Monday marked the anniversary of Matsuo Basho’s passing, so we thought it would be apt to celebrate the master Japanese poet by culling this week’s excerpt from his masterpiece, Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no Hosomichi).
Ostensibly a chronological account of the poet's five-month journey in 1689 into the deep country north and west of the old capital, Edo, this work of haibun – a Japanese literary form combining prose and haiku – is in fact artful and carefully sculpted, rich in literary and Zen allusion and filled with great insights and vital rhythms.
Compiled by poet and translator Hiroaki Sato in Basho's Narrow Road: Spring and Autumn Passages, this revered haibun weaves history, geography, philosophy, and literature together to evoke titillations of aesthetic bliss that resonate across culture and time. In the haibun’s opening passage, Basho meditates on the essential human desire to wander and surrenders himself to the beatific pull of the natural world:
The months and days are wayfarers of a hundred generations, and the years that come and go are also travelers. Those who float all their lives on a boat or reach their old age leading a horse by the bit make travel out of each day and inhabit travel. Many in the past also died while traveling. In which year it was I do not recall, but I, too, began to be lured by the wind like a fragmentary cloud and have since been unable to resist wanderlust, roaming out to the seashores. Last fall, I swept aside old cobwebs in my dilapidated hut in Fukagawa, and soon the year came to a close; as spring began and haze rose in the sky, I longed to walk beyond Shirakawa Barrier and, possessed and deranged by the distracting deity and enticed by the guardian deity of the road, I was unable to concentrate on anything. In the end I mended the rips in my pants, replaced hat strings, and, the moment I gave a moxa treatment to my kneecaps, I thought of the moon over Matsushima. I gave my living quarters to someone and moved into Sampu’s villa:
Kusa no to mo sumi-kawaru yo zo hina no ie
In my grass hut the residents change: now a doll’s house
To learn more about Basho's Narrow Road: Spring and Autumn Passages or to order a copy for you or a loved one, click here.