A poem of Li Po (Li Bai)

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The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Poet Li Po, by Arthur Waley and Bai Li

III. 15. Fighting

Last year we were fighting at the source of the San-kan;

This year we are fighting at the Onion River road.

We have washed our swords in the surf of Indian seas;

We have pastured our horses among the snows of T’ien Shan.

Three armies have grown gray and old,

Fighting ten thousand leagues away from home.

The Huns have no trade but battle and carnage;

They have no pastures or ploughlands,

But only wastes where white bones lie among yellow sands.

Where the house of Ch’in built the great wall that was to keep away the Tartars,

There, in its turn, the house of Han lit beacons of war.

The beacons are always alight; fighting and marching never stop.

Men die in the field, slashing sword to sword;

The horses of the conquered neigh piteously to Heaven.

Crows and hawks peck for human guts,

Carry them in their beaks and hang them on the branches of withered trees.

Captains and soldiers are smeared on the bushes and grass;

The General schemed in vain.

Know therefore that the sword is a cursèd thing

Which the wise man uses only if he must.

Read more poems in another translation.

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Li Bai

See also Li Po walks back to heaven.

Poetry was the medium of the civilised man in Li Po’s day, as it was slightly later in Heian Japan. It is probable that much poetry was unpublished, a courtesy recitation between friends or colleagues. So much of Li Po’s poetry has vanished. Much that survives is occasional and not inspired. Perhaps we could call it Li Po’s ‘sober’ poetry. Arthur Waley thought that Li Po did not produce any great verse till the 740s, when he was middle aged, but he didn’t like Li Po (probably took the ‘drunkard’ reputation too seriously). After all when a poet tells something of themselves they may be using a metaphor, not writing rhyming prose. But the best of Li Po’s poems are very well known in Chinese culture. Li Po can be compared to Byron in Western culture in the way his contemporaries thought of him. His work, in its ease of expression and prolificacy, apparent spontaneity, virtuosity, traditional format yet avant garde approach, seems similar to the compositions of another great traveller, Mozart.

So I continued to wonder about Li Po. I read him in English, a language without the tonal values that provide much of the music of his verse, ignorant of the conventions of his day, not really knowing how he felt, nor what his friends thought either. I tried to create him in my mind, using analogues from my culture. But he seems ever out of my reach….

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