What slows us down and makes us ponder our own lives is that the flower was doing something—holding water, specifically pure water—the moment that it fell.

Order and Disorder

Every haiku has a sense of order implied in the strictness of the form it takes and the economy of the words it uses to get its point across. In the text of “Falling Upon Earth,” Bashõ implies the power of that order in nature with the purity of the water: even if being in the camellia’s blossom was not what made the water pure, there is definitely something in nature that provided it in its pure state, without complications. At first, the complete harmony of this system that has allowed dew to slowly accumulate within the flower’s cup appears to be shattered by the violence of the actions. The two verbs, “falling” and “spills,” strongly imply disorder rather than order. It is in juxtaposing these two states of being—tranquility and tumult—that the poem reaches out and captures the reader’s imagination, encouraging the reader to wonder which is closer to the true state of affairs, or how the two could coexist peacefully. Eastern philosophies have never had a problem with reconciling parts of life that our minds define as opposites, and Bashõ, who had some training in a Zen monastery and spent his later life devoted to writing and the study of Zen Buddhism, was especially nimble at not only showing opposites in a poem, but also implying that these opposites exist within a larger order. In this poem, the water spilling and the flower’s headlong plunge are presented emotionlessly as occurring exactly when they should—not as a violation to the flower’s leisurely water gathering, but as a compliment to it.


“Falling Upon Earth” is written in haiku, a Japanese form of poetry. The modern haiku consists of three lines with a total of seventeen syllables. The first and third lines consist of five syllables and the second line is comprised of seven syllables. Although haikus are short, they are challenging to write. Their very brevity requires the poet to be very efficient and selective with word choice. Japanese haikus, like “Falling Upon Earth,” use images of nature to consider larger messages about life and spirituality.

Historical Context

The time during which Bashõ wrote, in the late seventeenth century, was a relatively peaceful period in Japan’s history. In 1192, the Japanese emperor turned over all civil and secular power in Japan to the military leader, the Shogun, while retaining his title as the country’s ruler. This arrangement remained intact for 750 years. Through the decades, wars were fought for control over the Shogunate; these wars were manned by the warrior class called the samurai. The Early Ashika period, from 1336 to 1447, was particularly notable for bloody civil wars, and these were settled between 1477 and 1573, during the Late Ashika period. During the next era, the Period of Unification, peace was established throughout the land. This was not easy in a country so accustomed to war for so long because of the solid social standing of the warrior class (which ranked at the top of Japan’s hierarchical society, above farmers, artisans, and merchants). In addition, a number of mercenary soldiers for hire, or ronin (literally, “man adrift”), had been enlisted during the wars. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, which lasted most of the seventeenth century, the country was threatened periodically with revolutions by the ronin, who had nothing better to do with their time. A concerted effort was made to move these warriors into peacetime positions. Many became instructors of the art of war in private training facilities in large towns, in accordance with the Shogun’s edict that all young men should learn fighting skills. Some accepted positions in lower-class occupations. Children whose families had been ronin for generations went to schools and were trained to read and write, enabling them to

Compare & Contrast

  • 1680s: Japan was ruled by an emperor, but only in name: all political and ruling power was in the hands of the ruling Shogunate.

    1867: Direct imperial rule was restored, and the emperor again held power.

    1945: After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the U.S. Army took control of the country and presided over the dismantling of the imperial government.

    Today: The government of Japan is a constitutional monarchy, established in 1947. Under this type of government, a balance of powers forms more moderate political responses.

  • 1680s: Japan was isolated from the rest of the world, with all trade limited to inside of the country’s borders—a situation that the government strove to preserve for hundreds of years.

    1854: American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan, and subsequent diplomatic and commercial relations with other countries soon developed.

    Today: Japan still tries to remain out of political involvement with other countries but is very involved economically, exporting approximately $350 billion in goods and importing $250 billion in goods annually.

  • 1680s: The warrior class, the Samurai, was considered to be at the top of the social order and was more respected than farmers, merchants, and tradesmen.

    Today: Formal recognition of the class system has disappeared from modem Japan, replaced, as in most capitalist countries, with social admiration being linked to higher earnings.

  • 1680s: Buddhism, which had been in Japan since the eighth century, was practically invisible. The more systematized and organized Confucianism prevailed.

    Today: Over 80 percent of Japanese observe both Shinto and Buddhist rites; Confucianism is only seldom practiced.

fit into clerical positions in the peacetime government.

