Angelee Deodhar: Haiku Silence 

Klaus-Dieter Wirth: Haiku in German-Speaking Countries

Beverley George: Haiku and the Seasons

Bruce Ross: Haiku as an Absolute Metaphor

Klaus-Dieter Wirth: The Haiku in Europe

Ferris Gilli: The Power of Juxtaposition

Jim Kacian: The Way of One

Toshio Kimura: A New Era for Haiku

Steve Wolfe: Pilgrimage: On the Road to Shikoku


Vol. 11, No 18, Spring 2014

Stephen Wolfe: Death in Deep Autumn

Klaus-Dieter Wirth: The Haiku at the Crossroads?

Michael Dylan Welch: Getting Started with Haiku

Richard Gilbert: Haiku and the Perception of the Unique

Robert D. Wilson: TO BE OR NOT TO BE -
An Experiment Gone Awry

Jane Reichhold: Should Senryu be Part of English-Language Haiku?

Jim Kacian: Skinning the Fish: Interpenetration in Haiku

Michael Dylan Welch: The Practical Poet: On the Art of Writing


Vol. 10, No 17, Summer 2013

Robert D. Wilson: What Is and Isn't

David G. Lanoue: Animals and Shinto in the Haiku of Issa

Interview with Professor Peipei Qiu by Robert D. Wilson

Richard Gilbert: Kigo and Seasonal Reference in Haiku

Tatjana Stefanović: A branch with birdsong

David G. Lanoue: Write Like Issa


Vol. 9, No. 16, Summer 2012

Chen-ou Liu: Read It Slowly, Repeatedly, and Communally

Jim Kacian: So: Ba


Vol. 8, No. 15, Winter 2011

Jim Kacian: Haiku as Anti-Story

Chen-ou Liu: The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku

David G. Lanoue: Issa's Comic Vision

Ikuyo Yoshimura: Kato Somo, the First Japanese Haikuist to Visit the United States

Dr. Randy Brooks: Haiku Poetics: Objective, Subjective, Transactional and Literary Theories

Vincent Hoarau: Suggestiveness in haiku through the work of Svetlana Marisova

David Grayson: The Sword of Cliché: Choosing a Topic

Robert D. Wilson: To Kigo or Not to Kigo

Saša Važić: What's the Use

Tomas Transtromer awarded Nobel Prize


Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011

Haruo Shirane: Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku myths

Geert Verbeke: Haiku Study & Photo Haibun

David Burleigh: In and Out of Japan: The Contours of Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Kigo – The Heathbeat of Haiku

Michael Dylan Welch: Haiku Form and Content

Richard Gilbert: Kigo and Seasonal Reference: Cross-cultural Issues in Anglo-American Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Study of Japanese Aesthetics: Part I: The Importance of Ma

Matthew M. Carriello: The Contiguous Image: Mapping Metaphor in Haiku

Richard Gilbert: The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A Study of Disjunctive Method and Definitions in Contemporary English-
language Haiku

Bruce Ross: The Essence of Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Study of Japanese Aesthetics: Part II: Reinventing The Wheel: The Fly Who Thought He Was a Carabao

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Vera Markova’s “Ten Haiku Lessons”

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Tranströmer and his Haikudikter

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Haiku Poets' Last Line of Defence

Michael F. Marra: Yūgen

Robert D. Wilson: Simply Haiku Winter 2011 issue's Featured Poet: Slavko Sedlar



 Steve Wolfe, Japan


Bards of a Feather Lost Between Heaven and Earth
A Study of Tu Fu’s Influence on Basho



“Tu Fu is, in my opinion, and in the opinion of a majority of
those qualified to speak, the greatest non-epic, non dramatic poet who
has survived in any language.”
Kenneth Rexroth1

“What makes Basho one of the greatest of the poets of the world is the
fact that he lived the poetry he wrote, and wrote the poetry he lived.”
R. H. Blyth2


The most profound compliment that can be lavished on a creator of verse is to say that he or she is a poet’s poet. Basho (1644-94), Japan’s consummate haiku poet, perpetual wanderer and arguably its greatest poet, harbored an intense lifelong veneration for Tu Fu, (To Ho, 712-770), the preeminent Tang Dynasty Chinese poet. For Basho, Tu Fu was the Poet’s Poet, the true “Sage of Poetry,” as he came to be known in Chinese.

