milky way

The following essay first appeared in the April 2014 issue (Vol. 28.1) of The Keats-Shelley Review © The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association 2014. It is reproduced here by permission of Maney Publishing (

The Narrow Road to the Western Isles –

If Keats had journeyed with Bashō

Geoffrey Wilkinson


The Japanese poet we know by the pen name Bashō was born in 1644 in Iga Ueno, a castle town in an old province south-east of Kyōto. By an almost perfectly tidy coincidence, he died one hundred and one years before John Keats was born in London in 1795. Although to all appearances their worlds and their lives could not have been more different, their poetic sensibilities seem to have been strikingly similar. This is not an original observation: it was, for instance, at the heart of an essay by James Kirkup in The Keats-Shelley Review in 1996.[1] But in what follows I try to give the observation a new twist by likening Keats and Bashō as travellers – travellers, that is, both in the literal and the metaphorical sense.

KEYWORDS:Keats, Bashō, openness, transparency (‘annihilation’) of self, Zen

Bashō was born into a world turned in on itself. For much of the sixteenth century Japan had been in a state of anarchy, riven by local wars in the absence of effective centralized authority. From 1600 the country was finally reunified under the Tokugawa family, whose main concern was to ensure that there was a place for everyone and that everyone was in their place. The Tokugawa regime restored an ancient Confucian division of society that ranked the population nominally into four classes: warriors, farmers, artisans and merchants, in that order. The regime virtually cut Japan off from the rest of the world for the next two hundred years, banning the construction of ocean-going ships and, on pain of death, prohibiting any Japanese from travelling abroad or returning if they had already left. Although in reality Japan was moving to a money economy (dominated by the merchants, not the warriors), the Tokugawa maintained the fiction that it was based on agricultural commodities and a retainer`s stipend, for example, was still paid in rice. In short, Bashō`s world was feudal and largely arrested in time.

By contrast, Keats`s was a world in flux. Britain, too, was at peace once Napoleon had been defeated in 1815, but it was a restless, restive peace and not a static one. The industrial revolution was under way and would lead to fundamental social change as new wealth replaced old and people flocked to the towns to work in the mills and factories. Moreover, while dire warnings against revolutionary conspiracy issued from conservative quarters, there was a ferment of radical ideas in economics, law and political philosophy (to which, as we know from Nicholas Roe`s new biography, Keats was exposed from an early age through his schooling at Clarke`s Academy [2]).

As for the individual circumstances of Bashō and Keats, it is hard to imagine two lives outwardly more different. Bashō`s origins were relatively humble: his father was permitted to wear a sword, a warrior privilege, but the family itself probably belonged to the farmer class. His father died in 1656. At some point (just when is uncertain, albeit most accounts now suggest that it was at about age eighteen) Bashō entered service in the household of the local domain lord, apparently as a servant-cum-companion to his heir, Yoshitada, who was two years older than himself. The two young men evidently became close friends, studying poetry together under a master in Kyōto, and it is thought that Bashō was deeply affected by Yoshitada`s early death in 1666. Whether or not that is so, Bashō seems to have led an unsettled life. After more than five years spent mostly in Kyōto, he left for Edo, Japan`s new capital, the seat of Tokugawa power and a centre of vibrant artistic activity. Gradually he established himself as a recognized poet, supported by admirers and, as is the way in Japan, gathering around him a circle of disciples – one of whom donated the bashō, a banana plant, that inspired the pen name. However, judging by the imagery in some of his poems dating from the early 1680s, Bashō was troubled and ambivalent about the meaningfulness of his life in Edo. It may be significant that it was at this time he practised Zen meditation. In 1684 Bashō made the first of the journeys described in his travel sketches, and the same year saw the appearance of Fuyu no hi (A Winter Day), the first of seven major anthologies of poetry associated with him. The most famous of the travel sketches, Oku no hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North, of which more anon), came out of his third journey, which he began in 1689 after selling his house – probably a sign that he did not expect to survive, let alone return to Edo. Bashō did return more than two years later, lived as a would-be recluse in a new house that had been built for him, then set out on one last journey, to southern Japan as he intended; he was taken ill en route and died in Ōsaka in late 1694.[3]

The events of Keats`s life are more familiar to us and it would be redundant to retell them here. Suffice to say that, despite all the differences described above, there are also numerous parallels between the two lives: quite lowly origins; early bereavements (father and brother Tom in Keats`s case, father and Yoshitada in Bashō`s); youthful ambition mixed with self-doubt; restlessness; melancholy verging at times on despair; spiritual and maybe psychological crisis; ill-health and death far from home.

