On Travelling by Boat at Night

Another passage of The Prelude reaches out and touches me.  Through this whole section I am hearing the poetry of St. John of the Cross (perhaps more about this later)--but then this image strikes and at once as I am thinking St. John of the Cross, I am also thinking of one of China's premier poets--Li Po.

from The Prelude: Book 1
William Wordsworth

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light.
 It is, at once, lovely and too lovely, perfect in the way that it conveys the sense of motion and the way one perceives that movement.  It is an imagist poem all to itself in the midst of a myth of considerable proportion.

Compare it to these moments from Li Po:

Autumn River Song
Li Po

The moon shimmers in green water.
White herons fly through the moonlight.

The young man hears a girl gathering water-chestnuts:
into the night, singing, they paddle home together.


Alone and Drinking Under the Moon

Amongst the flowers I
am alone with my pot of wine
drinking by myself; then lifting
my cup I asked the moon
to drink with me, its reflection
and mine in the wine cup, just
the three of us; then I sigh
for the moon cannot drink,
and my shadow goes emptily along
with me never saying a word;
with no other friends here, I can
but use these two for company;
in the time of happiness, I
too must be happy with all
around me; I sit and sing
and it is as if the moon
accompanies me; then if I
dance, it is my shadow that
dances along with me; while
still not drunk, I am glad
to make the moon and my shadow
into friends, but then when
I have drunk too much, we
all part; yet these are
friends I can always count on
these who have no emotion
whatsoever; I hope that one day
we three will meet again,
deep in the Milky Way.

Thoughts in a Tranquil Night
Athwart the bed
I watch the moonbeams cast a trail
So bright, so cold, so frail,
That for a space it gleams
Like hoar-frost on the margin of my dreams.
I raise my head, --
The splendid moon I see:
Then droop my head,
And sink to dreams of thee --
My Fatherland, of thee! 

Despite the sometime tortured translations, one can get the sense of where the image Wordsworth places either derives from or converges with some of the venerable Chinese poetry.  The moon is a common theme in poetry, so it is not unlikely that there is convergence, but neither is it unlikely that there is some sense of influence.  (One would need to demonstrate that Wordsworth not only had access to but actually used Chinese sources in his writing).  The point is, that the two strains converge, whether or not one feeds the other.

And more importantly, both are lovely.


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