Li Bo’s famous “Marble Stairs Grievance” is of that large body of Chinese poems that treat the subject of the palace lady, abandoned and forgotten by the emperor. The poems are always subdued but filled with longing and sadness. The poetry accurately reflected historical fact; many beautiful young girls were selected as the emperor’s concubines, and to be chosen brought honor both to the young woman and to her family. Many grew old and lonely at the palace, however, rarely seeing the emperor but considered still in his service. A subcategory of this subject is that of the mocking treatment of the older palace lady, who still adorns herself with makeup and finery and waits for the emperor’s visit.
In the first stanza, the dew that has formed on the marble stairs indicates, on a literal level, the lateness of the hour, thus the fact that the emperor is not coming; but the dew could also refer to tears on the lady’s face. Her beauty is suggested by her clothing in the reference to her silk stockings and in the smoothness of her marble (sometimes translated as “jade”) cheek. The fact that her stockings are now dew-soaked underscores the poignance of her long—and fruitless—vigil.
In the second stanza, she sadly lowers the curtain and looks at the autumn moon through glittering crystals. Beaded curtains made of rock crystal were used in the palace, so the reference could be taken literally, but again, the suggestion is strong that the clear, glittering drops are her tears. The specific naming of an autumn moon intimates that she is no longer a young girl.
In a brief scene contained in a two-stanza poem, Li Bo portrays the pathos of the cruel plight of the abandoned palace lady; without the attentions of her lord, her life is meaningless. Li conveys both her sorrow and the idea that she has waited and hoped many times—and will do so many more.