Li Po

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Contents

 

Introduction

On a Picture Screen 

To Wang Lun

Three—With the Moon and His Shadow

Taking Leave of a Friend 

To His Two Children 

A Mountain Revelry

The Old Dust

Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly

His Dream of the Skyland: A Farewell Poem

A Vindication

Nefarious War

Before the Cask of Wine

Source

 

Introduction

Li Po (about 701-762 CE)  was a native of Sezchaun, China. While still in his teens, he retired to mountains in the north of the province to live with a religious recluse by the name of Tunyen-tzu. The two of them were said to keep strange birds as pets. Li Po later traveled down the Yangtze to Yun-meng, a town north of the river and Tung-ting Lake, where he married.

From then on his occupation became that of a wandering poet. Throughout his life he produced an abundance of poems on many different subjects—particularly nature, wine, friendship, solitude, and the passage of time. He has since become recognized by many as the greatest of a highly talented array of Tang poets. He stayed for a few years in various places, traveled extensively, and became for a time one of the Six Idlers of the Bamboo Valley, who celebrated wine and song in the mountains of Chu-lai. All this did not provide a satisfactory existence for his first wife, who left him with their two children. He appears to have married three times.

Li Po entered the capital, Chang-an, in about 742 and his poetry found great favor at the imperial court. However, court plotters found a way of demonstrating that one of his poems was a malicious satire. Li Po found it prudent to retire to the mountains again, and then wandered around China for about ten years, becoming involved in a major revolt. He was imprisoned under sentence of death, which was commuted to perpetual banishment to the southwest region of the empire.

He had a strong imagination that was easily set off by music and wine, both of which received praise in his poetry. He became a Taoist and some of his poetry, such as Chuang Tzu And The Butterfly, reflects this. At the same time, he remained a poet who caught the nuances of the human experience of nature and of human friendship. He was a close friend of the poet Du Fu, to whom he addressed the following lines:

Here! is this you on the top of Fan-kuo Mountain,

Wearing a huge hat in the noon-day sun?

How thin, how wretchedly thin, you have grown!

You must have been suffering from poetry again.

In the poems presented here, the picture screen was owned by a Buddhist friend; the Wu-shan peaks are along the Yangtze gorges; the elfin maid is transformed by day into a cloud. The rabbit in the moon mentioned in a later poem is part of Chinese folklore—it is said to be pounding out the elixir of life.

 

 

1 On a Picture Screen

 

Whence these twelve peaks of Wu-shan!

Have they flown into the gorgeous screen

From heaven's one corner?

Ah, those lonely pines murmuring in the wind!

Those palaces of Yang-tai, hovering over there

Oh, the melancholy of it!

Where the jeweled couch of the king

With brocade covers is desolate,

His elfin maid voluptuously fair

Still haunting them in vain!

 

Here a few feet

Seem a thousand miles.

The craggy walls glisten blue and red,

A piece of dazzling embroidery.

How green those distant trees are

Round the river strait of Ching-men!

And those shipsthey go on,

Floating on the waters of Pa.

The water sings over the rocks

Between countless hills

Of shining mist and lustrous grass.

 

How many years since these valley flowers bloomed

To smile in the sun?

And that man traveling on the river,

Does he not for ages hear the monkeys screaming?

Whoever looks on this,

Loses himself in eternity;

And entering the sacred mountains of Sung,

He will dream among the resplendent clouds.

 

 

2 To Wang Lun

 

I was about to sail away in a junk,

When suddenly I heard

The sound of stamping and singing on the bank

It was you and your friends come to bid me farewell.

The Peach Flower Lake is a thousand fathoms deep,

But it cannot compare, O Wang Lun,

With the depth of your love for me.

 

 

3  ThreeWith the Moon and His Shadow

 

With a jar of wine I sit by the flowering trees.

I drink alone, and where are my friends?

Ah, the moon above looks down on me;

I call and lift my cup to his brightness.

And see, there goes my shadow before me.

