The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter By Ezra Pound

ezra pound poem metro translation summary review analysis

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the lookout?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fo-Sa.

Explanation Lines 1-6

The opening stanza of the poem starts to focus on the central image of the poem that is a young girl, who is also the speaker, who relates her impassionate love for her beloved. It describes the girl’s early life when she was too young to realize the meaning of love. Her hair was cut straight across her forehead as most young girls do in China before reaching adulthood. The word “playing” also suggests the girl’s activities as a child. She used to play with flowers at the front gate of her house. In the third line another character, a little boy, is being introduced in the poem who later on becomes the beloved of the girl.

Both of them seem busy in activities purely related to children. “Bamboo stilts”, “playing horse”, and “blue plums” are the things and activities which the children are naturally inclined to. They have different understandings of the basic human feelings like love, hate, liking, and disliking. Their main priorities are to keep themselves busy in different activities. Their minds are pure and have no room for suspicions and doubts. These lines also describe the informal tone of the poem. The speaker’s use of the pronouns “I” and “You” illustrates the close relationship between the two characters and prepares the readers to predict the basic theme of the poem.

Explanation Lines 7-10

This stanza takes the readers from the realms of childhood to adulthood. The girl is married to the same child mate. She is fourteen. This is the age of adolescence. This also shows the concept of early marriages in Chinese society. At this age, the girls are usually bashful and shy. They can not express their feelings properly, therefore, they remain silent and unexpressed. They keep their feelings dump in their hearts and resultantly become serious and reserve. (Poem: The River-Merchant’s Wife)

At this age, they become more introverted and hardly articulate in expressing their feelings. Now, this is the time when the girl, after getting married, tells her experiences with her husband. She was extremely shy and bashful in dealings with him. The lines” lowering my head, I looked at the wall./ called to, a thousand times, I never looked back” have pure oriental tincture and explicitly describe a woman’s nature in Chinese culture. The women, especially in this stage of life and in this part of the world, show their consent and response by keeping silent and bashful. Despite her husband’s thousand questions and provocations, she could not utter words to his satisfaction. (The River-Merchant’s Wife)

Explanation Lines 11-14

These lines change the girl from an adolescent to an adult being. Here the relationship gets mature and everlasting. She stops “scowling” at this stage and begins to transform her relationship with her husband into more of a serious matter than a casual and one-sided endeavor. Now she feels the warmth of her love for her husband. She is realizing the eternity of their love and wishes to be with him even after his death. (Poem: The River-Merchant’s Wife)

“Climb the lookout” is a phrase that refers to the options being put before the lady if her husband dies. In Chinese culture, the woman usually chooses another match after the death of her first husband. This lady in the poem prefers to remain a widow than to find another match. These emotions on the part of the speaker show the eternity of her love for her husband. She wants her “dust to be mingled with” his, an extreme extent to which she can go for the sake of her love. The triple usage of the word “forever” shows her unwavering love, which arises from the depths of her heart.

Explanation Lines 15-18

These lines show the separation between the two lovers. It is after two years of their marriage that the husband sets off on a journey. Since he was a merchant and the merchants usually go on such journeys, her wife’s response towards his journey would have rather not been so emphatic and melancholic. Perhaps, it was his first journey since their marriage or the lady had newly realized the warmth of their love. In any case, the journey and its effects on the lady are exaggerated to some extent by the poet.

The purpose behind this is to show the intensity of the lady’s love for her newfound relationship. The absence of five months is a little exaggerated so that the women forlorn make an effect on the readers. The five months seem five years when the readers see the woman’s heart suffering for her love. The monkeys around, out of their sympathy for the lady’s grief, make a “sorrowful” noise. The chirping sounds that the monkeys usually produce are regarded as moments of joy but for the lady, these sounds mourn the departure of her husband. The poet has beautifully created a melancholic effect on the reader’s mind out of something that may simply mean the celebration of an enjoyment.

