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Reading Du FuNine Views$

Xiaofei Tian

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9789888528448

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888528448.001.0001

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Foundings of Home

Foundings of Home

On Du Fu and Poetic Success

(p.15) 1 Foundings of Home
Reading Du Fu

Jack W. Chen

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The question of home is central to the poetic project, where it is most often experienced in terms of its loss. Yet poetry also holds out hope for the restoration of home, which may be understood through Allen Grossman’s phrase, “poetic success,” or the possibility for poetry to effect some kind of victory despite the inexorable conditions of reality. For Du Fu, his poems composed while in Chengdu, living at his Thatched Cottage, thematize the question of home and celebrate, however temporarily, a sense of belonging and peace for the restless poet. This essay explores a set of Du Fu’s poems from this period, demonstrating what might count as poetic success for Du Fu while in exile from his true home in the capital region.

Keywords:   home, poetic success, exile, Thatched Cottage, the ordinary

Thus inevitably does the universe wear our color, and every object fall successively into the subject itself. The subject exists, the subject enlarges; all things sooner or later fall into place.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”1

Much has been written on the historical stakes of Du Fu’s poetry, on how he writes against the backdrop of war and disaster, bearing witness to the fate of the dynasty. To read Du Fu in terms of history is to argue for a conception of poetry as embodying significance, often understood in the literary tradition as bound up with moral judgment. However, pervading Du Fu’s poetry is a broken conviction about the significance of poetry, one that undercuts easy didacticism. On the one hand, Du Fu clearly believes that the composition of poetry is invested with moral, political, and historical significance, seeking in poetry the means to put forward arguments about himself and the circumstances around him. Yet, on the other hand, he constantly expresses worry over the ineffectiveness of his poetic acts and gestures, painfully wondering whether what he does truly means anything, whether anything can be salvaged through poetry.

The hope of poetic success—and its constant shadowings of failure—haunt Du Fu even as they spur him ever onward in the writing of poetry. I take the notion of poetic success from the poet and critic Allen Grossman, who writes, “The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.”2 What Grossman argues here is that poetry offers redress against a reality that cannot be otherwise changed, which for him is the condition of our mortality. Poetry thus becomes a means of speaking desire, of expressing what one would will, if one only had the power to effect one’s will. Stephen Owen identifies this quality in Du Fu when he speaks about the optative in his poetry, noting moments in which Du (p.16) Fu expresses a hope for things to be other than they are.3 To be sure, we find optative gestures in poetry that long precede Du Fu, beginning with the earliest examples of classical poetry at the end of the Han dynasty, but, in Du Fu, the voicing of hopeful desire is more acutely felt in his knowledge of its impossibility and, indeed, may be said to go beyond mere literary convention, constituting a recurring and integral theme of his work. Before turning to the main part of my argument, I wish to acknowledge also Paul Rouzer’s essay “Du Fu and the Failure of Lyric Poetry,” which takes up some of the same concerns, though framed in the broader contexts of contemporary poetic interpretation.4 My argument runs parallel, in many ways, to Rouzer’s, both in terms of the entwined themes of hope and failure and in terms of the stakes of poetry.

In examining the question of poetic success for Du Fu, I focus on the idea of home and the importance of home after the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763). It will be my larger argument that the gestures in Du Fu’s poetry to found and locate a sense of home are, in fact, attempts to find significance beyond the context of empire and dynastic trauma, to find it even (or especially) within the ordinary, a concept that I borrow from Stanley Cavell and to which I will return throughout this chapter.5 For Du Fu, the hope for success is frequently tempered by his awareness of failure, and, even when he claims to win out over his circumstances, he undercuts his victory with ironic realization or returns to a scene of disappointment by thematizing his personal failure itself as the subject of poetry. This is a hope that persists in spite of his failures, uncertainties, and realizations of self-misprision. In this way, Du Fu comes to his poetic powers as essentially an ironic reader, one who may admire the hyperbolic self-imagination of a poet such as Li Bai 李白‎ (701–762) but cannot himself play the roles that Li Bai plays—at least, not without a sense of distance and self-consciousness.