Bashõ was a ronin early in life, but he eventually left the warrior trade to be a Zen Buddhist monk. Buddhism had been brought to Japan from China centuries earlier, between 1214 and 1280, but the history of Japanese Buddhism had been unstable: it had been embraced by the simple people in rural areas, while the empowered classes in urban areas has always inclined toward the practice of Confucianism. Formal and conservative, Confucian doctrine relied on educated study, while Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, was grounded in the belief that religious experience was meant to be unintellectual. It is easy to see why the poor peasants who could not afford books or education would be more interested in this religious belief. Freedom, humor, grateful acceptance, and an emphasis on the material (as opposed to the abstract) are among the characteristics of the faith Bashõ followed.

Critical Overview

“Falling Upon Earth” has been described as depicting the sweetness but brevity of life, using the image—often used in Japanese literature—of the camellia, which blooms for only a few days before shedding its petals, as a symbol of the brief but full life of the samurai. Critics note that issues of time and comparisons between the temporal and the enduring were a common theme in Bashõ’s poetry. In his book Zeami, Bashõ, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics, Makoto Ueda states that Bashõ believed that thinking about death “does not necessarily deny the pleasures of life” and that Bashõ saw “life and death from a distance, from a place which transcends both.”


B. J. Bolden

B. J. Bolden is an Assistant Professor of English at Chicago State University, Chicago, IL. She is the managing editor of Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas at Chicago State University and the author of Urban Rage in Bronzeville: Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945-1960. In the following essay, Bolden cites Matsuo Bashõ’s creation and mastery of the haiku form and comments upon the depth of meaning the poet evokes in the mere 17 syllables of “Falling Upon Earth.”

Matsuo Bashõ radically redefined the three-line, 17-syliable haiku poetic form from an entertaining pastime in 16th-century Japan to a major literary genre in the 17th century. An early Bashõ haiku provides an example of his meticulous and sensitive approach in selecting and arranging words and images to produce highly evocative allusions:

On a leafless bough
In the gathering autumn dusk:
A solitary crow!

Haiku emanates from the 31 syllable, five-line “tanka” (short poem) which was originally arranged in two parts,” an opening triplet (hokku) and a couplet. The Haiku form was popularized during the Heian period (794-1185). At that time, it was customary for the educated elite of Japan to engage in writing, singing, and reciting poetry as forms of cultural entertainment. In addition, social customs of the day demanded that the aristocracy of the refined court society display both a sensitivity to nature in their poetic expression and an ability to discuss the poetic classics of Japanese and Chinese literature. Tanka, then, could express a wealth of meaning in five elegant lines expressing a single idea, emotion, or observation.

By the 16th-century, tanka had found expression in playful and less refined experimental forms and began to attract the participation of the merchant classes as well. But it was not until Bashõ came along with an artistic sensibility, reflective calm, and keen originality, coupled with his formal training in Japanese and Chinese classics and poetry, that new power was infused into the haiku. Bashõ’s greatest contribution to the genre was to take the opening triplet of the tanka (hokku) and make it an independent, autonomous form. The term haiku was formed from the first three letters of the word haikai (a 17-syllable comical verse) and the last two letters of the word hokku.

The following, well-known Bashõ haiku serves as an example of the beauty of nature, the fleeting image of time, and a compression of language:

Falling upon earth,
Pure water spills from the cup
of the camellia.

At first glance, “Falling Upon Earth” offers a meditative reflection on the wonders of nature. The poem invites contemplation on the beauty of the camellia blossom and implicitly situates the tropical Asiatic evergreen tree in a calm, rural setting in Japan among the hidden forces of nature. Yet the power of Bashõ’s haiku clearly emanates from his meticulous selection of words, his fleeting yet evocative imagery, and the ambiguity resulting from words having multiple meanings. The power word of the first line is “falling.” The ambiguity of who or what is falling immediately challenges meaning and entices the reader’s active participation in the poem. In Japanese literature, the camellia blossom is often used as a symbolic representation of the samurai, a professional soldier of the feudal military aristocracy of Japan, whose life, like that of the camellia, was often brilliant but brief. The falling of the flower takes on an allegorical dimension since Bashõ once trained in the service of a young samurai master who died unexpectedly. Bashõ grieved deeply and renounced his own samurai status. Thus, the implication of the camellia blossom moving abruptly from a state of natural beauty and vigor to one of quiet, somber death invites speculation on life’s brevity, as well as the need to recognize and appreciate the rich, evocative images in nature.

Likewise, while the word “earth” overtly suggests an objective description of nature, in fact, Bashõ might have selected “ground” or “soil,” with the apparent implication of a hard, flat, non-receptive surface. However, he skillfully positions the word earth to evoke connotations of the earth mother as receiver or absorber of the “pure water” that “spills” from the camellia, an image that immediately softens the ominous tone in lines one and two. “Earth” becomes the immediate vessel and eventual transmitter of the “pure water” of the camellia that will cycle the life force of the blossom

What Do I Read Next?

