The Pacifist Basho

The point of Basho’s poem, “Summer Grasses,” is the vanity of war in comparison to the fertility of the earth. If you recall Basho’s poetry while reading about war, or while sitting silently in meditation, or demonstrating against nuclear weapons, Basho’s consciousness may be a source of insight or power.

by Jeff Robbins

The 17th century Japanese poet and essayist Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is renowned for his nature poetry and his “detached, objective, impersonal” style. However, there is far more in the works of Basho than impersonal nature and the lonely desolation of growing old. If we look beyond the well-known works of Basho, we find a vast pool of deeply personal works about humanity and human affection.

In this article, I will explore the works of Basho on war and peace, searching for meaning that applies to the mission of peace activists, Quakers and the American Friends Service Committee.

Throughout the article, a bold typeface is used for Basho’s own writing, and italics are used for the words of other poets.

Everyone familiar with Basho’s work knows the poem Basho wrote at the site of an ancient battle where the great hero of Japan, Yoshitsune, was defeated, and killed his wife, daughter, and himself before the enemy could take them.

Basho wrote in his travel journal, A Narrow Path in the Heartlands:

Yes, in this High Fortress,

Yoshitsune and select retainers took refuge —

great achievements of the moment

to become clumps of wild grass.

The Tang poet Li Bo wrote:

Nations torn apart

hills and rivers remain

Springtime at the castle

the grass shall be green

Basho quotes this verse by Li Bo as a lead-in to his masterpiece on the essential nature of war.

Summer grasses —

great warriors, the traces

of their dreams

Since that epic tragedy came to pass, the hill has grown green, then withered again, 500 times. All that remains of the High Fortress are some stones scattered in the grass. These stones are physical remains of Yoshitsune and his retainers (and his wife and daughter who also fought and suffered). Basho sees not only what is physically there, but also what is hidden in Time, the “traces of their dreams” lingering among the grass.

I was surprised to see that haiku scholar William Higginson believes that this verse “glorifies war” and assumes that his readers will see it that way too. In 30 years of knowing this verse, I never considered such an interpretation. The whole point of the verse, as I see it, is the vanity of war — the vanity of male achievements in comparison to the fertility of the earth (“summer grasses”).

As the Biblical poet-teacher wrote in Ecclesiastes 1: 14 —

I have seen all of the works

that are done under the sun and behold,

all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

I have read dozens of interpretations of Basho’s haiku in numerous books and Internet sites, yet none of these give any hint that Basho wrote anything else on war. Here are two stanza-pairs from Basho’s linked verse. Basho often composed stanzas of haikai no renga, a pair of linked verses in which the first stanza was by another poet, the second by Basho. The first poet had not the slightest idea of where Basho would go in his stanza.

In Basho’s link with the previous verse, we see his genius. Before I present the verses, I want to warn against the notion that Basho’s poetry is “literary” and requires some special background knowledge of Japanese culture. I encourage you rather to see these verses as expressions of our common humanity.

This first linked verse begins with three lines from Koeki and concludes with two lines of Basho:

In the cold wind

at sunset, long-drawn-out

cries of hawks

foretell the heads to fall

in tomorrow’s battle

Koeki’s verse is magnificent by itself, but even more stunning is the way each element — the wind, the sunset, the “long-drawn-out cries” — feeds energy into Basho’s ode to fate.

Each time I read the verse I am again surprised by the direction Basho chose. He took the elements Koeki provided and blended them into that great question of existence which can never be answered: is the future ordained, or free?

Statue of Matsuo Basho at Chuson-ji temple, Hiraizumi, Japan. Frank Gualtieri photo


Basho’s stanza is feminine-pacifist because of what it does not say. If the stanza read something like, “foretell which side will win” or “foretell who will kill the most enemy,” then it would be masculine, competitive, war-mongering. The way Basho wrote it, there is no sense of our side being better than theirs, no feeling of competition, no concern for winning. All who die are equal in tragedy.

This Basho stanza is about humanity in general, with no consciousness of an individual. The next linked verse is more intimate and personal:

After the years

of grieving, finally

past eighteen —

Day and night dreams

of Father in that battle

That is, Father died in war when I was young, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief. Now, in the prime of youth past the age of eighteen, I look back over those years of dreams, constantly reverting to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality.

Although the subject of the stanza can be boy or girl, linked verse scholar Miyawaki Masahiko in his book, Basho’s Verses of Human Affection, assumes a boy, and so in my translation of his words I use male pronouns. Miyawaki says:

“For a child, his father is his model to learn from by observation, his goal in life. The boy has reached the age when now he can go to war. To see a dream of father in battle is the same as being on the battlefield himself. His regrets for his father can never be forgotten. The bond between father and son is well expressed.”

I have no such experience of losing my father to war, and I hope that many who have had such an experience will tell me what this stanza-pair means to them. I also hope counselors who work with such children will pick up the verse and use it in their counseling. Although it was written more than 300 years ago, every single word is fully relevant to boys or girls who have lost a father to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The clear, direct statement of human feeling may be consoling.

Here is another Basho haiku I see as pacifist:

On life’s journey

plowing a small field

going and returning

Before the fields receive the rice-seedlings, the farmer lets in water from irrigation ditches. With horse or ox pulling the plow, he goes up one row and down the next, breaking up the clumps of earth and raking the mud smooth. In Basho’s poem, “Summer Grasses,” we saw what happens to the great achievements of men: they become clumps of wild grass. Would that each man forego ambition leading to war, and instead “plow a small field” so the women and children go and return in peace.

I have explored four Basho verses on war and peace. If even one of them remains in your mind a week from now, or a year later, if you recall it while reading about war in the world today, or sitting silently in meditation, or demonstrating against nuclear weapons, Basho’s consciousness may be a source of insight or power.

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