The poems are exquisite. The sensibility is fine. Basho is aware of his own importance. He puts quotations from other writers into his work and allows his own writing to enter into dialogue with poets of the past. He knows he is good enough to have a place in history. Basho has a lot of poet friends who are always happy to see him, so he must have been a good dinner guest. How is it, then, that he can behave like an arse?
We can’t examine the question without looking at the evidence, so let’s dive in.
I am using The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches in the Penguin Classics edition (1966) with an excellent introduction by Noboyuki Yuasa. I shall be comparing some of the poems with Uxío Novoneyra, Os Eidos Libro del Courel in the Árdora Exprés edition (2010; first ed. Galaxia, 1955).
As I was plodding along the River Fuji, I saw a small child, hardly three years of age, crying pitifully on the bank, obviously abandoned by his parents.
This is how Basho describes his encounter with a lost child in The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton. What would you do in this situation? What would you think? And what would you write as you describe it to your audience?
Think about it for a little before you read on.
Basho gives the child some food, composes a poem referring to another poet and then makes this statement:
Alas, it seems to me that this child’s undeserved suffering has been caused by something far greater and more massive- by what one might call the irresistible will of heaven. If it is so, child, you must raise your voice to heaven, and I must pass on, leaving you behind.
The “irresistible will of heaven” lets Basho off the hook rather conveniently so that he does not have to do anything further to help this abandoned child. His conscience is clear because he gave the child some food. He does not feel any moral obligation to help him.
Since Basho is a poet of a particular calibre, it is worth reading on to see what comes next. First, he comes to the swollen river Oi and writes a poem that mentions his friends in Edo waiting for his arrival. He follows this with the image of a horse eating Roses of Sharon:
Roses of Sharon
At the roadside
Perishing one after another
In the mouth of a horse.
It is hard to take. An abandoned child has become another device in the poetic world of Basho. We should not be fooled by the apparently humble title of his book: he believes that his friends should be waiting for him; he does not believe that he is under any obligation to help the child on the road; he has no qualms about mentioning the incident in a passage that includes a horse eating flowers as an image of flux and natural destruction.
I can see the literary value of the lost child. Basho is showing us that aesthetic appreciation is not just for a namby-pamby intellectual waltzing along on a walk to look at the nice views. We are in no doubts that he suffers on his walks, and he tells us what few possessions he has. He has an extraordinary sensitivity to the linking of images in his poetry, so there is no question that he wanted this brutal harshness to be a part of his poetic world. He wanted me to feel revulsion at him walking away from that child and wanted me to be horrified by the way he turns the reflection into an aesthetic meditation.
This is not the only time that he shows this harshness. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, there is a parallel story that seems to share a similar function. He stops in Ichiburi where he is kept awake at night by the conversation of two prostitutes:
I sympathised with them, for as they said themselves among their whispers, their life was such that they had to drift along even as the white froth of waters that beat on the shore, and having been forced to find a new companion each night, they had to renew their pledge of love at every turn, thus proving each time the fatal sinfulness of their nature.
Seeing prostitutes as suffering from “fatal sinfulness” does not make Basho particularly appealing to a modern audience, but I am prepared to accept that there are different mores in different times. After all, that other great arse, Pablo Picasso, also had a thing about prostitutes and he is still a great painter. Basho sympathises with them so he can’t be all bad. He feels for them because the elderly companion they are with has to leave them unprotected on the road to return to Niigata with messages for relatives and friends. It does not take long to find out, however, that his sympathy is not deep:
‘We are forlorn travellers, complete strangers on this road. Will you be kind enough at least to let us follow you? If you are a priest as your black robe tells us, have mercy on us and help us to learn the great love of our Saviour.’ ‘I am greatly touched by your words,’ I said in reply after a moment’s thought, ‘but we have so many places to stop at on the way that we cannot help you. Go as other travellers go. If you have trust in the Saviour, you will never lack His divine protection.’ As I stepped away from them, however, my heart was filled with persisting pity.
Basho recites a poem to his disciple, Sora, who immediately writes it down in his notebook:
Under the same roof
We all slept together
Concubines and I-
Bush-clovers and the moon.
The “persisting pity” of the poet was not strong enough for him to accompany the “forlorn travellers”. In the poem he turns the event into an image. Bush clovers (Kummerowia sgtriata) are from a genus of flowering plants in the pea-family. They have pinkish-purple and white flowers that appear from mid-summer to autumn, so they are a fitting flower to represent these two prostitutes with Basho himself as the cold and distant moon.
In the following section he arrives in Kanazawa on July 15 and learns that the poet Issho (1653-88) died the previous winter. This is his response:
Move, if you can hear,
Silent mound of my friend,
My wails and the answering
Roar of autumn wind.
There is a dramatic contrast between this emotion and his cool response to the two prostitutes. In both poems he makes himself into a natural force: the moon, the wind.
The structure of the two incidents where Basho behaves like an arse are similar. He responds to two situations that seem to demand human sympathy and warmth with pity and superior distance. Furthermore, as he describes the second scene, he appears to have the earlier one in mind. Just before he meets the prostitutes he is “crossing many dangerous places by the sea with such horrible names as Children-desert-parents or Parents-desert-children, Dog-denying or Horse-repelling.”
The freshness of Basho’s writing deceives me into thinking that it is not artificial, but as I pick away at the images I start to feel that his view is as natural as a bonzai tree. There is a cool control of emotion and meaning in the structuring of events, images, feelings and the smallest touches of words. The prostitutes are not the only ones to mistake him for a priest: there is something priest-like in his demeanour. He presents himself as a living link with the past. He weeps bitterly at the ruined house of Yasuhira, meditating:
A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.
Bush-clovers reappear in Sora’s farewell poem to Basho when he leaves because of an incurable pain in his stomach: “I will fall to be buried among flowering bush-clovers.” Towards the end of the book “the closing of autumn on the sea before me” is marked with “scattered petals of bush-clovers rolling with the waves.”
As you reread the book the structure of the images and the incidents makes a different kind of musical sense: the images are at once clear and precise in describing what they are, and yet stand for something else as well. The bush-clovers, the prostitutes, the Rose of Sharon, the child, provide those deep notes in the aesthetic of Basho’s writing.
Is Basho an arse? It is a troubling question. I suggest that if you are not horrified by his behaviour you are not reading with your guts; if you do not think he is an arse, he hasn’t touched you. However, to follow Basho beyond that moral judgement is to follow the path of the moon itself. There is a troubling beauty to the poetry and the deep paradox is that, without the touch of cruelty, it might just be pretty.
It will take me another post to consider why Novoneyra left the angst out of Os Eidos. I will dig through his images in search of saudade the deep throb that makes the undertone of so much Galician poetry. It leads on from the hard heart of Basho. Follow and you will see.