A caterpillar

Matsuo Bashō

‘A caterpillar’ by Matsuo Bashō is a concise that captures the image of a caterpillar through simple yet interesting imagery. The poem revolves around a caterpillar, a creature in the process of metamorphosis.


Matsuo Bashō

Nationality: Japanese

Matsuo Bashō was a 17th-century Japanese poet.

During the 20th century, his poetry spread around the world.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Change is not always inevitable

Themes: Aging, Beauty, Nature

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Anxiety, Contentment, Enjoyment

Poetic Form: Haiku

Time Period: 17th Century

There is a great deal to appreciate in nature, this poem suggests, and some elements of it are more curious than others.

This poem is quite short, as all haiku are. It describes a caterpillar in late fall and how, despite the season passing for its transformation, it’s still not a butterfly. This should inspire readers to consider what it might mean that the caterpillar has yet to transform, as well as what the impending winter season could represent.

The poem was translated into English by Robert Haas.

A caterpillar
Matsuo Bashō

A caterpillar,this deep in fall-still not a butterfly.


‘A caterpillar’ by Matsuo Bashō is a curious poem about a caterpillar that has yet to transform into a butterfly. 

The poem begins by introducing readers to the central subject of the poem. The caterpillar is symbolic of a stage of growth and potential. The next line sets the temporal context of the poem— fall. Fall is a season characterized by change as nature undergoes a process of transition, preparing for the arrival of winter. 

Despite the progression of the season, the final line adds, and the imminent arrival of winter, the caterpillar remains in its current form.

Structure and Form 

‘A caterpillar’ by Matsuo Bashō is a three-line haiku that is contained within a single short stanza. The lines were originally written in Japanese, meaning that the traditional haiku syllable structure (the first and third lines having five syllables and the second having seven) is lost. 

Literary Devices

In this poem, the poet makes use of a few different literary devices. For example: 

  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet imbues their descriptions with sense-triggering images. For example, “this deep in fall.” 
  • Allusion: the end of the poem alludes to something that is outside the poet’s grasp. It suggests that there is something going on with the caterpillar that isn’t quite right. 
  • Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one, two, and three. 

Detailed Analysis 

Line One 

a caterpillar

The first line of the poem is quite simple. By beginning the poem with “a caterpillar,” Matsuo Bashō draws the reader’s attention to a creature that is often associated with transformation and growth. 

The caterpillar represents a stage of development, emphasizing the cyclical nature of life and the potential for change. It is a familiar and relatable symbol that resonates with readers as they reflect on their own experiences of personal growth and evolution.

The choice to focus on a caterpillar is significant because it signifies an intermediate stage between two distinct forms: the larval stage and the eventual transformation into a butterfly.

Additionally, the use of the indefinite article “a” before “caterpillar” adds an element of universality. It implies that the caterpillar is not a specific individual but rather a representative of its kind.

Line Two 

this deep in fall 

The second line of the poem highlights the specific season of fall and suggests a progression of time. The use of the word “deep” implies that it is a later or more advanced stage within the fall season.

It conveys a sense of depth and immersion, suggesting that fall has progressed significantly and the natural world is approaching the latter part of the season. This choice of language evokes a feeling of transition and impending change as the vibrant colors of autumn fade and make way for the winter.

The mention of fall as the season carries symbolic weight. Fall is often associated with the passage of time, the cycle of life, and the inevitability of change.

Line Three 

still not a butterfly. 

The third line of this haiku serves as a culmination of the imagery and themes introduced in the previous lines. It encapsulates the central idea of the haiku and carries a sense of unfulfilled potential.

The word “still” in this context suggests a continuation of the caterpillar’s current state. It implies a persistent existence in its larval form, despite the progression of time and the season is deep in fall. 

This word choice emphasizes the sense of delay or unfulfilled progress. It highlights the fact that the caterpillar has not yet undergone its metamorphosis and become a butterfly, despite the inevitability of this transformation. 

The absence of the butterfly, juxtaposed with the presence of the caterpillar, creates tension and a longing for the fulfillment of what’s supposed to happen. This line also raises questions about why exactly the caterpillar has yet to transform, something that each reader is going to answer differently. 


What is the significance of the caterpillar in the haiku poemA caterpillar?’

The significance of the caterpillar in the haiku poemA caterpillar’ by Matsuo Bashō lies in its role as a symbol of transformation, or lack thereof.  The caterpillar is supposed to transform but hasn’t yet, and Fall is nearing its end. 