However, the idea of home represents for Du Fu the hope that there might be a form of poetic success that will persist after one’s failures or, perhaps rather, despite them. Home is often considered a fixed place within our memories, a site of nostalgia—or, indeed, the site of nostalgia—around which our past is constructed and our present understood. Yet we have many homes throughout our lives, and the act of finding—and of founding—a home carries us through our lives. Throughout Du Fu’s poems, there is a constant longing for home, and this longing becomes ever more pronounced after the near collapse of the Tang Empire, as Du Fu travels from one location to another. It is difficult to think of Du Fu outside of the An Lushan Rebellion and its aftermath, having emerged within literary historical memory as the one poet who bore witness to Tang dynastic crisis. Yet he is also the poet for whom the ordinary could be the stuff of poetry, and the longing for home is, at its heart, a wish for the return to the ordinary, to a sense of life that both precedes and postdates the trauma of momentous events.

I begin with the poem “No Return” (“Bu gui” 不歸‎), which is set during the rebellion but views the rebellion’s tragedy through the poet’s memories of his dead cousin: (p.17)


No Return6


There is still fighting in Hejian,


your bones lie in a deserted city.


Everyone has cousins,


but all my life this bitterness will not calm.


I am touched by your superiority when counting coins,


I cherish your cleverness when your hair was tied in tufts.


Over your face lie three years of earth,


and once again plants grow in the breeze of spring.

The fighting of the poem’s opening line alludes to the retaking of Luoyang by the imperial forces after their loss to An Lushan’s armies in the rebellion. However, in the second line Du Fu immediately changes the scale of the stakes from that of the empire’s fate to that of his dead cousin’s, beginning an apostrophic address that comprises the rest of the poem in which he laments the bones of his cousin in the ruined city. In the third couplet, Du Fu recalls his cousin to him through two precise memories that still haunt him, memories that have no significance to anyone but Du Fu. His cousin’s quickness at counting money and cleverness as a young child are moments of the ordinary, moments that might have otherwise been forgotten, that are transformed by tragedy into images of what Du Fu has personally lost because of the war. In the poem’s close, he admits the undeniable, that his cousin is buried and gone, and remarks on the remorseless progress of the seasons, how spring has returned, plants growing over the bodies of the dead. The indifference shown by spring’s renewal reveals the final irony, that the seasons may return each year but that his cousin never will.

Still, at least for the space of the poem, Du Fu is able to summon his cousin into presence through an apostrophic gesture. Within the forensic contexts of classical rhetoric, Quintilian defines apostrophe as the “turning away from the jury,” by which he means the diverting of speech in oratory to address someone other than the judges of the contest (who are the expected addressees).7 However, this meaning has changed within contemporary criticism, becoming understood instead as a turning away to address some other, who may or may not be present in the scene and indeed may be dead or immaterial.8 In this more recent context, apostrophe names a class of tropes that privileges poetic speech at a moment when human limits are experienced, for which the most prominent member of would be deisis, or the poetic invocation of the divine (for inspiration, among other occasions). Thus, the moment of apostrophic speech is also a moment of poetic society, for apostrophe breaks from the poem’s discourse to call to a “you/Thou,” naming the absence and seeking to fill it with another kind of presence, one born out of poetry, making the gesture one of turning toward in the moment that the speaker turns away.

(p.18) Yet apostrophe is limited by the fact that it may succeed in only one way: it is voiced only in absence of the addressee. If one speaks to the absent other only in the full knowledge of the other’s absence, apostrophe fails—and cannot but fail—in all the other ways that might be important to the speaker. Du Fu names “your bones” (ru gu 汝骨‎) only when the “you” has become a thing, mere bones, separated by both distance and calamity. Moreover, because Du Fu is addressing a “you” of absent bones, there is another facet to his apostrophe: when we speak of bones either in poetry or in philosophy, we are speaking not only of traces and remainders but of the ineluctable truth that underlies the social world. The bones of Du Fu’s young cousin mark the limits of poetic imagination because no matter how the poet gives shape and voice to the dead other, the thingness of the bones, their uncanny otherness, still resists and negates the efforts of human society. There is thus a second degree of distance here. When Du Fu speaks to the bones, he is speaking to traces that are themselves absent and must be first summoned into presence by apostrophic speech, just so they may be acknowledged as mere traces. Yet the poet’s address cannot be reciprocated. Like the (absent) “deserted city” (kongcheng 空城‎), the bones are merely the (absent) remaining index of a permanent loss. Even where poetic gesture may succeed—in naming the trace as something present to the poetic self—it still must fail; the bones may not be given life again.

