A Poem of Changgan

by Li Po

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Last Updated on January 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

“A Poem of Changgan” is the work of Li Po (701-762 CE), also known as Li Bai, a poet who lived during the Tang Dynasty’s golden age of lyric poetry. It has been translated into English many times, notably by Ezra Pound, who provided his version of the poem with the title “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” The standard translation is somewhat more literal and precise than Pound’s and is often anthologized without authorial credit. It is the work of Harold Witter Bynner (1881-1968), who sometimes used the pseudonym Emanuel Morgan. All comments on the poem refer to this English translation unless otherwise specified.

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The poet adopts the persona of a woman, a young girl when the poem begins. The speaker apostrophizes her husband and recalls the progress of their relationship. She begins with a vignette from childhood. While she was picking flowers outside her house, her future husband, who lived in the same lane, passes by in free-spirited play. The childish nature of his games is emphasized by the “bamboo horse” and its circular motion as well as his “throwing [of] green plums.” This particular set of images may depict their first meeting, or it may simply be the way their childhood appears to her when she thinks back, an amalgam of many such days.

The poem is organized into four loose free-verse stanzas of differing lengths. The second stanza jumps forward to adolescence:

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…At fourteen I became your wife,

So bashful that I dared not smile,

And I lowered my head toward a dark corner

And would not turn to your thousand calls;

This scene stands a direct contrast to the “young and happy-hearted” children described in the previous stanza—one example of the juxtapositions Po employs throughout the poem. Just as the first stanza’s image of the couple at play is a synecdoche for the whole of their carefree childhood, so the particular image of the speaker’s head lowered “toward a dark corner” stands for their early married life. Again, the speaker evokes a single memory to summon up an era.

The change in tone when the speaker reaches fifteen makes suggests that her earlier behavior may have been caused by shyness rather than aversion to her husband. Indeed, her love for him is now described as eternal. She tells him that “no dust could ever seal our love,” a somewhat obscure way of saying that even in death the couple cannot be separated. The stanza ends with the image of “the tower of silent watching,” which links her professions of loyalty until death with his traumatic departure in the next stanza.

Her husband’s journey is described on an epic scale, through gorges of “rock and whirling water.” By the fifth month of his departure, she strains to imagine anything that might give her the faintest hint of him, their distance and separation symbolized by “the monkeys in your lofty far-off sky.” The seasons change. Moss covers his footprints on the doorstep. Then autumn leaves are piled on top of the moss, illustrating the inexorable passage of time. These details further emphasize the speaker’s state of mind, as she slings to the slightest physical reminders of her husband’s presence and gradually watches as they disappear. Even the butterflies in their “west-garden” are autumnal and growing old, not only yellow but “yellowing” like a fallen leaf or an old manuscript. The symbols of the time that has passed in her husband’s absence are breaking her heart. She fears that her heartbreak will show in her face, causing her bright cheeks to fade and perhaps rendering her less beautiful than he remembers.

The last stanza is a short and simple plea that he will send word to her as soon as he is on the way home so that she can come to meet him. The final line: “All the way to Chang-feng Sha” is particularly skillfully translated, with the various plaintive “a” sounds mimicking the speaker’s sighs. The poem therefore ends on a wistful note, characteristic of Li Po’s melancholy mode.

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