In “The Journey North,” Du Fu has received formal permission from the emperor to make a visit to his wife and children, but the poet wonders how important he should consider his family at a time when “the whole universe is suffering fearsome wounds.” In this state of confusion and anxiety, he begins his phantasmagoric journey through a devastated and depopulated countryside. There is temporary respite when he comes to the mountains—“Here retired pursuits could be enjoyed.” Yet the world calls him back, and he must cross an old battlefield at night, the moonlight illuminating white bones.
The poet’s homecoming is a widely praised passage. He finds his wife and children in patched clothes; his spoiled son is now barefoot and pale, and Du Fu himself falls sick and takes to his bed. At this point, he realizes that he has some cosmetics and silk in his bag, and the children take immediate pleasure in the makeup, playing at being grown-ups. The poet can temporarily forget the trials of life in the pleasure of being with his children.
After these three dozen lines of domestic realism, the poem returns to its initial mode, and Du Fu turns to speculating on the outcome of the rebellion. He says that he believes that the “demonic atmosphere will soon break,” that the empire is, after all, built on firm foundations.
The poem is striking for its mixture of the domestic and the high political. The “shifting style,” with its abrupt changes of mood and topic, is characteristic of Du Fu and sets him apart from his contemporaries. He is quite happy to let the personal stand beside the public and to unify the two in the space of a poem, although his sense of himself as a potentially public figure, and sometimes as a mildly absurd one, constantly draws him back to earth.