The Narrow Road to the Interior by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Author: 
Matsuo Basho; Sam Hamill (Translator)

Basho is famous as a composer of haiku. Some even suggest he invented the form, though he did not. One of his most famous works is Oku No Hosomichi (trans. as The Narrow Road to the Interior). This work is considered one of the masterpieces of classical Japanese literature. In form, the work is an haibun, a mixture of prose and haiku. It is an impressionistic journal of a journey Basho made, mostly on foot, in the Spring of 1689. Over the course of 156 days, he traversed about 1500 miles. At the conclusion of his journey from Edo (Tokyo) to the north, and back again, he spent five years refining and completing the work for publication. There are people who go to Japan to retrace Basho’s steps. Given the great changes from Japan of 1689 to Japan in the 21st century, this is impossible in any real sense. In any event, we are not Basho and cannot replicate what happened to him over 400 years ago. But we can appreciate his own depiction of that experience. It is unclear whether Basho attained enlightenment, but, in his haiku, and his other verse, he does aim at the annihilation of subject and object that is key to enlightenment. Haiku is all about the distilling of experience to its essence and somehow summoning the moment that led to an “aha!” moment.

The library contains this work, together with some of Basho’s other haibu and selected haiku, in The Essential Basho, trans. By Sam Hamill.

The opening paragraph of The Narrow Road is famous and is worth presenting in its entirety:

The moon and the sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering. Coming home from a year’s walking tour of the coast last autumn, I swept the cobwebs from my hut on the banks of the Sumida just in time for New Year, but by the time spring mists began to rise from the fields, I longed to cross the Shirakawa Barrier into the Northern Interior. Drawn by the wanderer-spirit Dosojin, I couldn’t concentrate on things. Mending my cotton-pants, sewing a new strap on my bamboo hat, I daydreamed. Rubbing moxa into my legs to strengthen them, I dreamed a bright moon rising over Matsushima. So I placed my house in another’s hands and moved to my patron Mr. Sampu’s summer house in preparation for my journey. And I left a verse by my door:

Even this grass hut
May be transformed
Into a doll’s house (Trans. Sam Hamill)

Haiku and Basho’s haibun also exemplify the spirit of mono no aware (lit. the “pathos of things”), a Japanese awareness and sensitivity to the ephemeral nature of life and beauty. This awareness of the evanescence of the world of the senses, and its beauty is strong in Japanese culture. It can be seen in the annual cherry blossom festivals in Japan (held in different locations at different times from late March into early May). When the cherry blossom comes into bloom, people will take a day for picnics with family and friends, or simply use the day to sit in wonder at the beautiful pink blossoms which blow away in the wind – the beauty of the blossoms is very finite and consequently very dear. The following quotation from The Narrow Road captures a sense of that:

“With every pilgrimage one encounters the temporality of life.” (Trans. Hamill)

Though haiku is aimed at capturing a sense of the newness of experience, Basho’s travel works also show an awareness that his own special experience is sparked by the same source as inspired people in the past, as the following haiku suggests:

“Transparent moonlight
just as it shone when Yugyo
carried sand to the shrine.” (Trans. Hamill)

In fact, though such transitory experience is just that – transitory – one can fix it, in a way, in verse, and fixed, that experience can be caught for generations yet to come. And, in going on a pilgrimage, Basho visits famous places which previous poets captured in verbal snapshots. In fact, the hope to make that connection is a reason for going on pilgrimage.

“Such a moment is the reason for a pilgrimage: infirmities forgotten, the ancients remembered, joyous tears trembled in my eyes.” (Trans. Hamill)

Ultimately, though, words fail to capture everything from any experience, or fail to adequately describe all the wonder of the world, even though that does not keep Basho from trying himself and calling to mind his predecessors who tried to do so. In that very attempt, the poem presents is own beauty.

“Whose words or brush could adequately describe a world so divinely inspired?” (Trans. Hamill)

And sometimes, the resultant beauty can capture beautifully discordant juxtapositions, such as when, looking at a soldier’s helmet in a graveyard, Basho becomes aware of a cricket chirping underneath the helmet, his sound amplified. This mix of comic with melancholy produces the following:

“Pitifully – under
a great soldier’s empty helmet,
a cricket sings.” (Trans. Hamill)

Of course, as someone who does not know Japanese, there’ll always be more that I (or others like me) miss in reading Japanese verse in translation. That said, there would be even more I’d miss if I didn’t make Basho’s acquaintance and go with him on his journey.
The library contains this work, together with some of Basho’s other haibu and selected haiku, in The Essential Basho, trans. by Sam Hamill. There is also a nice translation online by Tim Chilcott. You can find that at http://www.tclt.org.uk/basho/Oku_2011.pdf

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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