Countless the twigs which tremble in the dawn
Li Shangyin's poem 'Willow' is the source of the line 'Counting the leaves which tremble at dawn' in 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'. Like Waters' other lines about 'swallows resting' and 'lotuses yearning', this line points to a deep agitation which belies the stillness of the time just before sunrise.
However, the original poem is far from disturbing. In fact, it has an element of sensuality and playfulness that come through rather vividly in translation. The poet is praising in a subtle but quite unmistakeable way the physical charms of the woman who is the subject of the poem. (The tone suggests a poem of a public nature.)
The lyrics to 'Cirrus Minor' also refer to the willows waving to the river daughters. Could this line have been written under the influence of this or other poems in Poems of the Late T'ang which refer to willows?
Who was Li Shangyin?
Boundless the leaves roused by spring,
Countless the twigs which tremble in the dawn.
Whether the willow can love or not,
Never a time when it does not dance.
Blown fluff hides white butterflies,
Drooping bands disclose the yellow oriole.
The beauty which shakes a kingdom must reach through all the body:
Who comes only to view the willow's eyebrows?
|Boundless the leaves roused by spring,||動春何限葉，
dòng chūn hé xiàn yè
move spring what limit leaves
|Countless the twigs which tremble in the dawn.||撼曉幾多枝？
hàn xiǎo jǐ duō zhī
shake dawn how many branches?
|Whether the willow can love or not,||解有相思否？
jiě yǒu xiāng sī fǒu
[whether] can have mutual thought or-not
|Never a time when it does not dance.||應無不舞時。
yīng wú bù wǔ shí
must no not dance time (=there's not a time)
|Blown fluff hides white butterflies,||絮飛藏皓蝶，
xù fēi cáng hào dié
fluff fly hide white butterfly
|Drooping bands disclose the yellow oriole.||帶弱露黃鸝。
dài ruò lù huáng lí
bands weak reveal yellow oriole
|The beauty which shakes a kingdom must reach through all the body:||傾國宜通體，
qīng guó yí tōng tǐ
[beauty that] tilt country should throughout body
|Who comes only to view the willow's eyebrows?||誰來獨賞眉？
shuí lái dú shǎng méi
who come only appreciate eyebrows?
As A. C. Graham points out, '"willow eyebrows" is a phrase used for both willow leaves and arched eyebrows'. It was used by Tang poets to describe a woman's charms.
Some hold that the poem refers to Liu Zhi ('Willow Branch'), with whom Li Shangyin had an affair. For others the playful tone suggests it was written for a singing girl or prostitute.
The expression 'to tilt a kingdom' or 傾國 qīng guó is a Chinese description for a woman of great beauty who is capable of bringing about the ruin of a country. In the West, Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, is a good example of a 'kingdom-tilting beauty'.