The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

In 757, Du Fu angered Emperor Su-tsung and was demoted to a minor position away from the capital. Widespread unrest and famine soon forced him to give up the post and travel in search of a livelihood. In 760, he managed to settle down in a “straw cottage” on the western suburbs of Ch’eng-tu (in Sichuan). The Straw Cottage became the focal point of interest in his poetry thereafter. Unfortunately, in 762, the uprising of Ch’eng-tu’s Vice Prefect Hsü Chih-tao caused him to flee again. In 764, after turning down an offer of a minor position in the capital, Du Fu returned to the Straw Cottage. A year had scarcely passed when Yen Wu, a military friend, recommended him to serve under the Council of Military Advisors. He accepted and took office in the city of Ch’eng-tu. Soon, however, he gave up the post and returned to the Straw Cottage, where he stayed until 766. “Broken Boat” was probably written in 764 upon his first return. As the poem begins, the poet states that all his life he has had “a heart for rivers and lakes” and that he was early equipped with a tiny boat, which was not meant merely for cruising along the stream and traveling in the vicinity of his modest abode. The implication here is that the poet has had lofty aspirations but has always been frustrated. For example, he had to flee in haste from the horrendous revolt only recently. Even at a distance, however, he has longed for a return to the sanctuary that he cherishes as home. Written in the form of a couplet, lines 5 and 6 highlight the chaotic nature of Du Fu’s times by accentuating his attachment to the Straw Cottage.

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Upon his return, the poet discovers that his neighbors are gone and the place has been overgrown with wild bamboos. The boat itself, with “No one to rap its rim [while singing a song],” has sunk. The images of desolation in lines 7 and 8 carry the poignant hint that, in an age of turmoil and suffering, peace can be only a matter of nostalgia. The contrast between the past and present conditions of the homestead is so devastating that, in the couplet that follows, the nostalgia grows into an existential crisis:

[I am] looking at the west-flying wings above;[I am] ashamed of the east-fleeting flow below.

The migration of the birds and the flow of the water seem to be the only constants in a world of tumultuous change. The spatio-temporal images here hint at a cosmic order that is not perturbed by human destiny. Such indifference renders one inconsequential and vulnerable. Feeling helpless and futile, the poet remarks that he is not saddened by the submerged boat—“The old one can perhaps be dug up;/ A new one is easy to be had” (lines 13 and 14)—but rather by the fact that, obliged to flee again and again, he cannot stay even in a humble house for long.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

In the T’ang dynasty, poetry was written mainly in either the “recent” or the “ancient” style. All the lines in a recent-style poem follow a set pattern of tonal contrasts and harmonies. An ancient-style poem, however, does not have a predetermined length, and there is no rigid tonal arrangement. Because its format can be tailored to the needs of the poem itself, since it is free from prosodic constraints, the ancient style is an appropriate vehicle for narration and cursive expression.

T’ang poetry is also categorized according to whether each line has five or seven characters. The seven-character format is suitable for weighty and complex subjects because of its larger capacity and greater flexibility. The succinct five-character format, which has a longer tradition behind it, is ideal for essentialistic expression because the minimal language enhances a sense of immediacy through unadulterated concentration on thoughts and feelings.

“Broken Boat” is an ancient-style poem with sixteen five-character lines. Two important couplets are present in the poem.

The first couplet, which juxtaposes the hasty escape from the uprising (line 5) with the passionate yearning that materializes into the return visit (line 6), is characterized by a tension between the fragile order the poet once established and the disastrous disorder he has had to endure. This tension points up other tensions in the human condition: that between war and peace and that between the transience of tranquillity and the permanence of irremediable disruption.

The second couplet (lines 11 and 12), though deceptively simple, is meticulously constructed according to the principles of antithesis and incremental reinforcement. “Above” and “west” (line 11) are contrasted with “below” and “east” (line 12), but the directional antithesis also serves to underscore the insentient nature of the cosmic order exemplified by the migrating birds and the flowing water. The two lines are also incremental in emotional intensity—while line 11 describes an action (looking up at the birds), line 12 highlights a mental condition (feeling ashamed). In sum, this couplet dramatizes the poet’s tragic sense of life by juxtaposing human nature in all its frailty with insensate Nature itself.

From a broader perspective, because its subject matter is a person returning home, “Broken Boat” also reminds one of “Returning to the Farm and the Fields to Stay,” a poetic sequence by the recluse T’ao Ch’ien (365-427). One may even regard “Broken Boat” as a dialogue with t’ien-yuan shih (pastoral poetry). According to this genre, a rustic existence, which has pleasures of its own to offer, is definitely preferable to the anxieties and taboos of civil service. “Broken Boat” is both an outgrowth and an offshoot of this pastoral tradition. While Du Fu also tried to lead a private life, eulogizing it in the earlier, relatively complacent days of the Straw Cottage, this poem raises important questions about the validity and even possibility of security and serenity in rural life. Special circumstances in his times, it seems, have led him to write a poem that questions the validity of the pastoral genre itself.

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