The title of “No Return” names a concern with home through its impossibility, the impossibility of the poet’s dead cousin to ever return. Yet home does not name the particular building in which one dwells; rather, it is a particular transformation of social space—a staking of the locus in which the self may turn toward the other and the other may respond in kind. The turn toward cherished memory emphasizes the intimacy of the space, preserving the private significance of the other for the self in the elements of the ordinary that no other person might have noticed. There is a way in which Du Fu sketches a relationship between “returning” as a general movement and “home” as that to which one turns or that one seeks. Within Du Fu’s two instanced memories, which capture the intimate ordinary, a vignette of home appears. After all, the notion of home is constructed in part by the sense of the ordinary, a shift from the heightened sensibility of poetic experience to a familiarity so unremarkable that it becomes invisible: let us say, domestication. It is society, an immersion in other lives, but without wonder or shock, merely the comfortable passage through shared space. When Stanley Cavell insists in his essay “Declining Decline” that Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations emphasizes a returning of language from the abstracted realm of the metaphysical to its ordinary usages, he is equating the ordinary with a notion of home.9 But, of course, we come to recognize home only when we are in exile; when we are home, we immediately forget and displace our comfort with boredom. It is in this way that Du Fu first experiences home when he is lost to it, able to touch its familiar textures only in poetic appeal.

The question of home comes to occupy a great share of Du Fu’s middle-period and later poetic work, constituting a kind of literary topography of exile. His poems on this theme are numerous, and they include more idyllic poems, such as the many poems on the Thatched Cottage (caotang 草堂‎) in Chengdu, and the poetry of loss, such as those that take wandering as their theme. Most famous are the pieces that compose the “Stirred by Autumn” set of eight poems (“Qiuxing bashou” 秋興八首‎), in which Du Fu’s poetic vision flickers back and forth between historical and imaginary landscapes on the (p.19) one hand and the actual sites through which the traveler makes his way on the other.10 What gives rise (xing 興‎) to the poetic travels, as well as to Du Fu’s own experience of exile, is represented as the loss of home. This can be seen in the last line of the fourth poem of this set: “The life I used to have at home is the longing in my heart” 故國平居有所思‎.11 Owen translates the phrase pingju 平居‎ as “the life I used to have,” though Du Fu is also speaking of “dwelling” or “inhabiting” a space of a lost sense of the ordinary, one that comes to signify his “homeland” (guguo 故國‎) in the aftermath of rebellion. Here, the gesture to his former home takes the form of an apostrophic gesture without address, as a turning toward a space and a life that no longer is possible. Instead of a human other (or the traces of a once-human other), the poet names a specific site in the past for which he longs but knows he can no longer have.

To come to rest at a place (ju 居‎) is to found a home (jia 家‎). The term guguo identifies one such home, but it is an imagined space and community, rather than a precise geography. This is not the political space of the modern nation-state (guojia 國家‎) but rather something that seems to fall between a political homeland and a “home-land” (the actual piece of earth upon which one builds one’s home), and we may hear both the evocation of a state order and the memory of a domestic space. However, the concept of home is far richer than this. In nineteenth-century America, Ralph Waldo Emerson will write that “I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms is not the world I think.”12 Emerson does not name the notion of home explicitly, but when Geoffrey H. Hartman writes, “we are born aliens into a world which is at most a foster home, or substitute heaven,” Hartman makes explicit the oblique echo.13 Home is what lies beyond this world of limitations, a realm in which our hopes may become realities. In this sense, Du Fu’s gestures toward home become efforts to found a home, optative statements that acknowledge the hard facts of reality and seek to rise above them.

