The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)





Haiku and haibun


1686 Matsuo Bashō composes one of his most famous haiku, about a frog plopping with a splash into an ancient pond. It inspires a competition on the same theme among other haiku writers in Edo.


1744 The great haiku poet Yosa Buson publishes his travel notes after following in the footsteps of Bashō.

1819 Kobayashi Issa proves a worthy successor to Bashō with The Spring of My Life, combining prose and haiku in a haibun. Issa was prolific, writing around 20,000 haiku, including 230 on the firefly.

1885 Masaoka Shika starts to write haiku on portraits he draws – he advocates writing from life, in the field, as an artist would paint a landscape.

Matsuo Bashō (c.1644–1694) of Edo (modern Tokyo) was the master of the haiku, a short Japanese verse form. Rendered in English in three or (more rarely) four lines, the haiku captures a fleeting moment, often with poignancy as well as sharp observation. But Bashō’s greatest work is in a composite genre – the haibun – in which haiku is embedded in a prose narrative.

A noble journey

Bashō’s aim in The Narrow Road to the Interior was to record a spiritual pilgrimage to the far north of the country, undertaken in the spirit of Zen Buddhism and to honour poets who had travelled before him. On this journey, direct encounters with nature, enriched by cultural associations, and visits to Shinto shrines, confirm Bashō’s liberation from selfish attachments. The poetry and the prose are in perfect equilibrium, illuminating each other like a pair of mirrors facing inwards. Journeying mostly on foot, for hundreds of miles, Bashō searches for wisdom, relating his discoveries in prose that is vivid and frequently tinged with elegiac melancholy – even a reference to “pines shaped by salty winds, trained by them into bonsai” appears solemn and resigned. His haiku achieve the sought-after quality of kenshō, or glimpse of enlightenment – a brief awakening into truth.

"Those who float away their lives on boats or who grow old leading horses are forever travelling, and their homes are wherever those travels take them."

The Narrow Road to the Interior

See also: The Tale of Genji • On the Road