Li Bo Essay - Critical Essays

Li Bo Poetry: World Poets Analysis

Li Bo acquired—and liked—the nickname Exiled Immortal. Its implication of a rule breaker who transcends conventional limitations describes his poetry as well as his life. He could use the standard devices and postures of his rich literary heritage, but he usually did so in his own original manner. He wrote many kinds of poems, in many moods and wearing many masks, but behind them all is the unique quality of the poet himself.

Among the poems by Li Bo that have the greatest immediate appeal for the modern Western reader are those that suggest that the poetic mind operates on the level of the universe itself. This theme often appears in Li Bo’s poems about famous mountains, those nodes—in the traditional Chinese worldview—of cosmic spiritual energy. For example, in the poem “Climbing Mount Emei,” the speaker of the poem ascends the best known of Sichuan’s “faerie mountains,” entering a realm of weird beauty that calls into question normal evaluations of both perception and ambition. At the summit, he proclaims, his aesthetic and his supernatural abilities are released, as he finally grasps esoteric Daoist teachings and the secrets of making poetry and music. Li Bo closes the poem with a characteristically grand movement up and out: He is loosed from earthly ties (“All at once I lose the world’s dust”), meets a youthful sprite, and hand in hand they move across the sky to the sun. This is not the only place where the poet sets himself in moments of inspiration on a par with the great forces of nature.

“Climbing the Peak of Mount Taibo”

Still, Li Bo acknowledges, the human mind cannot always achieve this sublime state. Sometimes the power dwelling within the mountains is elusive, or the response to it is uncertain. In “Climbing the Peak of Mount Taibo,” the mountain is again a jumping-off point for heavenly realms, but here the poet adopts a persona that imagines a transcendent journey of the spirit—straddling the wind and raising a hand that could almost touch the moon—only to hesitate at the end and ask, “Once I’ve left Wugong county/ When could I come back again?” This undercutting of the traditional spirit-journey motif is prepared for by a typical bit of linguistic playfulness. There is a multiple pun in the poem’s third line: “Then Taibo speaks to me.” “Taibo” is, first, the mountain itself, a peak in modern Shensi Province that was thought to be especially magical because one of the fantastic Daoist “cave-heavens” was said to be located within its summit. “Taibo” is also both the evening star (the ascent is made at sunset) and the very planetary spirit said to have been Li Bo’s true father. Finally, “Taibo” is Li Bo’s pen name; for an instant, at least, the reader is invited to wonder if the poet is talking only to himself.

“Wandering About Mount Tai”

One of the best examples of the multiplicity of stances and personas Li Bo could adopt when considering the relationship of the individual to the supra-human is a poem cycle titled “Wandering About Mount Tai: Six Poems.” In this description of travel around the easternmost of China’s cosmos-ordering “Five Sacred Peaks,” the poet achieves a mythic fusion of various traditional paradises: the ancient utopias located far away, across the sea or sky; the cave-heavens that riddle sacred ground; and the spiritually charged natural world itself. He also manages an emotional fusion of the various responses of a single persona to manifestations of the divine, ranging from frustration and embarrassment, through ecstasy and awe, to a final confident accommodation with the world and its spiritual force.

In the first poem of the group, despite the speaker’s appreciation of the mountain’s beauty, the stone gate of a cave-heaven is closed to him and the gold and silver pavilions of the Faerie Isles can be imagined but remain distant. Moreover, the beautiful “Jade Women” who come in response to the poet’s magic, spirit-summoning whistle tease him, laughing and giving him nothing more than a cup of “Liquid Sunrise,” the immortals’ wine. He can only bow to them, ashamed of his mundane nature. Here as elsewhere, though he sorrows, he never lapses into self-pity. The second and third poems underline the theme of human limitations: The speaker meets a strange man who has achieved immortality through Daoist training, but the figure vanishes and the antique writing of the text he leaves behind cannot be deciphered; then, the wanderer has a moment of vision, only to chance on a youthful divinity who laughs at him for trying to achieve immortality so late, “when I’ve lost my grip, rosy cheeks faded.” The exuberant fourth poem records a moment of hard-won spiritual achievement gained through Daoist study, fasting, and chanting. This otherworldly goal is replaced in the following poem by an awareness of the power in the natural landscape itself.

The resolution appears in the last poem of the sequence, as the poet’s persona travels through sublime scenery alive with spirits. Although he is cut off from that sacred force of the Dao in which nature and spirits participate so freely, the poet presents himself as capable of actively making contact with the transcendent: He imagines a wedding dance of spirits; he reaches up to grope among the constellations. It is precisely the force of his own capacity for vision that wins that vision. Even though he acknowledges the evanescence of this magical night, he closes by stating that he will still be able to see the variegated clouds of dawn, clouds that are traditionally vehicles for immortals and that remind the reader of the Liquid Sunrise wine that was his gift from the divinities in the first poem of the group. The ability for imaginative action on the world’s phenomena remains even when the moment of inspiration passes—as do the poems that have been created with it.

“In the Mountains”

The theme of the “spirit journey” noted above, and other symbols found in China’s ancient shamanistic tradition, appear in many of Li Bo’s works. Not all of his “mystical” poems, however, are so grandiose. In the famous “In the Mountains: Question and Answer,” he quietly (and slightly smugly) strikes the pose of the reclusive sage who lives in the mountains for reasons that only a fool would ask to have put into words; behind this persona is the perhaps even more smug poet who has just done exactly that:

(The entire section is 2664 words.)