Poetry (3): Li Bai 李白 and Others

[Warning this one rambles!] This is not my own. It’s by one of China’s most famous poets and misfits: Li Bai 李白。 The translation, however, is mine. This was the first Chinese poem I read, and like many Chinese grade school students, the first Chinese poem I committed to memory. I can still recite it–rather better than most grade-schoolers … I think. 🙂

LI BaiBefore my bed in the bright moonlight,
Doubt is spread like frost upon the floor.
I raise my head and gaze upon the moon.
I bow my head and think of home.

床前明月光,
疑是地上霜,
举头望明月,
低头思故乡。

It’s one of my favorite poems. It captures both a particular moment in the life of Li Bai and a shared experience all of us have sooner or later. Usually sooner–who hasn’t felt the chill of doubt spreading out before them in the dark of the night, when thought leads only to thought and fear to fear? Though its not the same, it reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief”:

     O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there …

The line immediately before this reads

Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.’

but as appealing as the sentiment is sometimes, I fear Bertrand Russel may have touched a timeless truth when he said, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Some think Russel’s comment was adapted from Yeats’s “Second Coming”:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

but I think Russel’s wording is better. It’s not a lack of conviction, it’s doubt–doubting one’s reasoning, doubting one’s worthiness, doubting one’s courage–self-doubt is the inevitable consequence of the ability to see that  you might be wrong. And doubt is eminently rational. Anyone who will think will always see more ways of things going wrong than going right. The odds always seem stacked against us and we never seem adequate to the task at hand. Perhaps one of the great lessons that life teaches those who will think is that none of that really matters. In spite of the odds, in spite of our shortcomings, we often still succeed, if only we can find the courage to “be fell” even thought we know–or perhaps because we know: “Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”

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