To One Unnamed – Li Shangyin

Hurriedly I translate Li’s poem, no doubt I make mistakes, is liulang (line 7) young liu, Master Liu, or have I let my homeless thoughts wander far beyond Pengshan mountain? Who writes this quick note, I cannot quite read the faded words, is it she or he?

Li Shangyin’s poem paints a picture of pleasure and grief, desire and failure, of the bitter sweetness of togetherness and loneliness. It is not known to whom these love poems refer and that is part of Li’s magic.

To one unnamed

Yes come, you said, and still you vanished without a trace
Than the moonlight glancing off the tower
At the bell-sounding of the fifth watch hour
To dream so far apart and as I cannot call, I cry
As hurriedly I write these lines, in ink not quite dry
A flickering candle palely casts its light
That shines from its blue green and gold cage
A hint of deer musk gathers on the lotus embroidered curtains
Homeless I am, wandering beyond Peng mountain
You on the other side, ten thousand peaks away

Original Chinese characters

無 題 之 一
來 是 空 言 去 絕 蹤
月 斜 樓 上 五 更 鐘
夢 為 遠 別 啼 難 喚
書 被 催 成 墨 未 濃
蠟 照 半 籠 金 翡 翠
麝 熏 微 度 繡 芙 蓉
劉 郎 已 恨 蓬 山 遠
更 隔 蓬 山 一 萬 重

Notes on the translation

Twelve centuries have passed since Li Shangyin composed these lines to an unnamed beauty. To get a sense of the meaning is not an easy thing. In English, the task would be comparable to translating the Venerable Bede’s 7th century Saxon into modern English. (“For þam nedfere | næni wyrþeþ” gives one a taste of the task, from Bede’s Death Song). The meaning of words change, grammar changes, cultural and historical context is misplaced or lost.

Still we labor on, hoping to find a light in the dark.

The poet’s unnamed muse has gone and the poet writes from his room in the flickering light of a candle, hurried words, trying to catch her before she is gone to far, and yet, it is to late. Some translators say she writes. Some translators call Peng Mountain the Enchanted Mountain, who knows.


Wútí zhī yī
lái shì kōngyán qù jué zōng
yuè xié lóu shàng wǔ gèng zhōng
mèng wèi yuǎnbié tí nán huàn
shū bèi cuī chéng mò wèi nóng
là zhào bàn lóng jīn fěicuì
shè xūn wēi dù xiù fúróng
liú láng yǐ hèn péng shān yuǎn
gèng gé péng shān yī wàn zhòng


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