The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Ballad of an Old Cypress” is a short poem written by a talented Confucian scholar in his old age, who had tried repeatedly but failed, in the end, to realize his dream of serving a noble ruler in order to build a just and harmonious society. The poem addresses scholars who have “grand aims” as well as men who “live hidden away.” It explores the issue of how to cope with the ironic situation that great talents often lack the opportunity to meet rulers eager for their services. The advice it offers to its readers is that they should accept the irony without a “sigh.”

The poem can be divided into three eight-line sections. In the first section, the poet first depicts an aging cypress planted in Kuizhou in front of the shrine of Zhuge Liang (181-234 c.e.), a scholar, statesman, military strategist, and tactician who was fortunate to meet Liu Bei, the ruler of Shu, who anxiously sought Zhuge Liang’s advice. The depiction is characterized by realistic details about the tree’s boughs and bark fused with romantic hyperbole about its height of two thousand feet. The poet then reflects on the significance of the tree in history, saying that it is a treasured reminder of the meeting between a talented scholar and an ideal ruler. Finally, Du Fu assesses its effect on the meteorological condition of the Three Gorges and the Mountains of Snow.

In the second section, the poet first carries his audience,...

(The entire section is 564 words.)