Ho! We're a party of three, I say,

Though the poor moon can't drink,

And my shadow but dances around me,

We're all friends to-night,

The drinker, the moon and the shadow.

Let our revelry be suited to the spring!

 

I sing, the wild moon wanders the sky.

I dance, my shadow goes tumbling about.

While we're awake, let us join in carousal;

Only sweet drunkenness shall ever part us.

Let us pledge a friendship no mortals know,

And often hail each other at evening

Far across the vast and vaporous space!

 

 

4  Taking Leave of a Friend

 

Blue mountains lie beyond the north wall;

Round the city's eastern side flows the white water.

Here we part, friend, once and forever.

You go ten thousand miles, drifting away

Like an unrooted water-grass.

Oh, the floating clouds and the thoughts of a wanderer!

Oh, the sunset and the longing of an old friend!

We ride away from each other, waving our hands,

While our horses neigh softly, softly . . . .

 

 

5 To His Two Children

 

In the land of Wu the mulberry leaves are green,

And three times the silkworms have gone off to sleep.

In East Luh where my family stay,

I wonder who is sowing those fields of ours.

I cannot be back in time for the spring work,

I can help with nothing, traveling on the river.

The south wind blowing wafts my homesick spirit

And carries it up to the front of our familiar tavern.

There I see a peach tree on the east side of the house

With thick leaves and branches waving in the blue mist.

It is the tree I planted before my parting three years ago.

The peach tree has grown now as tall as the tavern roof,

While I have wandered about without returning.

Ping-yang, my pretty daughter, I see you stand

By the peach tree and pluck a flowering branch.

You pluck the flowers, but I am not there;

How your tears flow like a stream of water!

My little son, Po-chin, grown up to your sister's shoulders,

You come out with her under the peach tree,

But who is there to pat you on the back?

When I think of these things, my senses fail,

And a sharp pain cuts my heart every day.

Now I tear off a piece of white silk to write this letter,

And send it to you with my love a long way up the river.

 

 

6   A Mountain Revelry

 

To wash and rinse our souls of their age-old sorrows,

We drained a hundred jugs of wine.

A splendid night it was . . . .

In the clear moonlight we were loath to go to bed.

But at last drunkenness overcame us;

And we laid ourselves down on the empty mountain,

The earth for pillow, and the great heaven for coverlet.

 

 

7   The Old Dust

 

The living is a passing traveler;

The dead, a man come home.

One brief journey between heaven and earth,

Then, alas! we are the same old dust of ten thousand ages.

The rabbit in the moon pounds the elixir in vain;

Fu-sang, the tree of immortality, has crumbled to kindling wood.

Man dies, his white bones are dumb without a word

While the green pines feel the coming of the spring.

Looking back, I sigh; looking before, I sigh again.

What is there to prize in the life's vaporous glory?

 

 

8   Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly

 

Chuang Tzu in dream became a butterfly,

And the butterfly became Chuang Tzu at waking.

Which was the realthe butterfly or the man ?

Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?

The water that flows into the depth of the distant sea

Returns in time to the shallows of a transparent stream.

The man, raising melons outside the green gate of the city,

Was once the Prince of the East Hill.

So must rank and riches vanish.

You know it, still you toil and toilwhat for?

 

 

9  His Dream of the Skyland: A Farewell Poem

 

The seafarers tell of the Eastern Isle of Bliss,

It is lost in a wilderness of misty sea waves.

But the Sky-land of the south, the Yueh-landers say,

May be seen through cracks of the glimmering cloud.

This land of the sky stretches across the measures of heaven;

It rises above the Five Mountains and towers over the Scarlet Castle,

While, as if staggering before it, the Tien-tai Peak

Of many thousand feet leans toward the south and east.

 

So, longing to dream of the southlands of Wu and Yueh,

I flew across the Mirror Lake one night under the moon.

 

The moon in the lake followed my flight,

Followed me to the town of Yen-chi.

Here still stands the mansion of Prince Hsieh.

