Transience and the Human Soul in Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

After an era of peace in which culture and art had thrived in the Heian court, Japan dissolved into a country of warring states. For the several hundred years which followed the Minamoto clan’s rise to power in 1185, the nation was fraught with unrest. It was not until Tokugawa Ieyasu won control in 1603 that Japan saw peace again, and regained its ability to progress as a unified culture. Due to newly closed borders which barred an influx of foreign influence, Samurai began to engage in high culture, language became standardized, and the economy boomed. The class system shifted and re-balanced as the common merchant found his way to the top. After so long a time in Medieval darkness and uncertainty, the people began to turn their thoughts from mere survival toward personal satisfaction and entertainment, and the cultural arts, once luxuries afforded only to the wealthy court, now flourished throughout the cities. This culture of indulgence greatly unhinged poetic traditions, inspiring poets such as Matsuo Bashō to search for greater understanding of humanity’s place in the ephemeral universe. Through his poetic form and profound ruminations on impermanence, Bashō thus calls to a waning past of intellectual integrity and rebels against society’s new-found appetite for consumable poetry.

Cannell writes in his study of the poetic field that prior to Bashō’s time in the Genroku period, haiku “was meant to unite diverse persons (often of different social status) into a true ensemble of practitioner poets by means of an achieved aesthetic harmony of mood and atmosphere” (4). Yet rapid social and economic change in an era of relative peace brought power to the merchant class who desired leisure and entertainment worthy of their new station. Thus, with the changing of the guard, so to speak, came a shift development in the traditional arts. Poetry in particular, a game of whit and aesthetics that had been long protected by the cultured elite, was now widely marketed for profit among the masses. Cannell attests that in this cultural shift the poetic sphere was changed entirely, and hence it became the role of the master poet to understand the psychology of a socially diverse community and to satisfy its demands (13-4). Consequently, the search for human meaning in the dark unknown was replaced with common quips and attempts at winning the most poetic points.

In order to evade the intellectual oppression of a newly voracious pleasure-seeking culture, Bashō turned his thoughts toward nature and departed the city. Hence began Oku no Hosomichi, the diary of his travels in which he sought to question the significance of mortality. But how was the poetic master able to convey such profound inquiries? The answer is in the poetic form itself, a basic understanding of which greatly illuminates the theme of transience in Bashō’s work. Haiku was born of renga, a poetic game of whit that had flourished centuries before Bashō’s time. This form originally required multiple players to complete a poem, but by removing the final two lines of the renga—altogether eliminating the second partner—poetry became a solitary endeavor. Dr. Millay states that because the final two lines of seven syllables have been omitted in the transition from renga that a haiku is inherently an incomplete poem, to which the reader is expected to “respond in some vital way” (Millay). Furthermore, Robert Aitken posits that this evolution to individual poetic form is “a shift in poetic intent from interplay of cultural and literary associations to the more intimate task of presenting the vital experience of the thing itself” (xxi). Thus, in knowing the history of the poetic form, the reader retains the final two lines, leaving haiku intentionally unfinished. There they remain dangling in silence, invisible, and fleeting. This omission brings to haiku the structural power to ruminate into the vast expanses of the universe, whereas renga inherently produces a complete and tidy thought with its finishing lines.

It is clear that Bashō, himself a man of Buddhist faith, sought to escape the modern trend of poetic bastardization with his intentionally unfinished poetic forms. On his difficult back-country travels, he wrote Oku no Hosomichi from the depths of the heart and mind, un-swayed by coin or want for fame. In what is perhaps the most celebrated poem from his travel diary, for example, Bashō’s consciousness is completely disconnected from that of society.


(Matsuo Bashō)

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks(trans, Nobuyuki Yuasa)
into rock absorbing
Cicada sounds(trans, Cid Corman, Kamaike Susumu)

The dissonance in this poem (humanity vs nature) opens a realm of darkness from which Bashō explores the unknown depths of the human psyche. Here, nature permeates all things. The sounds of the city are an eternity away, thoughts of the brothels, the theatre, and trite popular poetry are consumed by the cicadas’ wanton song. The stillness of the night echoes into the complete silence of the omitted final two lines, and the reader is implored to consider the meaning. Robert Aitken writes that this theme in Bashō’s work is fundamentally that of Zen Buddhism: “…the universe and its beings are a complementarity of empty infinity… and total uniqueness of each and every being” (Aitken, xviii). Bashō’s haiku revolve around this incomprehensible theme to ask: are we connected in our humanity or do we indelibly stand apart? Without these mortal pleasures, who are we? Are we inherently alien to this nature, fated to be absorbed by it only in death? These are questions of transience that Bashō’s haiku alight in the depths of the heart, far away from the bustling, unconcerned cities.