In turning to the question of home in Du Fu, we must also turn to biography and the itinerary of Du Fu’s travels. The set of poems that compose “Stirred by Autumn” come near the end of Du Fu’s life, when he finds a brief refuge in Kuizhou in the years 766–768.14 However, there is a period of relative peace and happiness that precedes this: the famous Chengdu years, or the years in the Thatched Cottage. A series of poems from “Siting a Dwelling” (“Bu ju” 卜居‎) to “My Cottage Is Finished” (“Tang cheng” 堂成‎), and others, bears witness to the poet in the process of poetically declaring himself to be home.15 For example, in “As a Farmer” (“Wei nong” 為農‎), he writes, “I site my dwelling, to grow old from this moment on, / being a farmer, far from the capital” 卜宅從茲老‎, 為農去國賒‎.16 Du Fu here adopts, like the poet Tao Qian 陶潛‎ (365?–427), the role of the rustic, a persona whose selfhood is evinced by the refusal of political subject-hood. The sense of political loyalty and desire that one hears in “Stirred by Autumn” is presented here as a deflection of subjecthood: the poet allies himself not with the body politic (the state and public society) but rather with the individual body (personal (p.20) desires). However, we cannot avoid noticing how society circumscribes this individual choice; after all, it is not a private choice that Du Fu makes. He cannot simply declare his private identity but must physically remove himself to the geographical margins of the state. In so doing, the poet does not contest state hegemony but rather affirms it.

On the level of poetic claim, however, Du Fu attempts to refashion within the notion of home an explicitly nonpolitical and nonsocial representation. Gestures may be made from the isolated locus of the poetic enunciation toward society (sometimes depicted as the capital, sometimes as a city or village) in the interests of contrast, but these are negative statements, thoughts of difference. For the most part, the poet confines his statements to the consciousness of isolation and the kinds of pleasures that one might find in this. With this in mind, one cannot argue that the poetry of these years is uncomplicatedly happy, an echo of the fraught nature of Tao Qian’s own withdrawal from society. A vision of what home might be is articulated clearly in the set of three poems entitled “Hiding My Traces” (“Bingji sanshou” 屏跡三首‎):


“Hiding My Traces: Three Poems”17



In declining years I gladly hide my traces,


seclusion provides for resting above it all.


A bird walks, having descended to roots of bamboo,


a turtle passes, sweeping duckweed leaves open.


The harvest was bad, I lack the price of ale,


I make a day’s food last two, seeking garden vegetables.


But I still sing, pouring a drink from a sweet spring,


as my song lasts long, I tap the cup and break it.



By ineptness I preserve my Way,


I dwell hidden, close to the sense of things.


Mulberry and hemp deepen in rain and dew,


swallows and sparrows, half grown to maturity.


From time to time the village drums beat urgently,


fishing boats, each of them light.


Let my hair turn white as I lean on my cane,


I rejoice that both mind and traces are pure.



I get up late, nothing to be done at home,


without bustle, the place becomes more secluded.


Light on the bamboo concentrates wilderness colors,


the reflection of my cottage ripples in the river’s current.


I allow my son to be lazy, abandoning study,


and let my wife worry about being always poor.


May I attain a hundred years of general drunkenness


and not comb my hair for a whole month.

(p.21) In each of these three poems, Du Fu combines the notion of home—either household, jia 家‎; or the act of resting, wo 臥‎; the state of dwelling, ju 居‎; and the house structure itself, she 舍‎—with hiddenness, you 幽‎. Du Fu is able to conceive a home only in a space that is not only emptied of other people but also invisible to society in general: it is a home that is defined by its hiddenness. The idea of hiding has a rich and complicated history in Chinese philosophical thought, starting from the general concept in the Yi jing 易經‎ (Classic of Changes) and its appended commentary, the “Xici zhuan” 繫辭傳‎ (“Appended Statements”) to its deployments in the Laozi Dao de jing 老子道德經‎ and related recluse lore, to Legalist accounts of the state.18 For those such as the Zhuangzi’s Robber Zhi and Old Fisherman, dwelling in hiddenness may provide a respite from political dangers and social entanglements. In literary writings, the trope of hiddenness is usually equated with this last kind of reclusion (the model presented by Du Fu’s “As a Farmer,” above), and while Du Fu does not infuse “dwelling in hiddenness” with the political complexities of the philosophical tradition, one does hear a certain attention to the political.

