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Li Bai and Du Fu

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Li Bai and Du Fu - Poems to Each Other

One very revealing part of the Tang legacy is the handful of poems that Li Bai and Du Fu wrote to each other. Poems about friendship or those exchanged between friends were a standard element of the Tang poetic canon. But the poems between Li Bai and Du Fu have an incredible poignancy as they say so much about how these two great poets saw themselves and each other. Just imagine, for example, how meaningful it would be if Shakespeare and John Donne happened to exchange a few personal sonnets. So in a way, we have been permitted a much more intimate glimpse into the hearts and minds of these Tang poets even at such great temporal and cultural remove than we have of the most renowned poets in our own tradition.

Let me start first with one of Li Bai’s poems About Du Fu. As far as I know, Li Bai wrote a total of three poems about his younger colleague whereas Du Fu (ever the eager younger brother) wrote eight or nine such poems in return. Of course, they may have exchanged others, which have been lost over the course of the last 1200 years. Nonetheless, I think it’s somewhat revealing of the timbre of their friendship that of the contemporaneous poems we have from them, it seems their friendship was pursued more at Du Fu’s initiative.

One other thing I should mention before getting to Lan Hua's translation of this poem. Li Bai uses an interesting word in his title for this poem, using the character Xi (戏) instead of the more conventional term Shi (诗), to indicate these words were written in a playful sense, almost in gest, but also in a gesture of a deep truly abiding sense of friendship....

A Poem About Du Fu                                The poet Li Bai

Having a snack on
The mountaintop
Together with Du Fu

He was wearing
A broad rimmed
Bamboo hat to protect
Against the hot July sun

Since the last time
We met he’s
Looking so thin

And now just as before
He’s agonizing
Over his poetry



And here is one of the poems Du Fu wrote in return:

Dreaming of Li Bai (II)                                                    The poet Du FuThe poet Du Fu

All day long
Rows of clouds
Drift across the horizon
Wanderers who will never return

But for three nights now
You have appeared
In a dream so vivid
I could touch your flesh

Briefly you spoke
About your long hard journey
Crossing rivers and lakes
In a small fragile boat
Fearfully tossed
By wind and waves

While the capital teems
With the rich and powerful
And their lavish gear
There you stood in the doorway
Scratching your silvery head
A sign of life’s burdens
A lone and haggard man

No my friend
There’s not a single cloud
In the vast heavens
That could withstand
The rigors borne by
Your weary old frame

Surely you’ll enjoy
A thousand years
Or ten thousand years
Of the greatest fame
But still for now you’re destined
For a lonely and distant grave

夢李白 (之二)


If you’re interested in reading more of these poems and learning more about the bond between Li Bai and Du Fu, we would recommend a book called Endless River by the translator Sam Hamill. It’s a slight volume that you can carry Li Bai and Du Fu around in your pocket as you ramble about. Hamill has a nice colloquial style as a translator and the poems have been well arranged to simulate the notion of an extended dialogue between these great poets (even though the book includes a number of poems that were actually part of those they directly addressed to one another). To purchase Endless River on Amazon

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