Who is Li Bo?
Li Bo has been said to be one of the most important Tang poets. Although, with such a great title, Li Bo did not make it there without his fair share of struggles. Li Bo, aka Li Po and Li Bai, lived from 701-762 CE during the Tang dynasty. During this time, Li Bo chose to not take the civil service exam. Due to his connections he was still able to get a government job at the Hanlin Academy. However, the position was a short lived 2 years. Li Bo was fired due to his drinking habits and unusual behavior. After losing this position he decided to join the An Lushan Rebellion. This rebellion was an attempt to establish independent regime in southeast China. However, once again the misfortune followed him and he was later arrested for treason. At this point, Li Bo was sentenced to exile, but was pardoned. He died not much later. The rumor exists that he died by drowning while trying to embrace the moons reflection on the water. Many disagree due to the amount of talk of the moon in his poetry. However, due to what we know of Li Bo’s drinking problems this could be true.
History of Tang Poetry:
The Tang dynasty ranged from 618-907 CE. Chinese literature began with the folk songs and ritual ballads, we see collected in the Classic of Poetry. The poems had stanzas of four to six lines with four to six characters with end rhymes for each couplet. During this dynasty there was a change in the way that poetry was written. Poetry was written in lines of five or seven characters and displaying more melodious and flexible rhythm. During this time poetry was added into civil service exam. More change was also seen during the Tang dynasty when poetry became regulated. There are two basic forms Jueju, four lines, and lüshi, eight lines. The spread of Buddism in the first millennium helped spark the development of regulated poetry. There was also an emphasis on couplets within poetry which allowed for more poets to showcase parallelism in this form of poetry. Tang poetry can be seen to have artfulness hidden amongst the natural imagery that it is known to have. During this time many poets would also write their poetry couplets with calligraphy.
Li Bo’s poetry is known for taking the readers beyond the natural world. His stories are written with encounters of immortals and and cloud climbing through the heavens. Li Bo’s poetry, of the thousand-ish poems we have are written in old verse. This is a form that was written in before the rise of regulated poetry. Many people called Li Bo “the banished mortal”. He took on this title for his ability to look at the world from fresh eyes. Considering him a “heaven-dwelling being exiled for a lifetime in the world of mortals as punishment for some extravagant misdemeanor”. In his poetry Li Bo seems to be able to take on different personas or different outlooks of the world around him to create poetry like I have never seen.
To single in and focus in on a work that I think truly embodies who Li Bo is Drinking Alone with the Moon found in The Norton Anthology. In this poem he talks about drinking and spending time with the moon. In this he speaks of the moon as if it his old friend, saying “Still sober, we exchange our joys. Drunk- and we’ll go our separate ways”. He seems to know that the moon does is not able to interact with him talking about how the moon does not know how to drink with him, but still says things along like him being able to speak with the moon. There are many poems of Li Bo’s that have him speaking to or of the moon. Another poem to look into is Question and Answer in the Mountains. In this poem we see the reference of their being other worlds. The poem being a short 4 lines says a lot. A strength that can be seen in a lot of Li Bo’s work is his ability to give a lot of life to simple and short poems. This poem gives an illusion of a man living alone being content with the life he lives.
All in all Li Bo was an important poet during the Tang dynasty. Despite his many short comings and possibly his questionable character, he created poetry that is unlike any others. For Li Bo to be called “the banished mortal” is probably one of the most accurate names that can go to man like this. His ability to write about the moon and the relationship he presents them to have is unlike any poet during or after his time. Li Bo used the way he viewed the world (and possibly his drinking illusions) to create works that are far beyond what any poet could do for his time.
The Norton Anthology of World Literature, by Martin Puchner et al., B, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1116–1123.