The Solitary Goose
- Poetry of Du Fu


- Last updated: 2024-03-29 20:18:44

The Solitary Goose by Du Fu





English Translation

The solitary goose does not drink or eat,

It flies about and calls, missing the flock.

No-one now remembers this one shadow,

They've lost each other in the myriad layers of cloud.

It looks into the distance: seems to see,

It's so distressed, it thinks that it can hear.

Unconsciously, the wild ducks start to call,

Cries of birds are everywhere confused.

The poem is ambiguous as to whether the central passage refers to the goose searching for its fellows, or the poet looking for the goose.

The whole poem symbolizes the poet himself through the description of the lonely and miserable geese.

Extolled for his sorrowful yet elegant poetry, Du Fu’s ability to write tragic poems stemmed primarily from his personal experiences. Du Fu’s life was characterized by loneliness, beginning with the death of his mother when he was young to his itinerant lifestyle after witnessing political rebellions to traveling through war zones after he married. Thus, the wild goose in this particular poem most likely symbolizes Du Fu, a poet who lived in constant isolation and turmoil, attempting to find his “flock” or home, but only hearing the tumultuous cries of foreign birds.

In the first two lines of the poem, he immediately introduces a series of action verbs —  饮 (to drink), 啄 (to peck), 飞 (to fly), and 念 (to miss someone) — to describe the movements of the goose. However, the first two verbs, 饮 and 啄, are negated, whereas the latter two verbs are the only actions that are actually carried out by the goose. By juxtaposing these two sets of verbs, Du Fu highlights the goose’s refusal to indulge itself because it is too preoccupied with trying to locate its flock. The rhetorical question urges the reader to consider why no one seems to remember the goose. The answer is clear: the goose is easily forgotten because it leaves no impact — its shadow is rapidly concealed by the thin layers of clouds surrounding it. The next two lines further the tone of grief and loneliness; the goose starts to hallucinate, imagining that it sees and hears its fellow birds when, in fact, it is still wandering aimlessly among the empty clouds. By introducing a very human-like condition, hallucinations, in the goose, Du Fu personifies the goose; this poem is no longer merely about a misfortunate bird, but about a desolate human being which, in this case, is Du Fu himself. The last two lines bring about a chaotic feeling; instead of ending with a proper, happy closure, Du Fu chooses to end with a feeling of disarray, finishing this grief-stricken poem with an allusion to the political rebellions he experienced while serving as an official. Thus, this poem symbolizes Du Fu’s life — one that was characterized by solidarity and turbulence.

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Why Chinese poems is so special?
The most distinctive features of Chinese poetry are: concision- many poems are only four lines, and few are much longer than eight; ambiguity- number, tense and parts of speech are often undetermined, creating particularly rich interpretative possibilities; and structure- most poems follow quite strict formal patterns which have beauty in themselves as well as highlighting meaningful contrasts.
How to read a Chinese poem?
Like an English poem, but more so. Everything is there for a reason, so try to find that reason. Think about all the possible connotations, and be aware of the different possibilities of number and tense. Look for contrasts: within lines, between the lines of each couplet and between successive couplets. Above all, don't worry about what the poet meant- find your meaning.

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