The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

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“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, through his memory, to the Brocade Pavilion in Chengdu, the site of the adjacent shrines dedicated, respectively, to Zhuge Liang and his lord (in most English translations of the poem, the two are said to share one shrine). There were cypresses looming “high there,/ ancient upon the meadows”; however, the poet felt a sense of loss when he caught sight of “paintings dark and hidden away/ through the empty doors and windows.” Du Fu had reasons for his sense of loss: Zhuge Liang died in a military campaign before he had time to carry out his political program, and the story of Zhuge Liang was considered to be a very rare instance in history of a gifted scholar serving a high-minded ruler. The poet then refers to the tree in Kuizhou, saying that, unlike the trees in Chengdu that cluster together, it stands “firm,” “high and alone in the black of sky” in defiance of “many violent storms.” These qualities of the tree, according to the poet, are attributed to the creative power of nature itself.

The last section opens with the poet’s reflection on the troubled political condition of his time and similar situations in the past. He compares the Tang Dynasty to “some great mansion” about to collapse and compares talented scholars with the giant cypress in Kuizhou, which can serve as the “beams and rafters” needed to save the mansion. Unfortunately, there is no way to move the tree to the mansion; even ten thousand oxen would not be able to accomplish the mission. The implication is that a ruler with Liu Bei’s temperament is what is really needed, but there is simply no such ruler in sight. Du Fu ends his poem by urging his fellow scholars not to lament over their own fate, for “it has always been true that the greatest timber/ is hardest to put to use.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

“Ballad of an Old Cypress” is written in qigu (chiku), an old poetic form in which each line consists of seven words. This form was an effective vehicle for Du Fu’s impassioned poem on the issue concerning great talents. As an ancient, popular ballad form, it allowed him to convey his own views and emotions directly to his audience—aspiring Confucian scholars or disappointed talents in seclusion.

Among the most important technical aspects of the poem that have survived the translation into English is Du Fu’s skillfully orchestrated presentation of the cypress as the central image in the poem. He presents the tree from various perspectives and distances. A close-up of its “frosted bark” is accompanied by a distant shot of it standing on the northern bank of the Yangtze River with the Snow Mountains looming in the distance. A vertical view of the tree of “forty armspans” is followed by an angle shot of it reaching the sky “two thousand feet” above the ground. A mystic vision of the tree “vapor-linking” to the Wu Gorge is placed beside a heroic image of it standing “high and alone” braving “many violent storms.” Finally, a current view of the tree against the background of a tottering “great mansion” is complemented by a historical survey of it in light of the tumultuous years of the Three Kingdoms.

The poet’s artistic manipulation of the central image in the poem endows the tree with metaphorical, symbolic, and allegorical meanings. The cypress stands for Zhuge Liang as well as other gifted scholars, including the poet himself; it embodies their “upright straightness” and their aloofness; it manifests their potential to shape the destiny of their country; and it reflects their aspirations and frustrations. The cypress also stands as a symbol of the ideal that Confucian scholars pursue, that of bringing their talents and skills into full play in the service of a noble ruler. However, as the meeting of Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei is considered to be a rare event in history, the lone cypress also points to the tremendous odds against a “man of grand aims.”

Stylistic diversity is another important aspect that remains somewhat visible in the English translation of the poem. Objective depictions of the cypress in Kuizhou are juxtaposed with extravagant statements about its mystic role on the grand landscape. As shown at the very beginning of the poem, use of prose coexists with indulgence in poetic elevation, as indicated in lines depicting the “vapors” of the tree touching “the full length of Wu Gorge” and its “chill” reaching “the white of the Mountains of Snow.” Finally, an optimistic voice calling for persistent participation in politics is intermingled with a somewhat pessimistic voice endorsing resignation. Hence, one finds incorporated into the poem such diverse elements as authentic details and romantic visions, prosaic narrative and euphoric exaltation, the language of Confucian political activism and the rhetoric of Daoist passivism.