Similarly at Hiraizumi, Bashō includes a poem written be his companion Sora, composed for the “glory of three generations of the Fujiwara.” The expansive moment is compassionately connected to the men who lived and dreamed on the very spot he stands long ago. He is simultaneously, however, detached from those ambitions of old, living in the moment in quiet contemplation on mortality amidst nature.



A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors(trans, Nobuyuki Yuasa)
Summer grasses—
Where stalwart soldiers
Once dreamed a dream(trans, Makoto Ueda)

In this poem, there is no hint of social upheaval or economic change—trivial matters in the vastness of time. Rather, by focusing on images of mortality (all that remains of warriors past) within the context of nature (indifferent summer grasses), Bashō, through Sora, draws attention to a deeper and darker realm of loneliness in light of man’s inevitable fate as impermanent beings, fleeting in the context of eternity.

Bashō continues to contemplate impermanence with a sense of loneliness and transience throughout Oku no Hosomichi, as if in to protest the popularized poetic games of the city. While the merchants grow fat on accumulated wealth, Basho writes of fallen friends, crumbling estates, and immovable mountains illuminated beneath a silent moon.


(Matsuo Bashō)

Move, if you can hear,
Silent mound of my friend,
My wails and the answering
Roar of autumn wind.(trans, Nobuyuki Yuasa)
Move, tomb!
My crying voice
Is the autumn wind(trans, Devon Duncan)

In this poem particularly, the heart of Bashō’s poetry is revealed—as Aitken so succinctly states, “…the heart of Bashō’s haiku is the very foundation of human perception of things—mind itself” (xviii). In grieving for his friend Kosugi Issho (1653-88) at Kanazawa, Bashō implores the forces of nature to reverse the irreversible. His voice becomes one with the autumn wind, yet he is powerless because he, too, is mortal. The poet Hagiwara Sakutaro writes of this poem:

Bashō’s grief is related to the infinite size of the universe. The desolate sound of the autumn wind is the voice of his soul, a shriek that, as it pierces through his helpless solitude, is close to the voice of nihilism…. [Bashō] obscurely suffered the griefs of humankind in his heart and wandered endlessly in quest of poetic beauty amidst grief. (Ueda, 264)

The reader is pulled with Bashō’s cries of pain into the vacuum of infinity where all sense of meaning is lost (the omission of the final two lines again allows his sentiments to flow forth and reach into the dark recesses of the mind.) The pain that Bashō conveys in his poem, however, resonates not only with the human mind but in the Buddhist idea that tears of true pain are a virtue that “shines forth with incisive spirit that drives through the darkness. The pain itself is just pain” (Aitken, 22).

When one views Oku no Hosomichi through both an awareness of Bashō’s poetic form and the historical context in which he lived, one can feel the profound weight of the mortal soul. Through this work, Bashō rejects the cravings of Genroku society—which was content to revolve around economic gain, artistic pleasantries, and trivial games—in order to wander in search of answers in the unreachable depths of the mind. He used the form of his haiku (left intentionally unfinished with the omission of the final fourteen syllables) in combination with vivid images of nature in order to evoke a sense of dissonant human emotion. This dissonance implies a profound yet beautiful loneliness while simultaneously suggesting a sameness which connects all things, immersed in an ever-changing world of light and silent shadow.

Works Cited

Aitken, Robert, and Bashō Matsuo. A Zen Wave: Bashō’s Haiku and Zen. Weatherhill, 1978.

Bashō, Matsuo, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Oku no Hosomichi). Trans., Nobuyuki Yuasa. Penguin, 1972.

Cannell, David R. Haikai Poetry: The Genroku Field. University of California, Irvine, Ann Arbor, 2007.

Millay, S. Lea. Interpreting the Past. UNST 236I-001. Fall 2016.

Ueda, Makoto, and Matsuo Bashō. Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford UP, 1991.

© 2016 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.


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