Analysis of Du Fu's (杜甫) The Arrival of a Guest



The Arrival of a Guest by Du Fu

Translated by Peter Harris

There are spring waters each side of my house, to the north and south;
All I see are flocks of gulls that come here day after day. 

We haven’t had to clear the path of blossoms for visitors;
The wicker gate has been opened for you today for the first time.
The market is far away and our simple dishes are all much the same
In my poor home my jars of ale are just a coarse old brew.
If you are willing to have a drink with the old man who lives next door,
I’ll call him over across the fence, and we’ll finish the last few cups.

Certain poems pull one with the promise that knowing them would bring about a certain worthwhile experience or perhaps it is so when the poem successfully answers to what Amiel expresses in his journal as, “The reader desires in the poet something better than a juggler in rhyme, or a conjuror in verse; he looks to find in him a painter of life, a being who thinks, loves, and has a conscience, who feels passion and repentance.” I have been experiencing this pull from my copy of 唐诗三百首 (Three Hundred Tang Poems), translated and edited by Peter Harris for Everyman’s Library (2008). As I read one of Du Fu’s poems, which Harris entitles “The Arrival of a Guest,” I became intrigued about the relationship between the guest and his host. And since I am currently perusing Aristotle’s essay on friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics,* this analysis would speculate on Du Fu’s poem through Aristotle’s concept of friendships to investigate whether the relationship between the host and his guest is a genuine friendship or not.

The Nicomachean Ethics presents three kinds of friendships: 1) friendship based on utility; 2) friendship based on pleasure or delight and 3) friendship based on virtue, also referred to as the perfect friendship. The first two kinds of friendships are introduced as such:
Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other. So too with those who love for the sake of pleasure…Therefore those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him. Ethica Nicomachea. Trans. W. D. Ross. Bk. VIII: Ch. 3:10 - 22.  
If there are friendships invested in what is beneficial to its participants and others concentrate on what is pleasurable to those involve, I am concerned with whether or not one could classify the relation between the speaker and his guest as a friendship of utility or of pleasure or both. To this end I examine first the title of the poem for details with which one could decipher the quality of the connection between speaker and visitor.

Although translated by Harris as “The Arrival of a Guest,” the poem has also been translated as “A Guest Arrives” and “A Hearty Welcome to Vice-Prefect Chu.” What is my point here? Well, what does it mean to say “A Guest Arrives” and “The Arrival of a Guest?” The former emphasizes “guest” and the latter, “arrival.” And though their meaning is the same, the emphasis placed on different words allow subtle differences in the warmth of meaning. I am using the word guest, in this essay, to signify one who has been invited to visit a home. And since this is poetry and also the objective at hand is friendship, the warmth of a word holds significance. For that matter in highlighting guest, the former title stresses on the arrival of an outsider. But the latter generates a sense of expectation simply by highlighting “arrival.” Although the opaqueness of these titles renders them mum to much, the latter feels warmer merely because its stress on arrival exudes anticipation and hints at a welcoming. But of course, it is possible I am stretching things here. +_+

Unlike the two titles briefly discussed, the third one “A Hearty Welcome to Vice-Prefect Chu” is more exuberant and forthcoming. It gives an identity to the guest and speaks of the host’s feelings toward his coming. It says explicitly what I suspect the more subdued phrase “the arrival of a guest” hints at. Also, Aristotle considers that, “Every form of friendship... involves association…One might, however, mark off from the rest both the friendship of kindred and that of comrades. Those of fellow-citizens, fellow-tribesmen, fellow-voyagers, and the like are mere friendships of association; for they seem to rest on a sort of compact. With them we might class the friendship of host and guest” Bk. VIII: Ch. 12: 12-16. A definition more true to certain forms of social ceremonies where host and guest are either merely acquaintances or in certain situations relations of acquaintances, friends and family. And I suppose the Verdurins and their guests in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way would fit Aristotle’s meaning well. Or even persons in the parties of a Jane Austen novel. But it somehow feels lacking to classify the host and guest of Du Fu’s poem as a "mere friendship of association." Though one may be in the right to argue that addressing the guest as Vice-Prefect is suspect and hints at a friendship of utility. It begs the question, what use has an official of one seemingly below him? Thus one might also argue that perhaps he comes for pleasure and this would not do either. How is it plausible to go through the difficulty of traveling a flooded path to the simple dwelling of a man removed from everything for pleasure? And the most plausible argument would be that the visitor comes out of need. And this too is arguable. But I shall not go into it. It is, however, worth mentioning here that Aristotle's discrimination of the relationship of kinship from fellow-tribesmen would need be especially emphasized were we to be considering external factors that influenced Du Fu’s poem. For instance, it is said that Du Fu’s lines were written in expectation of his uncle, the Vice-Prefect Chu. Thus to analysis the significance of this would require a survey of the duties required by the Tang Dynasty between relatives, friends, strangers and such––since it is the period within which Du Fu lived and wrote. All very exciting for a research paper, but I lack ambition and do enjoy focusing on a poem within its own frame so kindly pardon my poor efforts.

