(World Poets and Poetry)

Li Qingzhao’s work combines affective force with the aesthetic appeal of refined, well-crafted expression. The emotions behind her poems were powerful, but they are never simply self-indulgent. The exquisite sound effects of the originals are lost in English versions, yet the images, and the textures of joy or contemplation or loss that they generate, convey the poet’s emotions to Western readers.

“Tune: Tipsy in the Flower’s Shade”

One of the best-known and most frequently translated of Li Qingzhao’s poems, “Tune: Tipsy in the Flower’s Shade,” shows her ability to develop such a texture, revealing feeling through ambiguous language and the accretion of sensations of vision, smell, and touch. The first line of the poem offers several possible readings. The “Thin mists—thick clouds” at the line’s beginning are appropriate to the autumn festival day on which the poem is set, for the festival is associated with the uprising of the cloudy yin principle that, according to traditional Chinese cosmology, controls the autumn and winter months. It is the second half of the line that offers multiple levels of meaning. Are the mists and clouds themselves “sad all day long,” or, as is often the case in Chinese poetry, is the subject of “sadness” an unstated “I,” or is the line best understood as “Thin mists and thick clouds: sorrow makes the day endless”?

The poem’s subsequent images build a tone of suppressed sexuality and murky melancholy: The reader catches the dull metallic gleam of an ornamental burner through streamers of incense smoke and feels the chill that works its way past the translucent gauze of the bed curtains. The poem is said to have been sent to her husband, and the subtle eroticism of the boudoir setting is underlined by “midnight” and “jade pillow.” The bedroom trappings conjure up the traditional figure of the attractive woman alone and longing for her absent beloved. “Jade” is a common ornamental epithet, and the pillow was probably not literally made of jade. To the poet’s audience, however, the word would have suggested the cool whiteness of the speaker’s skin. This suits the tone established at the poem’s start, inasmuch as the yin principle is further associated with women and with sexuality.

In the second stanza, the poet intensifies the mood of painfully stifled passion with mention of “dusk,” “furtive fragrances,” and the force of a wind that pushes the blinds aside. Moreover, she uses the standard imagery linked to the festival in her own way, increasing the complexity of the mood established in stanza 1. The fourth century poet Tao Qian, whom Li Qingzhao admired greatly, invariably came to mind on the day of the mid-autumn festival. Her allusion to the “eastern hedge” mentioned in one of his most famous poems immediately recalls other images associated with Tao Qian’s work: Wine, a sad nobility in the face of the season’s change, and the yellow chrysanthemums that endure when all the other flowers have yielded to the cold. The chrysanthemums of the last line also had been linked poetically with feminine beauty long before Tao Qian’s time; Li Qingzhao uses all this in her much-praised closing assertion that she is “more fragile than the yellow chrysanthemum.”

“To the Tune: Sound upon Sound, Adagio”

A similar nexus of coldness, wine, dark, and the wasted beauty of the late-blooming flowers appears in the famous poem “To the Tune: Sound upon Sound, Adagio.” Ci were not required to fit their content to the old melodies’ titles, but they sometimes did. Just as Li Qingzhao made use of the intoxication, the flowers, and the shadiness (literally, yin) indicated by the previous poem’s title, here she creates a musical tour de force through repeated words and sounds and careful attention to the effect of word pitch. This dazzling focus on language—syllables falling one by one, like the fine rain she pictures drizzling drop after drop on the autumnal trees—prepares the reader for the poem’s final twist. The poet denies the adequacy of words to relieve, or even to express, her grief. “How,” she asks, “can the one word ’sorrow’ finish off all this?”

Melancholy themes

Some of Li Qingzhao’s other poems, especially those written in the final period of her life, explore this theme of melancholy. In “Qingping yue” (“Tune: Pure Serene Music”), images of whiteness and purity—snow, plum blossoms, clear tears—set the scene for her description of graying hair that, to overtranslate the Chinese idiom, “engenders flowery patterns.” The reference to intoxication, despite the ambiguous intimation that it is as if the plum blossoms themselves...

(The entire section is 1965 words.)