I saw the green waters curl and heard the monkeys' shrill cries.

I climbed, putting on the clogs of the prince,

Skyward on a ladder of clouds,

And, half-way up, from the sky-wall I saw the morning sun,

And heard heaven's cock crowing in the mid-air.

Now among a thousand precipices my way wound round and round;

Flowers choked the path; I leaned against a rock; I swooned.

 

Roaring bears and howling dragons roused me

Oh, the clamorous waters of the rapids!

I trembled in the deep forest, and shuddered at the overhanging crags,

    one heaped upon another.

Clouds on clouds gathered above, threatening rain;

The waters gushed below, breaking into mist.

 

A peal of blasting thunder!

The mountains crumbled.

The stone gate of the hollow heaven

Opened wide, revealing

A vasty realm of azure without bottom,

Sun and moon shining together on gold and silver palaces.

 

Clad in rainbow and riding on the wind,

The ladies of the air descended like flower flakes;

The faery lords trooping in, were thick as hemp-stalks in the fields.

Phoenix birds circled their cars, and panthers played on harps.

Bewilderment filled me, and terror seized on my heart.

I lifted myself in amazement, and alas!

I woke and found my bed and pillow—

Gone was the radiant world of gossamer.

 

So with all pleasures of life.

All things pass with the east-flowing water.

I leave you and gowhen shall I return?

Let the white roe feed at will among the green crags,

Let me ride and visit the lovely mountains!

How can I stoop obsequiously and serve the mighty ones!

It stifles my soul.

 

 

10 A Vindication

 

If heaven loved not wine,

A Wine Star would not be in heaven;

If earth loved not wine,

The Wine Spring would not be on earth.

Since heaven and earth love wine,

Need a tippling mortal be ashamed?

The transparent wine, I hear,

Has the soothing virtue of a sage,

While the turgid is rich, they say,

As the fertile mind of the wise.

Both the sage and the wise were drinkers,

Why seek for peers among gods and goblins?

Three cups open the grand door to bliss;

Take a jugful, the universe is yours.

Such is the rapture found in wine,

That the sober shall never inherit.

 

 

11   Nefarious War

 

Last year we fought by the head-stream of the Sang-kan,

This year we are fighting on the Tsung-ho road.

We have washed our armor in the waves of Chiao-chi lake,

We have pastured our horses on Tien-shan's snowy slopes.

The long, long war goes on ten thousand miles from home,

Our three armies are worn and grown old.

 

The barbarian does man-slaughter, not plowing;

On this yellow sand-plains nothing has been seen but

blanched skulls and bones.

Where the Chin emperor built the walls against the Tartars,

There the defenders of Han are burning beacon fires.

The beacon fires burn and never go out,

There is no end to war!

 

In the battlefield men grapple each other and die;

The horses of the vanquished utter lamentable cries to heaven,

While ravens and kites peck at human entrails,

Carry them up in their flight, and hang them on the branches of dead trees.

So, men are scattered and smeared over the desert grass,

And the generals have accomplished nothing.

 

Oh, nefarious war! I see why arms

Were so seldom used by the benign sovereigns.

 

 

12   Before the Cask of Wine

 

The spring wind comes from the east and quickly passes,

Leaving faint ripples in the wine of the golden bowl.

The flowers fall, flake after flake, myriads together.

 

You, pretty girl, wine-flushed,

Your rosy face is rosier still.

How long may the peach and plum trees flower

By the green-painted house?

The fleeting light deceives a man,

Brings too soon stumbling age.

 

Rise and dance

In the westering sun

While the urge of youthful years is yet unsubdued!

What avails to lament after one's hair has turned white

    like silken threads?

 

Source

Adapted from The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet, done into English verse by Shigeyoshi Obata. E. P. Dutton & Co, New York, 1922. This book contains translations of 124 of Li Po’s poems, an extensive introduction to his work and the Tang period in which he lived, poems by other poets concerning Li Po, and biographical notes on Li Po by Chinese authors.