BORN: 1763, Kashiwabara, Japan
DIED: 1827, Kashiwabara, Japan
Chichi no shuen nikki (1801)
The Year of My Life (1819)
Kobayashi Issa was a Japanese poet whose verse used unadorned language to express the concerns of the common man. He is one of the best-known and most widely read of all haiku poets and perhaps the most popular among present-day readers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Student of Haiku. Kobayashi Issa, the son of a farmer, was born in Kashiwabara, Shinano province (now part of Shinano Town, Nagano Prefecture), Japan. His father was widowed a few years after Issa was born. Issa was raised by his grandmother until his father remarried. During this period, he started to study haiku under a local poet, Shimpo.
At the age of fourteen, his father sent him to Edo (present-day Tokyo) to study haiku under the poets Mizoguchi Sogan and Norokuan Chikua. Issa’s poetry caught the attention of Seibi Natsume, who later became his patron. Although Issa's poems became more and more known, he remained extremely poor and was forced to travel frequently and work hard to survive.
Struggles and Sorrows. Issa faced personal and financial troubles for much of his life. His difficulties with his stepmother began when she gave birth to a son and jealously desired that her own child should receive more attention than her stepson. Issa complained that he was beaten ‘‘a hundred times a day’’ as a young child. When his father died, Issa faced further difficulties with his stepmother, who blocked him from inheriting his father's property.
At the age of fifty, after over a decade ofdisputes with his stepmother and stepbrother, Issa finally inherited the property of his father. This allowed him to return to Kashiwabara and settle. He married a young woman and started a family.
In Issa’s later years, his sorrows returned. His children and then his wife died, and his property was destroyed by fire. His new wife, who came from a local samurai family, left him after a few weeks of marriage. He married again for a third time but died only a year later.
Works in Literary Context
The Haiku Form. Issa was a prolific writer who produced over twenty thousand haiku along with hundreds of tanka. Haiku is a poetic form that consists of three lines, the first and last containing five syllables (or similar sound units known in Japanese as on), and the second containing seven. Tanka are similar to haiku, but contain two additional lines of seven on each. Issa is probably the best-loved of the Japanese haiku masters. His poetry’s style is more robust and subjective than the austere, priestly style of Basho (1644-1694) or the worldly, sophisticated style of Buson (1716-1783).
Joy amid Sorrow. Although Issa faced many struggles during his lifetime, his poetry celebrated life’s serene moments and extolled the joys of simplicity. His poems have given consolation to generations of readers due to the confessions of doubts and loneliness found in his highly personal haiku. He also brought humor to the treatment of his subjects, and he excelled at giving affectionate portrayals of such creatures as fleas, frogs, and sparrows. Issa’s poems about animals and insects are studied by Japanese schoolchildren to this day.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Issa's famous contemporaries include:
Robert Burns (1759-1796): Burns was a Scottish Romantic poet widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.
Eli Whitney (1765-1825): Whitney was an American inventor best known for creating the cotton gin.
Frangois-Rene de Chateaubriand (1768-1848): Chateaubriand was a French writer and politician widely considered the founder of French Romanticism.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821): Bonaparte was a French general and politician who led the French Empire after the French Revolution.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Beethoven was a German composer widely considered to be one of the greatest musical talents of all time.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850): Wordsworth was an English poet who helped launch the Romantic age in English literature.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Many of Issa's affectionate portrayals of animals and insects were intended to convey the simple joys of life. Here are some other works with a similar approach:
Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), a children's book by A. A. Milne. This popular children's book shows the simple joys of childhood through depictions of the lighthearted adventures of a stuffed bear and his friends.
Ogden Nash's Zoo (1986), a poetry collection by Ogden Nash. This collection of humorous poems about animals presents a whimsical, often nonsensical view on life.
Black Swan/White Crow (1995), poems by J. Patrick Lewis. This collection of thirteen haiku-inspired poems conjures unforgettable images with delicate, simple verse.
Works in Critical Context
Issa gained notoriety for his poems at an early age, and he continued to enjoy a good reputation throughout his life. He was considered one of the living masters of haiku. He continues to enjoy a highly favorable reputation and is considered, along with Basho and Buson, one of the three great haiku masters of all time.
Issa was seen as having a rejuvenating effect on the haiku form, and his legacy continues to the present. His poems are still translated, collected, and widely read nearly two centuries after their original composition.
Responses to Literature
1. Critics have noted that Issa’s poetry is a celebration of life’s joys despite the fact that he faced a lifetime of struggles and sorrow. Can you detect any of his sorrows in his poetry? In what ways can his poems be seen as relating to his struggle-filled life?
2. Issa wrote two centuries ago, but present-day readers often draw consolation from his poetry. What aspects of the universal human condition does Issa touch on that make his poetry continue to have relevance and resonance with contemporary readers? What in his style enables his poetry to continue to speak to readers through the centuries?
3. Issa wrote over twenty thousand haiku in his lifetime, but critics and readers have noted central themes running throughout much of his verse. Write an essay that identifies and discusses one or two of Issa’s recurring themes. Be sure to use examples from his poetry to illustrate and support your claims.
4. Using Issa as a model, write a haiku about a simple, joyful moment in your life.
Hass, Robert, ed. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. Hopewell, N.J.: Echo, 1994.
Kato, Shuichi, ed. A History of Japanese Literature. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1979-1983.
Lewis, Richard. Of This World: A Poet’s Life in Poetry. New York: Dial, 1968.
Ueda, Makoto. Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa. Boston: Brill, 2004.
Yasuda, Kenneth. Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, with Selected Examples. Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1957.