And yes, I have been doing a lot of talking and still have yet to get to the poem. ^_^ But I must conclude my probing into the the titles with the obvious which is that their context proves too shallow to decipher the quality of relation between host and guest. So let us now consider the first line of the poem, "There are spring waters each side of my house, to the north and south;" and I confess that I do not understand the situation of the spring waters: does having them to the north of the abode means it has been raining continuously, and below signifies welling springs or flooding on the lands surrounding the home of the guest? But no matter, it seems one can safely deduce that there is lots of  water surrounding the host’s property. And as the speaker states that his only frequent visitors are “flocks of gulls that come here day after day” it is safe to deduce that unless one loved water and perhaps has a pair of good wings, visiting the speaker might be rather an inconvenience for both host and guest. For it appears it would be necessary for the host to at least clear a path for his guest. Something he does not bother to do when no one visits. As he says, “We haven’t had to clear the path of blossoms for visitors.” And I wonder if one can read this line to signify also that the speaker has not been going away from his home? Because if clearing the path of blossoms is necessary for going in and out of his abode, then one could argue that the speaker has not been leaving his home or its compound. Of course, one can also argue that we do for guests what we do not do for ourselves: bring out our best plates, offer our best meals and drinks, be extra cheerful and make sure they are comfortable, etc. As Aristotle puts it, “a man does not seem to have the same duties to a friend, a stranger, a comrade, and a schoolfellow” VIII:12, 31-32, and to oneself. Thus how a person treats himself is often different from how he treats others.

Now that we have examined mostly the title of the poem in relations to the two inferior forms of friendships, let us consider Aristotle’s definitions of the third kind of friendship, which he considers rare:
Now since friendship depends more on loving, and it is those who love their friends that are praised, loving seems to be the characteristic virtue of friends, so that it is only those in whom this is found in due measure that are lasting friends and only their friendship that endures.
It is in this way more than any other that even unequals can be friends; they can be equalized. Now equality and likeness are friendship, and especially the likeness of those who are like in virtue; for being steadfast in themselves they hold fast to each other, and neither ask nor give base services, but (one may say) even prevent them; for it is the characteristic of good men neither to go wrong themselves nor to let their friends do so. VIII: Ch 8.1159a 33-7 & 1159b 1- 8.
If a virtuous friendship allows equality where a foundation of utility would stress positions of superiority and inferiority,  it seems then a circumstance that allows a Vice-Prefect to visit the humble abode of a man seemingly without status is not for the commission of service nor to seek entertainment but for the love of that person. And this can be read in the fourth line which states  “The wicker gate has been opened for you today for the first time.” Suggesting that the host is probably a recluse of sorts and has neither been receiving nor leaving his abode. The fifth and sixth lines strengthens the solitary of the host with “The market is far away and our simple dishes are all much the same / In my poor home my jars of ale are just a coarse old brew.” So yes, it would be quite troublesome to make the effort to visit the speaker, which is why doing so must more likely be an act of love as it offers little comfort in material and base entertainment. And also what the speaker offers his guest is what is immediately available to him, including his nearest neighbor for entertainment: “If you are willing to have a drink with the old man who lives next door, / I’ll call him over across the fence, and we’ll finish the last few cups.” Thus though addressed as guest, the visitor is treated as one belonging. In this way the host does not go to the trouble to go to a market which is far away for provisions to attempt to make a meal that would delight his guest, instead he offers him what he already has on hand.

We say “be my guest” and “make yourself at home” and both mean the same thing, though the latter is warmer than the former. ^_^ They are both statements of permission. One grants another the consent to do something. And if one has to give another permission to feel at home, then the party is  not on equal footing. Yet though Du Fu’s poem anticipate a guest in wording, the host’s understanding and expectations for his guest shows that he considers them to be on equal footing. Besides, it is quite possible that the guest arrives on very short notice and is able to do so because though the literal representation of their relationship is host and guest, the actual understanding between the two is a genuine relationship. Again, it is quite plausible that I am reading too much into this poem. But what I am trying to get at is what I sense when I read Du Fu’s poem, and often this is challenging to prove.

* Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon. USA: The Modern Library Classics,  2001.


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