Li Bai’s poetry always reflects a sense of ancient China, its valleys, the beauty of its natural landscape, and simplicity. Be it ‘A Poem of Changgan’, or ‘The Solitude of Night’, each of his poems (translated from traditional Chinese to English), presents his simplistic thoughts and the art of depicting a scene through poetic words. Familiarity with his ‘Before The Cask of Wine’, will be beneficial to understand how Bai uses imagery for creating the mood. However, this poem, ‘A Poem of Changgan’ concerns a beautiful love story developing from the early childhood days of the characters to their adolescence.
This poem centers on a love story. Li Bai talks about a little girl who marries a boy at fourteen. Their relationship develops from childhood days. Here, the poet details the mental workings of the girl. From her perspective, Bai depicts how she reacts when she turns fifteen. As she turns sixteen, she prepares herself for the lonely days waiting ahead of her. When her husband leaves, she becomes so lonely that everything seems meaningless to her. The poem ends on this elegiac tone, depicting a lonely girl’s longing for her husband who has not returned from his journey.
‘A Poem of Changgan’ consists of four stanzas. Each stanza delivers a specific movement. The first one deals with the childhood days of the lovers. Thereafter the poet talks about their marriage and the husband’s departure in the second and third stanzas respectively. While the last stanza is all about the girl’s optimism even if the situation is hinting at otherwise. Whatsoever, the stanzas do not contain a set line count. The first three stanzas have an increasing order of line-count. However, the last stanza is short in comparison to the previous stanzas. Moreover, the overall poem is in free verse and mostly composed of the iambic meter.
Being a translated version, readers have to deal with the literary devices present in the English text. How Li Bai incorporated the poetic devices in this poem, is hard to comprehend. However, the poem begins with an alliteration. Here, “hair had” contains a repetition of the “h” sound. Thereafter, the “green plums” contain a metaphor for vegetative love or a pure state of love. In the second stanza, readers come across a hyperbole in the line, “And would not turn to your thousand calls.” Thereafter, in the third stanza, the line “Hidden under moss too deep to sweep away” contains irony. Here, “moss” is a metonym. The last two lines of this stanza contain anaphora.
Bai’s poem, ‘A Poem of Changgan’ showcases a variety of themes. The important themes of this piece are innocence, love, coming-of-age, relationship, dependence, longing, hope, and togetherness. To begin with, this poem is all about innocent love. It portrays a relationship of a girl married at the age of fourteen. How she reacts in his newly wedded journey and how her destiny changes are the essence of the poem. The little girl’s attitude as well as her role in the relationship depicts the theme of innocence. Apart from that, this poem is about the coming-of-age of a girl. Along with that, the third and fourth stanzas of this poem reflects a sense of hope and longing from the perspective of the marooned girl.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
My hair had hardly covered my forehead.
I was picking flowers, playing by my door,
When you, my lover, on a bamboo horse,
Came trotting in circles and throwing green plums.
We lived near together on a lane in Ch’ang-kan,
Both of us young and happy-hearted.
Li Bai, in his poem, ‘A Poem of Changgan’ presents the love story from the point-of-view of a girl. Portraying the voice of a lady, and the depiction of the context somehow glorifies the spirit of the girl. Her bashful attitude, playfulness, perseverance, and emotional side, grips a modern reader to get into the mind of that girl. Whatsoever the poem begins with the speaker describing how her relationship started. Her hairs had hardly covered her forehead when her friend and would-be husband played with her. He rode on a bamboo horse trotting around her as if she was the princess of “Ch’ang-kan”.
They lived near that lane. It was somewhere near the Yangtze region of China. When they played together, the boy threw green plums at her. Here, “green plums” is a metaphor for vegetative love. Andrew Marvell wrote about this unique kind of love in his ‘To His Coy Mistress’. One can also find a similar theme of vegetative love in Marvel’s ‘Young Love’. Whatsoever, the first stanza of ‘A Poem of Changgan’ concludes on a happy note. Here the speaker remarks, “Both of us young and happy-hearted.”
…At fourteen I became your wife,
So bashful that I dared not smile,
And I lowered my head toward a dark corner
And would not turn to your thousand calls;
But at fifteen I straightened my brows and laughed,
Learning that no dust could ever seal our love,
That even unto death I would await you by my post
And would never lose heart in the tower of silent watching.
The second stanza of the poem develops the pictures of the story bit by bit. Like a bildungsroman, here one can find the development of the girl’s character. She was married at fourteen. At that time, she was so bashful that she dared not smile at her husband. Whenever he called her, she could not turn toward him. Lowering her head she kept her vision toward a “dark corner” of the room. This “dark corner” is a symbol that signifies the hesitation of an innocent girl.
