Li Shang-yin (812?- 858) is among the stable reputation in Tang poetry.His use of allusion is the subtlest in Chinese poetry. The metaphorical complexity of his couplets puzzles commentators of all ages.
The reason that there are a lot of different explanations of his poems could be (1) His ambiguity in choosing words to express feeling implicitly; (2)Many commentators were emsarrassed by the fact that the love of women is the major theme of his poem and explained many of his poems as political allegories or as threnodies for his wife, advised the reader to respect the poet’s privacy in others, dismissed a few as licentious. (Because the theme of love has a small place in Chinese poetry. Tenderness in classical poetry, however deep, is a temperate feeling for friends, kinsmen and wives; any more violent passion is an excess unsitable for poetry.)
It is well agreed that Li Shang-yin had an unsecceseful affair with a Taoist nun when he was young. His wife died young, ended a quite happy marriage. Some commentator suggested the girl in some untitled poems was a concubine, but not for sure. As for his political career, it was miserable. In fact, he was a victim of the “Scramble of Clique” of late Tang. It seems that both commentator groups (love theme or political theme) have their ground.
It is nearly impossible to understand Li Shang-yin’s poems if you don’t understand the allusions he used in his poems — the unmentioned bridge, delicate variations on commonplace references, oblique glimpse of historical events, direct presentation of a scene before his eyes in which one senses elusive parallels with a scene in history or poetry. Li Shang-yin’s language has a vitality independence of the allusions which enrich it: Vast sea moon full pearl have tears, The line from The patterned Lute, is not fully intelligible without knowledge of two allusions which estabilish the connection between the moonlit sea and the tears on the pearl. But even before recognizing them, ‘moon’ is already interacting in one’s imagination with ‘pearl’, ‘pearl’ with ‘sea’, ‘sea’ with ‘tear’.
(To me, I think his poems are beautiful. I guess when he wrote them, he must have wanted to express some feeling and happened to choose a “hard to understand” way to express them.)
— partly from the Poems of the Late Tang(Pengiun Classics)
The Patterned Lute
Mere chance that the patterned lute has fifty strings.
String and fret, one by one, recall the blossoming years.
Chuang-tzu dreams at sunrise that a butterfly lost its way,
Wang-ti bequeathed his spring passion to the nightjar.
The moon is full on the vast sea, a tear on the pearl.
On Blue Mountain the sun warms, a smoke issues from the jade.
Did it wait, this mood, to mature with hindsight?
In a trance from the begining, then as now.
The Lo-yu Tombs
With twilight shadows in my heart
I have driven up among the Lo-yu Tombs
To see the sun, for all his glory,
Buried by the coming night.
Pure of heart and therefore hungry,
All night long you have sung in vain —
Oh, this final broken indrawn breath
Among the green indifferent trees!
Yes, I have gone like a piece of driftwood,
I have let my garden fill with weeds….
I bless you for your true advice
To live as pure a life as yours.
Wind and Rain
I ponder on the poem of The Precious Dagger.
My road has wound through many years.
… Now yellow leaves are shaken with a gale;
Yet piping and fiddling keep the Blue House merry.
On the surface, I seem to be glad of new people;
But doomed to leave old friends behind me,
I cry out from my heart for Shin-feng wine
To melt away my thousand woes.
Gone is the guest from the Chamber of Rank,
And petals, confused in my little garden,
Zigzagging down my crooked path,
Escort like dancers the setting sun.
Oh, how can I bear to sweep them away?
To a sad-syed watcher they never return.
Heart’s fragrance is spent with the ending of spring
And nothing left but a tear-stained robe.
The lamp glows deep in the mica screen.
The long river slowly descends, the morning star drowns.
Is Chang O sorry that she stole the magic herb,
Between the blue sky and the emerald sea,
thinking night after night?
Night Rains: to my Wife up North
You ask how long before I come. Still no date is set.
The night rains on Mount Pa swell the autumn pool.
When shall we, side by side, trim a candle at the West window,
And talk back to the time of the night rains on Mount Pa?
Ò¹ Óê ¼Ä ±±
Untitled Poems I
Coming was an empty promises, you have gone, and left no footprint:
The moonlight slants above the roof, already the fifth watch sounds.
Dreams of remote partings, cries which cannot summon,
Hurrying to finish the letter, ink which will not thicken.
The light of the candle half encloses kingfishers threaded with gold,
The smell of musk comes faintly through embroidered water-lilies.
Young Liu complained that Fairy Hill is far.
Past Fairy Hill, range above range, ten thousand mountains rise.
Untitled Poems II
The east wind sighs, the fine rains come:
Beyond the pool of water-lilies, the noise of faint thunder.
A gold toad gnaws the lock. Open it, burn the incense.
A tiger of jade pulls the rope. Draw from the well and escape.
Chia’s daughter peeped through the screen when Han the clerk was young,
The goddess of River left her pillow for the great Prince of Wei.
Never let your heart open with the spring flowers:
One inch of loves is an inch of ashes.
Untitled Poems III
Last night’s stars, last night’s winds,
By the West wall of the painted house, East of the hall of cassia.
For bodies no fluttering side by side of splendid phoenix wings,
For hearts the one minute thread from root to tip of the magic horn.
At separate tables, played hook-in-the-palm. The wine of spring warmed.
Teamed as rivals, guessed what the cup hid. The candle flame reddened.
Alas, I hear the drum, must go where office summons,
Ride my horse to the Orchid Terrace, the wind-uprooted weed my likeness.
Untitled Poems IV
For ever hard to meet, and as hard to part.
Each flower spoiled in the failing East wind.
Spring’s silkworms wind till death their heart’s threads:
The wick of the candle turns to ash before its tears dry.
Morning mirror’s only care, a change at her cloudy temples:
Saying over a poem in the night,
does she sense the chill in the moonbeam?
Not far, from here to Fairy Hill.
Bluebird, be quick now, spy me out the road.
Untitled Poems V
Double curtains hang deep in the room of Never Grieve:
She lies down, and moment by moment the cool evening lengthens.
The lifetime he shared with the goddess was always a dream:
No young man ever in the little maid’s house.
The wind and waves know no pity for the frail pond-chestnut’s branches,
In the moon and the dew who can sweeten the scentless cassia leaves?
We tell ourselves all love is foolishness —
And still disappointment is a lucid madness.