Tu Fu’s influence on Basho can be seen in multifarious ways throughout Basho’s life, haiku and prose. This paper will attempt to explore how Basho paid poetic homage to the Chinese poet he so admired and, in various ways, emulated; that Basho considered Tu Fu a karmic kindred comrade of poetic spirit.

Basho expresses unabashed respect for Tu Fu in direct statements of praise for his poetry, for his life of reclusive poverty, and for his incessant wandering across China until his death on the road in 770. These direct references are laced throughout Basho’s prose and in the headnotes to his haiku, and such accolades seem humbly straightforward and heartfelt. The reader can sense the inspiration and succor Basho draws from the Chinese poet.

It is clear that Basho was well versed in a cross-section of Chinese literature and philosophy, and also revered other of the major Chinese poets. While Basho‘s writings are laden with sporadic praise for such seminal Chinese poets as the free-spirited Li Po (701-62); the tender, romantic poet of the people, Po Chu-i (772-846); the Zen/Taoist ascetic Han Shan (dates speculative); and the multi-talented Su Tung-p’o (1037-1101), Tu Fu clearly assumes a paramount position in Basho’s pantheon of poets.

Basho himself was no stranger to the peripatetic life (the lengthy and grueling trip on which “Oku No Hoso Michi” was based lasted some two and a half years). However, Basho’s Japan was for the most part at peace and prosperous and the era is often referred to as “Pax Tokugawa.”3 On the other hand, the period in which Tu roamed the mountains and valleys of Cathay was one wracked with civil strife, border wars, famine, and a chaos that severely demoralized and disrupted the lives of the people.

Tu Fu found himself a captive during the An Lu-shan rebellion (756) and in danger of execution; nearly a millennium hence Basho would find himself a captive of adoring and sycophantic disciples clamoring for his critique of their haiku and showering him with feasts and gifts. So to Basho, Tu’s indomitable wanderlust in the face of unceasing and palpable peril must have added a romantic and foreboding dimension that further raised the pedestal upon which Basho placed the Tang poet. In the headnote to an early haiku Basho hints at Tu’s romantic image as a solitary traveler, “Tu Fu, wearing a hat heavy with snow, would roam faraway places.”4 In the following haiku he perhaps had Tu in mind and attempted to cast himself in his idol’s image:

tabibito to
waga na yobaren

call me “traveler”:
first cold rain

(all haiku translations are the author’s unless otherwise attributed)

Basho would have been familiar with many of Tu’s countless references to himself as a solitary traveler facing the hardships of the lonely road. The opening two couplets of “Red Valley” is one example:

Cold skies thick with frost and snow,
But the traveler must move on,
Sad, though the year’s end approaches,
No prospect I’ll ever come this way again.5

Another example of Tu Fu’s traveler/poet persona comes at the beginning of the first of his “Composed at Random: Nine Poems”:

Anyone knows a traveler’s grief never can be dispelled,
Yet these heedless spring colors descend on my river pavilion!6

The fact that Tu Fu was all but ignored as a poet in his own lifetime, in contrast to Basho’s literary success and throng of disciples across Japan, infused Tu’s life with a degree of world-weary loneliness that perhaps made him that much more alluring and charismatic to Basho.

