Haiku, haibun, and renga of Bashō

Matsuo Bashō
* Writings. * Haiku. * Haibun. * Renga. * Time Line.

Other pages on Matsuo Bashō
* Oseko's annotated translations.
* Comparison of Oseko and Reichhold translations.
* Examples of Oseko and Reichhold and Barnhill translations.
* Comparison of other translations from Bashō's haibun.

Writings (alphabetical by translator or biographer)

Having various translations lets one understand better what was likely to be the original intention of Bashō. In particular, I compared paragraphs and poems of Narrow Road in many translations. These are listed in reverse-chronological order here:


2002 Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900

Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900: edited by Introductions and Commentary by Haruo Shirane.

Over a thousand pages of material by 32 translators. Much of the work (including Shirane's own translation of Narrow Road to the Deep North pp 209-232) previously appeared in the literature.

1999 Rediscovering Basho: A 300th Anniversary Celebration

Rediscovering Basho: A 300th Anniversary Celebration: edited by Stephen Henry Gill and C. Andrew Gerstle.

13 essays in appreciation of the poetry legacy of Japanese poet Bashō (1644-1694), particularly in his haiku. The collection includes Nobuyuki Yuasa's "Laughter in Japanese Haiku", Tsunehiko Hoshino's " Basho and I: The Significance of Basho 300 Years after his Death", and Makoto Ooka's "Poetry for the Computer Age: Antidote for Anomie".

Contains a delightful group travel haibun "In the Autumn Wind: Offa's Dyke: A Haibun Travel Journal", edited by Stephen Henry Gill and Fred Schofield, with haiku by poets that participated in the five-day mountain tromp on uneven ground through rain, descended cloud, and wind.

Gill (p. 11 in Footnote 13 to his article "Shepherd's Purse") mentions the original manuscript:

[I]n November 1996, it was 'officially announced' that Basho's original 'Narrow Road' manuscript had indeed been found — in an antique bookshop in Osaka, the city where he had died. It had been lost for 250 years! The manuscript clearly shows Basho's careful redrafting and editing for overall compositional balance, always apparently conscious of his poetic travelogue being in effect a 'linked verse' of prose and haiku, which, like a piece of music, needs to lead forward while echoing developments that have already been played.

[The editors' convention is "Basho" rather than "Bashō".]


Barnhill, David Landis (translation and introduction): Bashō's Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō

Excellent translations and commentary. Highly recommended.


See also:

Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho (2004), translated and with an introduction by David Landis Barnhill. 724 poems.

The Narrow Road Haibun

Facts on the The Narrow Road journey:

Hamill, Sam. Translator: Narrow Road to the Interior


1996: Keene, Donald (translation and introduction): The Narrow Road to Oku, illustrated by Miyata Masayuki

1966: Yuasa, Nobuyuki (translation and introduction): The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, illustrated by Yosa Buson

1968: Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu (translation and introduction): The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches

Disappointing in both the translations and illustrations

The sole redeeming feature is that it includes the Japanese in kanji and kana, as does Keene.



Ueda, Makoto: The Master Haiku Poet Matsuo Basho:

Comparative Translations

across the plain

Consider first The Narrow Road's poem written in response to a request (from the man leading Bashō's horse) to receive a poem-card.

The sound of the poem in Japanese is approximated by this Romaji [Keene, p. 43]:

   no wo yoko ni
   uma hikimuke yo   

Keene's version (also p. 43):

   Lead the horse sideways
   Across the meadows -- I hear   
   A nightingale.

The word "sideways" seems awkward in his translation; I had to read other versions before Keene's version made sense to me.

Hamill's version [p. 18] seems to claim a response of the horse to a bird cry (an alarm rather than a "song"?) and from a different bird, one that in the west is a terrorist rather than a chorister:

   The horse lifts his head:   
   from across deep fields
   the cuckoo's cry

Cid Corman's version doesn't bother to translate the bird:

   across the fields   
   head the horse   

But it was not till I turned to Barnhill's version that I found a version that made sense ... and that I preferred as a poem:

   across the plain,
        turn my horse over there!   

