”Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” begins by setting a scene. There are flowers in bloom, and the poem’s speaker finds a jar of wine. He takes note of the fact that there is no one else around to drink it with, and then proceeds to pour a cup for himself.
The speaker, having already emphasized the fact that he is alone, raises his cup to toast the moon. Among the T’ang Dynasty poets, and especially in the work of Li Po, the moon was considered to have special significance. It was thought to be the feminine balance of the masculine Earth, in keeping with the way that Taoist philosophy sees all things in complimentary pairs. As such, the moon was considered to be the poets’ major source of inspiration.
As he is toasting, the speaker notices his shadow, which is, naturally enough, posed in the same position that he is, also making a toast. The shadow is the result of the moonlight reaching his own body, and he immediately treats the shadow like a third person, along with himself and the moon.
Because wine is intended to bring humans to the same spiritual harmony with the earth that the moon already has, it is not at all unusual that the poem would claim that “the moon has never understood wine.” Even though he feels that they are drinking together, the narrator does not feel that he and the moon are on common terms with each other. He has the same feeling about his shadow, which is present with him but will never be his peer. Although he considers himself to have found two drinking companions, he still is lonely.
Despite the differences that separate him from his drinking companions, the speaker finds a moment of blissful harmony as the three of them appreciate their relationship. Li Po says here that it is not the coming of spring, with the blossoming trees, that have brought him joy, but rather the joy he gains from sharing this moment of drinking with the moon and the shadow, which then serves to makes the springtime seem joyful.
In this stanza, the poem gives readers a visual description of the speaker’s experience, illustrating the fact that drinking wine is not entirely a spiritual event. Li Po is reminding us that even the most joyful experience has some physical element, that any mental process still takes place within the real world. Here, the speaker’s growing drunkenness is measured. He is singing, and, evidently, swaying, although the second is expressed in terms of the moon swaying. Not only does he personify the moon to make it sound like it is his drinking companion, but he also pretends that the moon is as drunk as he is. The third member of the group, the shadow, breaks apart as he moves, divided over the various surfaces that it is cast upon.
The mood of the poem changes in this couplet. Up to this point, it has been a joyful experience, as the speaker has eased his loneliness by finding friends in the moon and shadow and has made himself happy by drinking. Here, though, he points out how friendship and drinking are incompatible. While he was able to bond with the elements of nature when he was sober, he is unable to focus when drunk, and therefore the happiness he found disappears. The moment of kindred feeling that he referred to in line 8 was just a fleeting one; it passes, and the three elements of person, moon, and shadow are destined to go their own separate ways.
The poem’s first section ends with the assurance that, though they must scatter, the speaker and his imaginary drinking companions will be “intimates forever.” The moment when they were all in harmonious union is over, but that does not mean that there is no connection between them. Li Po expresses his assurance that the three elements— one human, one celestial, and the last almost supernatural—are all part of the same system and will one day be together again in the sky.
The Star River referred to in line 14 is the constellation that contemporary Americans refer to as the Milky Way. The poet’s expectation to end up there, along with his shadow, reflects what he thinks will happen after death, when he will be integrated into nature in a way that he cannot be in life.
The poem’s second section presents a treatise on the benefits of drinking wine. In the first two lines, Li Po explains the designation of a star in the sky as the “Wine Star” as proof that heaven loves wine. In a way, he is correct, because the naming of a star Wine Star reflects the interests of the...
(The entire section is 1913 words.)
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