Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
The poem begins with an allusion, in the phrase “a heart for rivers and lakes.” The meaning of Du Fu’s poem hinges on this phrase, which originally appears in the Taoist anthology Chuang-tzu. In a dialogue quoted in the essay “Jang wang” (“On Relinquishing the Throne”), a prince raises an existential question: “When a person’s body is loitering about the rivers and lakes, and yet his heart is settled under the lofty portals [of the court], how does one handle this problem [of discrepancy]?” In other words, how can one reconcile the conflict between one’s aspiration to be free (at the cost of deprivation) and one’s desire to be a member of the court (at the cost of being free)? To this the interlocutor replies that one should regard life as more valuable than material gains. This dialogue sheds important light on the poem.
The allusion suggests primarily that Du Fu, like T’ao Ch’ien before him, may have eventually endorsed the Taoist position, feeling that the integrity of self is more precious than public life. The allusion does not, however, preclude the possibility that in Du Fu’s case the Taoist position can still be accompanied by a desire to contribute to the well-being of the state. Does Du Fu, a diehard patriot, not wish to be doing something better? Has he, practically a refugee and vagrant, not had enough wandering? Because both conditions are sadly true, it would seem that in cataclysmic times the aspiration to be free and the desire to have a part to play are not meant to exclude each other but rather to be interwoven into an irresolvable conflict.
In the final analysis, the predicament of irreconciliation arises because a choice between aspiration and desire does not exist. Indeed, the absence of choice is the major theme of “Broken Boat,” and it begins to develop after the opening allusion. The poet has chosen a home, but numerous social upheavals have rendered that choice null and void. A similar destiny also affects his neighbors (line 7). A boat would have kept him free at least in principle, but not even this option is left open. The realization that he is living through a social tragedy makes the poet conclude that his grief is not over a broken boat, but rather the perpetual condition of homelessness.
The boat can indeed be regarded as a thematic symbol of this homelessness. The east-flowing river may have put the poet to shame because of the factual vagabondage rather than the metaphysical liberation it symbolizes. Indeed, “Broken Boat” is emblematic of the last decade or so of Du Fu’s life and career. Spending a large part of this period traveling by boat not in order to feel free but to take refuge, he wrote the last line of his poetry on the deck of a boat, which is also the place where he breathed the last breath of his life.