A. C. Graham (essay date 1965)
SOURCE: "Li Ho," in Poems of the Late T'ang, translated by A. C. Graham, Penguin Books, 1965, pp. 89-92.
[In the following excerpt, Graham discusses the central themes in Li Ho's works.]
Li Ho is the most remarkable case in Chinese literature of a poet recently rediscovered after long neglect. He does not appear at all in the most familiar anthologies, such as the eighteenth-century Three Hundred T'ang Poems. Although famous in the ninth century and never quite forgotten, he offended the conventionality of later taste by his individuality and its health and balance by his morbidity and violence. To see his peculiar qualities as virtues required the breakdown of traditional literary standards in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is now widely recognized by Chinese, Japanese, and Western readers alike that he is a major poet both in his own right and as a creative influence, the link between Han Yü, who discovered his talent when he was still a boy, and the masters of the ninth century, Tu Mu, who wrote the preface to his poems, and Li Shang-yin, who wrote his biography.
Li Ho continued the cult of 'strange' imagery, but turned it into something which is strange by any standards, not merely by those of the world's most sensible and temperate poetic tradition. He also continued Han Yü's experiments in Old Style versification, showing a taste for unorthodox rhyme schemes and for sequences of three or four quatrains rather than the standard eight-line form, the transitions between lines often so abrupt that he was credited with compiling his poems out of independently written couplets. These features he combines with an extreme compression more characteristic of the New Style verse of Tu Fu.
Li Ho's central theme is the transience of life, a subject which he treats as though no one before him had ever felt the drip of the water-clock on his nerves, in a wholly personal imagery of ghosts, blood, dying animals, weeping statues, whirlwinds, the will-o'-the-wisp—the last appears in many guises, 'ghostly lamps', 'cold blue candleflames', 'sinister fires', 'darkened torches', 'fireflies in the tomb'. He seems quite uninterested in any of...
(The entire section is 917 words.)