  • Matsuo Bashõ, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This collection of travel sketches is written in prose, but it shows the same delicate sensibilities that Bashõ brought to Haiku writing. The author becomes real, almost a friend, as you read his journal entries.
  • Blythe, R. H., Haiku. This four-volume set has been in and out of print since its first printing in 1949, but finding it is well worth the search. One of the most complete surveys of Haiku available in the West, with text that understands the spirit of this poetry and including thousands of poems from hundreds of poets, from the great Japanese masters to their Western parallels such as Wordsworth and Eliot.
  • Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery is recognized as one of the clearest explanation of Zen thought available in English. A paperback edition was published in 1989.
  • Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a huge best-seller in its first publication in 1984 and has been read by students interested in Eastern thought since. Pirsig applies the principles of Zen within a narrative of a motorcycle trip taken by a father and son.
  • A very good source for contemporary haiku is Cage of Fireflies: Modern Japanese Haiku (1993), edited and translated by poet Lucien Stryk.
  • Ken Yasuda’s book Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History and Possibilities is filled with examples that make his explanations come alive.
  • Donald Keene’s The Pleasures of Japanese Literature (1993) introduces Western readers to ancient and contemporary Japanese writings.
  • Haiku with themes that might be more relevant to the lives of modern readers can be found in Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku, published in 1993. The introduction gives a wonderful history of haiku from Bashõ’s time and place to the present.
  • The linked poetry of the Bashõ school, written by various collaborating authors, is examined in Monkey’s Raincoat, translated by Lenore May-hew and published by C.E. Turtle in 1985.

and restore vital nutrients to the earth to replenish, regenerate, and revitalize the earth’s bounty for new growth. Thus, the opening tone of a death that has spilled unexpectedly is balanced by the theme of rejuvenation as a poetic commentary on the cyclical nature of the universe and the ultimate need for humankind to be at one with nature.

Source: B. J. Bolden, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

Makoto Ueda

In the following excerpt, Ueda examines Bashõ’s approach to haiku, life, and spirituality.

Matsuo Bashõ, the poet who perfected the haiku as a serious art form, shows a marked resemblance to Zeami in some respects. In a sense he was a medieval poet living in a modern age. He declared his adherence to medieval Japanese poets such as Saigyõ and Sõgi, and, like them, he followed the footsteps of Li Po and Tu Fu in his way of life. He was also much attracted to Buddhism, particularly to Zen Buddhism. Medieval Buddhism tried to save men from life’s tortures by the motto: “Meditate on death.” Although he never entered the priesthood, Bashõ was often a hermit who found meaning in life through contemplation of death. There were, however, some unmistakable traits of modernity in Bashõ, too. His haiku, unlike waka or the , was distinctly an art for common people. It required neither an elaborate costume, classical scholarship, nor courtly elegance of style. Bashõ’s haiku is characterized, among other things, by colloquialism and humor. It does not describe heaven and hell; it finds its materials in everyday life. It does not grieve over the mutability of life; it gazes at man’s mortality with smiling eyes. In Bashõ, to “meditate on death” does not necessarily deny the pleasures of life. He sees life and death from a distance, from a place which transcends both.

Bashõ wrote no systematic treatise on the art of haiku. Whereas Zeami tried to prevent future deterioration of his art by leaving its secrets only to the best-qualified of his followers, Bashõ traveled far and wide, and extended his teaching to anyone interested in haiku. It seems he taught different things to different persons; at times, two of his teachings are so different that the one almost seems to contradict the other. Perhaps Bashõ wanted to cultivate his pupils’ talents rather than to impose his own theory upon them. Or, perhaps, he did not approve of any fixed doctrine in haiku. The latter point was meditated on by Bashõ himself, who developed it into the idea of “permanence and change” in art.

Bashõ’s comments on “permanence and change” were made on various occasions, and apparently not always with exactly the same implication. Yet his central idea is sufficiently clear in the following remark, recorded by Dohõ:

In the Master’s art there is that which remains unchanged for thousands of years; there is also that which shows a temporary change. Every one of his works is ascribable to the one or the other, and these two qualities are the same in essence. This common essence is a true “poetic spirit”. One does not really understand the haiku unless he knows the permanent style. The permanent style is the one which is firmly based on the true poetic spirit, irrespective of the writer’s time or of the contemporary fashion... On the other hand, it is a principle of nature that things change in numerous ways. In haiku, too, nothing new will be born unless it transforms itself with time.

