One inch of love is an inch of ashes
It is one of Li Shangyin's untitled poems that provided Roger Waters with one of his most haunting and disturbing lines: 'One inch of love is one inch of shadow'.
Li Shangyin's poem is a beautiful verse dealing with the disappointment of love, but beneath the surface beauty lie strong intimations of an illicit love affair.
Who was Li Shangyin?
UNTITLED POEM (ii)
The east wind sighs, the fine rains come:
Beyond the pool of water-lilies, the noise of faint thunder.
A gold toad gnaws the lock. Open it, burn the incense.
A tiger of jade pulls the rope. Draw from the well and escape.
Chia's daughter peeped through the screen when Han the clerk was young,
The goddess of the River left her pillow for the great Prince of Wei.
Never let your heart open with the spring flowers:
One inch of love is an inch of ashes.
|UNTITLED POEM (ii)||無題 其二
wú tí qí èr
No title no. 2
|The east wind sighs, the fine rains come:||颯颯東風細雨來
sà sà dōng fēng xì yǔ lái
'sa' 'sa' (sound) east wind, fine rain come
Beyond the pool of water-lilies, the noise of faint thunder.
fúróng táng wài yǒu qīng léi
lotus pool outside there-is light thunder
|A gold toad gnaws the lock. Open it, burn the incense.||金蟾嚙鎖燒香入
jīn chán niè suǒ shāo xiāng rù
gold toad gnaw lock, burn incense enter
|A tiger of jade pulls the rope. Draw from the well and escape.||玉虎牽絲汲井回
yù hǔ qiān sī jí jǐng huí
jade tiger pull rope draw well return
|Chia's daughter peeped through the screen when Han the clerk was young,||賈氏窺簾韓掾少
Jiǎ shì kuī lián Hán yuàn shào
Jia Miss peep blind, Han clerk young
|The goddess of the River left her pillow for the great Prince of Wei.||宓妃留枕魏王才
Mì fēi liú zhěn Wèi wáng cái
Mi princess leave pillow Wei king talented
|Never let your heart open with the spring flowers:||春心莫共花爭發
chūn xīn mò gòng huā zhēng fā
spring heart don't with flower strive open
|One inch of love is an inch of ashes.||一寸相思一寸灰
yī cùn xiāng-sī yī cùn huī
one inch emotion one inch ash
The poem is simple enough on the surface, but as Li Shangyin was one of the most allusive of poets, his poems are amenable to many interpretations.
- The poem is written from the point of view of a woman secluded in her apartments, vainly waiting for her lover. The first line indicates the coming of spring and the burgeoning of love and desire.
- In the second line, the 'noise of faint thunder' beyond the pool of water lilies is mistaken for the wheels of a vehicle.
- The next two lines (A gold toad... A tiger of jade... ) are a mistranslation on the part of Graham. As explained by Xu Yuanchong (Golden Treasury of Quatrains and Octaves, 中国出版集团、中国对外翻译出版公司, Beijing 2008):
"The gold toad is an ornament on the door of a mansion. The toad gnawing the lock means the door is locked. When the incense is burned, it means time is late. "Open it" is a mistranslation; it should read that the poet comes and enters the door. The tiger of jade is also an ornament on the windlass of a well; it is not the subject of the verb to pull, which is understood to be a person. "Escape" is another mistranslation; it should be understood as indicating that the poet goes out of the door at dawn when people begin to draw water from the well. The words "incense" (xiang) and "silk rope" used together (xiangsi) mean lovesickness. The poet writes these two lines to describe a tryst with his unnamed mistress."
- The next two lines (Chia's daughter... The goddess of the River...) refer to two stories exemplifying the power of a woman's love. Both stories carry disturbing undercurrents suggesting illicit affairs that involve a dangerous betrayal of trust towards a third party. In the first story, Jia's daughter fell in love with the capable young clerk Han Shou, who was working for her father, a minister of state. The two had an affair. Jia's daughter gave her lover a rare perfume presented to her father by the Emperor. When the perfume on Han's clothes gave the couple away, Han was forced to take her to wife. Despite the respectable ending, the affair was in effect a betrayal of the trust held in Han Shou by his boss, the girl's father.
- The second story involves two brothers, Cao Zhi and Cao Pi, who were sons of the great general Cao Cao. Cao Pi was a conniver who usurped the imperial throne of Wei. Cao Zhi, Prince of Wei, was a great poet. Cao Zhi was in love with Lady Zhen and asked for her hand. Instead, Lady Zhen was given to his brother, the Emperor Cao Pi. The Lady died thereafter, according to some accounts as a result of slanderous allegations concerning her relationship with Cao Zhi. Cao Pi, knowing of his brother's affection, gave Cao Zhi her embroidered pillow as a keepsake, moving Cao Zhi to tears. On his way home from the capital, Cao Zhi dreamt he saw Lady Zhen at the Luo River. In the dream, the Lady told Cao Zhi that her heart belonged to him and that the pillow represented her love. Moved, Cao Zhi wrote a poem about this which was later seen by his brother, the Emperor. The Emperor changed the title of the poem so that it referred to the legendary Princess Mi, who had drowned in the river Luo and had thus become the river goddess. In this roundabout way, the poet is referring to the undying love of Lady Zhen for the Prince of Wei. Again, this love carries undertones of a betrayal of trust, by Cao Zhi towards his brother the Emperor.
- As an illustration of Li Shangyin's artistry, these two stories both refer back to earlier lines, i.e., the incense burner with the gold toad (Jia's daughter and the incense) and the jade tiger with the rope (the unbroken tie of love between the daughter of Zhen and the Prince of Wei).
- The last two lines bring us back to the futility of love. The woman waits vainly for her lover. Although it is spring and the flowers are blooming, it is useless to hope. The one inch of love in the heart can only burn itself out in ashes. As A.C. Graham points out, this image also recalls two of Li Shangyin's favourite images of love, a continuing thread and a candle flame.
- The expression 'one inch of love' does not have the slightly obscene connotations that it may have for some modern Western readers. It refers to emotions in the heart, which were said to occupy 'a hollow space in the heart one inch square'. This is shown in an earlier poem by Meng Jiao called 'Wanderer's Song', which contains the lines: 'Who will say that the inch of grass in [the wanderer's] heart / Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring (i.e., his mother's love)'.
Roger Waters took the last line of this poem for his song, but changed the words from 'one inch of love is an inch of ashes' to 'one inch of love is one inch of shadow'. This is a very interesting change that I discuss in the section Significance of the Allusions'.