Explanation Lines 19-21

Lines 19 and 20 show the merchant’s unwillingness to leave his wife. How explicitly this line “You dragged your feet when you went out” shows someone’s unwillingness in doing something. As if he has prepared his mind to depart but his feet seem dragging behind showing that they are not willing to depart. This makes the departure scene really emotional and the readers equally sympathize with the young lady’s overwhelming love for her husband. In the next line, a reference is made to the same gate where they used to play when they were young. However, the moss that grows nearby the gate seems irremovable as it has grown too deep. This line shows that the lady intentionally wants the moss to grow deeper as it reminds the sad departure of her husband while he was treading on it. (The River-Merchant’s Wife)

Explanation Lines 22-25

The falling leaves in autumn along with the wind deepen the sorrows of the merchant’s wife. The image becomes more defined with her observation of the butterflies in the garden, for they are “paired” as she is not, and they are becoming “yellow” changing with the season, growing older together. The butterflies “hurt” her because they emphasize the pain of her realization that she is growing older, but alone, not with her husband. (Poem: The River-Merchant’s Wife)

Explanation Lines 26-29

These lines show the merchant’s wife hope of her husband’s return. However, she requests her husband to let her know about his return as she will come out to greet him by going too far as “cho-fo-sa.” This, however, conveys more than it would at first appear. Her village is a suburb and she is willing to walk to a beach several hundred miles upstream fro there to meet her husband, so deeply does she yearn to close the distance between them.

Criticism & Analysis

In the five stanzas that constitute this poem, Pound is able to convey the autobiography of a sixteen-year-old Chinese girl from nearly a thousand years ago (eighth-century C.E.) Also, in so doing, he makes her and her story new. In the first stanza, for example, Pound develops the title of the poem: this is, in fact, to be understood as a letter written by a wife to her husband:

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

Notable here is the focus on what we can see. Not only does the surface, obvious imagery reveal the location: this is China, and this is a Chinese woman talking, but it also reveals a deeper more interesting psychological story as well. Notice how this stanza depends on particulars, on visible things, not on generalizations. Notice that the woman does not say, “I’ve know you a very long time husband, ever since we were kids.” Instead, every single line gives a new image, a new thing to understand. Remember the rule: new image, new line. For example, in the first line she talks about “her hair cut straight.” This implies, and we can only know this from the context provided both by the poem’s note and by the title, that she is telling us about her life as a girl.

Evidently, this is a hairstyle common to unmarried Chinese girls. In the second line, she gives us a new image and in this image the story moves a little further along. Her childhood was happy, serene, and pleasant. The simple image of the flowers conveys this meaning. In the third line a new image and a new character are introduced. Now we meet her future husband, a fun-loving kid.

Note that we know this only from the specific objects of his play, “bamboo stilts,” “horse”: these objects reveal the scene to be in Asia, not in America. In short, the Chinese aspect of the poem is made visible to us through the writer’s focus on the things of Chinese life: the customs of the people, the games of the children. Notice, too, that the tone of this stanza is quiet. The many commas and pauses force us to speak the lines quietly, deliberately. (Poem: The River-Merchant’s Wife)

Just as every line conveys one single new image, one new element, so, too, every stanza contains a new chapter in the life of this woman. If the first chapter, or stanza, depicts her childhood, then, the second stanza depicts her life as a wife:

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to a thousand times, I never looked back.

By the second stanza, the poem “feels” Chinese. Why? Because of the quiet tone, certainly, but more than that because of the specific imagery. The details, here, depict a traditional, and traditionally submissive wife in eighth-century China, a girl who becomes a “woman” at the age of fourteen. By raising these new and culturally specific points, this stanza also introduces a new set of issues. For why on earth should this wife have to remind her husband that he is her husband and that they did know each other? If this poem really is a letter she surely should not have to tell her husband what he must very well know.

