Poetry analysis is something that I consider a privilage. We learn more about the history of poetry by analysis the earlier poets. I also feel that by studying the evolution of poetry through the centuries we find out more of the world's history, our understanding of the old writers, and a commonality of humanity.
Poetry analysis is not exact and is somewhat objective to how it affects the analyst. Yet I find it very difficult to put a lot of credence on those who don't try to find out about the poet, their life, motivations, and those who affected them. Culture is also a major player in studying poetry.
There is no one right analysis and many may disagree with mine. I love reading the analysis of others to open my own mind to other possibilities.
Li Po also known as Li Bai was a sixth century Chinese poet. He was a Taoist and member of a small group of Chinese poets who were devoted to nature and wine. The poem “Drinking Alone with The Moon” is likely from that period of his life. Some other subjects that he studied in his poetry which may apply were an interest in alchemy, friendship and solitude. He was a wondering poet traveling throughout China. His imagination and humorous character are apparent in this poem.
The following translation of the poem looks to give a line by line account. We must remember that this is for our benefit as Chinese writing is vertical and breaks are best interpreted with an open mind. Since the Chinese language use of punctuation is hard to interpret, I will not emphasize that much here, except where it is an indicator from the translator to the reader.
From a pot of wine among the flowers
I drank alone. There was no one with me --
Till raising my cup, I ask the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.
Alas, the moon was unable to drink
And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
But still for a while I had these friends
To cheer me through the end of spring....
I sang. The moon encouraged me
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were born companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
....Shall goodwill ever be secure?
I watch the long road of the River of Stars.
“Drinking Alone with The Moon” encompasses several of the characteristics that define Li Po. As a devotee to nature, wine, solitude and humor, Li Po reveals much of himself in this poem. Thus the importance of this poem to understanding his other works and ancient Taoism is apparent.
“From a pot of wine among the flowers
I drank alone. There was no one with me -“
This statement I would take very literally. This poem shows a progression from realistic into the imaginative and from sober state to drunk. The flow of this poem tells more of a story than just setting and looking at the moon while drinking wine. Notice the slight change in tone of the next lines:
“Till raising my cup, I ask the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.”
Now we start to see Li Po’s imaginative wit and the involvement of the wine in this scheme. He does not seem to be drunk yet, but he certainly expects to be, in fact drunkenness is his goal. His playful treatment of nature at this point is unmistakable. He asks the moon to give him his shadow? This is an unrealistic request, but as a poet I must appreciate the metaphor and the use of words. This is what makes Li Po one of the most celebrated poets of Chinese history. Does he expect this of the moon? Of course not, he is insinuating the moon as a companion and partner in this quest for the surreal. For Li Po this would be perfectly natural as all things are mutual in Taoism.
“Alas, the moon was unable to drink
And my shadow tagged me vacantly;”
These lines punctuate the inference I have made in the previous paragraph. He jokingly offers the moon a drink which it cannot take. When the shadow doesn’t show Li Po doesn’t seem to say it is not existent. Instead, it seems to have “tagged” him, which means that it is attaching itself to him but is unseen. What wonderful wit and communal spirit. The elements of nature are not seen as without spirit in East Asian cultures, especially in ancient culture.
“But still for a while I had these friends”
The three friends here refer to Li Po, the moon, and his shadow. I think by this time Li Po is starting to feel tipsy at the very least. Wine did have a very special place in Li Po’s life and writing. He often depended on it to enhance his poetry.
“To cheer me through the end of spring....”
This line brings us back to his solitude. He must have expected that he would remain alone until the end of spring. He expects to remain cheerful as a part of the “three friends.” This indicates that he is able to entertain himself in solitude. He lets his imagination go the more inebriated he becomes. This is indicated in the following lines.
I will make note of the “…” after the word spring. It may be that a portion of the poem is missing here and the translator wanted to indicate this. It may simply be they felt the need to indicate something not complete. Li Po wrote other poems by the same title similar to this. My guess is that he was probably developing the same poem, but in the time since his death, it may be difficult to know which meant to be the finished product.
“I sang. The moon encouraged me
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.”
I love the picture this presents. We have to imagine a drunk dancing and singing to the moon. The image of his shadow tumbling behind him makes me wonder if he wasn’t falling down drunk by now. The word tumble could also simply be a word used as movements in dance.
“As long as I knew, we were born companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.”
This gives a bit of forlorn quality toward the end of this poem. He is admittedly drunk. However the first line is more finished by the second than separate in my estimation. Li Po indicates a oneness with himself, the moon and his shadow. This is interesting and somewhat unique to Chinese or Asian literature. Your shadow is always with you whether you see it or not. The moon is a personal companion. They were “born” to be together is a way of saying it never leaves him even when he no longer sees it. It also indicates that Li Po is living the life he was destined for since birth.
I’m wondering if “I was drunk” is an indication that he has reached a point of being close to passing out drunk. He indicates the loss of the moon and shadow because of over drinking. Of course, drunk seems to me where he was aiming, but as anyone who has ever been in the state knows the drunker you become the more brooding you can get. These lines also lead into the last two which are the aim of drinking so much and reaching his state of becoming philosophical.
Li Po as with many poets of the time was a philosopher. He felt that wine aided in reaching this state of understanding and becoming one with what was around him.
“....Shall goodwill ever be secure?
I watch the long road of the River of Stars.”
The translator of these lines indicates that there is something prior to the word ‘Shall’. This is also a question. We don’t know what may or may not have been in that space but the question would seem out of place in this poem if we did not know that something was leading to it. His query is now directed at the heavens and heavenly bodies of the moon and stars as indicated by the next line. Li Po is reaching that state which allows him to simply observe and try to answer the important questions in life. Or, is he questioning if he will reach that oneness.
Goodwill is something we often consider a human characteristic. Li Po had been treated unfairly by others. I don’t see him as really feeling sorry for himself but possibly questioning the character of people. He may also be asking for the goodwill of the natural elements to help him find that unity with all that is around him.
”I watch the long road of the River of Stars”
Finally the last lines indicate that he is getting there. He is visualizing a path ‘river’ through the stars. Could the heavens have shown him the way, this would explain the seeming dual meaning of ‘long road’ and ‘River of Stars.’ this line is essential to his Taoist philosophy. Man is to harmonize and be one with nature not fight it. Question it but not act. The ideal is to be an observer. The “River of Stars” is a way of placing himself within the scheme of the heavens.
Studying the works of great Chinese Poets as Li Po helps us to understand more of that history. What may seem a light and not so fluent poem now becomes fluent. We have an understanding of the progression of his quest. I would imagine that this poem would be the beginning of a night of writing more philosophical pieces. For whatever reason, this poem is considered an important work of Li Po. “Drinking Alone with the Moon” now has much more meaning.