Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 495 words.)