A second manifestation of near hero worship on the part of Basho for Tu Fu lies in the frequent echoes of Tu Fu’s verse that are used by Basho in his haiku, and poetic prose in the travel journals and essays. These allusions to Tu’s oeuvre are so numerous, and often so subtle, that many are missed by even the most fervid readers of Basho’s work. It must be emphasized, however, that while Basho frequently draws on the Chinese poet’s work, the subtle twists, tones, and nuanced counterpoint that result serve Basho’s own poetic visions and truths, at the same time imbuing the texture of the work with a richness and depth enhanced by the authority and antiquity of Chinese poetry. Basho is no mere imitator and his poetic allusions in general, whether they echo the words of Tu Fu, Li Po, Chuang Tzu, Confucius, or earlier Japanese poets, are carefully crafted toward his own unique expression. Donald Keene describes “these allusive variations on earlier poems” as being in the waka “tradition of honkadori”:

Waka poets customarily restricted themselves to the themes of their
predecessors and often even borrowed the words, determined to
remain faithful to their traditions; the contribution of the new poet was
his particular sensibility, apparent in even the most familiar subjects
and language…[and] changes in emphasis that prove a fresh
intelligence is at work.7

In addition to Tu Fu’s influence as a monumental poetic and creative presence, Basho was very moved by Tu Fu’s acceptance of poverty and simplicity as necessary modus operandi for the true poet. While Basho had a life-long fascination with other traveler/poet/monks such as Japan’s Saigyo (1118-90) and Sogi (1421-1502), it is perhaps to Tu Fu that he turns for inspiration more consistently and piously. Tu Fu eked out a no frills, bare-boned poet’s existence with all its concomitant sufferings and satisfactions. It has been suggested that Basho, like numerous poets, Tu Fu most certainly among them, “created best when moved by grief, either personal or induced by the human condition.”8

Another fundamental connection between these two seminal spirits of world poetry that spans cultures and centuries is an overlap in poetic vision and temperament. This overlap cannot be attributed to any influence of one poet on another, but is rather the result of each poet’s visionary gifts, and proclivity toward Taoist and Zen notions. While it is always difficult to concretely isolate the elements that link, or “overlap,” the visions of highly creative artists, it would not be unreasonable to state that the finest work of both poets is driven by a tragic sense of life, along with the esthetic notions of wabi and sabi.

Let us immediately attempt to define these two essential terms in order to understand more clearly how they pertain to the lives and work of Basho and Tu Fu. The renowned scholar and literary critic Haruo Shirane defines wabi as,

An aesthetic and spiritual ideal first developed by medieval poets and
tea masters and later advocated by Basho. Rejects external, sensory
beauty and finds spiritual and poetic depth in material poverty, in
modest, simple, unadorned objects in an ascetic lifestyle.9

I now, in turn, refer to Basho scholar, Makoto Ueda, for a definition of the elusive quality of sabi:

Lonely beauty cherished in the Basho school of haikai. Elements of
sadness, old age, resignation, tranquility, and even happiness can also
be found in it. Underlying this aesthetic is a cosmic view typical of
medieval Buddhists, who recognized man’s existential loneliness and
tried to accept it with calm and resignation.10

This wabi/sabi aesthetic permeated the lives and oeuvres of Basho and Tu Fu in their repeated retreats to riverside huts, solitary hardscrabble wanderings, diets of simple, even course, food, and their threadbare clothes. In a prose poem entitled “The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling,” written in 1690, in which Basho gives an account of his life in a hut on the shore of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, he describes his consummate wabi/sabi life. His abode

…is an abandoned hut with a rush door. Brambles and bamboo grass
overgrow the eaves, the roof leaks, the plaster has fallen from the
walls, and foxes and badgers make their den there...11

He then describes his wanderings and communings with nature, his ultimate dedication to poetry, and concludes by linking it all with Tu Fu and his poetic talent:

…I’ve worn out my body in journeys that are as aimless as the winds
and clouds, and expended my feelings on flowers and birds. But
somehow I’ve been able to make a living this way, and so in the end,
unskilled and talentless as I am, I give myself to this one concern,
poetry…Tu Fu grew lean and emaciated because of it. As far
as intelligence or the quality of our writings go, I can never compare
to such men.12

It is generally agreed that Basho’s genius was of the late blooming variety and that he produced his best work in the last decade of his life, especially beginning with the 1686 revolutionary “furu ike” haiku (“old pond/frog jumps in/sound of the water”), which opened the haiku floodgates in terms of the subject material that haiku could encompass. In his earlier haiku collections and essays we can see Basho groping to establish his poetic moorings and define the qualities that were essential to make haiku a profoundly unique expression of poetic truth and liberate it from the stilted and formulaic verse it had become.