An artist always aims at the universal, yet tries not to lose his identity. Bashõ, facing the dilemma, attempts to find a solution in a dialectic. He approves of both styles, permanent and temporary; a “permanent” poem is good because it embodies an eternal truth, and a “fashionable” poem also is interesting because it has freshness. Yet, as Bashõ sees it, they are really the same in essence. Everything changes in our life; change is the only permanent thing. We observe seasonal changes, but they are equally the manifestations of the force in nature: flowers, leaves, winds, clouds, snow—they are created by a single spirit in nature. Similarly, there is a “poetic spirit” which lies in all great works of art. This spirit is timeless; only the ways in which it is expressed may change as time goes on. One of Bashõ’s disciples, Kyorai, loosely interprets this as a dualism of “substance” and “manner.” The interpretation is valid only in a limited sense: “substance” must mean certain ingredients which give a timeless quality to the poem, while “manner” should imply an individual way in which this quality is expressed.

The next question, and a very important one, is exactly what Bashõ means by the term, a “poetic spirit.” His answer seems to be suggested in one of his most famous passages:

There is one common element which permeates Saigyõ’s waka, Sõgi’s linked verse, Sesshũ’s painting, and Rikyũ’s tea ceremony. It is a poetic spirit, through which man follows the creative energy of nature and makes communion with the things of the four seasons. For those who understand the spirit, everything they see becomes a lovely flower, and everything they imagine becomes a beautiful moon. Those who do not see the flower are no different from barbarians; those who do not imagine the flower are no different from beasts. Detach yourself from barbarians and beasts; follow the creative energy and return to nature ...

In other words, Bashõ believes that there are two types of men, those who possess a poetic spirit, and those who do not. While the latter type of people are blind to natural beauty, the former seek it in every possible way and thereby try to escape from the collisions of everyday life ...

This concept naturally leads Bashõ to the idea that an artist should insert no expression of his individual ego into his work. Dohõ has recorded:

The Master once said: “Learn about pines from pines, and about bamboos from bamboos.” What he meant was that the poet must detach himself from his will. Some people, however, interpret the word “learn” in their own ways and never really “learn”. “Learn” means to submerge oneself within an object, to perceive its delicate life and feel its feeling, out of which a poem forms itself. A poem may clearly delineate an object; but, unless it embodies a feeling which has naturally emerged out of the object, the poem will not attain a true poetic feeling, since it presents the object and the poet as two separate things. Such is a work of artifice made by the poet’s will.

Beauty in nature is a manifestation of a supreme creative force which flows through all things in the universe, animate and inanimate. This force, it must be stressed, is different from the creative power of an individual physical being. The energy of the universe is impersonal; it produces the sun and the moon, the sky and the clouds, the trees and the grass. The energy of individual man is personal; it roots in his conscious will, in his passions and desires, in his egotism. But man, being part of the universe, also has impersonal energy within him, an energy which he shares with the cosmos. It is this energy which every poet must work with in his creative activity. Bashõ, therefore, does not share the view that a poet puts his own emotion into a natural object and gives airy nothing a local habitation and a name. On the contrary, he believes that a poet should annihilate his personal emotion or will for the sake of impersonal energy within him, through which he may return to the creative force that flows in all objects in nature. One may attain this ideal state through a devoted contemplation of a natural object. One should try to enter the inner life of the object, whereupon he will see its “delicate life” and touch its “feeling”. This will be done only in a realm where the subjective and the objective meet, or rather, where the subjective approaches and becomes at one with the objective. A poem is a spontaneous creation of a man in such a state. It is something which naturally comes out of this realm, and not the result of forced will or logical thinking.

The identification of the self and the external object, of course, is an illogical act of intuition and is done in an instant of time. It is, from the poet’s point of view, an instantaneous perception of hidden reality. Bashõ emphasizes this as Doho records his words and explains them:

On composing haiku the Master once commented: “If you get a flash of insight into an object, put it into words before it fades away in your mind”. He also said: “Toss out the feeling to the surface of your poem”. These teachings mean that one should set his poetic feeling into form instantly after he gets into the realm, before the feeling cools off. In composing haiku there are two ways: “becoming” and “making”. When a poet who has always been assiduous in pursuit of his aim applies himself to an external object, the color of his mind naturally becomes a poem. In the case of a poet who has not done so, nothing in him will become a poem; he, consequently, has to make out a poem through the act of his personal will.

