Basho, “Many nights on the road”

Many nights on the road (trans. Robert Hass)
Matsuo Basho

Many nights on the road
and not dead yet –
the end of autumn.


Hass speaks of Basho’s “profound loneliness and sense of suffering.” The two, in this poem, are united in the figure of the wanderer. Goethe’s second Wanderers Nachtlied engages a similar theme, though a first read seems to emphasize the peace and stillness of the natural world.

Both poems can be said to depict the weariness of an interminable journey. In Basho’s, the speaker is walking distances many nights. Their length: “not dead yet.” The world closes in on Goethe’s speaker. Wanderers Nachtlied starts with mountains, moves to treetops, birds, and finally ends with “you.” Stillness, lack of feeling, silence characterize not just the coming of death, but the irony of interiority.

The wanderer’s quest is to find something truly satisfying, something worth loving. This does take on a contemplative aspect, as well as self-denial. There is a sort of harmony with nature, but it isn’t environmental activism. It’s more a putting aside of the conventional world in order to see more easily how man fits (or doesn’t fit) into something closer to his origins. This is a quest for self-knowledge – if you find something true about human being or yourself, you’ll know what you love. Since what will be found is away from the rest of the world, it should be immediately attainable.

The trouble with such a reflective mode is how ridiculously difficult it is. The loneliness is both purposeful and from a somewhat hidden source. Conventions exist so we relate to each other certain ways. If you ignore them, you get ignored. Moreover, death does not just conclude the enterprise, but hangs over it, making the search more and more wearying each step of the way: why is this taking so long? How much more is there to find?

Basho’s setting, “the end of autumn,” indicates the severity of the quest. It can and will turn into winter. That was perhaps more than a hidden consequence. A conventional form of desire was rejected, where one, say, asks for the attention of another to be loved – not attaining love, one then tries again. In the wanderer’s case, reflection must produce happiness. Reflection cannot strictly be desire; the incompatibility of the two is most marked in genuinely acknowledging one’s own faults. That is not a pleasant process. The burden of the self ultimately has to be transcended.


The Essential Haiku. ed. Robert Hass. New York: HarperCollins, 1944.

1 Comment

  1. to me, one of the many delights of haiku is that by leaving so much out, it contains so much, and/or it hints at much more (of course this is true of most poems but strikingly so with haiku and other so-called micropoetry).

    what is said here, namely “the irreducible mysteriousness of the images … the haiku’s “breach of meaning” … deconstructions and subverters of cultural certainties” is something that, in my opinion, renders haiku almost impossible in terms of interpretation.

    this mind, it wanders
    in a winterwonderland
    of hazy meaning

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.