Later I found Yuasa's earlier version [p. 105] in his four-line format with a closing period. It also uses "turn" for the verb, which works well:

   Turn the head of your horse   
   Sideways across the field,
   To let me hear
   The cry of a cuckoo.

My preference is for Barnhill's version, with its clarity and concision.

Now consider The Narrow Road's poem written at Palace-on-the-Heights.

The sound of the poem in Japanese is approximated by this Romaji (Keene, p. 87):

   natsukusa ya 
   tsuwamono domo ga   
   yume no ato
and his translation:
   The summer grasses --
   Of brave soldiers' dreams   
   The aftermath.

Jane Hirshfield offers a similar by slightly variant version on p.51 of her Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (2015):

   natsu gusa ya tsuwa mono domo ga yume no ato
and her translation:
summer grasses:
what is left
of warriors' dreams

Hamill's version (p. 51):

   Summer grasses:   
   all that remains of great soldiers'  
   imperial dreams

Shirane's version (p. 221):

   Summer grasses—   
   the traces of dreams  
   of ancient warriors

Shirane's version is better than most. Even more helpful, his book includes a 32-line footnote on the sounds and the layered meanings of words in the original.

Cid Corman's version is too concise:

   summer grass
   dreams' ruin   

Barnhill's version (p.62) is again my preference for its clarity and concision:

   summer grass—
        all that remains   
              of warriors' dreams   

Yuasa's version (p. 118) in his four-line format:

   A thicket of summer grass  
   Is all that remains
   Of the dreams and ambitions   
   Of ancient warriors.

Reichhold's versions (p.137, her 528):

   summer grass  
   the only remains of soldiers'   

Oseko's versions (his 150):

   Only summer grass grows
   Where ancient warriors   
   Used to dream!

Now consider The Narrow Road's poem written after turning down a request to walk with them from two young prostitutes.

The sound of the poem in Japanese is approximated by this Romaji [Keene, p. 131] (almost identical in Ueda, p. 144):

   hitotsu ya ni 
   yū'jo mo netari   
   hagi to tsuki

Keene's version (also p. 131):

   Under the same roof
   Prostitutes were sleeping —   
   The moon and clover.

This has such resonance: the moon of enlightenment with traveling poets; the bright clover with the young women.

Hamill's version [p. 75] implies a closer juxtaposition that turns the haiku into a senryu:

   Under one roof, prostitute and priest,   
   we all sleep together:
   moon in a field of clover

I understand that there is no explicit Japanese word for "priest" in the Japanese haiku. So, Hamill is adding into the poem something to indicate that the traveling poets presented themselves as priests.

Shirane's version (p. 230):

   Under the same roof   
   women of pleasure also sleep—   
   bush clover and moon

Barnhill's version (p.70) is again my preference:

   in the same house
        prostitutes, too, slept:   
              bush clover and moon 

Cid Corman's version (whose notes claim that 'play-girls' is a more exact translation than 'prostitutes')

   in the one house
   play-girls also slept   
   hagi and moonlight   

Ueda's version [p. 141], though, is the most gentle, with its "too" and "are asleep":

   Under the same roof
   Courtesans, too, are asleep--   
   Bush clover and the moon.

Yuasa's version [p. 132] in his four-line format:

   Under the same roof  
   We all slept together,
   Concubines and I —
   Bush-clovers and the moon.   

Reichhold's version (p.143, her 564):

   in one house  
   prostitutes lie down to sleep   
   bush clover and the moon

Oseko's version (his 170):

   Under the same roof,
   Prostitutes are also sleeping.
   Bush clover and the moon.

Here, I also like Ueda's version and Oseko's version.

Lastly consider The Narrow Road's poem written after visiting the Tada Shrine (in Komatsu) with its famous warrior's helmet.

The sound of the poem in Japanese is approximated by this Romaji [Keene, p. 143] (identical in Ueda, p. 141):

   muzan ya na 
   kabuto no shita no   

Keene's version (also p. 143):

   Alas for mortality!
   Underneath the helmet   
   A grasshopper.