Suggesting that poetic creation is a momentary act of inspiration, Bashõ advises that a poet should never miss the inspired moment. The moment is when the poet “gets a flash of insight into an object”, a moment of communion between the subjective and the objective. A poem is a result of the poet’s unconscious act and not of his will; a poet does not “make” a poem—something in him naturally “becomes” a poem. The inspired moment, however, does not come upon anyone at any moment; each poet should constantly strive to make it come through meditation and concentration. Yet,

“The world of man is full of contradictions and struggles, and one is often provoked, angry and desperate. A haiku poet, however, looks at them from a distance, with the sympathy of a man who has calmly given up fighting.”

when the moment comes, the poet’s mind is devoid of personal will; it is completely transparent, whereupon an external object dyes it in its own color and creates a beautiful picture. Bashõ uses the term “haiku without other thoughts” in describing the ideal stage of poetic achievement. Evidently he refers to a state of mind in which there is no impure element, no personal element of the poet which would stain the whiteness of his soul at the moment ...

In Bashõ’s view... external reality is the primary element in poetic creation. We have already seen how Bashõ advised a poet to negate his personal will in order to perceive the “delicate life” of a natural object. He remarks in another passage: “Do not neglect natural objects at any time.” At the root of his thinking lies the idea: “When we observe them calmly, we notice that all things have their fulfilment.” A pine tree lives its own life, a bamboo fulfils its own destiny; a pine never tries to become a bamboo, or a bamboo does not envy the life of a pine. A poet, therefore, should learn from a pine things about a pine, and from a bamboo things about a bamboo. Bashõ remarks, as recorded by Dohõ:

The Master said: “Changes in nature are said to be the seed of poetic spirit. Calm things show the aspects of permanence. Active things reveal the changes. Unless a poet records each change at that very moment, he will never be able to record it. By the word “record” I mean to record by perceiving or hearing. Blossoms fly, leaves fall, they lie scattered on the ground; unless a poet perceives or hears these phenomena within the phenomena, he will never succeed in recording them in his heart” ...

Apparently, this view of poetry was rooted in Bashõ’s attitude toward life. Or, perhaps, Bashõ’s devotion to poetry motivated his attitude toward life; for, Bashõ’s view of life is what we may call an aesthetic view. He looks at life in the same manner as one looks at a work of art. We have noted that Bashõ discouraged the intrusion of a personal emotion into creative process. In fact he went a step farther; he proposed to minimize the activity of a personal emotion in actual life as well. Personal emotions are difficult to get rid of when we get ourselves involved in the struggles of life; Bashõ suggests that we can avoid the involvement if we view our life from an aesthetic distance. We do not try to change our society; we only change our attitude toward society, we face our society in the same manner as we see a painting, hear music, or read a poem. We enjoy a story of war since we are not in a war ourselves; we shall enjoy our life more, in Bashõ’s view, if we do not follow the utilitarian ways of life. Bashõ’s ideal life is, in his words, “to enjoy life by being indifferent to worldly interests, by forgetting whether one is young or old.” He continues:

A foolish man has many things to worry about. Those who are troubled with sinful desires and become expert in some art or another are persons with a strong sense of right and wrong. But some who make art the source of their livelihood rouse their hearts in anger in the hell of greed and drown themselves in small ditch; they are unable to keep their art alive.

One way to transcend worldly involvements is to become a poet—a haiku poet. Bashõ says: “The haiku is like a fireplace in summer or a fan in winter. Contrary to the popular needs, it has no immediate utility.”

Of course a poet, being a man also, cannot be completely detached from worldly concerns; he has to eat, wear clothes, live in a house. He may do all these things, yet the important thing is not to be bothered with a desire to possess more than enough. This is a significant point at which Bashõ’s “poetic spirit” differs from hermitism or asceticism. A hermit or an ascetic imposes seclusion or abstinence upon himself. Bashõ, on the other hand, does not reject the things of the world; he only advises us to look at them from a distance, without committing ourselves to them. The haiku poet’s attitude toward life is that of a by-stander. A man with an impulsive temperament or a strong desire will find it difficult to become a haiku poet; perhaps such a man would better go to religion in order to attain serenity of mind. The haiku requires a passive, leisurely personality by its very nature.

In haiku, therefore, there is no passionate emotion, no strong sentiment. There is only the shadow of an emotion, or a vague mood. Instead of joy, there is a formless atmosphere arising from happiness; instead of grief, there is a mood vaguely suggesting quiet resignation. There is, for instance, a famous farewell poem which Bashõ composed upon leaving for a distant journey:

Spring is going ...
Birds weep, and the eyes of fish
are filled with tears.

