Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Just Finished: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

When it's very hot, and where I live it's very hot most of the time, I love to read about cool, green, misty places.  (That is a not insignificant part of my love for English classics.)  So this collection of poetry and prose by Matsuo Basho was just the ticket last week.  The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches is his collected observations from several walking trips around the wild areas of northern Japan in the seventeenth century.  Autumn winds and moonlit mountains sound like heaven to me these days.

The translator of this edition, Nobuyuki Yuasa, explains that in the years preceding these journeys, Basho had been "casting away his earthly attachments" in an effort to attain spiritual purity, and that these journeys were intended as a final step in that process.  His intention was to travel until he died.

Although Yuasa provides a very interesting introduction to the haibun form (linked prose and haiku) and to the evolution of Basho's style, I didn't look at it until after finishing the book.  I wanted those images--I wanted to head north into those wild mountains.  And the poetry on its own was a great pleasure.  Images like this
Over the darkened sea,
Only the voice of a flying duck
Is visible--
In soft white.
and this
Not knowing 
The name of the tree,
I stood in the flood
Of its sweet smell.
and this
Only half the way I came
To the ancient capital,
And above my head
Clouds heavy with snow.
were what I was craving.

Basho seems to be trying to notice and preserve every impression.  But more than just recording what he sees, he seems to want to see everything mindfully;  to see the essence of whatever he looks at.  He visits old friends, shrines, and the sites of ancient battles;  reflects, and is moved to tears.  It's as if he is trying to take leave of the world by studying and making poetry of it.

Mixing It Up
The Classics Club


  1. That's very interesting. Traveling until death. Traveling to cast away earthly attachments...I would think the opposite. Seeing all the beautiful sights would make me more attached.

    Here's an award, should you choose to accept it:

  2. My impression, especially after reading the introduction, is that he was trying to lose himself as an individual; to get at the essence of the natural world as the ultimate reality rather than any desires or interests or appetites of his own.

    What is this award? I'm off to check it out...