The shallows

Matsuo Bashō

‘The shallows’ by Matsuo Bashō  is a beautiful, traditional haiku about a crane landing in cool, shallow water and the ripples it makes. 


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

Central Message: There is beauty in simple moments in nature

Speaker: Likely Bashō

Emotions Evoked: Contentment, Enjoyment, Gratitude

Poetic Form: Haiku

Time Period: 17th Century

This is a beautiful Bashō poem that focuses in on the image of a crane breaking the smooth surface of shallow water. It's a wonderful example of Bashō's interest in natural imagery.

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This poem is a masterpiece of Japanese poetry, renowned for its vivid imagery and profound insights into the natural world. Written in the 17th century during the Edo period, ‘The shallows’ captures a moment of tranquility and harmony in nature, inviting the reader to contemplate the beauty and impermanence of life.

The shallows
Matsuo Bashō

The shallows –a crane’s thighs splashedin cool waves


‘The shallows’ by Matsuo Bashō describes a crane standing in shallow water, with its thighs splashing in the cool waves. 

The imagery is simple and evocative, capturing a moment of stillness in nature. The poem invites the reader to appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the natural world and to find pleasure in the small details of life.

The poem is concise, using just a few words to create a vivid image that captures a moment in nature. This simplicity and brevity are also characteristic of haiku poetry, which aims to convey the essence of a moment or experience in a few words.

Structure and Form 

‘The shallows’ by Matsuo Bashō is a traditional Japanese haiku that consists of three lines. The poem was originally written in Japanese and has been translated into English. 

In terms of structure, the poem is divided into two parts: the first line sets the scene with the image of “the shallows,” and the second and third lines describe the image of the crane’s thighs splashing in the cool waves. 

Matsuo Basho
A statue of the famed 17th-century poet Matsuo Bashō

Literary Devices 

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

  • Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly impactful, sensory language. For example, “a cane’s thighs splashed.”
  • Contrast: an intentional contrast between two images. For example, the contrast between the delicate and graceful image of the crane and the movement of the waves creates a sense of tension and balance in the poem.
  • Symbolism: The crane and the shallows can also be seen as symbolic of broader themes, such as the beauty and harmony of nature.

Detailed Analysis 

Line One 

The shallows –

In the first line of the poem, the poet begins by noting the location. This is something that’s quite common in haiku, as the natural imagery is often central to the poet’s meaning. In this case, the poet brings readers to ‘The shallows.’ This line makes more sense when it’s read with the following two lines. 

But, at this point, with only “the shallows” as context, readers can likely imagine a shallow body of water, such as a stream or a river, where the water is not very deep. The use of a dash after “shallows” creates a pause, indicating that the line is incomplete and leaving the reader wondering what will come next.

The use of the definite article “the” before “shallows” implies a specific body of water rather than a general one. This suggests that Basho is referring to a particular place, perhaps one that he is familiar with or that he has observed closely. The image of the shallows also suggests a calm, peaceful setting where the water is not rushing or turbulent.

Line Two 

a crane’s thighs splashed

The second line is far more complicated than the first but still only provides readers with a small amount of detail. The focus now shifts to a specific creature, the crane, which is known for its elegance and grace. The crane is a common symbol in Japanese poetry and art, often associated with beauty and tranquility.

The image of the crane’s thighs splashing in the water is a striking one and creates a vivid sense of movement and activity in the scene. The use of the word “splashed” suggests a sudden and forceful action, as if the crane has just landed in the water or taken off from it. The image of the crane’s thighs specifically draws attention to the bird’s long legs, which are an important part of its distinctive appearance.

The use of the verb “splashed” also creates a sense of energy and vitality, contrasting with the stillness of the shallows in the first line. This contrast adds depth and complexity to the poem, suggesting that there is more going on in this natural setting than may be immediately apparent.

Here, readers may be reminded of Bashō’s best-known poem, The Old Pond,’ in which he describes a frog jumping into calm water. 

Basho's Frog
A frog memorial marker from Bashō’s garden

Line Three 

in cool waves

The third line is the last of the poem. The phrase “cool waves” further emphasizes the sense of movement and energy introduced in the second line while also introducing a new sensory element: temperature.

The use of the adjective “cool” suggests a refreshing and invigorating sensation, contrasting with the warmth or heat that might be associated with a sunny day. This creates a sense of relief or comfort as if the crane is enjoying a respite from the heat. The word “waves” also suggests a gentle motion, as if the water is lapping softly against the shore.

The phrase “in cool waves” also adds to the overall feeling of tranquility and natural beauty in the scene. The use of natural elements such as water and waves reinforces the idea that this is a peaceful and harmonious setting.


What are the key themes and symbols in ‘The shallows’ by Matsuo Bashō?

The key themes include the beauty of nature, the transience of life, and the interconnectedness of all things. The symbols in the haiku, such as the crane and the shallows, represent natural elements that are often used in Japanese poetry and art to convey a sense of harmony and balance.

How does ‘The shallows’ reflect the tradition and style of haiku poetry?

This poem reflects the tradition and style of haiku poetry through its brevity, simplicity, and focus on a specific moment or image. Haiku typically consists of three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5 and often employs a seasonal or nature-related theme.

What is the historical and cultural context of the poem? 

The poem was written in the 17th century, during the Edo period in Japan. This was a time of relative peace and stability, and haiku poetry was a popular form of artistic expression. Bashō was a leading figure in the haiku movement, and his work often reflects the cultural and philosophical values of the time, including an appreciation for nature, simplicity, and transience.

How does the imagery and language used contribute to the poem’s meaning? 

The imagery and language contribute to the poem’s meaning by creating a sense of harmony and balance between the natural elements depicted. The use of sensory details, such as the coolness of the water and the splashing of the crane’s thighs, adds depth and texture to the scene, while the brevity of the haiku suggests the fleeting nature of life.

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example: 

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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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