What is happening is that these first two stanzas establish a justification for the rest of the poem — three stanzas of complaint, of quiet anger. In the end, what the poem depicts is a portrait of the inner life of a woman. Ultimately, the poem/letter is meant to remind her husband of her role as his wife, of her existence, of their relationship. It is meant to be a gentle way of telling him not to forget, or betray her. Remember, she is a river-merchant’s wife in eighth-century China. This is like being a traveling salesman’s wife today. In those days, the river was the only major source of travel and commerce. Her husband, as a merchant, was more often not at home than at home. Evidently, his wife is tired of this situation.

Therefore, she writes him a letter. The first two stanzas of this letter/poem establish her role as a good, submissive, Chinese wife of the eighth century. In effect, she is reminding him of their relationship so that he will know that if she complains she does so only as a good eighth-century partner in marriage. The first two stanzas, therefore, give her the right to complain because they say, in effect, “I have been a good wife and as such a wife I now feel the need to speak.”

The poetry, then, is as much in the story of this wife’s quiet anger directed at her husband as it is in the way that the story is told. The poem feels as if it were in another language in part due to the rhythm, in part due to the tone, but, as I have been arguing, mostly because of the particular details and images. These details tell a decidedly old-fashioned culturally specific story of a lonely wife of a river merchant in a particular time and place. In stanza three:

At fifteen I stopped scowling
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

This is a crucial stanza to the story of the poem because here the wife confesses the depths of her love for her husband. Notice, again, that Pound still adheres to his own rule: one image per line. Notice, too, that a new chapter has begun and so a new stanza begins. In this case, the chapter is about her life after a year of marriage: her life at the age of fifteen. But her point here is to confess the depth of her love. If she “scowled” at first, now she would like to have their “dust” mingled. In these simple images the generalizing cliche, “I love you always and forever,” is communicated through the use of specific images. How, then, are we to interpret this stanza’s last line? (Poem: The River-Merchant’s Wife)

Three ways. First, the lookout is the only means she has of seeing the return of her husband. Therefore, this is a rhetorical, sarcastic, ironic question. She is, in effect, saying: “how could you possibly think I don’t miss you. Why should I climb the lookout! Are you crazy? How could I not want to climb it?” Second: “I love you so much, our love is so eternal, my trust in you is so absolute that I have no need to climb the lookout. Of course, you will come back. Why should I climb a lookout to see if you are coming?”

That would imply that she thinks he might not be coming back. She says, in effect, “since I know you will return I have no need to climb the lookout. Why should I climb it?” This is my own personal reading of that line but a third reading is possible: “I don’t know if you will come back. Will you? Give me a reason. Why should I climb the lookout?” Whatever reading one assigns to that line, its position as the last line of the stanza is a kind of gauntlet thrown down to her husband. All three readings, after all, say, in effect, that she loves him dearly and hopes he loves her enough to return.

In the fourth stanza, therefore, the story moves to the result of such love. If the third stanza is an awakening to consciousness of the wife’s love for her husband then the fourth stanza communicates her sadness. Both stanzas are remarkable because a wife in the eighth century had no right to confess her feelings about anything. If her husband abandons her to go on business, her job as a “good wife” was to suffer in silence and wait. Yet, she decides, despite the cultural tradition against such talk, to express her feelings. And, not only does she express the depths of her love, but she dares even to complain. For her to say that she is lonely, that, in fact, she is also a little angry as well, is, in the terms of the time period, all but heresy:

At sixteen you departed, and you went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies, And you have been gone five months. The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

In this stanza, we are brought into the present moment. This chapter of her life is now, the present telling of the tale. Here she says that she is now 16 years old. What she implies, then, is that just as she grew accustomed to their life as a married couple (the past year), he left. The third line of this stanza is quiet and seems to be nothing more than a description.

But the tone here must be read in terms of the larger context. For her to say, “you have been gone five months” is another way of saying, “I am so lonely!” It is even a complaint: “how could you abandon me, your own wife, for so long!” We are trained to see this because of the final image concluding the stanza. The monkeys, in a way, become a metaphor for the emotional state of the wife. Their “sorrowful noise” merely speaks aloud what she feels.

