‘Before The Cask of Wine’ was written by the Chinese poet Li Bai, also known as Li Po or Li Bo. His romanticism and innovative expression made him famous not only in the Tang Dynasty but also in the modern era. In this poem, Li Bai presents his love for wine. There are several poems written by him that touch on that recurring motif. This romantic poem, ‘Before The Cask of Wine’ is translated by Shigeyoshi Obata. In this poem, Li Bai makes use of the popular theme of “carpe diem” or “seize the day!”
Summary of Before The Cask of Wine
In this romantic poem, Li Bai presents the image of the cask of wine in the first stanza. The spring wind coming from the east quickly passes by and leaves ripples in the wine kept in the golden bowl. The wind also makes the flowers fall from trees, “flake after flake”. Thereafter, the poet imagines the wine to be a pretty girl having a wine-flushed and rosy face. The beauty of youthfulness won’t last long and soon the poet will be old. So, he advises those who are still young to enjoy their life to the fullest. There is no benefit in lamenting when one becomes older and the hairs turn white like silken threads.
The poem, ‘Before The Cask of Wine’ by Li Bai consists of three stanzas. The line count of the overall poem is 3-6-5. There isn’t any specific rhyme scheme in this poem. It’s a free verse poem. However, it isn’t sure that the Chinese version of the poem contains any rhyme scheme or not. Whatsoever, the first stanza has comparably long lines. The poet uses both the iambic meter and the anapestic meter. The following stanzas also follow this metrical pattern. There are a few variations in the poem. As an example, the first line of the second stanza begins with a spondee. Whereas, the first line of the third stanza is acephalous.
There are several literary devices in the poem. The figurative language used by Li Bai provides some interesting ideas to the readers. To begin with, the first stanza contains some innovative metaphors. Here, the “spring wind” is a metaphor for life. Whereas, the “east” is a symbol of hope as well as life. The poet also uses personification in this line to invest life into the spring wind. Moreover, the “wine” kept in the “golden bowl” seems to be a metaphor for the soul. And, “golden bowl” is none other than a metaphor for the human body. In the third line, the “flowers” are a metaphor for time. Thereafter, the second stanza begins with an apostrophe and here the poet compares the wine to a “pretty girl”.
Moreover, the poet poses a rhetorical question in the third and fourth lines. In this interrogation, the poet refers to the tree in a roundabout manner. In the third stanza, the “westering sun” is a symbol of death and old-age as well. However, the poem ends with another rhetorical question.
Analysis of Before The Cask of Wine
The spring wind comes from the east and quickly passes,
Leaving faint ripples in the wine of the golden bowl.
The flowers fall, flake after flake, myriads together.
The first stanza of ‘Before The Cask of Wine’ begins with a set of images. At first, Li Bai refers to the spring wind that comes from the east and quickly passes. It leaves faint ripples in the wine kept in the golden bowl. Thereafter, the poet depicts the image of falling flowers. There is a myriad of flowers that are falling flake after flake by the blow of the spring wind. It’s interesting to note here that the “spring wind” is a symbol of youthfulness. And, the “east” is a symbol of hope and a new beginning. Thereafter, the wine kept in the golden bowl can be a reference to the head and the mind consecutively. Here, the poet compares the human mind to wine.
In the last line, the poet, by using an image of the falling of flowers, depicts how time passes by as well as the poet’s youthful hours. Whereas, in the previous lines, the poet refers to how one’s youthfulness creates a new sensation inside one’s mind.
You, pretty girl, wine-flushed,
Your rosy face is rosier still.
How long may the peach and plum trees flower
By the green-painted house?
The fleeting light deceives man,
Brings soon the stumbling age.
Thereafter, Li Bai refers to a pretty girl whose skin is wine-flushed and her face is red like a rose. It seems that the poet is comparing the cask of wine with a pretty girl. Moreover, the poet uses wine as a symbol of immortality in this section. The quality of wine becomes better if it is kept for a longer period. Unlike humans, time strengthens wine. Thereafter, the poet thinks how long the peach and plum trees flower by the “green-painted house”. Here, the “green-painted house” is a symbolic reference to a tree. According to the poet, like the flowering period of peach and plum trees, one’s youth is also transient.
The “fleeting light” or the momentary flashes of youth deceives a man. It means one forgets about the time when a man is in his youth. This forgetfulness shocks a person later when he confronts the “stumbling age” or the old-age.
Rise and dance
In the westering sun
While the urge of youthful years is yet unsubdued!
What avails to lament after one’s hair has turned white
like silken threads?
In the third stanza of ‘Before The Cask of Wine’, the tone of the poem changes. In the previous stanza, the poet discussed the transience of youth and how it makes a person ignorant of time. While here the poet urges humans to seize the moment as it won’t last long. It is better to drink one’s youthful hours before it gets colder and colder in one’s old-age. So, the poet tells others to rise and dance in the “westering sun”. Here, “westering sun” refers to old-age. One should enjoy life to the fullest while the urge of youthful years is unsubdued.
At last, the poet reminds readers that it’s meaningless to lament when the time has gone. Hence, one should seize the momentary beauty of youth before one’s hair turns white like silken threads. Li Bai uses a simile in the last line.
John C.H. Wu once said, “while some may have drunk more wine than Li (Bai), no-one has written more poems about wine.” Classical Chinese poets were often associated with drinking wine. Li Bai was part of the group of Chinese intellectuals his fellow poet Du Fu called the “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.” The “Eight Immortals” including Li Bai drank excessively, though they still were viewed as pleasant eccentrics. In this poem, ‘Before The Cask of Wine’ one can find the poet’s fascination with wine as well as the fading youth.
Like ‘Before The Cask of Wine’ by Li Bai, the following poems also present similar themes.
- Spring by William Blake – In this one of the best William Blake poems, the poet explores the themes of transience and innocence through vivid imagery.
- Youth and Age by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – It’s one of the best poems by Coleridge and here the poet contrasts between youth and old age.
- O Were My Love Yon Lilac Fair by Robert Burns – This poem also talks about the transience of youth.
You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Time here.