The Main Themes of Li Po’s Poetry Analysis

The also referred as Li Bai, Li Bo, one of the most famous classical poets, lived and worked during the Tang Dynasty. He was born in 701 and lived 61 years. The period of Tang dynasty had become one of the best period of Chinese history. During this time science, art and culture made a great progress. During Tang dynasty many talented artists and poets created their masterpieces and Li Po was definitely one of them.

His poetical talent helped him to create many wonderful poems on many different topics. He wrote about nature, depicting wonderful landscapes of his motherland, he wrote about people and their characters; he wrote about inner transformations and secret knowledge. His poems have special rhythmic structure. Alliteration and assonance also help to express his thoughts in the poetic language. His philosophical and religious imaginary creates an exceptionable combination of art, culture and religion and in this way appeal not only to the appreciators of art, but also to spiritual people. His literary prophesy, which has survived till nowadays, consists of 1.100 poems.Along with Du Fu, Li Po was one of the most popular poets of Tang dynasty.

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His poems were known by both, noblemen and ordinary people. Even present days his name is associated with classical Chinese poetry. Children learn his poems at school and adult people enjoy wonderful imaginary and deep topics of his poetry. People call him “the god dismissed from the Heaven” for “God-poet” for his poetical genious. Li Po was born in Gang Xiao Sheng region in the territory of China. His family moved to Sichuan when he was five years old. This travel made a great impression on a small boy and he decided to continue traveling when he grew up and turned 25. His education started when he was twelve.

He attended different schools, including religious ones. Taoism had had the greatest influence on his outlook and mentality.  After a number of tests, made by the Governor Su Tin, Li Po achieved the highest marks for his perfect knowledge. He wanted to become an official but later changed his mind and refused to take civil service examination. He gave up an idea to work as an official and started traveling.He wanted to get a better understanding of the world around him, people and nature. He described his impressions of his travels in the journals. Being an interesting and outstanding personality, Li Po met many different people and information about him was widespread around the country.

In 762 Li Po got a position of the Registrar of the Left Commandant’s office but till the time the order had arrived to his place Li Po was already dead. The information about his death is controversial. There is a legend that he died being drunk because of his attempts to hug the moon in the river. The credibility of this legend is doubtful because he left a farewell poem, where he speaks about the suicide.

Despite his sudden death, his immortal poems live during the long period of time and people do not stop to enjoy his poetry. The universal character of his poems makes them enjoyable for different people of different social classes and occupations.  In his poems Li Po passes more than just interesting facts. He managed to pass an atmosphere and feelings which unite a poet and his readers like a bridge.

In this way he fulfilled the main destination of the poet – to create images and pass them to other people. His way of life and even his death reflected the eternal search for inner truth, wisdom and right understanding, which made the main goal of his life. He knew about the transitional nature of all things on the earth and did not care much about them. As he wrote in one of his poems:The birds have vanished from the sky,and now the last clouds slip away.

We sit alone, the mountain and I,until only the mountain remains (Li Po).The composition of Li Po’s poems is very diverse. He uses different literary forms in his poems. Li Po makes an experiment not only with the imaginary he uses in his poems. He is famous for the experiments with form. He uses many Classical art forms and investigates his own ones. Sometimes it seems that conventional art does not give enough space for his genius to express all his thoughts and ideas and he has to invent new methods. He used different forms but jueju was his favorite one.

Jueju is a five of seven-character quatrains.His poetry not only reflects the beauty of nature around him. Li Po possessed a unique ability to grasp the moments of the eternity and put them into worlds. It is difficult to deal with such notions as beauty, calmness and self-realization, but Li Po possessed a unique talent not only putting these notions into words, but also passing this experience to other people through his poems. In his poem called Self-abandonment he writes about loosing the sense of self and joining the nature.I sat drinking and did not notice the dusk,Till falling petals filled the folds of my dress.Drunken I rose and walked to the moonlit stream;The birds were gone, and men also few.These four short lines combine a joy of life, enjoying every moment and sharing it with everybody around.

Chinese poetry has a rich tradition of describing feelings and complicated ideas through the descriptions of nature and Li Po is a master of this method. In this short poem we can see how the person reflects the processes which occur in the nature around him and vice versa – how nature reflects the state of a man. In this poem men and nature become one whole.In his another poem called “On Visiting Taoist Recluse of Tai-Tien-Shan and Not Finding Him” Li Po speaks about his journey to Taoist recluse.