What is the theme of the poem? 

The theme of the poem ‘A caterpillar’ by Matsuo Basho is transformation and unfulfilled promise. The caterpillar represents a stage of growth and potential, symbolizing the possibility of transformation. However, despite being deep in the fall season, a time of change and transition, the caterpillar remains unchanged, “still not a butterfly.”

What is the tone of the poem

The tone of this poem can be described as contemplative and reflective. The haiku’s concise nature invites readers to pause and dig deeper into the imagery and the meaning behind the words.

Why is Bashō important? 

Matsuo Bashō is widely considered one of the most important poets in Japanese literature, particularly in the genre of haiku. He is often recognized as the master of haiku poetry and has inspired a number of followers in Japan and around the world. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Matsuo Bashō poems. For example: 

  • Autumn moonlight– is a traditional haiku that’s beautifully written about the seasons.
  • In the twilight rain – is a beautiful 3-line haiku that juxtaposes an evening rain with a bright hibiscus flower. 
  • The shallows – is a beautiful, traditional haiku about a crane landing in cool, shallow water and the ripples it makes. 

Poetry+ Review Corner

A caterpillar

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Matsuo Bashō

Bashō's haiku, including this particular poem, demonstrated his ability to distill complex emotions and observations into concise and evocative verses, leaving a lasting impact on the world of poetry. This poem is a good, although not famous, example of his verse.
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17th Century

Matsuo Bashō's poetry, including 'A caterpillar,' exemplify the essence of traditional Japanese poetry and its focus on simplicity, nature, and the ephemeral nature of existence, particularly in the 17th century. This period of poetry often reflects a sense of introspection and an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, as seen in this poem.
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This is a good, although not well-known, example of Japanese poetry. Matsuo Bashō is considered one of the greatest Japanese poets, and his works continue to inspire readers and writers alike. Japanese poetry often embraces themes of nature and the contemplation of the human condition. It seeks to evoke emotions and insights through concise and carefully crafted verses.
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Aging is a theme that can be inferred from the poem, as it highlights the passage of time and the transformative nature of life. The caterpillar's journey serves as a metaphor for the stages of human development and the awareness of aging.
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Beauty is a concept that permeates throughout the poem, albeit not explicitly mentioned. It emerges from the delicate and understated imagery of a caterpillar and the fall season. The poem may inspire readers to appreciate the beauty found in the simplicity of nature and the potential for transformation.
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In this particular poem, the caterpillar and the fall season symbolize the cycles of nature and the passage of time. Nature represents both the physical world around us and readers' own inner landscapes, serving as a backdrop for contemplation. Through his focus on nature, Bashō invites readers to connect with the beauty of nature.
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The poem hints at the presence of anxiety through the imagery and themes explored. The caterpillar's state of being "still not a butterfly" despite the advancing fall season implies a sense of unease or anxiety regarding the caterpillar's progress or the impending end of its opportunity for transformation.
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This poem is filled with feelings of contentment. The caterpillar's current state, despite the approaching end of fall, suggests a certain acceptance and contentment with its present form. It serves as a reminder that contentment can be found in embracing and appreciating one's current stage of life.
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The theme of enjoyment is subtly conveyed in the poem, as it prompts readers to find joy and appreciation in the small and transient aspects of life. The caterpillar's journey, set against the backdrop of fall, encourages readers to savor and enjoy nature.
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Appreciation is a central theme of the poem. It's seen in the poet's appreciation for nature and this small creature within it. The images of the caterpillar and the fall season evokes a sense of appreciation for the natural world and the passing of time.
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Autumn, or fall, is a pivotal season in the poem and holds symbolic significance. It represents a time of transition and change, mirroring the themes of transformation and the passage of time. Autumn is often associated with beauty and melancholy.
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Insects play a prominent role in traditional Japanese poetry, including this haiku. In this poem, the caterpillar serves as a representative of the insect world and its capacity for transformation. Insects are often seen as symbols of fragility, as well.
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Transformation is a core theme of the poem, woven through its imagery and underlying symbolism. The caterpillar represents the potential for metamorphosis and personal growth. It serves as a metaphor for the transformative power of time and the inherent capacity for change within every individual.
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This poem is a haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry known for its brevity and focus on capturing a single moment or observation. Haiku poems often emphasize simplicity, natural imagery, and the juxtaposition of contrasting elements. Matsuo Bashō was a master of this form.
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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