AN IRREVERENT PREFACE !
It was disrespectful of me, but, many years ago, in my student days, and learning of Li Po’s fondness for wine and of the supposed manner of his death, I composed the following limerick . . .
Sinological sages have said,
That, whereas Li Po died in his bed,
‘Twas not from neuritis,
Nor cramp got by writers,
But mead that had gone to his head.
So now, to put the record straight, I am attempting a more respectful outline of this most distinguished of Chinese poets.
Li Po (often referred to as Li Po or Li Bai)
lived from approximately the year 700 until he died in 762 A.D. He is regarded as one of the greatest poets in China’s literary history. He is as important in both the history and literature of China as Shakespeare is in the English-speaking world. In his time he was a huge celebrity, renowned and honoured for his wisdom and for his poetic genius.
( May I point out that this was approximately the same time as Caedmon, our first English poet (see my earlier blog on ‘Whitby’), and was almost a millennium before Shakespeare).
About 2000 of Li Po’s many poems were collected together in the year 1080. They are remarkable for their musical quality, rich and exact imagery, and the beauty of their language. This blog does no more than present a brief outline of his life and work and reproduces just a few of these poems in an attempt to whet the appetite for more.
From early times a thorough knowledge of the art of creating and reciting poetry as well as of its history was a required attribute of the educated Chinese ruling classes. Poets themselves were held in great esteem and were able to earn a living by practising their art in the households of the nobility.
Li Po lived during the Tang Dynasty in the first half of the 8th century. He was one of the most celebrated poets of this, the golden age of Chinese poetry.
It is not easy to differentiate between truth and myth in the story of Li Po’s life. He was brought up in the west of China in Szechwan province, but at the age of 19 he left home and began his travels throughout China.
He is said to have met up with a Taoist scholar and to have become very much influenced by Taoist philosophy as his writing shows. From then on he seems to have spent his time writing poems and enjoying nature and the pleasures of wine.
His verses are the epitome of classical Chinese poetry. They follow Taoist principles and are generally simple and for their subject matter concentrate on the everyday features of a poet’s life. The patterns of nature repeat and the poet’s emotions range from joy to despair. His poems have a musical quality and are coloured with rich and exact imagery. They amply illustrate the Taoist pleasure derived from the awesome tranquillity of mountains and rivers.
Li Di – Mountain Landscape – c.1100
Li Po is said to have met his death, after a heavy bout of drinking, by attempting to embrace the reflection of the moon on the water. Many of his poems take the pleasures of wine as a theme and he often wrote about the moonlit world.
Selected Verses of LI PO
I have selected just five of Li Po’s shorter poems to illustrate his style and his themes.
I wake and moonbeams play around my bed
Glittering like hoarfrost to my wondering eyes
Upwards the glorious moon I raise my head
Then lay me down and thoughts of home arise
Dialogue in the Mountains
You ask me why I lodge in these emerald hills;
I laugh, don’t answer – my heart is at peace.
Peach blossoms and flowing waters
go off to mysterious dark,
And there is another world,
not of mortal men.
Spring Night in Lo-yang Hearing a Flute
In what house, the jade flute that sends these dark notes drifting,
scattering on the spring wind that fills Lo-yang?
Tonight if we should hear the willow-breaking song,
who could help but long for the gardens of home?
Looking for a Monk and Not Finding Him
A poem by Li Po – translated by Rewi Alley
Source: Li Bai: 200 Poems, Hong Kong, 1980
I took a small path leading
up a hill valley, finding there
a temple, its gate covered
with moss, and in front of
the door but tracks of birds;
in the room of the old monk
no one was living, and I
staring through the window
saw but a hair duster hanging
on the wall, itself covered
with dust; emptily I sighed
thinking to go, but then
turning back several times,
seeing how the mist on
the hills was flying, and then
a light rain fell as if it
were flowers falling from
the sky, making a music of
its own; away in the distance
came the cry of a monkey, and
for me the cares of the world
slipped away, and I was filled
with the beauty around me.
Two good sources to discover and read more of Li Po’s verse can be found at:
For an excellent introduction to the long history and to the traditions and themes of Chinese Poetry I can recommend the following link:
That’s All, Folks !