The Tang Dynasty (618-907) was the golden age of Chinese poetry. In the number of poems and variety of poetic forms, the beauty of imagery and broadness of themes, Tang poetry surpassed all that had preceded it. Poetic Genius (Li Bai), Sage of Poetry (Du Fu), Buddhist Poet (Wang Wei) and Poet Ghost (Li He) were all Tang poets.
Li Bai (701-762), the most outstanding poet at the height of the Tang Dynasty, is one of the great romantic poets after Qu Yuan. He was later called the “poetic genius.” Li Bai’s life was full of frustration and his thoughts were complex. Besides a great talent for poetry, Li Bai had also an air of a swordsman, hermit, Taoist and adviser. Notions of Confucianism, Taoism and chivalry were all embodied in his character. His life philosophy was “rest on one’s laurels.”
Li Bai’s extant works include more than 900 poems, which artistically recount his own life, social reality and the spirit of the High Tang Dynasty. Li Bai had great political ambitions all through his life and he never concealed his yearning for fame and honor in his poems, as in Chant of Liang Fu– A Small Hill, Read the Story of Zhuge Liang, and To Cai Xiong.
Li Bai revered the chivalrous spirit when he was young and wrote many poems on this, like Song of a Swordsman. Three years of political life in Chang’an exerted a great influence on Li Bai’s literary creation. He found that his own political ideals were in sharp contradiction with the seamy sides of social reality, which inspired him to write a series of famous poems to express his frustrations, such as Hard Goes the Way, Ancient Poems, and Drinking Alone at A Cold Night–A Reply to Wang the Twelfth among His Brothers. Li Bai was a roamer all through his life and traveled all over the country, visiting many famous mountains and rivers.
In the poem he gives full play to his wild imaginations of spiritual pursuit, which greatly soothes a soul so frustrated with the real world. The concluding lines, “How can I serve the haughty with my head down? No, I shall keep my heart buoyant and free forever, Oh!” resonates with his unyielding reputation as an upright scholar.
As a great national poet Li Bai showed a great concern about war. He expressed ardent praise for soldiers defending the country’s frontiers and relentlessly castigated the warlike ruling class, as reflected in his poems Song of the Frontier, Wars at the South of the Town, and so on. Li Bai also wrote many Yuelu poems (poems imitating folksongs and ballads) describing the hardships of common people and expressing his deep sympathy for them, for example, The Ballad of Changgan and The Song of Wu by Zi Ye.
Li Bai’s poems have great artistic appeal. As a romantic poet, he brought into play all means of romantic expression and achieved perfect unity between content and form in his poetry. Li Bai’s poetry has an intense subjective and self-expressive tendency, and his emotions were always expressed with momentum of an avalanche.
Extreme exaggeration, apt comparison and profound imagination affected a high realism. When reading the lines, “Slashing water with the blade of my sword, it flows on all the more. I raise my goblet, drown my dolor deep, yet it waxes doubly sore,” readers cannot help being moved by the despair a midst the grandiloquence. This expressive technique is especially seen in poems Traveling to Tianmu Mountain in a Dream: A Parting Song and Difficult is The Way to Shu.
The poems of Du Fu (712-770), the exemplary realistic poet in the history of Chinese literature, mirror the social outlook of the once prosperous Tang Dynasty in decline. Du’s poems are rich in social content, and have a distinct epochal character and a definitive political inclination. Du Fu’s poetry fervently appeals to the nation in the uplifting spirit of self-sacrifice. Du Fu was, therefore, called The Sage of Poetry and his poems are praised as “epic poetry.”
Du Fu wrote more than 1,000 poems throughout his life, the famous ones included Three Officers, Three Partings, A Song of Chariots, My Thatched Hut is Wrecked by the Autumn Wind, A Song of Fair Ladies and A Spring View. Du Fu’s poetry offered great sympathy to common people and revealed the sharp contradiction between the exploiters and the exploited in feudal society.
In writing poems, Du Fu often hid his subjective feelings behind objective description. For example, in A Song of Fair Ladies, he did not denounce Lady Yang and her brother’s wanton way of life directly but described their finery and diet in great detail, which implicitly unveils the poet’s attitude.
The language in Du Fu’s poems is simple, easy and natural. Du Fu was good at accentuating a character’s personality through soliloquy and common sayings. He was particularly skillful at detailing characterization, best illustrated in the paragraph describing the wife and children in Expedition to the North. The style of Du Fu’s poetry can be summarized as deep, implicit and modulated in tone.
All of these merits establish Du Fu’s status as The Sage of Poetry in a history of more than 3,000 years of Chinese literature.
Wang Wei (701 -761) was skilled at depicting natural scenery in five-character lines. The extant works of Wang Wei include more than 400 poems. His landscape and pastoral poems mainly describe his reclusive life and the beautiful scenery in Zhongnan and Wangchuan. Wang Wei was keenly perceptive of nature and always patterned his poems with a painter’s craft. Commenting on Wang Wei’s works, people often say, “There is poetry in his painting and painting in his poetry.” Wangchuan Ji – A Collection of Wang Wei’s Poetry shows off the best of Wang Wei’s poetics. The language in Wang Wei’s poetry is fresh and refined.
Wang Wei is a master of “impersonality,” often completely disappearing into his poems of nature. His poetry is a record of a long struggle to be free of desire, free even of the desire to be free. Therefore, he was later honored as Buddhist Poet
Li He (791-817), a late Tang Dynasty Chinese poet noted for this pessimism and inclination towards the supernatural. He adapted the aestheticism popular in the Tang Dynasty in his poetry.
Li He was of royal blood and began to write poetry at the age of seven. His poetic style was bizarre and quite extraordinary, savoring very much of the ghostly world; hence his nickname, Poet-Ghost. Each morning he would go out on a horse, followed by a boy carrying a bag on his shoulder. Whenever inspired, he would immediately jot down a few lines at random, to be thrown into the bag. Back home at night, he would sort out what he had written and try to compose complete poems. This practice infuriated his mother who thought his health might be unduly undermined. This turned out to be prophetic for Li He died at the age of twenty-seven.
Li He’s poetry was popular at the time but eventually fell out of favor with later generations, who preferred a more natural, balanced style.
Writing rather late in the Tang period, Li He’s short life is an intense experience of his surroundings marked by persistent adversity. Never successful in attaining the government positions demanded by Confucian ideals, he spent his years riding out of his house every day and dashing off poems on scraps of paper to revise at night. His poetry thus reveals a great ability to capture the fleeting moment and freeze a passing sensation to savor later.