The Life and Poetry of Li Bai (李白)

li bai toasts the moon 2

The bright moonlight
in front of the bed
appears like frost
on the ground. I look up
at the fair moon, and
lowering my head,
I think of home.
‘Night Thought’

Li Bai () is perhaps the most famous poet of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. He was probably born in 701 and from the start, he was a lively and exceptionally clever person. He wasn’t the type of poet who sits in a dark corner composing, either. He travelled the land. Li Bai (who is also frequently known as Li Po) was also a fan of chivalric deeds and definitely a fan of wine. Eventually, ended up at the emperor’s court, composing poems that praised the emperor’s favourite consort, Yang Guifei.

yang guifei charming women

Waiting, she finds her silk stockings
soaked with the dew drops
glistening on the marble palace steps.
Finally, she is moving
to let the crystal-woven curtain fall
when she casts one more glance
at the glamorous autumn moon.
‘An Imperial Concubine’

Li Bai was not one for over-thinking the decorum of the imperial court. He was regularly drunk, even when composing and performing his poems. But that was all part of the joy of life…

li bai entertains

So times present and ancient
meet and follow one another,
I sing long and think tenderly
back to outings in the past.
‘The Pavillion Of Master Xie’

Then, perhaps unsurprisingly, Li Bai managed to offend an important court eunuch after he made the eunuch perform a menial task for him. Poisoning the ear of Yang Guifei against the poet, the eunuch managed to have Li Bai dismissed from court – although, admittedly, he was packed off with plenty of silver and gold for his future travels. And so Li Bai began to wander again. He became a Taoist, which probably suited his outlook on life rather well.

li bai

One jug of wine
a thicket of flowers,
A solitary drunk
no friends around.
I raise my cup
urge Moon to drink,
But Moon has no stomach for wine!
‘Solitary Moonlight Drunk’

Then, when the chaos of the An Lushan revolts swept China, Li Bai got caught up in the disputes over the imperial succession. He managed to find himself sentenced to death, then luckily pardoned. He wandered some more, although Li Bai was a slow wanderer – in no hurry and with no particular drive for a destination. He was a man who enjoyed the journey above all, who enjoyed the pleasant stopping points at friends’ houses along the way, who enjoyed the nights on the road when he might hear a passing flute whisper to him on the wind. Before he could officially return to court when a new emperor invited him, Li Bai died of natural causes.

drinking alone li bai

The spring grasses seem to have an intention,
Growing into a weave in the shade of the jade pavillion.
The east wind blows sadness here,
And so, white hairs encroach.
‘Drinking Alone’

However, natural causes are never as interesting as legend. So for the sake of poetry, Li Bai died when one night he sat in a boat on the Yangtze River. He caught sight of the reflection of the moon in the water and leaned down towards it…falling through the reflected moon and drowning. Li Bai died, perhaps soaked in a few cups of solitary wine, for the admiration of and attraction to a reflection. If poetry is a reflection of life, at once more intense and less real, just as the moon is within grasp and yet is nothing at all, then Li Bai died for poetry.

LI BAI MOON

I pour alone, but urge my lonely shadow to join me,
And idly sing as I face the fragrant woods.
But, you, tall pines, what do you understand,
For whom do you whistle and hum?
My hand dances with the moon on the rock,
Across my knees rests a zither among flowers.
That which lies beyond this wine goblet,
Placid and deep, is not my heart.
‘Drinking Alone’

I am indebted to this wonderful website for texts and translations of Li Bai’s poetry

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Patient Griselda

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Spalliera Panels, Story of Patient Griselda Part 1 – Marriage, by Sienese Painters c. 1490

Boccaccio (along with Petrarch, Chaucer, Perrault, etc) told the tale of Patient Griselda. It is one of the most infuriating, disturbing, mind-twisting stories I know. Griselda is a poor peasant maiden and one day the nobleman Gualtieri (so-called in Boccaccio) is pressured to take a wife so he chooses her. He proceeds to put her through trial after trial, testing her patience, loyalty and fortitude to withstand his tyrannical abuses.

Spalliera_Panels_The_Story_of_Griselda_Part_II_Exile

Spalliera Panels – Exile

This includes taking away their children and telling her they have been killed. Meanwhile, he secrets the children away to be educated outside the court. Then he banishes Griselda, who all the while is suffering hugely but puts up with this horrific husband. Put back to her base roots and humiliated, she is then called to play bridesmaid to her husband’s new bride! She dresses helps the young girl ready for the wedding and returns to court, only to find out that the girl is one of her children and that the trials are finally over, she can live in peace with her husband.

All’s well that ends well…?

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Spalliera Panels – Reunion

The tale has been read from the beginning as allegorical, perhaps for the seemingly arbitrary torments that God may inflict upon us. Griselda represents the outstanding example of a human soul coping with those trials. If read on a literal level, the husband is the vilest of creatures and Griselda an idiot for suffering in silence. But Griselda is one of those tales where the interplay between the surface level and the allegorical level is tenuous, tense and oh-so-difficult to navigate.

The Spalliera Sienese panels depicting the tale of Griselda are an interesting interpretation of the folktale that truly captures the public humiliation of the girl, the sense of courtly atmosphere that is so alien to her peasant birth and the pomp and ceremony of the husband’s trials…Griselda is mentally tortured and yet, should we truly feel sorry for her? Is our natural reaction of horror and pity too natural, too easy? As Griselda is being tragically exiled on the other side of the panel, this fellow’s jaunty buttocks say ‘read and look with a pinch of salt’:

rsz_spalliera_panels_the_story_of_griselda_part_ii_exile