In an early collection of haiku published in 1683 entitled “The Empty Chestnut,” “Minashiguri,” edited by one of Basho’s chief disciples, Kikaku, Basho states the importance of imbuing haiku with the spirit of the great Chinese poets. He asserts that true haiku should allow for “tasting the wine of the hearts of Li Po and Tu Fu...”13

The following haiku of this same period,  

ro no koe nami o utte
harawata kouru
yo ya namida

the oar’s sound beating the waves
ices my guts;

night of tears is preceded by a headnote which includes a quotation from a Tu Fu poem and a prose passage expressing Basho’s veneration of the Chinese master:

‘Framed in my window, the thousand autumn snows of the western peaks; tied by my gate, a boat to take me ten thousand miles east to Wu’14

I recognize the poem but do not see what it means. I yearn for its
wabi but have not tasted its delight. I excel master Tu Fu only in the
number of illnesses I suffer from. In the shade of banana leaves at a
modest hut, I call myself an old beggar.15

This telltale passage depicts Basho’s respect for, and knowledge of, Tu’s poetry, an appreciation for his wabi/sabi aesthetic, and an almost fawning imitation of Tu Fu’s simple life in a hut by the river in western China. Basho’s haiku cited above, and Tu’s couplet that precedes it, are imbued with wabi simplicity that present a sabi sense of man’s vulnerability in the face of nature’s unrelenting power.

Tu Fu’s life in his isolated hermitage on the river represented to Basho a wabi wonderland. Basho was to live in similar circumstances at subsequent periods in his life in addition to his early stint at the Fukagawa hut on the Sumida River in the outskirts of Edo. In later years he would derive much pleasure and inner serenity from life spent in the countryside of Shiga Prefecture where he chose to be buried.

In addition to revealing Basho’s admiration of Tu’s overall wabi sensibility, and his own striving toward such an end, the above headnote is an excellent example of the poetic device of mitate, sometimes defined as “double vision,” a technique Basho was to employ with considerable effect. A parallelism is established by which the actual view of Mount Fuji from Basho’s Fukagawa hut merges with Tu Fu’s vision of the Western Peak from Tu’s Sichuan hermitage. The boat on the Sumida River in front of Basho becomes transmuted by the alchemy of poetry into “a boat to take me ten thousand miles east to Wu”16 Ultimately, Basho is spiritually transmogrified into Tu Fu and becomes one for an eternal moment with his Tang muse.

Another example of Basho’s use of poetic allusion from Tu Fu to heighten the wabi resonance of one of his haiku can be seen in the following haiku of 1681. Once again Basho is not merely imitating, but rather employing the poetic echo to forge his own unique vision:

bashou nowaki
shite tarai ni ame o
kiku yo kana

banana plant in autumn storm
rain dripping into the tub
sounding all night long

At first reading of this haiku, the reader perceives Basho’s moving brand of sabi loneliness and wabi dwelling; and also reacts to the multiple associations with which the banana plant is suffused. It is generally known that Basho took his name from this “useless” plant that was given to him by one of his disciples and of which he became so enamored as its leaves grew in seeming leaps and bounds before his eyes. In Chinese and Japanese poetry the tearing and mangling of these leaves by autumn rain and wind have traditionally engendered a feeling of transience and fleeting mortality. So this haiku delivers a considerable impact based solely on its independent textual effect.

