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Li Po 


A.D. 702-762

The most famous name in Chinese literature. Born in the province of Ssuch`uan, Li Po obtained his doctor's degree at the age of twenty, and was already known as a brilliant, inspired poet before Ming Huang became his patron in the capital. A suite of rooms overlooking the beautiful gardens of T`eng-hsiang T`ing, where the Emperor retired after the routine of the day, was assigned to him. Here the poet improvised, whilst Ming Huang himself wrote down the verses that he afterwards set to music, and accompanied while the poet sang. But Li Po, with all his enthusiasm for his patron and the delights of the garden-life, was little of a courtier. When Ming Huang bade the masterful eunuch Kao Li-shih unlace the poet's boots, he gave him a relentless enemy whose malice pursued him, until at length he was glad to beg leave to retire from the court, where he was never at ease and to which he never returned. Troubadour-like, he wandered through the provinces, the guest of mandarin and local governor, the star of the drinking-taverns, the delight and embarrassment of all his hosts. At length a friend of former days, to whom he had attached himself, unhappily involved him in the famous rebellion of An Lu-shan. The poet was seized and thrown into prison. Yet prison doors were ill warders of his fame, and letters of recall followed closely upon pardon; but death overtook the exile before he could reach the capital, and at the age of sixty his wanderings came to an end.

Li Po was a poet with a sword by his side. He would have ruffled bravely with our Elizabethans, and for a Chinese is strangely warlike in sentiment. How he loves the bravo of Chao with his sabre from the Chinese Sheffield of Wu, "with the surface smooth as ice and dazzling as snow, with his saddle broidered with silver upon his white steed; who when he passes, swift as the wind, may be said to resemble a shooting star!" He compares the frontiersman, who has never so much as opened a book in all his life, yet knows how to follow in the chase, and is skilful, strong, and hardy, with the men of his own profession. "From these intrepid wanderers how different our literary men who grow grey over their books behind a curtained window."

It is harder to write of Li Po than of any other Chinese poet. Po Chu-i has his own distinctive feeling for romance, Tu Fu his minute literary craftsmanship, Ssu-K`ung T`u the delicate aroma of suggestive mysticism; but Li Po is many-sided, and has perhaps more of the world-spirit than all of them. We can imagine this bold, careless, impulsive artist, with his moments of great exaltation and alternate depression, a kind of Chinese Paul Verlaine, with his sensitive mind of a child, always recording impressions as they come. T`ai Chen the beautiful and the grim frontiersman are alike faithfully portrayed. He lives for the moment, and the moment is often wine-flushed like the rosy glow of dawn, or grey and wan as the twilight of a hopeless day.

To the City of Nan-king

Thou that hast seen six kingdoms pass away, Accept my song and these three cups I drain! There may be fairer gardens light the plain; Thine are the dim blue hills more fair than they.

Here Kings of Wu were crowned and overthrown, Where peaceful grass along the ruin wins; Here -- was it yesterday? -- the royal Tsins Called down the dreams of sunset into stone.

One end awaits for all that mortal be; Pride and despair shall find a common grave: The Yang-tse-kiang renders wave and wave To mingle with the abysms of the sea.

Memories with the Dusk Return

The yellow dusk winds round the city wall; The crows are drawn to nest, Silently down the west They hasten home, and from the branches call. A woman sits and weaves with fingers deft Her story of the flower-lit stream, Threading the jasper gauze in dream, Till like faint smoke it dies; and she, bereft, Recalls the parting words that died Under the casement some far eventide, And stays the disappointed loom, While from the little lonely room Into the lonely night she peers, And, like the rain, unheeded fall her tears.

An Emperor's Love

In all the clouds he sees her light robes trail, And roses seem beholden to her face; O'er scented balustrade the scented gale Blows warm from Spring, and dew-drops form apace. Her outline on the mountain he can trace, Now leans she from the tower in moonlight pale.

A flower-girt branch grows sweeter from the dew. A spirit of snow and rain unheeded calls. Who wakes to memory in these palace walls? Fei-yen!* -- but in the robes an Empress knew.

The most renowned of blossoms, most divine Of those whose conquering glances overthrow Cities and kingdoms, for his sake combine And win the ready smiles that ever flow From royal lips. What matter if the snow Blot out the garden? She shall still recline Upon the scented balustrade and glow With spring that thrills her warm blood into wine.

--

* A delicate compliment to the beautiful T`ai Chen, of which the meaning is that, as the Emperor Yang-ti of the Sui dynasty elevated his mistress Fei-yen to share with him the throne, so shall T`ai Chen become the Empress of Ming Huang. --

On the Banks of Jo-yeh

They gather lilies down the stream, A net of willows drooping low Hides boat from boat; and to and fro Sweet whispered confidences seem

'Mid laughing trills to flow.

In the green deeps a shaft of gold Limns their elaborate attire; Through silken sleeves the winds aspire, Embalmed, to stray, and, growing bold, Swell them to their desire.

But who are these, the cavaliers That gleam along the river-side? By three, by five they prance with pride Beyond the willow-line that sheers Over the trellised tide.

A charger neighs; one turns to start, Crushing the kingcups as he flies, And one pale maiden vainly tries To hush the tumult in her heart And veil the secret of her eyes.

Thoughts in a Tranquil Night

Athwart the bed I watch the moonbeams cast a trail So bright, so cold, so frail, That for a space it gleams Like hoar-frost on the margin of my dreams. I raise my head, -- The splendid moon I see: Then droop my head, And sink to dreams of thee -- My Fatherland, of thee!

The Guild of Good-fellowship

The universe is but a tenement Of all things visible. Darkness and day The passing guests of Time. Life slips away, A dream of little joy and mean content.

Ah! wise the old philosophers who sought To lengthen their long sunsets among flowers, By stealing the young night's unsullied hours And the dim moments with sweet burdens fraught.

And now Spring beckons me with verdant hand, And Nature's wealth of eloquence doth win Forth to the fragrant-bowered nectarine, Where my dear friends abide, a careless band.

There meet my gentle, matchless brothers, there I come, the obscure poet, all unfit To wear the radiant jewellery of wit, And in their golden presence cloud the air.

And while the thrill of meeting lingers, soon As the first courtly words, the feast is spread, While, couched on flowers 'mid wine-cups flashing red, We drink deep draughts unto The Lady Moon.

Then as without the touch of verse divine There is no outlet for the pent-up soul,

'Twas ruled that he who quaffed no fancy's bowl Should drain the "Golden Valley"* cups of wine.

--

* i.e. drink three cups of wine, the "Golden Valley" being the name of a garden, the owner of which enforced this penalty among his boon companions (`Gems of Chinese Literature', p. 113). --

Under the Moon

Under the crescent moon's faint glow The washerman's bat resounds afar, And the autumn breeze sighs tenderly. But my heart has gone to the Tartar war, To bleak Kansuh and the steppes of snow, Calling my husband back to me.

Drifting

We cannot keep the gold of yesterday; To-day's dun clouds we cannot roll away. Now the long, wailing flight of geese brings autumn in its train, So to the view-tower cup in hand to fill and drink again,

And dream of the greatest singers of the past, Their fadeless lines of fire and beauty cast. I too have felt the wild-bird thrill of song behind the bars, But these have brushed the world aside and walked amid the stars.

In vain we cleave the torrent's thread with steel, In vain we drink to drown the grief we feel; When man's desire with fate doth war this, this avails alone -- To hoist the sail and let the gale and the waters bear us on.

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