The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666

“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.

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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 along the Serpentine River—the river is actually a constructed waterway in the main park of Chang’an. He cannot help sobbing at the sight of the abandoned palaces along the waterside. Since the palaces are deserted, “For whom are the slim willows and new rushes green?” the poet questions rhetorically. The liveliness of nature plunges the poet into his reveries of the jostling scenes that could often be seen before the emperor was banished from the capital. The second stanza, lines 5-12, vividly captures how, at that time, the park was brightened by the royal gaiety. The maids of honor, armed with bows and arrows, lead the way for the carriage of the emperor and Yang Guifei sitting side by side. Their white horses are champing at the gold bridles. Leaning back, face skyward, one maid shoots into the clouds; two birds fall to the ground transfixed by one arrow. The third stanza, lines 12-16, shifts back to the poet’s sorrowful feelings with the question, “Bright eyes and white teeth, where are they now?” Du Fu visualizes Yang Guifei’s wandering soul, tainted with blood, unable to make her way back. What grieves the poet even more is the realization that there will be no way for Xuanzong, who remains alive, to communicate with his beloved Guifei, who has gone like the east-flowing water of River Wei.

It is typical of Du Fu to return to the present world in the final stanza. Lines 17-20 observe that any human with feelings, like himself, will shed tears over the tragic fate of Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, but the flowing waters and the blooming flowers along the bank remain unmoved. The last two lines correspond to the first two lines of the ballad: At dusk, the Tartar cavalry fills the city with dust. As the poet starts to move toward the south, he gazes longingly to the north. There are various interpretations regarding the “south” and “north” of this final verse. The poet is possibly heading toward Fengxiang, where the traveling court of the new emperor Suzong, son of Xuanzong, was located. His gaze to the north conveys a loyalist’s mixed feelings of nostalgia and expectancy. He longs for the emperor to return to the capital.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

The form of the poem falls into the category “Xinyuefu” (new court songs) in classical Chinese poetry. It resembles the style of the Western ballad, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Arthur Cooper has observed similarities between these two works’ poetic imagery. The poem, with twenty seven-syllabic lines, has a clear rhyme scheme in the original Chinese: Lines 1-4 rhyme with the sound u, while lines 5-20 maintain a basic rhyme pattern. A change of rhyme sets off the first four lines as an introduction. Iterations such as “ququ” (line 2), “jiangjiang” (line 18), and “chengcheng” (line 20) add to the musical quality of the poem in Chinese.

Du Fu employs two major poetic devices: contrast and indirectness. The poem is replete with binary images. The lush green of willows and rushes is in sharp contrast with the gloom of the locked palaces. Nature’s constant revival in a sense ridicules the ghost of Yang Guifei, who can never return. Thus the lover who is gone can no longer communicate with the lover who remains. Their distance is like the Wei River, which carried away Yang Guifei’s body, flowing eastward, while the Sword Pass, where Xuanzong remains, stands remote to the west. The final contrast between sentimental humans and indifferent nature brings the ballad to a denouement, deepening the helplessness of human sorrows.

Poetry can be quite effective in revealing truth indirectly, and Chinese poets especially cherish indirectness in poetic expression. Although Du Fu laments the death of Yang Guifei, no explicit references to her can be found in the poem. Instead, Du Fu writes about “the first lady of the Chaoyang Palace.” This lady is historically known as Zhao Feiyan, the consort of Emperor Chengdi, who reigned from 32 to 5 b.c.e.; Chaoyang was the name of the imperial palace during Zhou times. Although Zhao was slim and light like a flying swallow, while Yang was quite plump, their feminine charms for the ruler of the country were the same.

Du Fu’s deliberate transplantation of the first lady of the Zhou Dynasty into the capital of the Tang Dynasty adds to the reader’s poetic pleasure. Similarly, “rainbow banners” allude to Yang Guifei’s extravagant sisters, who display their power and richness by riding horses with gold bridles. “River Wei” refers to Yang Guifei because her body was carried away by its waters, while the Sword Pass refers to Xuanzong because he traveled there after Yang’s death. The line “the blood-soiled, wandering ghost cannot return” presents an interpretive enigma, as Yang Guifei was strangled to death on the Buddhist oratory in the Mawei Post Station, about thirty-eight miles west of the capital. Such indirectness may sorely challenge today’s readers’ historical knowledge. However, one may discard all allusions to history and enjoy the musical sound and beautiful imagery of the poem itself.

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