Li Ho Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

Li Ho 791–817

Chinese poet.

Li Ho lived during the late T'ang period (618-907) in Chinese history and wrote poetry remarkable for blending traditional poetic forms with images of shocking violence and a general mood of pessimism. Although his verse was admired by his contemporaries despite its strangeness, it subsequently lapsed into obscurity. A revival of interest in Li Ho's poems has recently taken place, with commentators expressing admiration for the vivid imagery and evocative, haunting quality of his verse.

Biographical Information

Li Ho was born into a distant, impoverished branch of the imperial clan. According to some sources, he began writing poetry at age six. When he was still a boy his father died, leaving him solely responsible for the welfare of his large family, and at age eighteen Li Ho sought to provide for them by becoming a civil servant. He passed a provincial examination, but was blocked from taking an examination which might have secured him a more substantial position at the imperial court by a prohibition against sons using their fathers' names. (One of the characters in his name matched one of his late father's.) He eventually accepted a minor office to which he was entitled by hereditary right. While at court, Li Ho began to write about the lives of courtesans, interested in their beautiful and ceremonious lifestyles. His own circumstances proved less attractive; he suffered from chronic illness, and success continually eluded him. As a result, his poetry increasingly turned to metaphysical treatments of death in which he savagely debunked mythology and rejected religion. In 817 he returned home and died the same year.

Major Works

Only 243 of Li Ho's poems, ballads, and songs have survived. Like nearly all Chinese poets of his day, Li Ho wrote much of his verse in the traditional shih form, which features a controlled number of lines of a specified number of syllables. He experimented with the form, however, introducing, for instance, unusual rhyme schemes and unorthodox stanza patterns. The subjects and tone of Li Ho's poems are unconventional as well. Bitter, ironic, and frequently morbid, his works are subjective expressions, employing an idiosyncratic range of images invested with highly personal significance. Repeated references to spirits of the dead and to such elements as rain and mist, light and shadow, create a pervasive sense of melancholy throughout much of Li Ho's work and have earned him the reputation of a poet preoccupied with supernatural phenomena.

Critical Reception

To some extent Western critics have taken greater interest in Li Ho's works than have their Chinese counterparts. Scholars have accounted for this apparent anomaly by observing that Li Ho's emphasis on subjective experience places him outside the Chinese poetic tradition with its emphasis on impersonal, generalized experience, while it permits comparisons of Li Ho's poems to those of John Keats, Charles Baudelaire, and other exemplars of the Western poetic notion of the "tortured genius." J. D. Frodsham has noted several ways in which Li Ho's poems seem peculiarly modern, particularly the manner in which he "sees things in flashes, apparently disconnectedly, so that his technique is probably far more familiar to modern readers, whose eyes have been trained by years of television and cinema, than it was to his traditional audience." Several critics have pointed out that the startling juxtapositions of images in Li Ho's poems contribute to their unsettling and otherworldly qualities. Burton Watson has pointed out the poems' "deliberately disjointed, nonlogical manner of presentation," which was intended to "increase the effect of shock and surprise" felt by the reader. Commentators have also argued that, despite Li Ho's reputation for individualism and aestheticism, his poetry reflects his deep involvement in the affairs of his time. As Frodsham has emphasized, "even the most cursory reading of his verse will show that Ho was deeply concerned with the problems of his day and used his ballads, which had a wide circulation, to satirize contemporary abuses."