“Moonlit Night” is one of Du Fu’s most frequently translated short lyrics. Because love poems are relatively rare in Chinese poetry, “Moonlit Night” is a rather precious gem.
As the poem opens, the poet imagines that his wife must be by herself in her boudoir, gazing at the moon in Fu-chou (Fuxian county, Shaanxi province). He feels sorrowful because his children, so small and so far away from him, will not understand why they should remember Ch’ang-an (Xi’an, Shaanxi province). At this point, half of the poem is already over, and it seems that nothing extraordinary has been said. Suddenly, however, what could very well be a prosaic poetic idea gathers momentum and becomes vitalized when the focus shifts back to the wife in the next two lines, here translated literally:
[In the] fragrant mist, [her] cloud-hair [gets] wet;[In the] limpid light, [her] jade-arm [gets] cold.
In this couplet, the poet invokes the presence of the absent wife with complex sensory experiences, suggesting that the wife, losing sleep over the absent husband, must be pondering deep in the night. Unexpectedly, this suggestion turns around the relationship between the subject and object of the longing, making the separation between the couple unbearably poignant. In the conclusion, the poet wonders when he and his wife will be together again, so that, leaning against the open casement, both of them could have their “trails of tears” dried at the same time by the moonshine.
“Moonlit Night,” though apparently a brief and simple poem, was actually composed under circumstances of epic proportions. In 755, a civil war known as the “An-Shih Rebellion” broke out in China. The revolt was led by the border Commander-Governor An Lu-shan and his lieutenant Shih Si-ming. An Lu-shan, whose military and political influence had been accumulating since 742, turned his troops toward the capital Ch’ang-an, which soon succumbed to the rebel forces. Shortly before the capital fell, the Emperor Hsüan-tsung and his family, as well as Prime Minister Yang Kuo-chung, had already set out for Ch’eng-tu in flight. On their way, at a place called Ma-wei-p’o, the imperial guards mutinied and killed the prime minister. Blaming Yang Kui-fei, the emperor’s femme fatale, for the insurrection, the guards demanded her death. The emperor had no choice but to comply. Li Heng, the crown prince, was also persuaded to leave the emperor and go north; after reaching Ling-wu (in Gansu province), upon the abdication of his father, he succeeded to the throne as Emperor Su-tsung. Meanwhile, Du Fu, who had been granted a position before the siege of Ch’ang-an, set out from his home in Fu-chou in an attempt to join the new emperor. On his way, he was captured by the rebels and taken to the fallen capital, where he was detained for eight months. The poem “Moonlit Night” was written in these circumstances in the autumn of 766, probably on the occasion of the Mid-Autumn Festival, when family reunion is a general custom.
“Moonlit Night” is a poem written in the “recent style,” as opposed to the “ancient style.” The “recent style,” which matured in the T’ang dynasty, requires a poem to follow regular tonal patterns and also to observe the rule of semantic and syntactic parallelism for its couplets. There are two kinds of recent-style poems. One is known as the lü-shih, or “regulated verse.” It consists of eight lines, usually with two couplets in the middle. The other is known as the chüeh-chü , or “truncated verse.” A “truncated” poem, which has only four lines, almost seems to be...
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half of a regulated poem. Whether “regulated” or “truncated,” a recent-style poem has either five or seven characters per line.
“Moonlit Night” is a regulated poem with five-character lines. Although most regulated poems have two couplets in the middle, “Moonlit Night” has only one. In fact, this poem is rendered extraordinary by its sparing use of a single couplet, which occurs in lines 5 and 6. Because the language of the entire poem is rather plain except for these two skillfully crafted lines, the couplet, which deals with the imagined sleeplessness of the wife, in effect achieves a kind of poetic climax or stasis by arresting the reader’s attention.
The beauty of the couplet can be analyzed on two levels. On the rhetorical level, although in fact it is the poet who is saddened by the absence of his spouse, the two lines make the wife grieve over the husband’s absence. This is a mimetic or mutual projection in which the interplay between presence and absence is designed to dramatize the separation between the couple. By reversing the subject-object relationship, this couplet allows the poem to elevate itself from prose to poetry. On the semantic-syntactic level, the couplet is also remarkable for its use of two conventional synecdoches—“cloud-hair” and “jade-arm”—to stand for the wife. Furthermore, each of these synecdoches also interacts with the elements of the environment: Just as the “cloud-hair” gets wet in the “fragrant mist,” the “jade-arm” also gets cold in the “limpid light.” These interactions not only achieve interesting synesthetic effects, but also produce the precise psychological condition that is desired by the poet. Finally, the words “wet” and “cold,” which in Chinese can be verbs as well as adjectives, are placed at the strategic endings of the lines in a kind of climatic apposition to the environmental elements and synecdoches, thus suggesting that “wet” could refer to either the “fragrant mist” or the “cloud-hair” (or both), and “cold” to either the “limpid light” or the “jade-arm” (or both). This appositional syntax further reinforces the sensorial synaesthesia as well as the psychological yearning; indeed, the culmination of the couplet in the word “cold” seems to blend the sensory with the psychological by confusing the two levels of feeling.