Each of the three poems in “Hiding My Traces” begins with idyllic claims: “In declining years I gladly hide my traces, / seclusion provides for resting above it all”; “By ineptness I preserve my Way, / I dwell hidden, close to the sense of things”; “I get up late, nothing to be done at home, / without bustle, the place becomes more secluded.” Hiddenness, broached in the first couplet in each of the poems, is equated with peaceful, rustic life. Du Fu even makes the direct allusion to Tao Qian, by citing his favorite self-description, “ineptness” (zhuo 拙‎). These seem to be poetic lines about leisure and empty days; the poet rises without concern about the hour, and no labor is either visible or audible to the poetic consciousness. In the most idyllic of the three poems, the last one, the peacefulness of the scene becomes a negative synesthesia, turning the silence (absence of sound) into invisibility (impossibility of vision).

The second couplets of the three poems turn from his situation to the scenery around him; here, the poet gives order to the surrounding world and allows a sense of place to emerge: “A bird walks, having descended to roots of bamboo, / a turtle passes, sweeping duckweed leaves open”; “Mulberry and hemp deepen in rain and dew, / swallows and sparrows, half grown to maturity”; “Light on the bamboo concentrates wilderness colors, / the reflection of my cottage ripples in the river’s current.” The third poem in the set, again, contains the most interesting insight, exploring the way in which light and vision interact in tableau-like scenes. We follow the reflection of light upon the shiny bamboo surface to the reflection of the cottage in the rippling water, as the glow of light (guang 光‎), becomes color (se 色‎), and finally reflected image (ying 影‎).

The poet’s home is never directly represented in the scene of the poem, though the turn toward light and the play of light in nature allows the poet a way to glimpse the dwelling place despite its hiddenness, so that we see his cottage through the river’s reflection. What is hidden, by necessity, cannot be apprehended directly, and this indirect vision of the cottage is a way in which the poet may affirm the quality of hiddenness without destroying it. We somehow know that the hidden thing is there, but we have to resort to a metonymic logic of cause and effect to prove its presence. Thus, we search not for the thing itself—knowing that it can never be found—but rather for (p.22) its signs, representations, metaphors, indexes, traces, and tracks. We recall that Du Fu tropes here the Thatched Cottage as “dwelling in hiddenness” (youju 幽居‎), making a particular poetic claim about the nature of the building. Though we do see the building represented in other poems, this set of poems, with their consciousness of the hidden, defer representation and focus attention on the conscious absence, the negated thing. In this sense, dwellings are not unlike bones, hidden from human sight, from society, and called back into presence by poetic figuration.

The other prominent theme that runs through “Hiding My Traces” is that of social and economic poverty. In the third couplet of each of the poems, Du Fu raises this specter: “The harvest was bad, I lack the price of ale, / I make a day’s food last two, seeking garden vegetables”; “From time to time the village drums beat urgently, / fishing boats, each of them light”; “I allow my son to be lazy, abandoning study, / and let my wife worry about being always poor.” The consciousness of an exterior social realm to his hermetic one cannot be completely blocked or hidden. Du Fu speaks about his own poverty and hardships, as well as rural entertainments (the village drums), his neighbors’ poverty (the empty fishing boats), and his family’s social displacement (his son’s neglect of study). This is the reality that pierces through the poetic construction of home, the poet’s admission that imagination cannot entirely succeed in recasting reality.

However, I want to suggest another way of looking at the economic intrusion into poetic idyll. When Gaston Bachelard speaks about the hermit’s hut in The Poetics of Space, he is depicting a relationship between the human and the divine that is grounded in a particular cultural framework. Nevertheless, he addresses an element common to both Du Fu’s conception of eremitism and a Judeo-Christian one:

The hermit is alone before God. His hut, therefore, is just the opposite of the monastery. And there radiates about this centralized solitude a universe of meditation and prayer, a universe outside the universe. The hut can receive none of the riches “of this world.” It possesses the felicity of intense poverty; indeed, it is one of the glories of poverty; as destitution increases it gives us access to absolute refuge.19

