‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance’ (translated by Ezra Pound) is a poem by Chinese poet Li Bai that highlights the complicated nature of attempting to read and appreciate poetry that’s been removed from its original language. Although the most commonly referenced and read English translations, Pound’s versions are not without controversy, given the fact he didn’t speak or read Chinese. Relying on the work of other scholars who studied Li Bai in Japanese, no less.
Any reading of ‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance’ should be prefaced with a reminder that it’s not an accurate translation so much as an attempt to capture the poem’s essence via a recreation in the imagist styles of early-Modernist poets like Pound. He clearly admired Li Bai’s mastery of precise but vivid imagery, which he uses to convey hidden emotions and a wealth of subtext in just a handful of verses.
One can appreciate it Pound’s admiration for Li Bai while also acknowledging his flawed approach to translation — and readers can easily remedy his own blindspots by reading other translations of Li Bai’s poem.
The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance (translated by Ezra Pound) Li BaiThe jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,And I let down the crystal curtainAnd watch the moon through the clear autumn.
Explore The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance
‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance’ (translated by Ezra Pound) by Li Bai reveals through a series of impressionable images the melancholic longing of a woman awaiting someone’s return.
‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance’ is a short poem that relies on a meticulous collection of images to reveal its somewhat hidden subtext. The first two lines develop a majestic scene with a wide shot of a palace’s jeweled steps, honing in on the woman who stands upon them. It’s this woman who serves as the poem’s speaker and from whom we learn via insinuation exactly what the grievance that the title makes reference to is.
Small details clue the reader into the fact that the speaker has been waiting outside on the steps for a long time. Whoever they’re waiting for has clearly not arrived, and it’s possible the speaker has given up waiting for them, as the preceding lines describe them pulling away a curtain (possibly inside their room) to reveal the clear sky. The poem offers no resolution but instead finds itself in flux within this emotionally charged moment — a lucidly visceral memory that relies more on sensory impressions rather than an explanation to recreate it.
Structure and Form
‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance’ is composed of four lines with no discernible rhyme scheme or meter. Pound uses end-stopped lines to focus the reader on the succinct images of each verse, while the penultimate line utilizes enjambment to capture the swiftness of both the speaker’s action and the force of their powerful longing.
Ezra Pound’s translation of ‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance’ by Li Bai relies mainly on imagery. There is an overflow of impactful visual imagery throughout the poem: from the “jewelled steps” (1); the “white with dew” (1) on the pale-colored jade steps; and the skyline within which the speaker watches “the moon through the clear autumn” (4). There’s also tactile imagery: “the dew soaks my gauze stockings” (2). As well as kinesthetic imagery: “I let down the crystal curtain” (3).
Legitimacy of Translation
‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance’ by Li Bai was translated by American expatriate poet Ezra Pound. One of many 20th-century poets who became enamored with the Tang Dynasty poet. It’s important to note that although Pound’s translations of Li Bai’s work helped spur American interest in Chinese poetry — they should not be perceived as accurate in the slightest. Pound’s fluency in the many, many languages (from Old English, Latin, Italian, French, and yes, Chinese) that he translated into English was more or less nonexistent. His translations were regarded at best with bewildered suspicion and at worst vicious contempt — creating controversy second only to his support of fascism later in life.
So how should one regard and approach Pound’s translation of ‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance?‘ First, you have to consider how he studied the original text. Because Pound couldn’t speak or read Chinese, he had to rely on the translations of another: an American scholar named Ernest Fenollosa. The trail of interpretation gets murkier given the fact that Fenollosa didn’t even study Li Bai in the original Chinese either — all their notes are based on Japanese translations.
Pound also followed a principle of translation known as metaphase (one of three approaches described by John Dryden), which focused on literalism and a word-by-word recreation of the original text.
This can often result in a deadpan voice and jumbled meaning in the receptor language — though this was no doubt exacerbated by Pound’s own lack of context and distance from the original texts. In the poem, these errors and alterations include the insertion of pronouns and prepositions and a lack of context that leads to some confusion about the speaker moving indoors, the latter contributing to the seemingly illogical image of them closing their curtain but still being able to see outside.
