The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Lament by the River” is one of the most well-known poems by Du Fu (Tu Fu). The title suggests a tragic sense aroused by scenes along the river; its function is to establish the setting and mood of the poem. The word “lament” leads naturally to the “stifled sobs” in the beginning line. The poem is written in the first person. Although “I” is never mentioned and the first person speaks through the persona of “an old rustic from Shaoling,” no distinction lies between the poet and the speaker of the poem. Like most Chinese classical poets, Du Fu attempts to capture the intense feelings of his personal experience.

The poem was written in the spring of 757, after the imperial court was usurped by the rebel An Lushan. Many loyalists believed that the fall of the emperor was caused by his concubine Yang Guifei and her relatives, who gained power and wealth through nepotism. When Emperor Xuanzong escaped from the capital he was forced to have Yang Guifei put to death because of the impending mutiny of his troops. By January, 757, An Lushan had been killed in a palace coup in Loyang and his son had become the rebel emperor. Du Fu was absent from Chang’an at the time of its fall. He was probably taken by the rebels as a porter to the capital. It is possible that, while escaping from Chang’an, he paid his last tribute to the Serpentine River and was agonized by its plight.

The poem can be divided into four stanzas. The first stanza, with four lines, serves as the introduction. It portrays how on a spring day Du Fu, an old country person from Shaoling, southeast of Chang’an, walks stealthily...

(The entire section is 666 words.)