Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In spite of his talents, Li Bo was treated as a courtier during his brief career in the capital of Ch’ang-an, from 742 to 744. Disillusioned, he resigned his post and resumed his earlier interest in travel. In 753, he reached Hsüan-chou, where the poet Hsieh T’iao wrote a substantial part of his poetry while serving as the governor. Hsieh T’iao himself died in jail as a result of political intrigue. The name “Hsieh T’iao’s High Mansion” thus points to the historical, literary, and political dimensions of Li Bo’s poem.
The first main theme of the poem is that of human existence in relation to history and time. The poem begins with a couplet which focuses on the problematic nature of time. The abandonment of yesterday and the intrusion of today, however, are but different stages in the passage of time that will be continued, as the concluding line suggests, with the promise of a pacifying tomorrow. Despite its transient nature, time is seen as a larger framework within which the human drama is enacted. Its devastating effects, Li Bo’s Taoist vision seems to suggest, will be compensated for if one is ready to “relax in a tiny boat” and drift along with the currents of nature without imposing one’s will on it.
Self-definition in relation to literary history is the second main theme. As the allusions to Peng-lai, Chien-an, and Hsieh T’iao indicate, there had been important moments in the development of Chinese poetry, one significant aspect of which was the Taoist aesthetic. Li Bo seems to take pride in being an esoteric member of the literary tradition. Judging by his jubilant fantasy of flying to the moon, it can be perceived that he feels particularly at home with the Taoist sensibilities that have provided him with the appropriate means of self-expression.
The third main theme is the preservation of self-integrity in the political world. Since the “dismay,” “sorrow,” and dissatisfaction lead up to the image of “dishevelled hair,” it is clear that the negative emotions of the poem are the culmination of frustrations with the uncongenial nature of politics.
The three themes are intertwined. They coalesce into the overall theme of how an individual might come to terms with human existence in the body politic, in history, and in the cosmic order of things.