Li Bo World Literature Analysis - Essay

Li Bo World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although the Tang Dynasty saw the introduction of several new poetic forms, Li Bo was not an innovator. What he did accomplish was to raise tradition-bound lyric poetry to its pinnacle of beauty and power. Many of the approximately one thousand poems attributed to him continued the established verse forms and subjects of his predecessors. For example, he was apparently happiest with the ancient shih, a lyric form that employed a predominantly four-, five-, or seven-character (syllable) line, and the yueh-fu, ballads or folk songs with lines of irregular length. Even so, he occasionally ignored formal restrictions and wrote verse in irregular meter when it suited his purpose; some of his poems have as few as three or as many as ten or eleven characters. Critics believe that he was influenced in this usage by the popular music of his time.

Li Bo’s work cannot be understood apart from the tradition from which it sprang. Many aspects of Chinese poetry distinguish it from Western poetry. For instance, Chinese poetry relies very little on the most common poetic devices familiar to Western readers such as symbolism, figures of speech (metaphor and simile), and personification. There again, however, Li Bo is unusual in occasionally personifying elements of nature.

Typically, Chinese poetry is spare and concentrated, implying and suggesting ideas through images rather than lavish description. (This feature of Chinese poetry has influenced modern Western poets, especially the Imagists.) Most often, these images are drawn from nature. Many of Li’s subjects, too, were long established in Chinese poetry: the emperor’s concubine hoping for her ruler’s favor or, more commonly, lamenting the loss of it; the lonely wife longing for her husband, who is far away; friends celebrating their friendship or bidding farewell when parting; or a journey to visit a hermit, who turns out not to be at home. These subjects on which Li Bo wrote were very familiar to his audience since they had appeared in Chinese poetry since the fifth century b.c.e., when Confucius supposedly collected and first recorded China’s earliest poetry in the Shi jing (c. 1066-541 b.c.e.; Book of Songs, 1937); that Li Bo knew the Book of Songs by heart by the age of ten indicates its importance in Chinese culture. Li’s reputation as one of the greatest poets of China stems, then, not from technical or thematic innovation, but from the great skill with which he managed to surprise his readers in presenting the unexpected within the familiar.

Li startled his readers by upsetting their assumptions that his poetry would follow fixed patterns of development. In a poem on the traditional topic of visiting a holy man in the mountains, for example, Li’s reader would have expected him to establish the scene and the occasion, but instead he opens with the sound of a barking dog. Another of his poems begins with a wild cry of the poem’s speaker. Repeatedly, he violated his readers’ sense of decorum, and they loved him for it.

Another characteristic of Li’s poetry is his playful wit, especially in his personification of natural elements, which goes far beyond a Daoist identification with nature. For example, he makes the moon his drinking companion, says that a star spoke to him, or claims that he and a mountain gaze long at each other without either becoming bored. Such humorous, fanciful images were most unusual in Tang poetry and contributed to his readers’ surprised delight.

Yet another distinctive aspect of Li’s poetry is the dream vision. Such poems concern fantastic voyages, his own or the gods’, through the cosmos, riding the tail of a comet, pulled by a phoenix, or flying on one’s own power. He catches sight of the Queen of the Skies in the light of a rainbow, climbs a cloud ladder, sees fairies, and hears dragons roar—then awakens in bed, filled with longing.

Li Bo is frequently compared to the European Romantics, whose lyric poetry and emphasis on the individual would seem to parallel his, and yet, for all that he did to promote his public image, his poetry...

(The entire section is 1717 words.)