Du Fu is not typically viewed as a poet of the divine, and even where he turns to the divine (or the mortal and architectural representatives of the divine), there is a steadfast refusal to enter into ekstasis. However, we find a concern with the hidden and impoverishment in both Bachelard’s account of the hermit’s hut and in Du Fu’s account. Bachelard states the matter very plainly: it is the very condition of impoverishment that creates the power of refuge for the hermit. That is to say, though the hermit dwells in utter destitution, he nevertheless has access to an absolute refuge because of his destitution. His economic condition—that is, his lack—hides the hermit from this world, preserving his life for another world. What hides Du Fu from the world is also this impoverishment, which takes the form of “hiding traces.” The poet empties his world of people and social relationships, and, in so doing, he restricts himself and his family to a diminished existence. Without society, there can be no hope for social advancement, and so his son does not study. Du Fu neglects any form of labor or livelihood, and so his wife alone concerns herself with the family’s support. Despite this suffering, poverty is ironically what gives Du Fu and his family refuge from the fighting that is approaching his idyll; in the absence of society, a man such as Du Fu becomes (p.23) insignificant and therefore safe. It is a transformed idyll that Du Fu constructs, one that weaves together both the utopian themes of the poet-recluse topos and the reality of his actual destitution.

In this poem, hiddenness and impoverishment become entwined tropes, neither possible without the other. The notion of home, then, must somehow encompass both the sense of rest that hiddenness contains and the painful condition of destitution. In the last couplets of the three poems, we see how Du Fu resolves his situation, finding a sense of peace, if only for the moment: “But I still sing, pouring a drink from a sweet spring, / as my song lasts long, I tap the cup and break it”; “Let my hair turn white as I lean on my cane, / I rejoice that both mind and traces are pure”; “May I attain a hundred years of general drunkenness / and not comb my hair for a whole month.” The resolve found in the first of these endings may last just for the space of a drink and a song (after which the cup is broken and the spell gone), but the second ending points to a longer duration—that of old age—and the poet’s contentment with his lot. The last of the closing couplets points to the future, enunciating the wish that he will be able to sustain this joy, be it for a month or for a century.

The Thatched Cottage in Chengdu is a dwelling for Du Fu, and, as a place of safe dwelling, it becomes a home for him, but we should remember that it is a second home, a home marked very strongly by its secondariness. It is not the place of origin, a place in which all wounds are healed and losses are given restitution, but a place haunted by the memory of wounds and loss. And yet we remember home only after we are evicted from it. The Afrikaans poet and former political prisoner Breyten Breytenbach writes:

In the beginning there is the hearth, the ancestral fire, and you are a native of the flames. You belong there and therefore it belongs to you. Then comes exile, the break, the destitution, the initiation, the maiming which—I think—gives access to a deeper sight, provides a path into consciousness through the imitation of thinking. Now you can never again entirely relax the belly muscles. … Henceforth you are at home nowhere, and by that token everywhere.20

If we have not home, then we are in the world, and we must find a way to make of the world a home, a place in which we might dwell. Poetry becomes a way in which we attempt to redeem for ourselves—as for society—our lost patrimonies; the poetic gesture opens for us a kind of passage beyond and through our present condition. Yet, when we come to a place that we claim as our home, it is within the shadow of belatedness that we do so. The gesture toward home will never restore us to the original state of undifferentiation or innocence, but it is what we do in the absence of choice. We inhabit our selves and houses poorly, full of the suffering of experience. The second home—the only home we can ever know—is always a home of destitution, as well as of refuge.

Still, there is still a measure of hope that we, as poor beings, cannot afford to let pass. When we construct a house and call it home, we stake for ourselves a place within the world to which we may return. The claiming of home gives to us, allows for us, the possibility of returning. As Breytenbach says, “Henceforth you are at home nowhere, and by that token everywhere.” Or, as Du Fu says in the closing couplet of the occasional poem “Accompanied by Attendant Censor Wang I Feast at the Wilderness Pavilion on East Mountain at Tongquan” (“Pei Wang shiyu yan Tongquan Dongshan Yeting” 陪王侍御宴通泉東山野亭‎): “Singing wildly, just too wonderful, / getting drunk, home is right (p.24) here” 狂歌過於勝‎,得醉即為家‎.21 We find this possibility of return in the moment that we name a strange land our home, a poetic gesture that succeeds despite the knowledge that it cannot be sustained beyond the moment.

