(Poetry Criticism)

Li Po 701-762

(Also transliterated as Li Bo, Li Bai, and Li T’ai Po) Chinese poet.

Li Po is hailed as one of China's two greatest poets; it is said that he and his T’ang dynasty contemporary Tu Fu together in their poetry cover the whole range of human nature. A rebel and wanderer, Li Po was as much known for his fondness for wine and revelry as for his love of nature and unrestrainedly spirited verses. His boldness and originality come from his capacity to elevate traditional themes and forms to their highest level with unparalleled grace and eloquence. His poems are characterized by an immediacy and spontaneity of feeling, a childlike wonder and playfulness, and a facility for language. Li Po is perhaps best known for his dream poems, many of which invoke subtle Taoist images and powerful emotions of fear and exhilaration. In many of these pieces he promotes the idea that he would rather forget than confront reality, and there emerges from them a picture of a wild, Bohemian artist unfettered by convention. It is generally agreed that, with Tu Fu, Li Po raised the shih or lyric form to a height of power and expressiveness that has not since been surpassed in Chinese poetry.

Biographical Information

Most sources agree that Li Po was born around 701 in the far west of China and probably had some knowledge of Central Asian languages and cultures. It is said he was a precocious child and by the age of ten could read the Chinese classics and histories; by the time he was fourteen he was known for his poetical genius. In his youth he also showed an interest in meditation and went to study for a time with the Taoist Master of the Eastern Cliff. As a young man, Li Po, a skilled swordsman, moved to the Szechwan capital to serve the emperor, but his free spiritedness—or unruliness—made him a poor candidate for courtly life. He then began a life of adventure, wandering about the country writing, studying, and drinking. Around 727 he married the daughter of a retired prime minister at An-lu in Hupei, where he stayed for several years. In 742 in Ch’ang An, Li Po was admitted to the court of Emperor Hsüan-tsung and appointed as a member of the newly founded Hanlin Academy. The emperor was said to have delighted in Li Po's genius and literary productions as well as his capacity for wine and love of revelry, and Li Po soon became a court favorite. He wrote some of his most famous poems or songs for imperial occasions and festivities. During his time in Ch’ang An, Li Po also became interested in the science of alchemy. In 744 he fell out of favor with the emperor and returned to his life of wandering. Around 744, Li Po met Tu Fu in the eastern capital of Loyang. Tu Fu was as yet unknown as a poet, while Li Po's renown was already considerable. The two poets became friends, and over the course of their careers would write poems in each other's honor. In 745, Li Po was initiated into the Taoist religion, and shortly thereafter began his journeys to northern and eastern China, which were to last for ten years. The poems of the next ten years show his growing interest in Taoism. In 755 Li Po moved to the Yangtze region, then in the throes of the An Lu-shan rebellion which was to topple the T’ang empire. He moved next to central China, where he was implicated in an anti-royalist uprising and subsequently banished to the remote southwest interior of the country. He eventually received amnesty and retraced his steps eastward, writing poetry and drinking in his usual fashion. The famous legend of his death in 762 says that while he was travelling in a boat in a state of drunkenness he saw the reflection of the moon in the water and attempted to embrace it, and drowned as a result.

Major Works

Over one thousand poems are attributed to Li Po. However, only a fraction of those have been rendered into English. The first volume devoted entirely to a selection of his work in English translation was Shigeyoshi Obata's The Works of Li Po in 1922. Arthur Waley's The Poetry and Career of Li Po (1950) combines translation with biography. David Hinton's 1996 The Selected Poems of Li Po offers the most comprehensive look in English at the work of the poet. Perhaps best known to Western readers is the poem translated by the modernist writer Ezra Pound under the title “The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter.” To most readers educated in Chinese, Li Po's poems are exceedingly popular; many are routinely memorized by schoolchildren. His “Quiet Night Thoughts,” in which he lies in bed and watches the bright moon, is perhaps the best known of all Chinese poems. Almost as familiar are his famous lines in an “Old Poem” describing the dream of the sage Chuang Tzu, who upon awakening remarked he did not know whether he had just dreamt he was a butterfly or if he was now a butterfly dreaming it was Chuang Tzu. Some of the more opaque poems in which Li Po uses more obscure Taoist imagery, however, are little known even among Chinese literature scholars. Critics note that most of Li Po's poetry is written in the ordinary verse forms of the day. His great contribution was to transform those forms into verse that was fresh, bold, and exhilarating. His poems are said to possess a river-like quality, with their gushing energy, tumbling fall, and majestic flow. Li Po seemed to have been most fond of the form of lyricism known as ku-shih, perhaps because its irregular line lengths allowed him the freedom to create a wild, rhapsodic effect. Some of his most translated works are from the important group of fifty-nine poems called “Old Poems” (or, literally, “Ancient Winds”). These poems most often have political, social, and philosophical themes and express his admiration for the excellent poetry of the past. Other themes that are distinctive in his poetry are Taoism, alchemy, the cosmos, romance, wine, the immortals and their world, and dreaming.

Critical Reception

It has been said that no other major figure in world literature has been so little written about as Li Po. Part of the reason for this neglect may be that there is a tradition in Chinese literary scholarship of trying to understand a writer's work in relation to the circumstances in which it was written, and with Li Po there has been great difficulty in dating much of his work. That he is not the subject of extensive critical exegesis, however, in no way diminishes his importance to Chinese poetry in general. He was during his day regarded as a “Banished Immortal” because his verse was considered so sublime as to be the work of an other-wordly being. Today he is ranked, with Tu Fu, as one of the two supreme poets of the Chinese language.

Scholarship in English on Li Po is scant. The earliest discussion in English seems to have been by Obata in the introduction to his translations of Li Po's poetry; these remarks are introductory and touch cursorily on the poet's life and major thematic interests. Waley's 1950 detailed study of Li Po's work and career sought to understand the poet in terms of his character. Waley paints an unsympathetic portrait of Li Po but provides illuminating insights into the poetry from an historical point of view. Most other examinations of Li Po's works in English have generally been in introductory notes to translations. The few more detailed critical pieces on Li Po's works have been concerned with the Taoist imagery employed in the poems, Li Po's originality of style and technique used within the bounds of traditional poetic structure, and the detailed craftsmanship and manipulation of conventional forms required to create poems that appear to be so “immediate” and spontaneous.