The most extraordinary parallels are between the sensibilities of Keats and Bashō, and their ways of expressing what they feel they are trying to achieve in their writing. A much-quoted commentary attributed to Bashō (as recorded by one of his followers, Hattori Dohō) reads:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.[4]

Forget for a moment the particularities of time, culture and language, and this could well be Keats speaking in, say, his letter to Richard Woodhouse of 27 October 1818:

A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for [informing?] – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God`s Creatures. [...] When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to [so] to press upon me that, I am in a very little time an[ni]hilated – not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children.[5]

Or adjust the flora and fauna and it might be from Keats`s letter to John Hamilton Reynolds of 19 February 1818:

Now it is more noble to sit like Jove that [than] to fly like Mercury – let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at: but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive – budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from evey noble insect that favors us with a visit […][6]

Bashō surely would have agreed with Keats that ‘Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one`s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject’, and he would have delighted at the image of Keats picking about the gravel beneath his window, perfectly at one with the sparrow.[7] But what is this paradox of the unpoetical poet, of poetry that is not poetry unless the poet is absent from it? One answer, in my opinion, is that Bashō and Keats both stand for an unconditional openness to all experience, so unconditional that it demands a complete transparency – or, Keats`s word, annihilation – of the self. Particularly as we know that Bashō practised Zen meditation, it seems reasonable to assume that for him the self probably had a religious-metaphysical meaning rooted in Zen: that is, the self represents our attachments, our preoccupations, our striving, everything that traps us in a divided ‘me/not-me’ relation to the world, and therefore it is an obstacle not just to ‘true’ poetry but to our own ‘true’ being as part of a greater reality beyond individual identity. Now while Keats`s description of finding himself ‘annihilated’ in the company of others is very intriguing and invites comparison with this Zen element in Bashō, personally I do not feel qualified to make a case (as others have done[8]) that unbeknown to himself Keats was in effect a practitioner of Zen. Nevertheless, it is clear enough that Keats had his own highly developed sense of the self as an obstacle to truthful poetry and to what he conceived of as truth in general. Most obviously, he expresses this sense in his objections to ‘the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime’, for Keats`s complaint against Wordsworth is precisely that he is an ‘Egotist’ whose vanity and tendency to ‘brood and peacock’ over his own speculations produces poetry that ‘has a palpable design upon us’.[9] Yet Keats also rails against the self in its over-rationalizing, certainty-seeking, ‘consequitive’ aspect, which is the source of all that bee-like buzzing ‘from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at’ or, as he puts it elsewhere, ‘irritable reaching after fact & reason’.[10] No, insists Keats, leave what is to be arrived at to look after itself; cease the irritable reaching and instead ‘let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts’.[11] Whether by coincidence or some more mysterious connection, Keats here both recalls Bashō and, I think, prefigures Seamus Heaney – especially two lines in the final poem of his collection The Spirit Level:

You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass[12]

We are deluded, Bashō, Keats and Heaney are saying, if we suppose that truth is something we set out to discover as we pass through the world. The reality is that truth discovers itself as the world passes through us.

To what experiences, then, were Bashō and Keats so open on their journeys? What thoughts passed through the thoroughfares of their minds? The scope is very broad, ranging from the sublime at one extreme to the earthy and even the squalid at the other. For the sublime think, for instance, of Keats`s description of the waterfalls at Ambleside, ‘the first darting down the slate-rock like an arrow; the second spreading out like a fan – the third dashed into a mist – and the one on the other side of the rock a sort of mixture of all these.’[13] It is as if Keats is seeing turbulent water for the first time, fascinated by its different ‘characters’ (the same fascination that had impelled Leonardo da Vinci to make his sketches of water swirling and billowing around obstacles in a river?). Or think of how Keats conjures up for Tom the sight of Ailsa Craig, island remnant of an extinct volcano off the Ayrshire coast:

After two or three Miles […] we turned suddenly into a magnificent glen finely wooded in Parts – seven Miles long – with a Mountain Stream winding down the Midst – full of cottages in the most happy Situations – the sides of the Hills coverd with sheep – the effect of cattle lowing I never had so finely – At the end we had a gradual ascent and got among the tops of the Mountains whence In a little time I descried in the Sea Ailsa Rock 940 feet hight – it was 15 Miles distant and seemed close upon us – The effect of ailsa with the peculiar perspective of the Sea in connection with the ground we stood on, and the misty rain then falling gave me a complete Idea of a deluge – Ailsa struck me very suddenly – really I was a little alarmed.[14]

