»  Li Bai's "Drinking Alone Under the Moon"


Drinking Alone Under the Moon

by Li Bai, a.d. 701-762


•  Background

I have a note on Li Bai here.

This poem belongs to Li Bai's middle period, which lasted from his brief spell as a court scribe in the capital, 742-744, to the An Lu-shan rebellion of 755, which changed everything for everyone.

Pierre Ryckmans passes the following remark in his essay "Poetry and Painting: Aspects of Chinese Classical Aesthetics" (collected here):

Li Bai is a poet who can associate with mountains and rivers; he converses with the sun and the stars, as you and I chat with our old friends; he drinks at the banquet of the planets, he rides on the tails of comets. For instance, if one night there is no one with whom to share his bottle of wine, he improvises at once a little party with three guests — himself, the moon, and his own shadow — and this lively drinking bout ends with an appointment for another gathering next spring, in the Milky Way …

For some general remarks of mine about Tang poetry, see here. For my review of Simon Elegant's fictionalized life of Li Bai, see here.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem



•  Perfectly literal, word-for-word translation

flowers among one jar liquor
alone carouse without mutual intimate

raise cup greet bright moon
facing shadow become three persons

moon since not free to-drink
shadow follow accompany my body

briefly accompany moon with shadow
go happy should avail-oneself-of spring

my song moon walk-to-and-fro irresolute
my dance shadow fragments disorderly

sober time together mix glad
drunk after each divide scatter

eternal connect without consciouness-of-self roam
mutual appointment remote cloud Milky-Way

•  My translation

Among the flowers with wine beneath the sky
Alone I drink — no friend or kin, just me.
I raise my cup to toast the moon on high.
That's two of us; my shadow makes it three.

Alas, the poor moon knows not wine's delight.
My shadow follows like a living thing.
At last with moon and shadow I unite
In joyful bond, to seize the last of spring.

I sing: it sets the moon to rock in time.
I dance: my shadow cannot hold its place.
Sober, we share companionship sublime;
Drunk at last, we drift apart in space —

Lost to worldly things, until some day
We'll meet again, beyond the Milky Way.

•  Witter Bynner's translation

From a pot of wine among the flowers
I drank alone. There was no one with me —
Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.
Alas, the moon was unable to drink
And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
But still for a while I had these friends
To cheer me through the end of spring. …
I sang. The moon encouraged me.
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were boon companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
… Shall goodwill ever be secure?
I watched the long road of the River of Stars.

•  David Hinton's translation

Among the blossoms, a single jar of wine.
No one else here, I ladle it out myself.

Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon,
and facing my shadow makes friends three,

though moon has never understood wine,
and shadow only trails along behind me.

Kindred a moment with moon and shadow,
I've found a joy that must infuse spring:

I sing, and moon rocks back and forth;
I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.

Sober, we're together and happy. Drunk,
we scatter away into our own directions:

intimates forever, we'll wander carefree
and meet again in Star River distances.