Here I turn to the last poem I will discuss in this chapter:


Return in Spring22


Mossy path, bamboo overlooking the river,


thatched eaves, flowers that cover the ground.


Many sixty-day cycles since I left,


now coming back, suddenly spring is in bloom.


Leaning on a cane, I look at a lone rock,


I go to sandy shallows to drain my jug.


Far off gulls serene, float on the waters,


light swallows slant, catching the wind.


Though obstacles are many on the roads of the age,


my life too has its limits.


This body sobers and gets drunk again,


when I follow my whim, that is home.

There is a sadness in the poem, expressed in the passage of time and the solitary vision of the poet as he gazes upon his home at Chengdu. Qiu Zhaoao 仇兆鰲‎ (1638–1717) dates this poem to the second year of the Guangde reign (764), when Du Fu returned to Chengdu after going to meet the newly appointed Governor Yan Wu 嚴武‎ (726–765). He had wanted to take a trip down the Western Han to Lake Dongting but, because of social obligations, could not. As often is the case, the claim to hiddenness, with its attendant social and economic privations, is discarded when a social occasion presents itself. The poetic vision of the hermit’s hidden dwelling now gives way to a different, and more complicated, conception of home.

Du Fu begins the poem with parallel couplets, describing the scene upon his return and piecing together the traces of the human that have fallen back into nature, as if reverting back to the wilderness: “Mossy path, bamboo overlooking the river, / thatched eaves, flowers that cover the ground.” The path is overgrown with moss and shielded by the river’s bamboo; by the thatched eaves of the cottage, the poet sees no one, only fallen flowers. The poet had left in a certain season, at a certain moment in time, and he is surprised to find that time had passed while he was away from his home, that his home had been indifferent to his absence. There is also a marked absence of other human beings here, a sense intensified by the poet’s gazing upon the “lone rock” while at the “sandy shallows.” Yet where we might expect a different sort of poem to follow from this moment, Du Fu restores a sense of quiet calm by turning to the “distant gulls” and “light swallows,” the only other moving creatures here. That is, the view of the rock does not bring the poem into lament; its potential pathos is balanced by the serenity of the flying birds.

The moment of lyric insight turns the poet back from the vista to his own self, and again, where one might expect a modulation into pathos, Du Fu surprises us by transforming the melancholy moment: “Though obstacles are many on the roads of the (p.25) age, / my life too has its limits. / This body sobers and gets drunk again, / when I follow my whim, that is home.” The penultimate couplet acknowledges the limitations not only of the age—a time of social chaos and upheavals—but also of the mortal being who inhabits the limited and obstructed age. This is a double limit, a limit within a greater limit, that the poet faces: in his public life, he cannot advance or rise above his poverty; in his private life, he cannot overcome his mortality. The deflection of subjecthood that we have seen in Du Fu’s inhabiting of the roles of rustic-recluse (“As a Farmer”) and hermit (“Hiding My Traces”) now stand revealed as poetic games, as legerdemains. Neither reclusion from society nor from mortality can be won absolutely within poetic gesture. The poet makes his claims and inhabits his roles, but he still has not gained redress. Here is the pinnacle of the poet’s lament, the most elegiac moment given to us as the stark admission of failure. Yet, at this same moment, Du Fu turns from his own pain to understated meditation on his life’s sobriety and drunkenness, the repetitions of balanced moments throughout his life. Public and private, happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain—these sets of repeated balances may be heard in the simple movement between sobriety and drunkenness. I do not think Du Fu intends to characterize his life as extreme points between which the poet’s life rushes back and forth but, rather, to enunciate the range of his life, which he gives as two simple, domestic everyday conditions.