Alarmed by the vision, the poet finds himself looking down upon a drowned world; the vast age of the earth and the immensity of the forces that have shaped it come upon him like the huge rock itself, which is locked in its ‘two dead eternities’, first deep down ‘with the Whales’ and now high up ‘with the eglle [eagle] skies’. ‘When from the Sun was thy broad forehead hid?’, he asks the rock, ‘How long ist since the mighty Power bid / Thee heave to airy sleep from fathom dreams’ – imagery which unmistakably finds its way into Book II  (ll. 10-12) of Hyperion:

Crag jutting forth to crag, and rocks that seemed

Ever as if just rising from a sleep,

Forehead to forehead held their monstrous horns

Another island appears across another sea in Bashō`s Oku no hosomichi. The island is Sado, off the Japan Sea coast of modern Niigata Prefecture:


Araumi ya

Sado ni yokotau

ama no gawa

Over a tossing sea

the Milky Way

arches to Sado.

Bashō tells us[15] that at the time he wrote this haiku he was suffering from exhaustion and a bout of a recurring illness, perhaps represented by the rough sea; but what we are left with is the calm eternity of the Milky Way that connects all things in one great curve. In other words, Sado evokes a vision of peace and solace which passes transparently through any personal emotion that Bashō might feel, whereas Keats confesses himself disturbed by Ailsa Craig and it is that personal response which sets him describing the scene to Tom. The sensibilities of Keats and Bashō, it would seem, are not the same at all.  However, what the poets have in common – and it is in this sense that I would say their sensibilities are alike – is an openness to the natural world and a capacity to express, in their own ways, the presence of something greater than themselves, and greater than ourselves.

In a melancholy scene at the end of Oku no hosomichi,[16] the sea itself has calmed into gentler waves that tumble together little coloured shells and fragments of wild shrub, the detritus of our ephemeral world:   


Nami no ma ya

kogai ni majiru

hagi no chiri

Mingled in the waves –

small shells and

tatters of bush clover.

Earlier, in a prose passage as beautifully balanced as a haiku, a fabled pine tree speaks for a state of natural harmony that will always return to itself, no matter how wilfully or thoughtlessly man may disturb it, and no matter how long it takes:

My heart leaped with joy when I saw the celebrated pine tree of Takekuma, its twin trunks shaped exactly as described by the ancient poets. I was immediately reminded of the Priest Nōin, who had grieved to find upon his second visit this same tree cut [down] and thrown into the River Natori as bridge-piles by the newly-appointed governor of the province. This tree had been planted, cut, and replanted several times in the past, but just when I came to see it myself it was in its original shape after a lapse of perhaps a thousand years, the most beautiful shape one could possibly think of for a pine tree.[17]

At the earthy end of the scale, Keats and Bashō had no choice but to be open to the hardships and indignities of travel in remote regions. Keats grumbles about dirty lodgings, bad food and the unwanted companionship of ‘cursed Gad flies’, which, he is convinced, have been ‘at’ him ever since he left London.[18] On the whole, though, Keats appears to have been less taken with the creative possibilities of personal discomfort than Bashō, who, after one particularly miserable night in a gatekeeper`s hut in the mountains,[19] pens the following haiku


Nomi shirami

uma no bari suru

makura moto

Fleas and lice,

horses pissing nearby –

such was my sleeping place.

It may be that it was through such experiences in their own lives that Keats and Bashō were open to the experiences of destitute and semi-outcast people at the margins of society, whose very existence would have been unknown or of no interest in London or Edo. One of the most remarkable descriptions in all of Keats`s letters – all the more remarkable for its misleading tone – occurs in the account of his brief and abortive detour to Ireland. Returning to the port of Donaghadee after abandoning his planned visit to the Giant`s Causeway in Antrim, Keats encounters ‘the Duchess of Dunghill’, an old woman puffing on a pipe as she is carried along on a sort of improvised palanquin by two equally ragged girls. The scene is outlandish, grotesque, the old woman portrayed as barely human (‘squat like an ape […] looking out with a round-eyed skinny lidded, inanity’), and yet Keats cannot help asking himself, ‘What a thing would be a history of her Life and sensations’.[20] There is a tension here, it seems to me, between Keats`s undisguised revulsion at what he has witnessed and the impulse to wonder, almost in spite of himself, what it would be like to live a life of such wretchedness. The closest equivalent to the ‘Duchess of Dunghill’ incident in Oku no hosomichi is Bashō`s overnight stay at Ichiburi, the provincial border post where he has arrived exhausted and in poor health.[21] He is kept awake by the sound of whispering voices in a nearby room: two prostitutes from Niigata, on their way to worship at the great shrine in Ise about two hundred miles to the south, are talking with an old man who has accompanied them as far as Ichiburi but who is turning back the next day. Bashō is deeply moved as they entrust the old man with messages they have written for their friends in Niigata. Probably indentured to their brothel for years to come, the women are trapped in a world of calculated deceit, feigning love to gratify one client after another; what offence must they have committed in an earlier life, they lament, to be destined now to wash ashore like the foam left by breakers. Missing from Bashō`s description of the prostitutes, we notice, is the tone of disgust in Keats`s description of the old woman in Ireland. Bashō is, as we would say, completely non-judgemental: the only thing he feels towards the two women is compassion – a Buddhist virtue, yes, but also his natural and unambivalent inclination.