A long journey through rural areas of northern Japan was ahead of him, and he was old, sickly, and not sure of his safe return. But there is no personal grief in the poem. Bashõ’s sentiment is depersonalized. It is spring that goes; it is birds and fish that weep. There is no acute pain; there is only a vague sadness which fills nature. To take another example, here is a poem which Bashõ wrote as he mourned over his disciple’s death:

In the autumn wind
lies, sorrowfully broken,
a mulberry stick.

Compare this with another poem by Bashõ which describes dead grass in winter:

All flowers are dead.
Only a sorrow lies, with
the grass-seeds.

It is roughly the same mood that prevails over these two poems, although the occasions would have evoked widely different emotions in an ordinary person. It was not that Bashõ was inhuman; he was only “unhuman” ...

This quality at once explains the two fundamental prerequisites of haiku which are observed even today: the seventeen syllable form, and the rule requiring a word suggestive of a season. The haiku is an extremely short poem, normally consisting of three lines with five, seven and five syllables each. The haiku does not permit the poet either to explain, to describe, or to state; an idea, or a sentiment, will never be fully put forth within the space of seventeen syllables. This is a perfect medium for the haiku poet who avoids a systematic presentation of an idea or emotion; it requires him to depersonalize his emotion, if he ever has one, through an object in nature. Here comes in the second prerequisite of haiku, that a haiku must contain a word referring to a season of the year. A personal sentiment, if any, will become a thing of nature in the poem ...

The haiku poet must begin with a natural object or objects outside of himself; even though he has an emotion in himself, he has to submerge it in an outside object, whereupon a certain mood arises which would vaguely suggest the original feeling but never set it in the foreground of the poem ...

Bashõ, however, did not talk much about the rules of haiku form or of a season word, nor did he strictly prohibit a departure from them. In fact he himself composed many poems with more than seventeen syllables, as well as a few poems with no season word. On the other hand, there were certain ideas on verse-writing which Bashõ positively insisted on. Chief among them were sabi, shiori, hosomi, “inspiration”, “fragrance”, “reverberation”, “reflection”, and “lightness”. They are different from each other, as the terms are different. But they have one thing in common, the “poetic spirit”. The first three and “lightness” designate certain attitudes toward life, and...they all stem from the same basic view of life that underlies the poetic spirit. The remaining four are concerned with the technique of haiku composition; they make clear certain ways in which the poetic spirit can be made manifest in a poem ...

“Inspiration” refers to an instantaneous insight into the hidden nature of things. Bashõ repeatedly taught his disciples not to miss an inspired moment in composing a poem. “If you get a flash of insight into an object”, we have already heard him say, “put it into words before it fades away in your mind”. “Even though a poet may get a glimpse at the real nature of things”, Doho explains, “he may either nourish his perception or kill it. If he kills his perception, his poem will not have life. The Master once taught that a poet should compose a poem with the force of his inspiration.” Bashõ advises that a flash of insight should be crystalized into a haiku before any impure element gets in the way. Dohõ records:

The Master said: “A poet should discipline himself every day. When he sits at a poetry contest, he should be able to make up a poem instantly after his turn comes; there should be no lapse of time between him and the writing desk. If the poet quickly puts into words what he has just felt, he will have nothing to hesitate about. The manuscript of a poem is no better than a trash paper when it is finished and is taken down from the writing desk.” This was the Master’s strict teaching. At another time he said: “Composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping

“Everything changes in our life; change is the only permanent thing. We observe seasonal changes, but they are equally the manifestations of the force in nature: flowers, leaves, winds, clouds, snow—they are created by a single spirit in nature. Similarly, there is a ‘poetic spirit’ which lies in all great works of art. This spirit is timeless; only the ways in which it is expressed may change as time goes on.”

at a dangerous enemy. It is also like cutting a ripe watermelon with a sharp knife, or like taking a large bite at a pear. Consider all thirty-six poems as light verse.” All these words show the Master’s attempt to remove personal will from the artist’s work.

“Inspiration” does not come from the Muse; it comes from the poet’s constant training and discipline. When it arrives, it arrives in an instant. The poet should catch the inspired moment and put his experience into words on the spot. What is important is the inspiration of the moment, and not the arrangement of the words as they are put down on a piece of paper. The manuscript of a poem is in itself nothing more than a trash paper; a poem is alive only when it is in the stage of being composed or read on a writing desk. Therefore, once the poem is finished at the inspired moment, do not change words from one to another. Compose the whole set of thirty-six poems in a light mood—that is, not in a grave mood of a philosophical thinker. “Inspiration” is intuitive, and not cogitative. It is not something which the poet wrings out of himself by effort. The poet’s effort should be toward the direction of making it possible for such a moment of “inspiration” to visit upon him.

