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Tracking the Banished Immortal

Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and Its Critical Reception

Paula M. Varsano
Copyright Date: 2003
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  • Book Info
    Tracking the Banished Immortal
    Book Description:

    Li Bo (701-762) has long inspired controversy among readers and critics. Known even during his lifetime as the "Banished Immortal," he continues to spark imaginations and challenge passionately held convictions about poetic values. In this lucid and gracefully written volume, Paula Varsano presents the first full-length study of Li Bo in English in half a century and the first extended look at the poet's critical reception. Persuaded that the essence of his poetry lay well beyond the reach of the usual modes of study and description, readers from the ninth to the twentieth century developed a particularly dynamic critical language. Varsano shows how this language, evolving out of the critical concepts of "emptiness" and "substance," answered the need to conceptualize shifting parameters of poetic creativity over hundreds of years. At the same time, she offers an account of Li Bo's entry into the canon and asks how this in turn transformed both the reception of his work and the transmission of his poetic persona. This story of Li Bo's critical reception and canonization is propelled by the malleable and elusive ideal of the "ancient." And so, Varsano devotes the second part of her study to the poems themselves, investigating those poetic manifestations of ancientness that translated into the enduring figure of the Banished Immortal.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6527-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Looking toward Heaven’s Gate
    (pp. 1-30)

    The pair of mountains called “Heaven’s Gate” marks the threshold between heaven and earth: the place that many readers will recognize as the dwelling place of the Tang poet Li Bo (701–762). Here, the edge of perceptible space becomes the center, and the massive solidity of the mountains serves, above all, to frame emptiness. As China’s famed Banished Immortal, the poet fittingly portrays himself looking toward, but never passing through, the gate to heaven. His vision singles out the objects whose existence shapes the breadth and depth of the otherwise immeasurable void.

    If this poem presents a vision of...


    • Chapter 1 Finding Substance in Emptiness: Tracking the Immortal, Mid-Tang through Ming
      (pp. 33-87)

      Lu Ji (261–303) was an exuberant and prolific poet, writing—and reading—at the dawn of the Six Dynasties, a period when lyrical, expressive, and descriptive poetry began replacing the public, didactic mode; a time, too, when practitioners began writing down their reflections on the writing of poetry and the standards for judging it. The first Chinese poet to attempt to describe the poetic process, Lu Ji chose the poetic form as his medium, seeking to cast his impressions in a language both near enough to its object to establish the credibility of homology, and distant enough to afford...

    • Chapter 2 To Study the Unlearnable: Li Bo in the Canon, Ming to Early Republic
      (pp. 88-138)

      He Yisun (fl. 1650), a poet known for his own “unfettered” style, looked back in nostalgia to the days when poets naturally produced works that would not merely withstand the wearing effects of time and ubiquity, but would benefit from them:

      [Concerning] the poetry of Li and Du, the prose of Han [Yu] and Su [Shi]: if you chant but one or two pieces, it seems that you could learn [their methods] and attain to their achievements. Only when you’ve chanted several dozens more do you perceive their wondrousness. If you set out to chant their entire oeuvres, the more...


    • Chapter 3 The Performance of Ancientness in the “Ancient Airs”
      (pp. 141-203)

      One of the more puzzling questions raised by the current arrangement of Li Bo’s collected works concerns the prominent and isolated position accorded theGufeng(Ancient airs), fifty-nine ancient-style poems grouped together to form the secondjuanof the collection. If frequency of translation and selection for anthologies are any indication, today these poems hardly figure among the most beloved of his works. Compared to the ubiquitous and nearly unanimous praise for Li Bo’syuefupoems and his regulated quatrains, unabashed admiration for theGufengis rare. EvenGufeng#1, cited above, the most frequently quoted poem in the group,...

    • Chapter 4 The Yuefu: The Anatomy of an Unfettering
      (pp. 204-257)

      Li Bo’s poem “A Summer Day in the Mountains,” beautifully translated by David Hinton, is not an expression of the joy of being naked in the woods, but of experiencing nakedness through the realization that one had always been clothed:

      Only when he hangs up his cap on a cliff do speaker and reader comprehend that, although stripped bare, he had not been truly naked until that moment. More than the refreshing sprinkling of pine winds on an unaccustomed brow, it is discovering the existence—and the superfluity—of this habitual accessory that creates the feeling of true liberation. And...

    • Chapter 5 Alluding to Immediacy
      (pp. 258-298)

      By now it will come as no surprise to find that there is more than a bit of playfulness in Li Bo’s choice of allusion as another one of his springboards to authentic, immediate expression—even though allusion hardly seems the material on which to base a revived poetics of immediacy. After all, allusion, unlike metaphor (which speaks to the intuition and draws upon little more than the information given within the poem itself), invokes an outside textual source, calling into play a reader’s acquired knowledge. Unlike the intertextuality of theyuefuor theGufeng, allusion is not sanctioned by...

    • Chapter 6 Epilogue: Li Bo Remembering and Remembered
      (pp. 299-316)

      It used to be common practice in the elementary schools of China to require children to learn the great poems of the past by heart. Young students would memorize the words long before they were prepared to understand them, so that they could recite them rhythmically and in loud unison upon demand. This practice tells of a strong sense of responsibility to tradition, to be sure. But, as one of those children of the olden days—now a man close to retirement—told me, there was another, less obvious good that came of this kind of rote learning. Not, he...

  7. Abbreviations
    (pp. 317-318)
  8. Notes
    (pp. 319-352)
  9. Character Glossary
    (pp. 353-358)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 359-372)
  11. Index
    (pp. 373-381)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 382-382)