However, the headnote to this haiku opens up a wider vista of nuance:

Tu Fu composed a poem on “A thatched Hut Ravaged by the Wind.”
Su Tung-p’o nostalgic for that suffering, composed a poem on a
leaking hut. Hearing the rain of that evening in the leaves of the
plantain, I slept alone in my grass hut.17

In a similar manner as Basho’s hut merged with Tu Fu’s, and the ship on the Sumida River below Mount Fuji became one with that vessel plying the waters of Tang China in the shadow of the western peak, the rain Basho hears in this haiku is also the rain of the poetry of Tu Fu and Su Tung-p’o.18

In addition, a major innovation of Basho’s haiku aesthetic—“exploring the high in the low”--becomes clear in the counterpoint he crafts between the classical content of the Chinese poems and his own “banana plant in the storm” haiku. Haruo Shirane explains this new wave aspect of Basho’s poetics:

Instead of listening to the raindrops fall on the plantain leaves,
however, the recluse [Basho], in a haikai twist, hears the sound of the
rain falling into a “tub” (tarai), a vernacular word that brings the
world of the Chinese recluse down to everyday, commoner
life….Basho sought a different kind of haikai inversion, exploring the
high in the low, the spiritual in the mundane, richness in poverty, often
in the manner of wabi aesthetics.19

Basho echoed the words of Tu Fu to one extent or another throughout his writings, although unlike the above example, which represented a major seachange in poetic approach, many were minor touches that often went undetected except by the most astute readers. A typical example of this surfaces in the 1687 travel journal, “A Pilgrimage to Kashima” when Basho describes his visit to his Zen teacher, Butcho, at the latter’s temple retreat. Donald Keene points out that “Being in the presence of this holy man refreshed Basho’s spirit and he recalled the words by Tu Fu: ‘It stirs one to deep thoughts.”20 These words were written by Tu Fu in response to the dawn bell tolling at Feng-hsien Temple in Lung Men.21 An interesting sidebar to such use of Tu Fu’s words by Basho is that the line quoted here is not particularly moving or powerful; it is as if the purpose of its inclusion here is to summon Tu’s spirit to suffuse the section.

Let us now explore the most deeply ingrained connection in the Japanese consciousness between a haiku of Basho and a Tu Fu poem, which is known to any Japanese with even a cursory encounter with Japanese literature. This legendary literary link springs from one immortal passage in Basho’s greatest work, “Oku No Hoso Michi,” his travel journal depicting six months of his Odyssey along the backloads and narrow trails of northern Japan. Interspersed among the poetic prose are a number of Basho’s most sublime haiku, which have taken their place among the gems of world poetry. One of them bears the direct influence of a Tu Fu poem.

In one of the most famous passages in “Oku No Hoso Michi,” Basho climbs a hill near the town of Hiraizumi to view what was once a battlefield where a great and decisive military clash transpired. The field is now overgrown with summer grass, the only remnant of the ancient soldiers frenzied heroics. Reaching the summit, Basho sits down, emotionally gazes out over the charged scene and, as his tears flow, incants the opening couplet of Tu Fu’s poem “Spring Watch,”

Country in ruins; mountains and rivers remain,
Spring in the city; grasses and trees grown dense.

He then offers what many critics believe to be his most penetrating and near-perfect haiku:

natsu kusa ya
Tsuwamono domo ga
Yume no ato

summer grass
warriors’ dreams

The “natsu kusa” haiku is directly influenced by Tu Fu’s “Spring Watch.” The following is a translation of this Chinese poem in its entirety, as it will provide a microcosm of various of Tu Fu’s poetic techniques which influenced Basho significantly.

Country in ruins; mountains and rivers remain,
Spring in the city; grasses and trees grown dense.
Feeling the times, flowers tear,
Grieving separation, birds’ hearts tremble.
Warning fires flare three months straight,
A letter from home worth 10,000 in gold.
Scratching my white hair, it is thinner still--
Soon too scant to even hold the pin.

(Author’s translation)

Almost all high school Japanese students are forced to memorize the opening couplet of the Japanese transliteration of this poem--“Kuni yabure sanga ari...” One basic meaning that Basho’s summer grass haiku and Tu Fu’s opening couplet of “Spring Watch” share is the power of nature to overcome the ravages and folly perpetrated by man. However, it has been pointed out that while Basho was significantly influenced by this Tu Fu poem, he has, once again, shifted the focus to effect his own vision. Where Tu’s emphasis lies in the traditional themes of eroticism and rebirth, Basho has altered the focus from fertility to futility, to the emptiness of man’s ambitions and his ineluctable decay and demise. Basho has infused the image with a deeper sense of sabi.22

