Du Fu was acknowledged from the Northern Song on as a poet who had a rare command of his literary heritage. ‘There is not a word in his verse that does not have a locus of origin’, the epigram by Huang Tingjian (1045–1105) has been a widely repeated nostrum about his verse. Du Fu is also credited with being a conscientious monitor of his own mental life over the violent middle decades of the eighth century. This presentation offers an analysis of the account he gave in his verse record of his own role in the ‘arena of letters’ of his day. He identified with three main themes in his verse heritage, with the Confucian (Ru) tradition; with the tradition of the recluse living in rural seclusion; and with the ideal of composing verse that contributed to the long line of lyric poets in China. His official career was a failure, because he never fulfilled the ideal of the Ru tradition, that of providing advice to his prince in the good government of the world. He toyed at several points in his verse career with being a recluse, not least by engaging with the great early medieval poet Tao Yuanming (365–427) in describing his own family life as a farmer. Finally he claimed identity as a poet whose own works would survive his death and give him the immortality for which he craved. He went into far more detail about this aspect of his mental life than he did any other. Though he suggested that it was this third identity to which he was most committed, characteristically he let accounts of all three roles play themselves out in his verse, without arriving at a definite conclusion.