All of this raises one last question: how did Keats and Bashō themselves explain their reasons for taking to the road? In Keats`s case, it is tempting to turn once more to his letter to Reynolds of 19 February 1818 and the wonderful reflections there on the ‘fine Webb’ and ‘tapestry empyrean’ of man`s soul, ‘full of Symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering’. Although the ‘Minds of Mortals are so different and bent on such diverse Journeys’, Keats says, it is a mistake to think that there can be no ‘common taste and fellowship’ between them. Quite the reverse:

Minds would leave each other in contrary directions, traverse each other in Numberless points, and all [at] last greet each other at the Journeys end – A old Man and a child would talk together and the old Man be led on his Path, and the child left thinking – Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbour, and thus by every germ of Spirit sucking the Sap from mould ethereal every human might become great, and Humanity instead of being a wide heath of Furse and Briars with here and there a remote Oak or Pine, would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees.[22]

Our wanderings, however diverse and contrary, lead us back to our shared humanity, and it is by greeting each other again at journey`s end and whispering our results that we can hope for the grand democracy of Forest Trees. This would have been a fine manifesto for Keats`s journey to northern England and Scotland, but it is far removed from what he actually said when, less than two months later, he told Benjamin Haydon of the forthcoming trip:

I purpose within a Month to put my knapsack at my back and make a pedestrian tour through the North of England, and part of Scotland – to make a sort of Prologue to the Life I intend to pursue – that is to write, to study and to see all Europe at the lowest expence.  I will clamber through the Clouds and exist.[23]

On the one hand, Keats`s declared intention of making his tour into ‘a sort of Prologue’ to his life is endearingly earnest. As he tells Benjamin Bailey from Inveraray,[24] he would not be ‘tramping in the highlands’ if he did not think that it would ‘give me more experience, rub off more Prejudice, use [me] to more hardship, identify finer scenes load me with grander Mountains, and strengthen more my reach in Poetry’ than staying at home with his books. Directly or indirectly, Keats was indeed rewarded for his pains with some of the aphoristic insights for which we most admire him, including ‘Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced – Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it’.[25] On the other hand, the letter to Haydon is strangely contradictory, a little disappointing even. Keats had criticized Wordsworth for poetry that ‘has a palpable design upon us’ and yet, it strikes me, there is something of a palpable design upon himself, a too-eager, conscious purposiveness in Keats`s own motivation for the trip to Scotland. What I am trying to suggest may be clearer if we set Keats`s letter against the opening lines of Oku no hosomichi

Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind – filled with a strong desire to wander.[26]

The clue, as they say, is in the title. The Oku of Oku no hosomichi comes from the Japanese reading of a Chinese character (奥) meaning ‘interior’ or ‘the innermost part’, which here denotes not just the wild northern provinces of feudal Japan but also a sense close to that of the English word ‘soul’. Bashō`s journey through the interior of Japan is a journey through the soul, but there is nothing designed, nothing too eager, nothing consciously purposive in the way he goes about it. He is filled with a strong desire to wander. It is of no concern to him whether or not he returns. There is nothing more to be said.

The comparison with Bashō is unfair, of course. Again in his own disarmingly ingenuous words,[27] Keats was ‘not old enough or magnanimous enough to anihilate self’, while Bashō, established master of his own school of poetry, was beyond the edgy sensitivities and drive for personal recognition that he, like Keats, may have felt as a young man. Above all, Bashō was steeped in a centuries-old, Buddhist-influenced literary tradition that returned again and again to the transitoriness of this world and the vanity of all our individual cares and ambitions.[28] Unfair as the comparison is, perhaps we have to say that Bashō was the better traveller because, so to speak, he was better equipped to annihilate self. Conversely, perhaps we can also allow ourselves to believe that, had Keats lived to Bashō`s age, he would have travelled many narrow roads of his own throughout the British Isles and continental Europe. And if he had, what a thing would have been the history of that life and those sensations?


