Of all the Tang poets, Li Bo is considered to be one of the most important. His poetry is most famous for its prominent Daoist imagery, taking ordinary encounters with nature into something almost magical. Because of his originality in the way he describes his relationship with nature in his poetry, there are even legends that Li Bo died from drowning while trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water. The Norton Anthology describes his work as supplying “an additional dimension by describing Daoist worlds beyond the world, evoking moments of history and legend” while most Tang poetry “tends to treat the world at hand.” Li Bo was also known for his relationship with liquor, and seemed to have a bit of a drinking problem. It is even likely that a majority of his poetry was written while he was in a drunken state.
He was a challenger of social conventions. Li Bo never took the civil service examination, he was dismissed from a post at the Hanlin Academy for his drinking problems, and even arrested for treason near the end of his life (1116). Therefore, not only is he loved for his way with nature and his ability to transform a scene into words, but he is also loved for his character of a man who liked to live life a little on the edge of social expectations. Li Bo initially gained his fame from poetry that tells stories of immortals and encounters with the heavens (1117). He enjoyed writing his poetry in old verse and in the imitation of folk songs, but he could also write about the hardships of life as well as the beautiful (1117). He was a character like no other who seemed to live to walk to the beat of his own drum, and go beyond the restrictions of reality in his work.
One of my favorite poems by Li Bo in the Norton Anthology was Drinking Alone with the Moon.I thought it seemed to embody all that was a critical work of Li Bo. It, of course, begins with the consumption of wine, and drinking in solitude amongst a tranquil setting,
A pot of wine among the flowers.
I drink alone, no friend with me.
I raise my cup to invite the moon.
He and my shadow and I make three.
Although the poem seems to be lighthearted, according to Paul Rouzer, drinking alone was a very unusual activity for the ancient Chinese and they were known to be very sociable drinkers. The idea of drinking with only the company of the moon was almost unheard of, adding to the peculiarity of Li Bo’s poetry and character. The moon itself, seems to be a symbol of loneliness or isolation in his poetry as well as other Tang poets. I think it would be important to note that a lot of Li Bo’s poetry revolved around drinking or sitting in solitude, such as Sitting Alone by Jingting Mountain and In the Quiet Night, a particularly somber poem that reads:
The floor before my bed is bright:
Moonlight–like hoarfrost–in my room.
I lift my head and watch the moon.
I drop my head and think of home.
I have found it interesting that even though he was wealthy and a part of the rising bureaucracy, he enjoyed writing about tranquil settings in nature as well as common people. This could be taken as a reflection of Li Bo’s un-satisfaction with life amongst the intellectuals and his feelings of isolation throughout the Tang Dynasty.
Puchner, Martin, general editor. Norton Anthology of World Literature Volume B. W.W Norton & Company, 2018.
Rouzer, Paul. Asian Topics on Asia for Educators || Great Tang Poets: Li Bo, Columbia University, afe.easia.columbia.edu/at/libo/lb04.html.