The Lament by the River Themes

Du Fu

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like any sophisticated poem, Du Fu’s ballad allows for multiple interpretations. In spite of its autobiographical nature, it transcends personal experience and historical specifics. The universal theme of the vicissitude of human life and dynasties is enriched by Du Fu’s lamentation for Yang Guifei’s tragic death and the pitiful fall of Chang’an. Du Fu was the first in Chinese literature to address the theme of the love of Yang Guifei and Xuanzong, which continues to attract poets, storytellers, and dramatists today. The poet begins with sobbing for the fallen capital but ends with “weeping upon his breast” for the lover who remains as well as the lover who is gone. Death can carry away the body and even soul but cannot kill love. The pain from love is infinite.

Du Fu believed in the political function of poetry. Most of his poems contain subtle criticism of social problems. This poem shows that Du Fu sympathized with the loyalists. He attributed the fall of Chang’an to the corruption of Yang Guifei’s sisters and brothers. Their abuse of power and squandering of wealth are indicated by the “rainbow banners” following the emperor and the “gold bridles” for their horses. Their reckless gaiety foreshadows the death of Yang Guifei and the emperor: Two birds drop downward at their laughter. Du Fu seems to regard Yang Guifei as innocent, like the “clear water” of the River Wei. However, because it was through Guifei’s tie with the emperor that her relatives gained and abused power, her soul is soiled symbolically by the blood of victims.

Du Fu was influenced by the Taoist concept of nature; he perceived nature as indifferent and merciless. Yet humans pale by comparison with nature’s powerful, reviving force and permanent beauty because their glories are transitory and they give in to emotions too easily.