The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In 757, Du Fu angered Emperor Su-tsung and was demoted to a minor position away from the capital. Widespread unrest and famine soon forced him to give up the post and travel in search of a livelihood. In 760, he managed to settle down in a “straw cottage” on the western suburbs of Ch’eng-tu (in Sichuan). The Straw Cottage became the focal point of interest in his poetry thereafter. Unfortunately, in 762, the uprising of Ch’eng-tu’s Vice Prefect Hsü Chih-tao caused him to flee again. In 764, after turning down an offer of a minor position in the capital, Du Fu returned to the Straw Cottage. A year had scarcely passed when Yen Wu, a military friend, recommended him to serve under the Council of Military Advisors. He accepted and took office in the city of Ch’eng-tu. Soon, however, he gave up the post and returned to the Straw Cottage, where he stayed until 766. “Broken Boat” was probably written in 764 upon his first return. As the poem begins, the poet states that all his life he has had “a heart for rivers and lakes” and that he was early equipped with a tiny boat, which was not meant merely for cruising along the stream and traveling in the vicinity of his modest abode. The implication here is that the poet has had lofty aspirations but has always been frustrated. For example, he had to flee in haste from the horrendous revolt only recently. Even at a distance, however, he has longed for a return to the sanctuary that he cherishes as home....

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Broken Boat Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In the T’ang dynasty, poetry was written mainly in either the “recent” or the “ancient” style. All the lines in a recent-style poem follow a set pattern of tonal contrasts and harmonies. An ancient-style poem, however, does not have a predetermined length, and there is no rigid tonal arrangement. Because its format can be tailored to the needs of the poem itself, since it is free from prosodic constraints, the ancient style is an appropriate vehicle for narration and cursive expression.

T’ang poetry is also categorized according to whether each line has five or seven characters. The seven-character format is suitable for weighty and complex subjects because of its larger capacity and greater flexibility. The succinct five-character format, which has a longer tradition behind it, is ideal for essentialistic expression because the minimal language enhances a sense of immediacy through unadulterated concentration on thoughts and feelings.

“Broken Boat” is an ancient-style poem with sixteen five-character lines. Two important couplets are present in the poem.

The first couplet, which juxtaposes the hasty escape from the uprising (line 5) with the passionate yearning that materializes into the return visit (line 6), is characterized by a tension between the fragile order the poet once established and the disastrous disorder he has had to endure. This tension points up other tensions in the human condition: that between...

(The entire section is 500 words.)