Different Views about the Romantic Theme in Li Shang-yin’s poetry

After roughly looking over the criticisms of the most important scholars over the past 10 centuries, I found many people, though have reached a consensus that Li is a romantic poet, hold different view on the themes of his love poems. There’re basically three opinions.

1. Li’s love poetry has little more substance than sheer desire.

2. Li’s love poetry has a intrinsic beauty, which makes it distinct from others’.

3. Li’s love poetry has important subtext.

The simplest view is that Li is a pure love poet whose work is lascivious. This view was fairly prevalent shortly after Li’s death and in Song dynasty, but gradually died out as studies in Li’s poetry became more in-depth (despite the fact that this impression still lingers in the masses’ mind today).

Another group of scholars believes that Li should not be categorized together with “normal” love poets, because the love he portrays has a “intrinsic beauty” and therefore is more aesthetic compared with love poems by others. Those scholars think the fundamental distinction of Li’s “romantic poetry” is that he appreciates women in a different way. An ambivalent tone is usually weaved  in his polished, melancholy language, and more often than not, he depicts love indirectly. Instead of portraying women’s bodies, faces, and how attractive they are visually, Li prefers to focus on their actions and the ambiance of the surroundings in his works. Wind, stars, letters, candles, boudoirs, enchanting fragrance, fading flowers, legendary animals are very common images in Li’s alleged love poems. If we decide these works are about love, they are certainly more beautiful than poems about revelries in brothels (which is a very common scene in Late Tang love poetry).

However, I still think Li is using these objects to reflect his rich inside world, rather than explicitly showing his love towards someone, which seems against his aesthetic values (he wrote many obvious sarcastic political poems in his early years, but after he got more mature, this kind of work could hardly be seen). In other words, the seeming love theme is a guise for the poet’s other intentions. A few scholars since Ming Dynasty tried to interpret Li’s poetry in this way. Feng Hao, a Qing critic, perfected the “guise theory”, but the “romantic” view remained dominant.  I think it is because the “guise theory” holders didn’t put efforts in researching the wide-spread love affairs Li was said to have had. Many of Li’s love stories lack factual supports; however, they had already been wide-spread, and it’s difficult to stop rumors. I guess the origin of these stories could be from Li’s political adversaries, who resented him for his vigorous attack on corruptions and government deficiencies.

I think the third view is the most plausible one, and I agree that the poet uses metaphorical language to disguise his original intention to a extent. Nevertheless, I prefer to interpret Li’s poetry as a mixture of emotions. Most of his poems that bring disputes are written in his late years.  During that period, he had experienced many adversities: his wife died rather young (and he didn’t re-marry), his career  was a failure, his son ended up being very mediocre. Political strife continued; Tang Dynasty fell more rapidly; no miracle appeared–his dream to revert the situation, or say, his hope that the situation could be reverted, was broken. Therefore, he should have many layers of emotions to embody in his poems after so many vicissitudes, which may also account for the vagueness and bleakness.