Perhaps, a more direct “overlap” in meaning and spirit with Basho’s summer grass haiku, despite Basho’s quotation from “Spring Watch,” would be with Tu’s couplet in “Night in the House by the River,”

The great heroes and generals of old time
Are yellow dust forever now23

Two additional points can be culled concerning Tu Fu’s influence on Basho by a closer textual analysis of “Spring Watch,” this representative Tu Fu poem. The second couplet,

Feeling the times, flowers tear,
Grieving separation, birds’ hearts tremble.

describes the weeping of flowers and the trembling of birds caused by the tragic times. The second haiku in “Oku No Hoso Michi” depicting Basho’s tearful parting from his friends, clearly echoes this couplet:

yuku haru ya
tori naki uo no
me wa namida

departing spring
birds weep, fish
eyes tear

Once again Basho has transmuted a Tu Fu allusion toward his own end; in Tu Fu’s cosmography, flowers weep and birds shudder in response to the breakdown in the order of the empire and society, and to the ineffable suffering of the common people. In Basho’s scheme of things, birds and fish weep for the poet/wanderer who is parting from his friends and embarking on a protracted journey from which it is very possible he might never return. He informs us at the very beginning of the travel journal that “Many of the men of old died on their travels.”24 These “men of old” included Sogi, Saigyo—and of course Tu Fu. While Basho did survive this lengthy travel, he was to die in Osaka in 1694 on the cusp of yet another trip which was to take him to the southlands of Japan. Tu Fu died while traveling down a stretch of the Yangtze River in 770.25

Finally, in “Spring Watch” we see a favorite Tu Fu poetic process unfold. Tu Fu typically moves from selective, outward reality and then shifts, in the final climactic couplet, to the personal yet subtle sabi world of his own decay and impending demise:

Scratching my white hair, it is thinner still--
Soon too scant to even hold the pin.

Perhaps one of Tu Fu’s major innovative contributions to Chinese poetry, and which was a sweeping break from the objective veneer of traditional Chinese verse, was the infusion of personal emotion into the subject material. Like Basho, his emotional life and poetry were inextricably entwined. Both poets effected a subtle, carefully balanced “fusion of the external landscape, kei, with human emotion, jo.”26

Another example of Tu Fu’s mainstay poetic technique of beginning with a charged external landscape, albeit with assiduously assembled components, and concluding with powerful personal emotion can be seen in his poem entitled “Journeyer’s Pavilion”:

Autumn window still colored by dawn,
bare trees, high winds that go on blowing:
sun comes up beyond cold mountains,
river flows through last night’s mist.
In times of good government, no one unused;
frail, sickly, I’m an old man now.
How much of life left me,
Vagrant, tumbleweed rolled around by the wind?27

It can be argued that Basho adopted this confessional quality, which has become a lynchpin of haiku, largely from Tu Fu. Prof. Shirane goes as far as to pinpoint the winter of 1680 as the chronological window of this adoption, when Basho moved into the hut in Fukagawa, where

he began composing haikai that drew on his own life as a recluse,
creating, probably for the first time in haikai history, what appeared to
be a personal, confessional mode—a movement no doubt influenced
by his readings of Chinese recluse poets such as Li Po and Tu Fu.28

In a similar fashion, Donald Keene writes of Basho’s intense artistic struggles to transmute the day’s personal experiences into haiku. Basho opened up the parameters of haiku to include subject material culled from the artist’s personal life.29

Another of Basho’s most famous haiku, also appearing in Oku No Hoso Michi, bears the indelible imprint of Tu Fu’s influence:

shizukasa ya
iwa ni shimiiru
semi no koe

penetrating rock
cicada cries

The noted 18th Century haiku critic Moran, in his book “Hizamoto Sarazu,” “Close by the Knees,” in which he offers a comprehensive analysis of Basho’s haiku, states:

A poem by Tu Fu says, “Cicadas’ voices merge together at an old
temple.” Basho further enhanced the poetic beauty of the scene by
introducing the image of rocks absorbing the voices.30