The author again uses nature and scenery in order to pass his feelings. He describes dogs barking, the noise of water, fountains in great detail, so that the readers could feel the place described. The poem creates a picture in the mind of the reader and Li Po passes his feelings through this picture, which unites the author and his readers like a bridge. The readers can feel the fresh spring air when reading the poem:No sound of the mid-daybell enters this fastnesswhere blue mist risesfrom bamboo groves;down from a high peakhangs a waterfall (Li Po).

The images described in the poem create an allusion of awakening and rebirth connected with spring. The poem has also a deeper message connected with Taoism. After reading the title of the poem the readers can make the guess that the author is disappointed not fining the Taoist Recluse. While reading the poem the readers do not feel that the author is disappointed. Here a kind of contradiction appears. On the one hand, the readers know that the author did not find the recluse, but on the other hand, he does not sound disappointed. In This way only people who are aware of Taoist concepts and Taoist teaching can get the deeper message of the poem. In reality there is no need to seek Tao.

Every person can feel Tao any time he addresses his inner self. The poem describes this inner state of union with Tao. In this way readers can understand that there is no need to search for Taoist Recluse and the author is happy to share this knowledge.The theme of love and friendship makes and important part of his poems. In 744 he met Du Fu. Despite they met only twice, their friendship lasted till Li Po’s death. Despite the poetry of Li Po and Tu Fu is very different they supplement each other in a very interesting manner. “Tu Fu as a man is contrasted with Li Po in almost every conceivable way” (Preminger, Brogan, 113).

Li Po is known as a spiritual poet. Tu Fu centered on the depictions of everyday life. His poems remind chronicles. His poems are often autobiographical and describe important historical events. Despite the poets use different means and methods, they are both equally talented. It is naturally that since the first meeting they recognized each other’s talents and started a long-time friendship.The poems they wrote for each other make an important input in the understanding of the literary, political and religious credos of both poets.  Li Po became involved in the revolt against the Emperor.

After the failure of the rebel Li Po was exiled to Yeland but soon he was forgiven.Many of his poems praise light-heatedness and joy of life. He often speaks about drinking wine as a means to achieve the state of joy. In one of his most known poems called Drinking Alone by Midnight he reflects this kind of attitude:A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;I drink alone, for no friend is near. Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,For he, with my shadow, will make three men.This poem reflects not only his love of wine. Being one of the most famous poems by Li Po, Drinking alone at Moonlight is full of bright images and spontaneous pictures which change each other harmonically. In this few lines Li Po manages to pass to the readers a unique combination of joy and sorrow he feels at the same time.

His feeling of loneliness is combined with the feeling of union with the entire world around him. In his real life Li Po managed to combine two unique experiences – he combined a spiritual search with experiencing the joys of life. The bliss he gets from the spiritual experience he combines with the joys of material world.  Drinking alone perfectly reflects this combination. The fantastic images often appear in his poems. This kind of poems is united under the name yue fu poems.The poetry of Tang period is influenced by three major religions widespread during that time. These religions are Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.

Li Po, who turned to Confucianism at the beginning of his writing career finally returned to Taoism, which had made on him a great impression since childhood. In contrast to Du Fu, who followed the philosophy of Confucianism, Li Po followed his own way and turned to Taoism as a source of inspiration and insight. The very poetry of Li Po becomes a manifestation of Taoism. Li Po turns to insights, makes an attempt to catch the eternity in one single moment, and turns to brilliant improvisations.

Rich imagination and fantastic images of Li Po’s poems reflect Taoist ideas.  Taoism is based on the   principles of non-action and emptiness taken from Tao Te Ching. God is not expressed by any concrete figure in Taoism but any creatures which possess God’s nature stand in the side of righteousness. Daoism usually refer to the inner life of the person and self perfection. It was rather skeptical about virtues, such as morality, proclaimed by Confucius and did not give it so much value. All these principles are reflected in Li Po’s poetry.Taoism is realized by different means in his poetry. First of all Li Po explores the concepts of Taoism in his poems.

