Title: To One Unnamed ▪ 无题
Author: Li ShangYin ▪ 李商隐
Poetic Formlǜshī律诗

Apologies, individual character links no longer available for this poem...

1. (相 + 见 + 时 + 难) + (别 + 亦 + 难)
    (mutual + to see + time + hardship) + (leaving +
        also + difficult)
     gloss: It is hard for us to meet; it is also hard to

2. ((东 + 风) + (无 + 力)) + ((百 + 花) + 残)
    ((east + wind) + (no + strength)) + ((hundred +
        flower) + deficient)
     gloss: The east wind is so weak it cannot revive
     all these dying flowers

3. (春 + 蚕) + (到 + 死) + (丝 + 方 + 尽)
    (spring + silkworm) + (to arrive + death) + (silk +
        direction + to use up)
     gloss: When a spring silkworm dies, its silk is
     finally used up.

4. (蜡 + 炬) + 成+ 灰 + (泪 + 始 + 干)
    (candle + fire) + to become + ash + (teardrops +
       to begin + dry)
     gloss: The candle burns down to ash; its wax 
     tears begin to dry

5. (晓 + 镜) + 但 + (愁 + 云) + (鬓 + 改)
    (dawn + mirror) + but + (to worry + to say) + (hair
       on temples + to change)
     gloss: It grieves me to think that when you look
     in the mirror at dawn, your temples are turning
    (to grey)

6. (夜 + 吟) + (应 + 觉) + (月 + 光 + 寒)
    (night + song) + (must + to feel) + (moon +
        brightness + cold)
    gloss: At night you sing beneath the cold light of
    the moon

7. (蓬 + 山) + 此 + 去 + (无 + 多 + 路)
    (Peng + mountain) + this + to go + (not + many +
    gloss: Peng(lai) mountain is not very far from
    here (Penglai Mountain is part of Chinese myth)

8. (青 + 鸟) + (殷 + 勤) + 为 + (探 + 看)
    (teal + bird) + (eager + diligent) + to do + (to pay
       a visit to + to look after)
    gloss: Bluebirds attentively go to look after [her]
    (In Chinese mythology, bluebirds are the envoys
    of the Queen Mother of the West.)


To One Unnamed
translation by Jessica Alexander ©

It is difficult to meet; it's no easier to part.
The east wind is powerless and a hundred flowers fade.
The spring silkworm spins until his quietus comes,
And when the candle turns to ash, its waxen tears dry, too.
At dawn your disquieting mirror reflects greying hair;
Your evening melodies are bathed in cold moonlight.
Penglai Mount is not so far away:
Bluebirds, go, watch over her!


Li ShangYin wrote several poems with the same title.  Though they are literally called “Untitled”, they all speak about a woman, or various women, who forever remain(s) unnamed.  It appears to be standard convention to title the English translations “To One Unnamed”, another possibility for the character combination “无题”.

In this particular poem, the poet looks at the process of the heart, its ability to find hope in a hopeless situation.  He begins by describing the concrete difficulties in the relationship (lines 1 and 2), then moves into a description of his internal feelings through metaphors (lines 3 and 4), and finally describes how he envisages his lover when he thinks of her (lines 5 and 6).  Through these six lines, the tone has been one of despair and hopelessness.  The last two lines, however, give a glimmer of hope, though the situation has not changed.  Here we see the poet’s belief in the strength of human nature: hope always exists, even when it doesn’t.

The poet expresses hope in lines 7 and 8 by mentioning Mount Penglai, a mystical land from Chinese mythology where there is no pain and no winter (in stark contrast to the winter in which the poet and “the one unnamed” are in).  In what may be a crossover of myths, the poet also mentions bluebirds, known to be emissaries of the Queen Mother of the West, the goddess of immortality.  Perhaps here Li ShangYin was trying to contrast the mortality of human life with the immortality of human affection.

The two metaphors in lines 3 and 4 are especially interesting.  In line 3, the poet reminds us that a silkworm will spin silk until the day it dies and only then can it rest.  The character for silk () is a homonym with the character for longing ().  Li ShangYin is implying that, just as a silkworm will spin, so will a heart long, and only death will bring relief.  The metaphor in line 4 uses the fire of a candle as an image for the poet’s torment: as long as the candle burns, he will suffer.  Together, these two lines tell us the same thing, that is, that the poet knows that his love for “the one unnamed” will last a lifetime.

Lines 2, 4, 6, and 8 all rhyme obliquely.


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