Hamill's version [p. 81]:

   Ungraciously, under
   a great soldier's empty helmet,   
   a cricket sings

Hamill's version uses 'Ungraciously' for muzan (which others understand as 'cruel' or 'ruthless' or 'pitiful') and inserts 'sings', which is not in the original. Also missing from the original is another Hamill insertion: 'great soldier's empty' to describe helmet, kabuto. That word comes from Japanese antiquity, and gives the image of a fallen soldier. Hamill's insertion of those words in the haiku is not only that he is inserting words; he is also duplicating the sense of the prose — something that is usually to be avoided in Haibun:

Shirane's version (p. 230):

   "How pitiful!"
   beneath the warrior's helmet   
   cries of a cricket

Shirane's book includes a 24-line footnote on the historical resonances in this poem.

Barnhill's version (p.72):

   so pitiful—
        under the helmet,   
              a cricket 

Cid Corman's version (again compact, perhaps excessively)

   under the helmet   

Ueda's version [p. 141]:

   How pitiful!
   Underneath the helmet   
   A cricket chirping.

Yuasa's version [p. 134] in his four-line format:

   I am awe-struck  
   To hear a cricket singing
   Underneath the dark cavity   
   Of an old helmet.   

Reichhold's version (p.144, her 571):

   how pitiful  
   under the armored helmet   
   a cricket

Oseko's version (his 176):

   How pitiful it is,
   To hear a cricket chirping  
   Underneath the helmet!

Time Line

Start of Edo period.

Birth of Matsuo Bashō in the city of Ueno. He would become the first poet to compose independent hokku (or in Shiki's term, haiku).

Bashō became employed as a page and study-mate to Yoshitada, the young heir of the Tōdō family.

Death of Bashō's father.

Death of Yoshitada (by then using the pen name Sengin). When Bashō's request to resign was rejected, he ran away to Kyōto, where he studied while possibly living at the Kinpukuji (a temple).

Bashō returned to his native home, where he remained for some months.

Bashō went to Edo (today's Tōkyō) where he began to be recognized poetically.

Met Sōin from Ōsaka. From him, Bashō learned: "the special value of the poetry of the humble and unpretentious imagery of everyday life ... reflect[ing] the playful tone and ingenious style of Sōin." (Yuasa's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, p. 24).

Sanpuu, an admirer of Matsuo Bashō, built him a hut in a quiet place in Fukagawa near the River Sumida. That winter one of his students presented him with a Bashō tree (a species of banana), shortly after which he used that as the name of his house and as his pen name (Yuasa's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, p. 25-26).

Matsuo Bashō's hut was destroyed in a city fire that burned much of Edo.

Death of Bashō's mother.
In winter friends and disciples built a new house for him in Fukagawa.

Bashō's first major journey, leading to his first travel sketch "The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton" (14 pp. in Yuasa's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, starting on p. 51). He went mainly west from Edo, reaching Kyoto and Nara. His report of his arduous nine-month foot journey is written as a haibun but the prose and poetry in this early version are in want of balance.
While he was in Nagoya Fuyu no Hi (A Winter Day), the first Bashō anthology was published.

Publication of two Bashō anthologies: Kawazu Awase (Frog Contest) and Haru no Hi (A Spring Day).
By this time "crude personification and ingenious self-dramatization have completely disappeared from his poems" (Yuasa's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, p. 34).

Bashō's short trip to the Kashima Shrine led to his short travel sketch "A Visit to the Kashima Shrine" (6 pp. in Yuasa's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, starting on p. 61).
Bashō's second major journey, taking about eleven months and following a similar route to that of 1684. This led to two travel sketches: At the time he was "coming out of the agonizing years of self-scrutiny, and was busy finding his identity in nature" (Yuasa, p. 35).

Bashō returned.

Bashō's third major journey, taking thirty months and heading north, crossing to the west coast, then heading south. In Spring and Summer, accompanied by his friend Sora, Matsuo Bashō walked in Japan's Northern Interior. During his remaining 5 years, Matsuo Bashō polished his travel diary of that journey to make Oku-no-hosomichi.

Death of Matsuo Bashō.

Links and Books.

Links and Books.

[Thanks for visiting.]