Facing the Snow

by Du Fu

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

Two of Du Fu’s poems bear the title “Facing the Snow.” One was written in late 756; the other, two years before his death in 770. The later poem essentially deals with the arrival of the northern snow, the inclement weather it brings, and the fact that although the poet is penniless, his reputation allows him to buy on credit as much wine as he pleases. The earlier poem, however, to be discussed below, has been translated more frequently and is better known. Full of anxiety and tension, it is also a much more engaging poem.

“Facing the Snow” was written in late 756 in the capital, Ch’ang-an. Rebels of the An-Lu Rebellion had been occupying the capital for several months, and Du Fu had been detained there, unable to take office or return home. Although the new Emperor Su-tsung mounted an attack against the rebels, his ineffective commanders lost thousands of men in several engagements in the early winter of 756.

The first line of the poem, “Battle-wailing, numerous are the new ghosts,” refers to this military disaster. The poet’s response to the situation was simply to grieve about it in his poetry: “Sorrow-singing, solitary is one old man” (line 2). As can be seen, the poem begins with a couplet that highlights the revolt rather than the snow. This suggests what the major concern of the poem is. The snow itself is mentioned in the next couplet: “Chaotic clouds descending upon the dimming dusk,/ Impetuous snow ruffling in the whirling wind.” The weather, described with great precision, is not only inclement but also ominous. The fact that the poem begins with two couplets, one about war and the other about the snowstorm, implies that there is an analogical relationship between the two. In fact, the analogy seems to be enlarged into an extended conceit in the next couplet: “The ladle is laid aside, the jar contains no green wine;/ The stove remains, the fire appears to be red still.” Although drinking wine and drawing warmth are mundane practices in winter, this couplet seems to be stating more than the obvious. As A. R. Davis points out in Tu Fu (1971), there “could be a symbol of the distress of a nation” in the poem. If this is so, then the idling ladle and the empty jar may refer to the lost government and the ravaged country, whereas the stove and the fire may imply that the new emperor still holds the country together with the moral leadership required for containing the rebellion. This extended conceit is made the more apparent by the conclusion of the poem, in which the poet states that because news has been cut off from several prefectures as a result of the occupation of the capital, he sits in sorrow “writing to the air” (a difficult phrase, which may mean he is at a loss about what to write in a letter, or about how to send or where to receive one).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634

“Facing The Snow” is written in the “recent style”, which came to full flower in the T’ang dynasty. Poems written in the recent style (so named to differentiate it from the “ancient style”) follow regular tonal patterns, and their couplets adhere to the rule of semantic and syntactic parallelism. The two types of recent-style poems are the lü-shih, or “regulated verse,” and the chüeh-chü, or “truncated verse.” The lü-shih has eight lines, the middle four of which are usually couplets, whereas the chüeh-chü has four lines and almost appears to be half of a lü-shih. All recent-style poems, whether “regulated” or “truncated,” have either five or seven characters per line.

“Facing the Snow” is a regulated-verse poem with five characters per line. Although most regulated poems have two couplets in the middle, “Facing the Snow” has three, which occur in succession beginning from line 1. It is unusual to begin a poem with a couplet. By doing so in “Facing the Snow,” Du Fu immediately directs the reader’s attention to the devastation of the current war and the effect it has on the poet. This couplet seems to be setting a pattern of macrocosmic-microcosmic correspondence for the next two, because the two situations described here (the outside world and the personal predicament) are dealt with in the second (the snowstorm) and the third couplets (a person running out of wine in winter), respectively.

The second couplet is characterized by the dramatic tension created by the antagonism of the elements. In each line there is some sort of battle going on. The “chaotic clouds” seem to threaten the “dimming dusk” (line 3), and the “impetuous snow” seems to be in conflict with the “whirling wind” (line 4). This impression is reinforced by the syntax of each line, which in the original has the following structure: Adjective Noun → Verb → Adjective Noun.

Chaotic clouds → descend → dimming dusk;Impetuous snow → ruffle → whirling wind.

Since the storm is still developing, the outcome is uncertain. This storm could very well be a thinly disguised trope for the current unrest.

While the second couplet deals with the macrocosmic dimension, the third couplet shifts back to the microcosmic. Here are two series of objects (the ladle, the jar, and the green wine in line 5, and the stove and the red fire in line 6) that suggest the interdependent bond between lord and subject, the governing and the governed. Despite the parallelism, however, the two halves of the couplet are antithetical because the first half stresses the negative (the ladle is abandoned and the jar is empty), whereas the second hints at the positive (the stove remains and the fire is red). Because the ladle, the jar, the wine, the stove, and the fire can very well be metaphors for the political conditions of the state, the negative half of the couplet thus alludes to the social upheaval and political disjunction of the time, whereas the positive half, which suggests a sense of connectedness, suggests that there is hope for the continuation of the T’ang regime.

Taken together, the second and third couplets constitute an extended conceit about the relationship between the political and the personal. This conceit is clarified by the last two lines. Because the conclusion is not in the form of a couplet, in effect it disrupts the prosodic regularity built up by the previous series of lines. Nevertheless, the conclusion does follow the same rhetorical pattern established earlier, because line 7 deals with the outside world (news from several prefectures has been cut off), whereas line 8 deals with a personal predicament (the poet sits in sorrow writing to the air). In a sense, thanks to this pattern, the conclusion draws the reader’s attention back to the beginning of the poem, thus creating a circular closure.

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