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
The first two lines of Ezra Pound’s translation of ‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance’ focuses on the scene-setting vistas illustrated in Li Bai’s original. But it also reveals the poet’s love of imagism — an early Modernist movement that valued the poetic clarity of concrete details and precise diction. The visual and tactile imagery created in these first two lines establishes the poem’s mood by intoxicating the reader with the vivid atmosphere of its scenery.
There’s the implied chromatics of “jewelled steps” covered in a glistening sheen because they’re also “white with dew” (1). Then the second line thrusts the reader into this grand scene, zooming in to focus on the speaker describing it for us. Although their identity might appear hopelessly ambiguous, Pound’s translation summarizes the poem’s essential subtext. Both the title and first line imply the poem is set inside a palace, while the speaker’s description of their “gauze stockings” (2) implies they own an elegant pair of silk socks and are, therefore, a woman of nobility.
Another important detail is the passage of time in the poem: “It is so late” (2). The speaker remarks as if to explain why their stockings are already so wet from the dew. In other words, they’ve been waiting outside on the steps for quite a long time. For what or whom? The next two lines offer a clue.
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
The final two lines of Pound’s translation of ‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance’ continues to hone in on the poem’s collection of finespun images. The speaker no longer appears to be on the steps of the palace — possibly now in their room; they describe via kinesthetic imagery the action of letting down the “crystal curtain” (3) hanging possibly at their window. This opens up the sky to their view, revealing itself in another sweeping scene: “the moon through the clear autumn” (4). Visually returning the poem to its initial setting.
If the speaker was waiting on the steps for someone, it’s clear they’ve stopped. Whether or not the represents anger or melancholy towards whoever they’re waiting for depends on one’s interpretation of the poem’s title. Especially when it comes to its final character: Pound translated it as “grievance,” others have used the word “lament.” Either way, it’s clear from the title the female speaker feels slighted in some way over being stood up. Pound even attributes the description of a “clear autumn” (4) to the implication that whoever the speaker is awaiting doesn’t even have the excuse of bad weather.
As Pound points out in his notes, the exquisitely beautiful and compelling nature of this poem by Li Bai is rooted in their precision with images to elicit emotion. The speaker doesn’t utter a single word to the reader or reveal their inner thoughts. Yet, by the end of four lines, we understand that something poignantly intimate has transpired.
Ezra Pound’s Notes
Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.Source: Personae (1990)
The theme of the poem appears to be one of intense longing. All the imagery is designed to imply and accentuate the speaker’s mood as they wait on the palace steps for someone — possibly a lover. Although they eventually move inside, it’s clear the speaker is still waiting for them, and the poem directs all the heft of its literary devices toward instilling in the reader this heavy mix of melancholic yearning.
The speaker is a woman, most likely of the court. The poem’s details hint at their identity by describing her socks and ornamented curtain — this is clearly a woman of a certain social stature.
The hyper-focus on exceptionally specific (as well as visually and narratively significant) images is no doubt one of the reasons Pound was drawn to this poem by Li Bai. If there was one aspect of the original he was devoutly determined to preserve and convey this was it. Pound’s word-by-word approach to translation also underscores his reverence for choice of diction and the vast meaning Li Bai was able to get across with so few words.
The poet is far too removed because of the multiple language barriers for his “translation” to be considered remotely accurate. It might be more precise to call it a poetic interpretation of a Chinese language poem using English words and a Modernist style. One inspired by Li Bai’s original — titled “Yujie yuan 玉階怨 [Jade Staircase Lament]” — but not a reliable translation of it. Pound’s inclusion of a paragraph of notes elaborating on the hidden context contained in Li Bai’s original (but entirely obfuscated in his rework) is evidence enough of the shortcomings of his translation.
- ‘A Poem of Changgan’ – this poem is about someone waiting for another’s return and the changes they undergo.
- ‘The Solitude of Night’ – this poem describes a walk home by a speaker who has left a party.
- ‘Before The Cask of Wine’ – this poem is about taking advantage of one’s youth while it lasts.