李白 Li Bai
玉階怨 The Jeweled Stairs’ Grievance
玉階生白露 The jeweled stairs glow white with dew;
This set piece on the theme of the neglected courtesan, or “boudoir lament” (gui yuan 閨怨), is one of the most famous poems in the Chinese classical canon and among the first to have been translated into a Western language. Versions of it can be found in most standard anthologies of Tang verse, both Chinese and English, as well as in two formative texts in the genealogy of Western modernism: Judith Gautier’s Le Livre de jade (1867), a pioneering collection of poetic chinoiserie elegantly cast in that oxymoronic genre of then recent invention, the prose poem; and Ezra Pound’s Cathay (1915), where it appears in the American poet’s ground-breaking “vers libre.”1 Much of the popularity of this poem can be attributed to Li Bai’s art of oblique portrayal. As commentators have long noted and Pound himself observed in a memorable footnote to his version of the poem, Li Bai’s neglected courtesan “utters no direct reproach.” Instead, with the cinematic economy of an Eisenstein or Antonioni, the Chinese poet conveys his subject’s feelings through a series of visual images that gradually enlarge our perspective on her situation.
The poem begins with a “wide-angle shot” that confirms the palatial setting suggested by the title (yu jie sheng bai lu “jade stairs glazed [with] white dew”). It then cuts to a close-up of a telling detail that, together with the reference to the lateness of the hour, literally fleshes out the scenario as that of a disappointed tryst (ye jiu qin luo wa “night long saturates gauze stockings”). In the third line, the poet’s “camera-eye” takes us inside the courtesan’s apartment, where we are given a brief glimpse into her interior life in both senses of the phrase (que xia shuijing lian “withdrawn [inside, she] lowers [the] crystal curtain”). Finally, in another abrupt shift in perspective, the camera dissolves to an “over-the-shoulder shot” of the clear autumn moon in a panoramic closing image that is as poignant as it is suggestive (ling long wang qiu yue “clear and bright, [she] gazes [at the] autumn moon”).
Two other aspects of “The Jeweled Stairs’ Grievance” that help account for its continued popularity among Chinese readers are the graceful feel of the poem in the pleasure of the reading moment and the deft manner with which it reaches back to earlier texts. The form of the poem is a standard wujue yuefu, or pentasyllabic rhymed quatrain set to music in the style of the “palace poetry” of the Southern Dynasties period, which flourished some 150 years before Li Bai took up the theme of the neglected courtesan. Although the “sheet music” has not come down to us, the musicality of Li Bai’s rhyme and meter has not been lost over the centuries even in modern Mandarin. Phonetic changes in the Chinese language have reduced the end rhyme to a slant rhyme, but the richness of the poem’s internal rhymes and the elegant lilt of its metrical scheme make the Chinese version of “The Jeweled Stairs’ Grievance” as pleasurable to the ear as it is to the eye and sensibilities. I should also point out that, contrary to his reputation for being a brilliant but largely untutored eccentric who spun poems whole-cloth out of a wine-inspired imagination, Li Bai was a poet of no small culture and education who followed the general Tang practice of drawing upon the work of those who came before him. For example, the title of the poem, “Yu jie yuan” (literally “Jade Stairs’ Grievance”) had already been used by more than one poet, and a number of the words and phrases in the poem proper had long been common tropes of the genre. All of which gives “The Jeweled Stairs’ Grievance” a rich allusive texture that is difficult to convey in a literal translation.
In the interest of suggesting the form and texture of the Chinese poem, I have taken several liberties with the letter of the text. These begin with the title, which I borrowed from Pound’s version of the poem in part to mimic Li Bai’s compositional practice but also to bolster my rhyme and meter. The more literal “Jade Stairs’ Grievance” would not have allowed me to repeat the opening words of the title at the beginning of the first line without sacrificing the iambic meter. Moreover, “The Jeweled Stairs” provides a number of fortuitous internal rhymes that are not unlike those in the original. Note, for example, how the first syllable of “jeweled” chimes off the end-rhymes of the opening couplet—here too I took the liberty of making a verbal substitution to bolster the rhyme and meter (“silken shoe” for “gauze stockings”)—and resonates with the vowels in the end-rhymes of the two phrases in the closing line (moon/ lune). Finally, the repetition of “jeweled” helps to compensate for the loss of the word “crystal” in the third line, which I replaced with the word “autumn” (bumped up from the final line) in order to leave room for “clair de lune.” Linguistic purists may object to my using a French phrase in an English translation of a Chinese classical poem, but this Gallic term for moonlight does have the virtue of being faithful to what the line says by way of rhetorical assertion. At the same time, it does much to reinforce the impression that Li Bai is writing within a formalist tradition: “Clair de lune” is the title of a poem by Paul Verlaine that was set to music by Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré. The fact that Verlaine composed this poem while still under the potent spell of Gautier’s Le Livre de jade lends the translation an allusive texture that is almost as rich as the poem it represents.2
1 For a discussion of Gautier’s Le Livre de jade as well of Pound’s version of this Li Bai poem, see my “On the Cathay Tour with Eliot Weinberger’s New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry,” in Translation Review 66 (Fall 2003): 39-52.
2 The influence of Gautier’s Le Livre de jade on Verlaine’s poetry has not been widely noted by scholars, no doubt because Gautier has fallen off the literary map and Le Livre de jade, which Verlaine enthusiastically reviewed shortly before composing “Clair de Lune,” has been out of print for more than half a century. Verlaine and Gautier shared the same publisher and penchant for melodious phrasing and exotic atmospheres.