The last line brings closure with a beautiful gesture that does not equate home with the conditions of happiness or safety or restitution but only with “whim.” This phrase chengxing 乘興‎ (translated by Owen as “I follow my whim”) refuses seriousness insofar as it embodies an alternative choice to the deliberate, to calculation. Du Fu alludes to Wang Huizhi 王徽之‎ (338–386), in a famous anecdote from the fifth-century anecdote collection Shishuo xinyu 世說新語‎ (translated by Richard B. Mather as A New Account of Tales of the World), who turns back from his nightlong journey to visit his friend once the mood to see him is gone.23 Like Wang Huizhi, the poet claims to follow his whims and allows himself to be given over to his inclinations, whenever they may arise. Yet recall, again, Breytenbach’s words: “Henceforth you are at home nowhere, and by that token everywhere.” Home is what has to be claimed by the poet as home after its initial loss; it can be found by him only where he happens to find it. In such an admission of chance and fate, the poet confesses to us that he has failed to impose happiness upon himself through an effort of will. Home is never sustained by “wild song,” that mannered appeal to uncaring eccentricity or hyperbolic imagination. Rather, home is what is found as if by chance, not through forceful will but through a settling into place, an allowing of things to be as they are. The forced home, like the forced poem, represents only a tattered kind of success. We see this in the following couplet from the poem “River Pavilion” (“Jiang ting” 江亭‎), in which Du Fu is unable to return home and so tries to find consolation in poetry: “Not yet able to go back to the groves of home, / I push back gloom and force myself to trim a poem” 故林歸未得‎, 排悶強裁詩‎.24 The poem so constructed must bear the marks of its hard birth, a painful state discernible in the acknowledged impossibility of home and visible in the ragged edges of the cutting. Just as when Du Fu claims to find home with the gesture of wild songs, we do not quite believe his claim to poetic success in the forcing of poetry here. But why should (p.26) his other claim to found home through whim then seem persuasive? And how do we measure poetic success?

I would answer, tentatively, that Du Fu’s success in “Return in Spring” is bound to his admission of failure, his acknowledgment of limits that directly precedes his settlement with the world. It is in these last four lines that we bear witness to the capacity of the poet to see what may still be won beyond inevitable failure and so to wrest from the experience a better kind of success than one taken uncontested. Although Allen Grossman will argue that poetic success is, in the end, meant to win for us transcendence from our mortal condition, it seems to me that what is more convincing in Du Fu resides instead in the modesty and ordinariness of his hope, which is to find settlement with the world, and thus a sense of home. For Du Fu, the individual poetic claim or gesture matters, becomes meaningful, insofar as it acknowledges the distance he continually measures between claim and self-awareness, a mediation that allows him to make peace, even if momentarily. What remains to the poet is how he negotiates this ironic knowledge, which is not knowledge of failure in some absolute or final sense but a kind of wisdom that can be salvaged only through the experience of necessity and limits, and the poet’s own insistence that he try again.

This is a revision of the first graduate school paper that I wrote for Stephen Owen in the fall of 1997, and as such, I am indebted to him and to my classmates in his seminar on early and High Tang poetry. During this time, I was also taking seminars with the late Stanley Cavell, whose influence can be seen throughout this essay and whose memory I wish to acknowledge.


(2.) See Grossman, “Summa Lyrica,” in Grossman with Halliday, The Sighted Singer, 209.

(4.) The question of failure as a central theme of modern lyric (and how Du Fu embodies a similar consciousness) is examined at length in Rouzer, “Du Fu and the Failure of Lyric,” 27–53.

(5.) Cavell explores the idea of the ordinary throughout his work, but one might begin with the title essay of Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays, and with In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Also, see the excellent overview of Cavell’s thought in Charles Petersen, “Must We Mean What We Say? On Stanley Cavell.”

(6.) For the Chinese text, see Qiu Zhaoao, Du shi xiangzhu, 511; for the translation, see Owen, The Poetry of Du Fu, vol. 2, 70–71.

(8.) J. Douglas Kneale provides a useful survey of apostrophe in its classical and postclassical contexts while disputing its usage in poststructural criticism. See Kneale, “Romantic Aversions,” 91–105. Kneale is responding specifically to Jonathan Culler’s chapter on apostrophe in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. See also Johnson, “Apostrophe, Animation, Abortion,” in A World of Difference, 184–99; and Alpers, “Apostrophe and the Rhetoric of Renaissance Lyric,” 1–22.

(14.) On Du Fu’s years in Kuizhou, see McCraw, Du Fu’s Laments, 41–60.

(18.) For recent studies of hiddenness in Chinese culture, see Varsano, ed., The Rhetoric of Hiddenness in Traditional Chinese Culture.