The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 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...

(The entire section is 473 words.)