Review of “Drinking Alone With The Moon” by Li Bai

“Drinking Alone under the Moon” is one of Li Bai’s signature poetries which deal with the ancient social custom of drinking. It is deemed to be a big social faux pas if one drinks alone. In this particular poem, the egoistic poet speaker creates his own companions: the moon and his shadow, but both seem reluctant companions and what the poem leaves you with is a sense of despair and deep set loneliness (Columbia Education, 2014).  Li Bai’s poetry generally contains landscape wherein the poet speaker converses with his surroundings, much like the British Romantic poet Wordsworth (John Derbyshire, 2014). This poem exemplifies the essential characteristics of Chinese poetry: a spontaneous expression of oneself which is so powerful that it takes over the poet and the reader.

The poem

From a pot of wine among the flowers

I drank alone. There was no one with me —

Till, raising my cup, I asked 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 boon 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.

 

Insights of the Poem

The poem begins with a feeling of deep set pessimism and negativity felt by the poet-speaker. He alliterates “From a pot of wine among the flowers I drank alone. There was no one with me…” to portray the intensity of the negative emotions he feels. But he does not speak solely of his own feelings but the emotions felt by mankind in general. This grief and ‘pangs’ of being alone are felt by all human beings. There is a continuous flow of sorrow that forces him to question the divine power above the moon. He asks for relief from the moon; he asks for companionship which he does not get as the “moon is unable to drink” with him. When will he be relieved of all this sorrow and suffering? He searches for comfort and compares the vacancy of him and his shadow to a happier and more cheerful world of the olden days:“But still for a while I had these friends/ To cheer me through the end of spring…” The sources of relief never come and the search abruptly ends. Sorrow hammers itself into the poet and poet literally plunges into deep sadness. Loneliness, here, is personified in the form of the poet’s own shadow that haunts him and sometimes even leaves him. It is brief and forceful unlike the intense emotions felt by the poet. He, unnaturally, clings on to sorrow and grief despite it truly being a fleeting phase. “My shadow tumbled after” emphasizes the unmotivated spirit of the poet who is unable to find happiness.

As the poem progresses, he uses metaphors to compare his sad surroundings. He alludes to the shadows of the mind that human beings cannot comprehend but experiences the loneliness deeply. While he drinks alone, he tries to find companionship through his immediate surroundings. However, one hangs from these shadow companions waiting to fall further into unhappiness. As for those who do hang from these shadows, they cannot cling on for too long. The poet furiously clings on to the feeling and plunges deeper and further and finally falls, metaphorically, into death.

As long as I knew, we were boon companions.

And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.

It is the greatest fall that one faces; to realize in one’s drunken stupor that one has only oneself to be with. This is the ultimate despair and sadness. It is the final fall that man can take and nothing intensifies the feeling of sorrow further than death.  It is almost like the cycle of life and death. But the picture of life is not a positive and happy one. It is filled with pessimism, negativity and the intense feeling of despair. And by death the feeling is only further intensified.  Li Bai calls himself a wretch. He looks for comfort but finds none; death and despair lay ahead. And everyday is wasted in search for this comfort. Sleep is like death, every day ends with despair and slumber till death truly takes over at the final fall. He questions if “…Shall goodwill ever be secure?”

Conclusion

The emotional anguish is externalized by the physical landscape of the moon. Grief is almost a physical entity that man clings on to for dear life like shadows hanging from the moon. The poet expresses his anguish and unnaturally clings on to it till the end. He refuses to let go despite his search for comfort and release. The internal emotions are externalized and it is almost chaotic and violent like the external world. Perhaps the external world is the reason for his anguish and he vents this by comparing it to external moon landscape, his mind holds on to the feeling till the end. He ends the poem with the image of a day ending with watching the sky: “River of stars.”

Bibliography

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