One of the most controversial passages in Matsuo Bashô’s writings occurs in his Journey of 1684, when the poet encounters a toddler who had been abandoned and left to starve:
Near the Fuji River, we found an abandoned child about three years old sobbing in a piteous voice. “Assailed by the autumn wind, the blossoms on the bush clover plant will surely scatter tonight or wither in the morning,” I thought. “The child’s parents, unable to withstand the waves of the floating world, must have brought him to this swift river to await the end of his dewlike life.” I left him some food from my sleeve.
You who hear the monkey’s cries:
what of an abandoned child
in the autumn wind?
How could this have happened? Were you the object of your father’s hatred? Of your mother’s neglect? I can’t believe that your father hated you or your mother neglected you. No, this is Heaven’s doing; you must simply lament the fact that you were born unlucky. [Translation by Helen McCullough]
When I first read Journey of 1684 at university, I was so upset by it that Bashô tumbled from my pantheon of revered poets, and his work seemed tainted by what I believed to be his moral failings. How could he have left the infant to die? How could he not have done more? His musings about fate and acceptance seemed like poetic blather in this situation, and I found it easy to work up a sense of outrage that the haiku poet had been an observer and not an advocate. Of course, I had passed by dozens — perhaps even hundreds — of street youth in Vancouver with less thought than Bashô had given this child. At most I had tossed them some change, muttered some consoling words to them or to myself, and then written a haiku, exactly as Bashô had done. Now I can understand Bashô’s actions in this passage.
Few people of any age rise to the level of the Good Samaritan. I am no longer enough of a hypocrite to denigrate a poet for being an observer rather than a hero, even if I see our inaction as a human failing that neither of us has overcome.
She has fallen asleep
while begging for change—
the autumn moon