Poems of Li Ye
Lakeside, Unwell, But Happy as Geese Gradually Arrive
I have seen my share of September moons.
But today, a bitter fog rolls in.
As we meet by chance, I am still unwell.
I want to talk but only cry instead.
The local wine strongly urges itself on me.
Still, I chant this poem to beg your excuse.
At any rate, I've managed to get quite drunk.
And where would I rather be than here?
Let's try another least-true timeline with what little we have for Li Ye. She says she is middle-aged as she goes to the palace during the Dali era (766-799). Let's say that makes her thirty-five in the middle of that era, 772. So she is approximately born in 737 in the Kaiyuan era of Emperor Xuanzong. We know that she is put to death by Dezong who ruled 780-805. If he is prosecuting poets, including Li Ye who was esteemed by the last emperor, he probably does it quickly as some move of consolidation at the beginning of his reign, say by 782. [Later: 784 appears to be the actual date. Timeline adjusted.] So for our statistically, least-true timeline, for a beginning, we have:
- 737 Li Ye is born.
- 772 Li Ye is called to the palace by Xuanzong for her poetic excellence. She stays for a month. She is 35.
- 784 Li Ye is put to death by Dezong for having written poems critical of the empire. She is 47.
In the above poem, Li Ye does not seem young. "I have seen my share of September moons" is not something you reflect on in your twenties and early thirties. Perhaps this poem comes after her call to the palace. The phrase 谢客诗 means literally "thanking guest poem." Thanking a guest is a euphemism for excusing oneself as unable to see your honored guest and sending him on his way. Lakeside, unwell, drinking substantially, she starts to speak to the geese but cries instead. It is the geese she meets here by chance, on a cold misty day.
Or perhaps it is Lu Yu (陆羽) whose courtesy name is Hongjian (鸿渐), which makes a more usual sense of the lu4 character but loses the geese, which are more poetic. Lu was friends of other poets known to Li Ye. So he could be her friend too. That's how the logic goes for the Lu Yu argument. While it is true that Lu's courtesy name is "Goose Gradually" (worst case translation) and there are poems of his contemporaries to prove it, this fact does not imply that actual geese are not by the lake, reminding Li of Lu so that he gets his name in the title as a pun on "Mainland Geese Gradually Arrive."
The truth in all of the analyses of these poems in Chinese and of later translations and analyses in other languages is never more than the truth of my timeline for Li Ye, a kind of least-true truth. What you have is a set of assertions which could be true. And the work before us is to reduce that set by removing what is not true. Multiple truths will always remain because given a set of substantive standpoints, we are left with possible truths generated by each member of the set of standpoints which, due to lack of data, cannot be proven false.