He uses this combination of religion and philosophy as a philosophical basement of his literary work. There are many legends, which describe how easily Li Po composed his poems. He composed his poems very quickly and without any corrections.In contrast to Du Fu Li Po tried to avoid the references to historical data in his poems. His poems are universal and go beyond time. Li Po did not think about social recognition. During his journeys he gladly and openly communicated with different people from different social classes and with different incomes. He met a lot of celebrities and shared nice communication with them.

When he met needy people, he gladly shared his money with them. After some time of traveling Li Po settled in central southern China. After meeting Xu Yushi, an ex-prime minister of China, he fell in love and married his daughter. For certain period of time they live in Anlu in Hubei region.  In 730 Li Po performed a journey along the Yellow River but finally came back home. Ten years later he moves to Shangdong.  In 742 he made close friends with one Taoism priest. Once he got a chance to meet Emperor Xuanzong and talk to him.

The emperor personally prepared a meal for him and gave him a position in the Hanlin Academy. This academy made poetry for the emperor.  When the emperor asked Li Po to come to the palace Li Po was often drunk but he made beautiful love poems, which fascinated everybody. Li Po did not get the prominent position in the Academy because of the conflict with Gao Lishi. After this he left the academy and returned to traveling around the country till the rest of his life. He paid little attention to his popularity. Rich use of imagination and spontaneous use of language made Li Po a unique poet.Li Po paid little attention to moral norms and dogmas.

He did not follow Confucian ideology, popular among many people during Tang dynasty. That is the reason the followers of Confucianism often attacked him and his works. Nevertheless, Li Po paid little attention to this attacks, same as to the goods words of his admires. He was interested only in passing his knowledge and his experience to those who cared about it. Li Po partially followed the philosophy of Lao Tzi but did not turn to him as his religions or spiritual teacher.Li Po possessed exceptional knowledge and he was equally familiar with literature and alchemy. He created a unique combination in his poems and dedicated them to the topics, which had not been very popular before. He made an accent on the inner life.

Li Po possessed a good knowledge of Tsan Tung Chi, an ancient alchemic text. This work was the oldest treatise of alchemy which survived. It was based on the concepts from the Book of Changes and Confucian writings. Later, this text has become one of the basic texts of Neo-Confucianism. Li Po became the first writer, who turned to this text and cited it in his poems. Li Po’s poem called On Making the Great Elixir contains the ideas from Tsan Tung Chi. This poems speaks about the dual nature of the Universe, describes the law of united opposites and the kind of alchemy, which appears between them. Two opposites Li Po presents as the moon and the sun.

He uses figurative language “The Virgin rides in the River Coach (i.e. the mercury lies on the lead); the gold plays the part of the yoke-bar” (Li Po). In general, the moon becomes an extremely important symbol in Li Po’s poetry. The moon becomes for him a symbol of light, which shines in the dark and gives shimmering light in the dark sky, during the time when it is needed most of all. For Li Po the moon became the symbol of true knowledge, which shines and give the hope for true seeker of inner wisdom. The legend of his death connected with the moon probably partially derives from this affection with moon, peculiar to Li Po’s poetry. Later he introduces a number of other alchemical terms, such as Red Bird and White Tiger, which mean fire and metal accordingly.

Great elixir he describes like a thing “that is inseprable from Tao itself” (Li Po). The person who possess this knowledge is able to do anything he wishes:he can caress the sun; Paradise itself is but an ell awayIn the Kingdom of Death his name has dropped from the rollsThe Southern Pole-Star lists him in its Book of Lives. (Li Po).In the next part of the poem Li Po speaks about himself. He believes that he also possesses some kind of secrete knowledge and can be placed to the category of magicians. He states that his genius would enable him to make a brilliant career in public sphere but he voluntary rejects this opportunity. He addresses his friend Liu Kuan-ti, to whom the poem is dedicated, to give up public career and join him in his journey for the inner wisdom. Li Po speaks about the journey in the Taoist meaning.

He uses term which describes the type of the journey perfumed by the early followers of Taoism. This journey assumes inner quest for the spiritual knowledge. With the final lines of the poem the entire meaning of the verse becomes evident. Li Po describes all merits of the alchemy and advantages this secret knowledge can bring t people and then asks his friend to join him in this search. He presents himself as an example of person who succeeded in this journey. He positions himself as a magician and an alchemist in this poem and declares that this position is higher than any kind of political power and financial success. As he himself states: “When a man of high character is entrusted with the government of a district his first concern is to put all practical affairs out of his head. Whether he spends his time absorbing magic drugs or seeking for Immortals nothing in the place where he rules can ever go amiss” (Li Po).