I wish to thank Professor Nobuyuki Yuasa for kindly allowing me to quote from his prose translations in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, first published in 1966.  

Notes on contributor

Geoffrey Wilkinson is an independent essayist with no academic or other affiliations. His most recent work is ‘The frog and the basilisk’ (to be published in spring 2015), which compares two accounts of how Bashō`s frog haiku came to be composed, and goes on to explore the Western fear of the unintelligible – in particular, our fear that the world might just be there without reason or purpose. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sources and notes

[1]  ‘Bashō and Keats’ in Vol. 10 (1996), pp. 65-75.

[2]  John Keats. A New Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 20-21 and 32.

[3]  A fuller account of Bashō`s life is included in N. Yuasa`s introduction to his translation The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1968). As you will have noticed, however, Bashō biography is not an exact science and no single account is likely to be definitive. All my quotations from Bashō`s prose are from the Yuasa translation [hereafter referred to as Yuasa]. The three haiku translations are my own.

[4]  Yuasa, p. 33. The Japanese text can be found in the Akazōshi 「赤冊子」in Kyoraishō/Sanzōshi/Tabineron「去来抄・三冊子・旅寝論」( Tōkyō: Iwanami Shoten, 1993 reprint), a collection of works by Hattori Dohō and another of Bashō`s disciples, Mukai Kyorai.  

[5]  Pages 157-58 in the single-volume Letters of John Keats edited by Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990 reprint). Except for the fragment from Hyperion, my Keats quotations all come from this volume [hereafter Gittings].

[6]  Gittings, p. 66.

[7]  Letters to Reynolds of 3 February 1818 and Benjamin Bailey of 22 November 1817 respectively; Gittings, pp. 61 and 38.

[8]  See, for instance, Richard Benton`s essay ‘Keats and Zen’ in the journal Philosophy East and West, Vol. 16.1 (1966), pp. 33-47.  

[9]  Letters to Woodhouse of 27 October 1818 and Reynolds of 3 February 1818; Gittings, pp.  157 and 60-1.

[10]  Letter to George and Tom Keats of 21, 27(?) December 1817; Gittings, p. 43.  Keats`s word ‘consequitive’ occurs in his letter to John Taylor of 30 January 1818; Gittings, p. 59.

[11]  Letter to George and Georgiana Keats dated 17-27 September 1819; Gittings, p. 326.

[12]  ‘Postscript’, ll. 13-14; p. 70 in The Spirit Level (London: Faber and Faber, 1996).

[13]  Letter to Tom Keats dated 25-27 June 1818; Gittings, pp. 102-03.

[14]  Letter to Tom Keats of 10-14 July 1818; Gittings, pp. 125-26. Had Keats read The Prelude when he wrote this? His alarm at the sight of Ailsa Craig immediately recalls Wordsworth`s boyhood prank of taking a boat without permission out on Ullswater and his alarm at seeing a ‘huge Cliff’ rear up and stride after him as he rows away from the shore. I refer to Book I, ll. 372-427 in the 1805 text of The Prelude edited by Ernest de Selincourt and corrected by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

[15] Yuasa, pp. 130-31. As a personal interpretation for which I have no objective evidence, Sado may have symbolic significance for Bashō. The island was known for its gold and silver mines (an important source of revenue to the Tokugawa regime) but also as a place of exile: the first person believed to have been banished there, in the year 722, was a poet.

[16]  Yuasa, p. 141.

[17]  Yuasa, p. 111.

[18]  Letter to Tom Keats of 17-21 July 1818; Gittings, p. 130.

[19]  Yuasa, p. 120.

[20]  Letter to Tom Keats of 3-9 July 1818; Gittings, p. 120. My italics.

[21]  Yuasa, pp. 131-32.

[22]  Gittings, p. 66.

[23]  Letter to Haydon dated 8 April 1818; Gittings, p. 83.

[24]  Letter to Bailey of 18, 22 July 1818; Gittings, p. 137.

[25]  Letter to George and Georgiana Keats of 14 February-3 May 1819; Gittings, p. 230.

[26]  Yuasa, p. 97.

[27]  Letter to Bailey of 10 June 1818; Gittings, p. 99.

[28]  Among prose works I am thinking, for example, of the Hōjōki (An Account of My Hut) by Kamo no Chōmei, a former court poet turned Buddhist priest and recluse, which begins ‘The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same’. Written four years before his death in 1216, it is a haunting meditation on the natural disasters and other calamities he has witnessed. There is a translation by Donald Keene in the Anthology of Japanese Literature to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (various editions, including a Penguin Classics in 1968).