Basho, “A caterpillar / this deep in fall”

A caterpillar / this deep in fall (from here)
Matsuo Basho

A caterpillar
this deep in fall
still not a butterfly


It is easy to say an acorn turns into an oak tree, to casually invoke growth as a natural, defined process. But how much of “growth” is nothing but our perception or the perception of others?

The poem doesn’t quite go that direction, at least not initially. The speaker, in seeing a caterpillar that cannot possibly grow and migrate, sees its doom. It lives only in the shadow of death. The speaker must feel some sort of kinship with that caterpillar.

What is that kinship, exactly? The caterpillar is judged – still not a butterfly – and sympathized with. The speaker does not overtly mourn his own doom, but rather identifies with the caterpillar being a caterpillar. There’s something about a leaf-chewing, slowly crawling bug that is essential to human life, perhaps moreso than becoming a butterfly.

I wonder if the speaker is having something like my initial thought. There is no justice in judging growth. The success of living longer is small success; it is a matter of mere fortune if we grow simply to avoid death. Something about growing and evolving needs to stand on its own, but if it does, then it flies away from us. We are not what we are supposed to become. We might not even be what we become.


  1. I’m pretty sure the caterpillar has no emotional/intellectual clue that death is imminent, except in a DNA context. It is simply being a caterpillar. The concept of time may not even be an issue for the little creature, or it may seem an eternity to the crawly thing if it does possess a sense of time. In this exquisite Basho poem I feel a strong sense of time passing slowly because the end of the caterpillar’s journey is still in the future. It is mind blowing how Basho can portray so much in the shortest of lines. I’d love to study his work, when I have more time.

  2. Might be better understood as, “here I am, so late in life and I have still not blossomed into “buddhahood” (or an enlightened state or prajnaparamita or whatever other words one may use to indicate transcendence from this “not yet fully human life” we all lead.)

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