Bashõ rejects artifice on the same ground. Artifice kills “inspiration”; it is merely an intellectual play, without an intuitive insight into nature. Bashõ calls it “a craftsman’s disease”. “Let a little boy compose haiku”, says he. “A beginner’s poem always has something promising.” Often the poet’s too eager effort to write a good poem does harm to his work, because his personal will tends to show in the foreground of the poem. A good haiku cannot be written merely by a long verse-writing experience or by wide knowledge of the technique of haiku. For this reason, “some who have been practising haiku for many years are slower in knowing true haiku than others who are new in haiku but who have been expert in other arts”, Bashõ says. Here again we see Bashõ’s idea that all arts are the same in spirit and that this spirit is the most important element in haiku-writing as well as in other arts.

“Fragrance”, “reverberation” and “reflection” are the main principles which rule the relation between parts of a poem. These terms are often used in linked verse, but they are basic ideas in haiku- writing too. Among them “fragrance” is the oldest idea in Japanese aesthetics, frequently used in the waka tradition. “Fragrance” means “fragrance of sentiment”, some vague quality rising out of a mood and appealing to human senses. Bashõ seems to have believed that different parts of a poem should be related to one another by “fragrance”, forming an atmospheric harmony rather than logical coherence as a whole ...

The concepts of “fragrance”, “reverberation” and “reflection” show that in haiku the relation between parts is based on a vague feeling of similarity in mood. In haiku it is quite possible to bring together two widely different things and still create some strange yet harmonious mood as a whole. The two things may have nothing in common to ordinary eyes, but the imaginative union of the two may create an unusually beautiful fragrance, reverberation or reflection. One of the consequences of this unique idea is the merging of different senses in haiku. The very fact that Bashõ used such terms as “fragrance”, “reverberation” or “reflection” in denoting a mood suggests his belief in the interrelatedness of the five senses; from an ordinary point of view a mood would have no smell, no sound, no color. Bashõ saw an experience in its total impact; odor, sound and color were one to him. Hence examples of synesthesia are abundant in his work ...

The attitude which tries to accept all things as they are in life came to form another aesthetic concept, “lightness”, in Bashõ. As he grew old Bashõ emphasized this notion so much that it almost appeared as if he thought it the highest ideal of haiku.“By all means endeavor to produce lightness”, he says to one of his disciples, “and tell this to your friends too”. “I was delighted”, he says to another, “to find that, among other improvements, lightness has come to prevail in your poetry in general”. As for the nature of “lightness”, there is an interesting dialogue in Kyorai’s writings:

A certain man asked about the new flavor of haiku. The Master said: “Do not take duck soup; sip fragrant vegetable soup instead.” The man inquired: “How could vegetable soup be compared to duck soup?” The Master smiled and gave no answer. As I was sitting by, I said to the man: “It is no wonder that you should not be tired of duck soup. I have never seen you eating it. You crave for it day and night.” The Master said: “Do not stop even for a moment. If you do, your poetry will become heavy....”

The principle of “lightness” results in another characteristic of haiku, humor. The world of man is full of contradictions and struggles, and one is often provoked, angry and desperate. A haiku poet, however, looks at them from a distance, with the sympathy of a man who has calmly given up fighting. Life is a tragedy to those who feel, but is a comedy to those who stop and think. When the haiku poet leisurely watches other people without being involved in their emotions, a smile forms in his face, humor emerges in his work. For instance:

a peasant makes straw sandals
in the moonlight,
when a neighbor wakes to shake off
the fleas in early autumn.

The first stanza depicts a poor farmhouse scene. The peasant, unable to live on his daytime work alone, makes straw sandals late at night; he works in the moonlight outdoors to save lighting oil, yet he has to be cautious not to disturb sleeping neighbors. The second stanza, while carrying on the modest village scene, introduces a streak of humor by describing a neighbor awakened by fleas and coming out of his shack to shake them off. The poet shows no indignation or sentimentality at the poor peasant life; he only watches it understandingly and smilingly.

