Basho, Plodding in Saigyo's Footsteps

The following article (by Meng-hu) is reprinted from Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry, Winter 2005, vol. 3., no. 4 ( Reprinted with permission.

The genius of Basho (1644-94) is not only evident in his codifying the structure of haiku but in retaining and extending to haiku the sabi sensibility inherited by his predecessors. Sabi is the subjective element of loneliness that conveys an emotional color or pathos to the art object. While this quality is not unique to haiku, Basho refined it in haiku through images, seasonal words, and symbolic elements. In sabi sensibility, Basho was strongly influenced by his twelfth-century predecessor Saigyo (1118-90).

Saigyo and Basho, poets of sabi

The concept of sabi had a rich and complex history even before Saigyo's era, harkening back to elements of Confucian, Taoist, and Shinto philosophy and spiritual traditions. While literally meaning "loneliness," sabi is the atmosphere of solitude, of attentiveness to impermanence and the nature of being, tinged with an aesthetic sense of irony, pathos and what might be called in the West melancholy or even a "tragic sense."

Basho was to consider sabi the first and most important element of haiku. According to a disciple of Basho sabi is "the color of a poem." He gives the example of an old man dressed in armor. There is a pathetic quality to such a scene. However, Basho's poems never reflect this level of literalness, governed instead by the sabi principle he inherits from Saigyo.

Saigyo inspired Basho in several ways. First, then, Saigyo was clearly Basho's model poet. In his Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, Basho enumerates those "who have achieved real excellence in arts," naming Saigyo in waka or traditional poetry, Sogi in tanka or linked verse, plus Sesshu in painting and Rikyu in tea ceremony. This comment of Basho is an important insight into his artistic standards, for his models possess the same characteristic: "a mind to obey nature, to be one with nature, throughout the four seasons of the year."

In the poetry of Saigyo, sabi is a presentation of natural images with a subjective interpretation underlying the objects described. For Saigyo, the sabi element often evokes a strong emotional response, as in these representative poems:

Crickets -
cold night deepening into autumn —
do you grow weak?
your voices farther and farther away.

Even one so free of passion
would be moved to sadness —
autumn evening
in a marsh
where snipes fly up.

Saigyo not merely shows us his object but tells us what he feels. He tells us that the season is autumn and tells us that he is sad. The poems evoke sabi: a sense of desolation and impermanence. The form and structure of sabi was to fall to a craftsman like Basho to hone poetry to a formula. To compose with "a mind to obey nature" - this will be Saigyo's challenge to Basho. The fruit are representative haiku paralleling the objects of Saigyo's poems above.

Nothing in the cry
of the cicadas suggests
they are soon to die.

The sea darkening—
The voices of the wild geese
Crying, whirling, white.

Basho's formula preserves the sabi atmosphere but refines the presence of the observer: "Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo," he writes. "In doing so you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself."

Saigyo and Basho, itinerants

A second influence of Saigyo on Basho is as model itinerant. Saigyo's own travels directly inspired the travels of Basho. Early in life Saigyo had abandoned secular status and religious institutionalization to follow an eremitic life, that is, the life of a hermit. He lived alone in mountainous and remote places but also undertook travels to shrines, temples, and seashores.

Basho admired this example of a poet inspired by eremitic ideals. He undertook his own travels dressed like a priest but not one, of course, for, as he puts it, "the dust of the world still clings to me." While in the Yoshino Mountains, Basho reflects admiringly that "many ancient poets chose to live among these mountains, completely isolated from the rest of the world." In Travels of a Well-Worn Satchel, Basho relates that he was ever on the look-out for sabi objects: isolated houses in the mountains or a lonely moor or beach at autumn that "excels in loneliness and isolation."

Although Saigyo often expressed guilt over the quality of his poetry in contrast to his religious devotion, Basho had fewer qualms. While Saigyo often admits loneliness and misses companions from bygone days in the city, Basho travels with friends and fellow poets and seems to know someone in every town on his route. His moods range from loquacious to reflective. Still he strives to emulate the hermit Saigyo in his hut, who wrote:

This spring I will stay
Close to my rustic hedge,
Make friends
With people who come
In search of the plum's fragrance.

In Saigyo's footsteps

Basho makes a point of retracing Saigyo's itinerary, visiting places associated with Saigyo. Wandering alone in the Yoshino Mountains, for example, Basho visits "the grassy hermitage of Saigyo." Hereabouts Basho sees cherry blossoms and recalls the "famous poems of Sesshoko, Saigyo, and Teishitshu and other ancient poets." Yet Basho finds he cannot write, overwhelmed by the sight of cherry blossoms, a waning moon at midnight, and, perhaps, the awe in which he holds the poets of the past.

In keeping to his poetic ideal of oneness with nature, Basho is especially observant of trees. In his Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho seeks out a willow tree described by Saigyo. "I found it near the village of Ashino on the bank of a rice field," Basho records. "For the first time in my life I had the chance to rest my worn-out legs under its shade." Seeing a huge chestnut tree in front of a hermit's hut, Basho writes: "I felt as if I were in the midst of the deep mountains where the poet Saigyo had picked nuts."

In Kasajima province, Basho discovers the pine tree of Takkuma celebrated by the priest Noin in a famous anecdote of Saigyo. And in a visit to Noin Island to visit the priest's hut, Basho pauses at the nearby cherry tree described in a poem by Saigyo.

While trees (and poems) inspire reflective moods, places deemed important to Saigyo also inspire sabi moods in Basho's more pensive moments. Places take on an aura, like markers on a disciple's or pilgrim's journey. One day near the Ise temple, Basho saunters down a valley where Saigyo was said to have built a hermit's hut. Instead, Basho discovers a stream, and a woman washing potatoes. Of this mundane scene Basho writes:

The poet Saigyo
Would have written a poem
Even for the woman
Washing potatoes.

For Saigyo, not poetry isolated from simplicity and nature but nature itself suffused with wabi-sabi inspires poetry. The jotting above represents Basho's sensitivity to wabi: simplicity, authenticity, and lack of contrivance.

Wabi is the counterpart to sabi. Where sabi refers to the objects provoking the sense of loneliness, wabi is projection of simplicity from a human element. Wabi literally means poverty, the self-imposed and voluntary condition of the hermit and ascetic. When found in the scene of the woman washing potatoes, wabi was considered a sad state of misery. In Saigyo's time, this connotation was strong enough that only the hardy - rather than the esthete - pursued eremitism or itinerancy.

With deep-felt empathy, Saigyo often mentions the poor villagers toiling in the rice field, digging irrigation ditches, burning smudge fires against mosquitoes in summer, or suffering the mournful blasts of wintry winds. All such poems with their uncontrived human element reflect wabi.

In Japan, wabizumai, "the life of wabi," was essentially the life of the hermit, the life of solitude and simplicity. It seems no coincidence that Basho experienced a spiritual crisis before his famous two year journey to the north in 1689. He sold all his possessions, including his beloved little house in Edo, as if intending never to return. The journey was a spiritual quest, and the poems and commentaries resulting from this journey are Basho's most mature output.


Both Saigyo and Basho were masters of evocation. An autumnal scene becomes for Saigyo an epitome of life:

With blooms of pampas grass as markers,
I push my way along,
no trace of the trail
I vaguely remember.

So, too, for Basho in his eremetic travels, always thinking of his poet master, a scene becomes a microcosm of the journey of life and poetry, as in this note from Records of a Travel-worn Satchel:

Dragging my sore feet,
I plod along,
like Saigyo.