In the following haiku, Basho draws on an actual experience he had of encountering an abandoned child in the woods. It appears in “Nozarashi Kiko,” a travel journal of 1684. Here, Basho employs an image found in a number of Tu Fu poems and which had become common in Chinese and Japanese poetry in general, the sorrowful wail of monkeys. However, Basho’s use of the image offers a sharply divergent view, a virtual backlash against the stock use of the image for shallow dramatic effect. It is one of the few times that Basho comes close to actually chastising Tu Fu and the other Chinese poets whom he usually idolized.

saru o kiku
hito sutego ni aki no
kaze ikani

he who has heard the monkey wail
how about the child abandoned
in autumn wind?

One of Tu Fu’s “Eight Poems of Autumn Diversion” includes the line,

“Hearing the monkeys, indeed three tearful wails!”31 “On a Tower” commences with, “Skies bottomless, howling gibbons moan in gusting wind.”32

This haiku about the abandoned child has engendered a groundswell of interpretation over the centuries since it was written. Perhaps two representative selections of commentary will serve to clarify the thrust of Basho’s meaning and its inherent link with Tu Fu and Chinese poetry. The first quotation is from Chijitsuan Tosai (b. 1750) who analyzed some 750 of Basho’s haiku:

Poets in China and Japan have written that there is nothing more
plaintive than a monkey’s cry. But they would be lost for words
should they hear that child crying in the autumn wind. By saying this
the poet [Basho] expressed soundless depths of pity.33

A second analysis of this haiku comes from the writing of Yamamoto Kenkichi (1907-88), a distinguished scholar of classical and modern Japanese literature:

Basho here saw a deserted child crying in the autumn wind; he did not
hear a monkey’s cry. Yet…he had shown a great deal of interest in
Chinese poetry. It was natural that his grief at hearing the child’s cry at
this time should remind him of a shrieking monkey. And to Tu Fu…
and all the other poets who had been so touched by a monkey’s cry, he
asked, almost in protest, which of the two cries would sound more
pathetic. In other words, he contrasted his genuine pity for the
deserted child with the imaginary grief that…poets put into their
poems about the monkey’s cry.34

Basho’s literary loans from Tu Fu are not restricted to use in the haiku but also extend to the prose passages, especially in “Oku No Hoso Michi.” While these gleanings from the Chinese poet which become integrated into the fabric of the prose are too numerous to cite in their entirety, two examples may suffice to intimate the process at play. Basho’s description of Matsushima, “Some (islands) appear like a child on the back, some like a child at the breast, some like a man caressing his children or grandchildren,”35 is generally believed to be influenced by the line from Tu Fu’s “Gazing at the Mountain,” “All the peaks in array look like children and grandchildren.”36

In a similar fashion, Basho’s later prose line in “Oku,” depicting his trek along a high mountain trail, “Feeling as though earth were falling from the edges of the clouds”37 appears to be a poetic transmutation of Tu Fu’s, “Entering on the windy slope of stone, the edges of the clouds rained dust.”38

In addition to Basho’s prolific borrowing of lines and phrases from the poetry of Tu Fu, he also plucked at least one “trick” from the poetry bag of the Chinese poet.39 Blyth uses the following Basho haiku as an example:

Who is it that grieves,
The wind blowing through his beard,
For late autumn?40

Blyth points out that the second line literally reads in Japanese, “His beard blowing the wind” and then quotes the following couplet from one of Tu Fu’s “Eight Poems on Autumn”:

The parakeet pecks at the remaining grains of fragrant corn;
The phoenix dwells long on the branches of the green paulownia.41

In a similar fashion, Tu Fu’s original Chinese, according to Blyth, reads, “The grains are pecking the parakeet” and “The green paulownia lives in the phoenix.”42 Blyth concludes this discussion with his analysis of Basho’s intent in expropriating this poetic device from Tu Fu:

This figure of speech of inversion…paralleled in English literature by
the transferred epithet, was probably tried by Basho…as part of that
effort of all mystical poets to convey the idea of one in all, all in one.”43