When she turned fifteen, she straightened her brows and became courageous enough to smile back at her husband. The awareness of their pure love made her confident about the fact that nothing can “ever seal” their love. Until her death, she would be waiting for him. During that process of longing, she would not lose her heart in the “tower of silent watching.” This quoted phrase is an interesting metaphor. It depicts a watchtower and a lady waiting for her husband. One can also find this image in the poem, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ by Bob Dylan.
…Then when I was sixteen, you left on a long journey
Through the Gorges of Ch’u-t’ang, of rock and whirling water.
And then came the Fifth-month, more than I could bear,
And I tried to hear the monkeys in your lofty far-off sky.
Your footprints by our door, where I had watched you go,
Were hidden, every one of them, under green moss,
Hidden under moss too deep to sweep away.
And the first autumn wind added fallen leaves.
And now, in the Eighth-month, yellowing butterflies
Hover, two by two, in our west-garden grasses
And, because of all this, my heart is breaking
And I fear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade.
This stanza of ‘A Poem of Changgan’ is comparably longer than the previous stanzas. The length of this stanza refers to the mental condition of the speaker. However, here the speaker talks about the turning point of her life. When she turned sixteen, her husband left on a long journey. Like any other woman of the ancient age, mostly from the central Asian region, she became lonely. It was merely two years of their marriage. The heartache of the lady may sound like the speaker in ‘The Ache of Marriage’ by Denise Levertov. Apart from that, the similar Asian essence of marriage is present in Sarojini Naidu’s poem, ‘The Bangle Sellers’.
Whatsoever, the speaker’s husband undertook the path through the gorges of “Ch’u-t’ang”, consisting of rocky paths and whirling water. Five months had passed after his departure. The situation became unbearable. She listened to the calls of the monkeys from far-off trees. When she noticed at the doorstep, it reminded her of her lover’s departure. The path became hidden under the thick layer of moss, symbolizing the thickness of pain in her innocent heart.
Day passed. Autumn came with her windy trails. Leaves fell apart. But, any message from the husband had not come. In this way, eight months passed away. Now, when she looks at the garden in grief, the image of the butterflies flying “two and two” pains her deep. They are together, merrily feasting on the flowers. In contrast, the speaker’s heart breaks apart. She fears that one day, old-age will dim her youthful beauty. However, her beloved will not be with her then.
…Oh, at last, when you return through the three Pa districts,
Send me a message home ahead!
And I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance,
All the way to Chang-feng Sha.
In the last stanza of the poem, the tone and mood suddenly take an optimistic turn. The speaker thinks one day he will return through the “three Pa districts.” She implores him to send her a message of his arrival. This thought makes her so happy that she will break the long-waiting phase of her life. Moreover, she will come and meet him. No matter how long the distance is, she will leave for “Chang-feng Sha” in no time. Such is the power of the girl’s heart. All she wants is a hint of her husband’s arrival, that’s all!
Li Bai, the poet of ‘A Poem of Changgan’, was a Chinese poet. She was a genius in versification and took romantic form to new heights. Bai belonged to the Tang Dynasty, often called the “Golden Age of Chinese Poetry.” There is an expression related to this period. It is “Three Wonders.” One of the wonders is Li Bai’s poetry. However, in this love lyric, Li Bai beautifully depicts a girl’s condition, married at fourteen and marooned at sixteen. The description of the landscape reflects Bai’s innovative use of nature and natural imagery to portray one’s mental state. Like his other poems, here readers also find the elements of romanticism. Apart from that, the illustration of the Chinese landscape also brings in an Asian flavor in this work.
Several poems are there, similar to the subject matter of ‘A Poem of Changgan’ by Li Bai. The following list of poems will help one to understand the theme of longing for one’s loved one more elaborately.
- I Am Lonely by George Eliot – This poem describes a speaker’s grief over the departure of her loved one. Her absence made the speaker mentally lame and physically lonely.
- After by Philip Bourke Marston – This is an emotional piece dealing with the things that the speaker wants to say to his beloved.
- Lament by Thomas Hardy – It’s one of the best-known poems of Hardy. In this poem, the speaker mourns his beloved’s loss.
- The Sorrow of True Love by Edward Thomas – Edward Thomas, one of the British wartime poets, leans on the negative consequences of love, losing his loved one, and suffering in this poem. It’s one of the popular poems of Thomas.