Ballad of an Old Cypress Analysis

Du Fu

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 490 words.)