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

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

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – Translation and Interpretation

The Mausoleum of Omar Khayyam, Iran

The Mausoleum of Omar Khayyam, Iran

Omar Khayyám was a Persian poet and general genius who lived from 1048–1131. He wrote on Euclid, on the philosophy of mathematics and various aspects of geometry. He is also said to have helped correct errors in the Persian calendar. He wrote approx. a thousand quatrains (or ruba’i رباعی‎) of verse, which were famously translated much later in the 19th century by the British poet Edward FitzGerald.

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Himmapaan

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Himmapaan

Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is notoriously not a literal translation, with much poetic material added by FitzGerald himself. It was however so popular that it even brought Omar Khayyam back to the attention of Iranian readers, who had largely forgotten his work. With popularity came debate, as is usually the case with great literature.

Illustration of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

Illustration of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Rene Bull

Debate has often centred around the extent of Omar Khayyam’s Sufism, since the FitzGerald translation often indicates more materialistic, sensual and agnostic concerns. Abdullah Dougan, a Sufi thinker, has written a defence of Khayyam’s religiosity, claiming that the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has been misread without receptivity to the allegorised undertones of spirituality. This mystical, esoteric reading of Khayyam seems likely to have merit to me, since Khayyam did write some orthodox Islamic texts. Mehdi Aminrazavi in The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005) agrees that the poetry of Omar Khayyam is compatible with a Sufi worldview and in fact that he was interpreted this way even during his own lifetime.

I sometimes worry about readings of poems that, in worrying about legitimising the poem as important and non-threatening to a religion/philosophy, end up ringing away ambiguities. Ambivalences, moments of doubt, courage, revolt or sheer brazenness can too easily get subsumed under a totalising allegorised reading. But at any rate, it seems entirely sure that Omar Khayyam expressed mystical and sincerely probing moments of spirituality in his verse.

Illustrated by Edward Gedde

Illustrated by Edward Gedde

Back to Edward FitzGerald much-heralded, much-maligned and most of all much-read translation…I would say that dismissing FitzGerald’s version on the grounds of its lack of faithfulness to Khayyam is a mistake. FitzGerald is in my opinion a poet in his own right, who translated a certain sensuality and power that may not be fully representative of his source text, but stands in its own right as poetry, rather than ordinary translation.

On another note, FitzGerald’s translation has elicited an enormous amount of illustration – so much that I think it merits a future post.

Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book

sei shonagon

In summer, it is the night. It is of course delightful when the moon is out, but no less so on dark nights when countless fireflies can be seen mingling in flight. One even feels charmed when just one or two pass by, giving off a gentle glow. Rainy nights, too, are delightful. – Source

Sei Shōnagon (c. 966-1017) was a Japanese lady who served under Empress Teishi in the late 10th to very early 11th century. Her father was a poet and scholar and Sei Shōnagon was intimately concerned with poetry, politeness, nature, court behaviour. Her Pillow Book is a compilation of poems, notes, observations, essays, etc. that concern all these topics and more. It is in what is known as the zuihitsu ( 随筆 ) style, that is a collection of commentaries in various forms that usually respond to the author’s surroundings and daily life. Perhaps a little like the Western commonplace book, although with more focus on the author’s diaristic voice than the collection of quotations, knowledge, etc. Or, as another blogger suggests, not unlike many modern day blogs!

sei shonagon 2

On a night when you’re waiting for someone to come, there’s a sudden gust of rain and something rattles in the wind, making your heart suddenly beat faster. – ‘Things that make your heart beat faster’, Source

The Pillow Book contains a number of lists such as things that should be large, things that should be short, things that are hateful, things that make the heart beat faster… I think this is my favourite aspect of the Pillow Book. The joy of the list should never be underestimated! It reminds me of Western medieval writers around the same time as Sei Shōnagon, who took equal joy in crafting lists of things like knowledge, theology and angels. Well, Sei Shōnagon is perhaps more interested in the observational; in lists of life’s minutiae, the peculiarities of her own existence and surroundings. But the idea of compiling a list of things that make the heart beat faster is, to me, a wonderful way of encapsulating a variety of small events into an overarching category that suddenly makes you appreciate those little things so much more.

Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai(菊池容斎)

Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai(菊池容斎)

Sei Shōnagon is known to have been rivals with the other great writer of the Heian court, Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji). It is often said that Sei Shōnagon is conceited, ‘bitchy’, even, in her Pillow Book. Without a doubt, she is no people-pleaser and not one to hold back her opinions (even if they might grate on modern ears – she was no fan of the commoner). But she was learned, witty and if she was sometimes harsh, well, she was a commentator – who doesn’t revel in pointing the finger at the irritations of court life?

‘On things that are hateful’ – A lover who is leaving at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and his paper. “I know I put them somewhere last night,” he says. Since it is pitch dark, he gropes about the room, bumping into the furniture and muttering, “Strange! Where on earth can they be?” Finally he discovers the objects. He thrusts the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and busily fans away with it. Only now is he ready to take his leave. What charmless behaviour! “Hateful” is an understatement. –  Source

The Tale of Murasaki

murasaki liza dalby

I’ve admired Liza Dalby’s work since I read her book Geisha when I was 16. I will admit that I haven’t yet read the Tale of Genji, but I decided to delve into Dalby’s Tale of Murasaki anyway in the hopes of getting a feel for the world of Genji and 10th/11th century Japan.

And this book definitely gave me a feel for it and more. Dalby tells the story of the court lady ‘Murasaki’ in the first person, chronicling her life in and out of court, her loves and family and her writing of what many people recognise as the world’s first novel.

yoshitoshi Murasaki

There is a certain vividness to the account that makes the reader yearn for the landscapes and fabrics, poetic courtships and court intrigues of Murasaki’s world. There are a few footnotes throughout the book, with interesting tidbits like the fact that in Japanese at this time, incense was described as being ‘heard’ not ‘smelled’ and that women inherited the family houses whereas men were expected to make their way through court ambitions in order to gain lodging. Personally, I would have liked more of these fascinating side-notes but there is still plenty in the story itself that signals great depth of research on Dalby’s part.

All in all, I very much enjoyed The Tale of Murasaki and if the plot lags in parts, this is redeemed by the attentiveness to detail and vividness of the atmosphere.