The haiku, then, was for Bashõ the way to salvation. As he recalls, there were times when he craved for an official post or wanted to become a monk, yet he failed in both and hung to the thin string of haiku. Bashõ refused to take a practical way of life, but neither could he go along with the Buddhist view of salvation. His standpoint differs from the... Buddhist’s in that Bashõ’s “poetic spirit” does not deny the values of the present world for the sake of the world yonder. Buddhism would recommend that man should renounce all the worldly values and enter an enlightened realm ruled by the great cosmic law. Bashõ, on the other hand, takes an attitude so passive and all-inclusive that he need not renounce anything. For a Buddhist, life exists because there is death. For Bashõ, life exists because there is death, indeed; but at the same time death exists because there is life—life is just as important as death. Bashõ’s ideas on poetry are ultimately the manifestations of such an attitude toward life ...

“Fragrance”, “reverberation” and “reflection” are the ideas by which man unites opposites and resolves struggles; they help man to see a correspondence between himself and nature. “Lightness” is a concept through which man recognizes the true value of common ways of living; it teaches man how to endure hardship with a smile, to sympathize with others with a warm heart. Religious pessimism and pragmatic optimism, medieval asceticism and modern humanism, feudalist conservatism and bourgeois liberalism, all are blended in Bashõ’s poetry. Bashõ includes multitudes; he physically lives among them, while detached from them spiritually. “Attain a high stage of enlightenment and return to the world of common men” was his deathbed teaching.

The word bashõ designates a banana plant, symbolizing the mutability of life with its large, soft leaves. The poet, in adopting it for his pseudonym, attempted to overcome sadness of life by “attaining a high stage of enlightenment” through haiku. Like the water in a shallow sand-bed river, he never stayed at one place either in actual life or in poetry; he traveled extensively throughout his life and wrote numerous haiku as he traveled along. Yet haiku, after all, was not a religion. As he grew old, a doubt came upon him as to whether haiku itself was not one of those human passions which kept him from attaining a higher stage of religious awakening. Day and night he thought of poetry; as he slept he dreamed of walking in the morning clouds and in the evening dusk, and as he awoke he admired the mountains, the water, and wild birds. He also writes:

No sooner had I decided to give up my poetry and closed my mouth than a sentiment tempted my heart and something flickered in my mind. Such is the magic power of the poetic spirit.

Is there a difference between ordinary men’s attachment to material interest and Bashõ’s to poetry? Bashõ tried... to bring art and religion together. But gradually he discovered, as Zeami did, that the two could not become one as long as religion denied some humanistic values which were the motives of art. Did Bashõ finally recognize the priority of religion to art when, shortly before his death, he referred to poetry as “sinful attachment”? Whatever the answer may be, the fact remains that his great poetry is a combined product of the two: his philosophy of life comparable to religion in its profound understanding of reality, and his art which gave it a full expression.

Source: Makoto Ueda, “Matsuo Bashõ: The Poetic Spirit, Sabi, and Lightness,” in Zeami, Bashõ, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics, Mouton, 1965, pp. 35–64.


Bersihand, Roger, Japanese Literature, Walker and Company, 1965, 115 p.

Britton, Dorothy, translator, A Haiku Journey: Bashõ’s Narrow Road to a Far Province, 974, revised edition published by Kodansha, 1984.

Buchanan, Daniel C., One Hundred Famous Haiku, Japan Press, 1973.

Campbell, Liberty, Haiku of Old Japan, Vantage, 1983.

Hass, Robert, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashõ, Buson, and Issa, Ecco, 1994.

Higginson, William J., with Penny Harter, The Haiku Handbook, McGraw-Hill, 1985.

Keene, Donald, “The World of Haikai Poetry,” in his Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture, Kodanshan International Ltd., 1971, pp. 71-130.

Keene, Donald, editor, Anthology of Japanese Literature, Grove, 1955.

Ueda, Makoto, Matsuo Bashõ, Twayne, 1970.

For Further Study

Aston, W. G., A History of Japanese Literature, Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1992.

Aston’s book, first published in 1899, gave the Western world its first comprehensive understanding about Japanese literature at a time when little was known about the country. Going back to the Archaic Period (before 1700), the book is thorough and easy for students to follow.

Henderson, Harold G., An Introduction to Haiku, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958.

This slim volume introduces the major Haiku writers in chronological order, with samples of each writer’s works.

Kirkwood, Kenneth, Renaissance in Japan, Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1970.

Includes a very good historical explanation of how Bashõ’s life as an itinerant, wandering poet affected his vision and style and therefore affected literary history.

Sansome, George, A History of Japan, 1615-1867, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963.

The political and social orders of the times are examined here in minute detail, giving the average reader a good feel for what life was like under the Tokugawa Shoguns, from the rulers down to the common people.

Varley, H. Paul, A Syllabus of Japanese Civilization, second edition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.

Presented in outline form, this book gives an overview of the country’s cultural growth. An extensive reading list for each period steers students toward even more technical sources.