Both Tu Fu and Basho tramped the earth and wrote poetry undeterred until they were interred in that very same earth. Only death put an end to their travels and tomes. The following Basho haiku captures the flavor and spirit of the solitary wanderings, and residue of late-life regret, that both poets shared, and in addition draws on an image that abounds throughout Tu’s poetry:

byougan no
yosamu ni ochite
tabine kana

a wild duck, sick,
falls this cold night
into travel sleep

A few citings of Tu’s frequent use of solitary bird imagery, arguably his most frequently employed image, will suggest the likelihood that Basho was influenced by Tu Fu in this respect, taking into account Basho’s familiarity with Tu’s corpus. “Clear After Autumn” concludes:

The desert trees shed their few green leaves.
The mountain pears are tiny but ripe.
A tartar flute plays by the city gate.
A single wild goose
climbs into the void.44

“Overlooking the Desert” is permeated by a similar mood that builds up to the following climactic lines:

The wind blows the leaves away.
The hills grow dim as the sun sets.
A single crane
flies late to roost.
The twilit trees are full of crows.45

“Night Thoughts While Traveling” concludes with one of Tu Fu’s most famous lines: “I am like a gull/Lost between heaven and earth.”46

In conclusion, I would like to quote from a perceptive and comprehensive work on haiku, “Haiku no Sekai,” “The World of Hokku and Haiku,” 1981, by literary critic Konishi Jin‘ichi. The following words by Prof. Konishi concerning this haiku adeptly capture and solidify the relationship between the Japanese haiku master Basho, who later generations have called the “Tu Fu of Japan,”47 and Tu Fu, the Chinese “sage of poetry”:

Here is beautiful symbolism. Tu Fu in his last years wrote many
poems expressing deep grief and solitude. In this hokku I see the
shadow of that great Chinese poet who, like Basho, roamed the
country despite his frail health.48

This paper has tried to trace that daunting “shadow.”


1 Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, New York: New Directions, 1971. p. 135.

2 R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku Vol. 1, Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1963, p. 129.

3 Kenneth P. Kirkwood, Renaissance in Japan, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1970, p. 82.

4 Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992, p. 83.

5 Burton Watson, trans. The Selected Poems of Du Fu, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, p. 69.

6 Ibid., p. 86.

7 Donald Keene, Travelers of a Hundred Ages, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 311.

8 Ibid., p. 304.

9 Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 298.

10 Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters, p. 429.

11 Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson, trans. From the Country of Eight Islands, New York: Anchor Books, 1981, p. 292.

12 Ibid., pp. 294-5.

13 R. H. Blyth, Haiku Vol.1 Eastern Culture, Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1949, p. 110.

14 Watson, The Selected Poems of Du Fu, p. 107.

15 Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters, p. 63.

16 Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 63.

17 Ibid., p. 64.

18 Ibid., p. 65.

19 Loc. Cit., p. 65.

20 Keene, Travelers of a Hundred Ages, p. 298.

21 Ibid., p. 429.

22 Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 239.

23 Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, p. 29.

24 Keene, Travelers of a Hundred Ages, p. 228.

25 Burton Watson, trans. and edit. The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, p. 219.

26 Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 76.

27 Watson, The Selected Poems of Du Fu, p. 99.

28 Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 61.

29 Keene, Travelers of a Hundred Ages, p. 308.

30 Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters, p. 249.

31 Blyth, Haiku, 1:49.

32 David Hinton, trans. The Selected poems of Tu Fu, New York: New Directions Books, 1988, p. 94.

33 Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters, p. 103.

34 Loc. cit., p. 103.

35 Blyth, Haiku, 1:49.

36 Loc. cit., 1: 49.

37 Ibid.,1:48.

38 Loc. Cit., 1:48.

39 Ibid., 1:111.

40 Loc. Cit., 1:111.

41 Ibid., 1:112.

42 Loc. Cit., 1:112.

43 Loc. Cit., 1:112

44 Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, p. 16.

45 Ibid., p.18.

46 Ibid., p. 33.

47 Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 36.

48 Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters, p. 301.