In his poem “In the Dai-tian Mountains, Failure to Find the Wise Man,” Li Bo addresses a topic very familiar to his Chinese audience. Many Daoist masters turned away from their society and lived simple, austere lives in the mountains, which the Chinese considered to be very spiritual places. While his topic may have been a conventional one, his presentation of it is somewhat unorthodox.
Li opens the poem with the sound of a dog barking, an indecorous beginning. His audience would have expected him, instead, to establish the occasion and set the scene; barking, if it appeared at all, would properly have come later in the poem. Typically, however, Li Bo liked to startle his audience.
The poet moves from one sound to another—the bark is heard over the roaring of rushing water—and at last visual images appear: wet peach blossoms, deep woods, a deer. Ironically, the sound he could actually expect to hear is missing; at noon, he pauses in his journey and notices that no noon bell is struck.
The images leap forward as he climbs on through tall bamboo, green against a bright blue sky, to a waterfall, whose spray hangs in the air. There he expects to find the holy man, but no one knows where he has gone. The poet makes no direct statement about his feelings, and interpretations vary as to whether he is disappointed or content. The dreamily beautiful images have assumed an almost magical quality, so it is easy to believe that his is not merely a physical journey, but a spiritual quest that has not been in vain, whether or not he finds the hermit.
This poem brings together Li Bo’s fascination with the Daoist recluses and his affinity with the mountains as places charged with the supernatural, where he could experience a mystical union with nature. As different as this poem is from his drinking poems, each represents equally a true love of Li Bo.