He states that people who possess this type of knowledge can reach any kind of political power if they need it. “Holy Man, do not worry! Your fire needs no tending. But it seems indeed that you are more than a mere alchemist; for the elixir can only cause those that swallow it to grow wings. On what strange art did your miracle of the two wild geese depend?” (Li Po).  Despite there are many references to Taoism in Li Po’s poems, this poem explains the main terms of Taoism in the way the great poem understood them himself.  This poem also reflects the conflict between the ideas of Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism, centred on the idea of virtue and social class, is contrasted to Taoism, which centres on the inner knowledge and spirituals quest. The great influence of Confucianism, which existed earlier, prevented the widespread of Taoism with its accent on inner life and rejection of social norms.

As soon as the influence of Confucianism decreased, it gave an opportunity to Taoism and other religions to develop in China. Li Po reflects these ideas and these confrontations between two major ideologies of China. He calls to reject material possession and the importance of social class and turn to inner life as the only source of joy and liberation.The spiritual themes of Li Po’s poetry are often supplemented by the motifs of human relations, such as love, friendship, hatred and betray.

In one of his most known poems called The River-Merchant’s Wife Li Po investigates the theme of love and marriage. It is necessary to take into account some peculiarities of gender relations in China in order to understand the meaning of this poem in the right way. Early marriages were usual during the time described and a young girl, who speaks about her feeling in this poem, is only fourteen. From the context we can also understand that her husband is older, since she addresses him as “my lord”.

The poem gives an account of family life in the way it was presented in Li Po’s times. The women possessed a subservient function and had to obey her husband in everything. Despite this attitude the woman can not imagine her life without her husband. The last lines of the poem prove this:If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,Please let me know beforehand,And I will come out to meet youAs far as Cho-fo-Sa (Li Po).

The feeling of separation, which experiences the River-Merchant’s wife, is the man theme of the poem. The readers can feel warmth and deep attachment in her line, even when she speaks about the negative experience of her family life. This poem, like many other woks by Li Po, reflects his perfect ability to pass the feelings of other people. He does a wonderful job representing the feelings of a young girl who is separated from her beloved person. Li Po’s poems combine the depictions of nature and people. For him people can not be separated from the world around them and nature makes the major part of this world. In his poems the readers can see an organic union of cosmos and everything that exists as its part. The conflicts in his poem show how human feelings and emotions are reflected by the world around.

Li Po uses allusion and uses beautiful images and scenery not only to impress his readers, but also to reach some levels beyond their rational understanding. He aims to reach not only rational interaction between his audience but also to reach people’s deepest feelings and emotions. “These images provide the texts with a texture and complexity that is rarely found in any other work. And at the same time they continue to intrigue an impressive number of people who are captivated by the nature of his unwonted, unparalleled bliss” (Marchewka 2).

Internal struggle also marks his poetry. Intensive quest for inner freedom reflected in his lifestyle is also reflected in his poetry. Great inner freedom which made him to seek for physical freedom, as well is reflected in all his works. Li Po makes unique combination of spirituality and irony in his poems. He passes this mood to his readers and persuades them that easy attitude to life and spirituality can be comparable. That is one of the reasons of immortality of his artwork. His new experience expressed in his work discovered a new way of spiritual art and gave new experience to many people who appreciate his poems.

Works Cited

  1.  Bai, Li.  The Selected Poems of Li Po, Anvil Press Poetry, 1998.Po, Li, Fu, Tu. Bright Moon, Perching Birds: Poems (Wesleyan Poetry in Translation) Cryer, J., Seaton, J. P. (transl). Wesleyan, 1987Hinton, D. Bai, Li.
  2. The Selected Poems of Li Po, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1996.Marchewka, Gerald . Straight from the Heavens: Li Bai’s Poetry in Retrospect, Rick Chinese Characters, A Genealogy and Dictionary, Zhongwen, 1998.
  3. Preminger, Alex, Brogan F.V.F. Chinese Poetry.
  4. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.Porter, Bill ‘Red Pine’ Poems of the Masters: China’s Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse, Copper Canyon Press, 2003.Pound  Ezra (transl)   Version. On the River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.
  5. Modern American Poetry.

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