Basho’s Narrow Road

Basho’s first few sentences establish the truth that change is the fundamental fact of existence, of “the world” as we perceive it and of our lives in the world: the sun and moon, the years are travelers; each day is a journey, and the journey is home. Basho’s statement that the journey itself is home suggests that there is some sense of belonging, of permanence, that he associates with perpetual change.

Basho then makes his first reference to “the earliest times” (throughout the book he will think often of his cultural and religious ancestors). Notably, Basho here introduces the idea of death on a journey, of a journey unfinished, by mentioning how although there have always been those who perished along the road, Basho himself has always been drawn to a life of wandering. Again Basho writes in such a way that the notions of permanence and impermanence are in tension with each other.

Basho’s imagery and personification of nature is noteworthy as well. The sun and the moon are travelers, like Basho is. Along with the sun and the moon, cobwebs and mists seem to be part of a natural cycle, since they are associated with times of the year; and indeed Basho uses this imagery to portray his life at home, perhaps in order to lend his home life more of a sense of permanence, the familiarity of routine. Windblown clouds, on the other hand, provide an image of transience: these are what call Basho away from home.

In addition to equating life with a journey, Basho also implies that for him travel is a spiritual practice. When he is at home his mind is beset by longings, dreams and desires: “I couldn’t concentrate on things.” Basho’s trip to the deep north, and his practice of writing haiku as he travels, is meant to help him restore his ability to concentrate on the present moment, which is an imperative in Zen Buddhism. The haiku poems that cap many sections of his book may be seen as Basho’s purest moments of concentration.

Find two sections in the book to analyze/“unpack” in the way I’ve unpacked the first section above. You don’t have to have airtight arguments; instead just try to find as much meaning in the text as you can. I think that some of the ways into the text that I’ve indicated here can work with many of the book’s sections. Pay attention to the importance of literary and cultural history, and how this history impacts places themselves and Basho’s own consciousness (what's the difference, anyway?). Pay attention to nature imagery. Pay attention to the contrasts between permanence and impermanence. Pay attention to how Basho writes about travel and how travel relates to concentration.

Tonight, email me at bmoran@sch.ci.lexington.ma.us, and tell me which sections you've analyzed.