The most interesting and poignant section of the poem is the concluding fifth stanza. For here, the new chapter is not a new period in her life but a new awareness, a realization, a new sense of what it means to be a wife, and especially this Chinese wife. This stanza is a particular triumph of the one new image, one new line rule. And of all the images in this stanza the following should be singled out:

The paired butterflies are already yellow with August Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.

This girl’s contemplation of the butterflies, of the natural order of things, of continuity in nature, of growth and renewal, and of beauty in companionship is another way of her saying: “I realize now how much I have lost with you, my husband, being gone.” If we read the butterflies as a metaphor for her and her husband then she is saying that she and he are like paired butterflies except that they are not together. To see such pairs, then, “hurts” her because it reminds her how much she needs her husband. (The River-Merchant’s Wife)

Notice, then, that this anger and this complaint is based entirely on love. Only after her husband is absent does she realize the meaning of and the depth of her own love. In this letter/poem, then, she is communicating that love. To say “I grow older” is another way of saying, “I have grown wiser.” She now understands the meaning of love. The last four lines of the poem, then, are more than just descriptions. They are the inevitable result of the wisdom she has come to only now, in this fifth stanza.

The final four lines tell us that she is prepared to wait, that she will not give up on her husband, that if she feels angry she is by no means angry about or mistrustful of his love. In the end, the poem becomes a kind of meditative ode — a poem where one speaker in the course of the poem teaches herself a truth. It may only go as far as “Cho-fu-sa,” and it may depend entirely on our knowledge as readers of what it means to be an eighth-century Chinese wife.

Indeed, if that is the case, if it is true that her knowledge, her wisdom can only make sense if we know what it is like to be a Chinese sixteen-year-old wife in the eighth century then this poem as a translation from the Chinese of Li Po has, thanks to Pound, given us another culture and another time: it has become a masterpiece of translation itself.

Theme: The River-Merchant’s Wife

Ezra Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” a dramatic monologue is written in the form of a letter, is a poignant plea from a wife to her husband, a merchant whose journey has lasted far too long for the wife’s ease of mind. The poem honors constancy and faithfulness as the wife reflects on the development of their life together and expresses her growing sorrow as she anxiously awaits his return. (Poem: The River-Merchant’s Wife)

One important theme in the poem reveals the process through which the love between the man and woman develops. In the opening lines of the poem, the wife recalls her childhood when her husband was simply a playmate, a companion. The first line gives a vivid picture of the wife as a child. The use of the passive tense, making bangs the subject, helps create the world from a child’s perspective, not actively involved in decisions about what to wear or how to look.

This creates both a clear physical portrait, as well as indicating the passivity of childhood with its lack of involvement in things other than play. Notice that the second line begins “I played.” This also foreshadows the lack of input she will have in her marriage. The poem then moves on to describe the carefree merriment of the speaker and her future husband. The wife reinforces this picture of innocent pleasure with her comment, “Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.”

In the second stanza, the reader learns of her marriage, at the age of fourteen. The wife’s description clearly suggests that it has been forced upon her, and she is both shy and uncomfortable with her husband. The formality of the phrase, “I married My Lord you,” not only indicates the proprieties that would be common in China during that period but, for the modern reader, emphasizes the emotional distance in the marriage. Her statement that she never laughed contrasts jarringly with her earlier picture of the two companions at ease in their world. In the fourth line of the second stanza, the husband hopes to win her as he calls to her “a thousand times.” However, she only looks at the wall, lowering her head, refusing to look back and answer his summons. (Poem: The River-Merchant’s Wife)

In the final four lines of the stanza, she suddenly indicates that their relationship has changed as “at fifteen [she] stopped scowling.” Her next words show how dramatically her love has grown. She now “desired [her] dust to be mingled with [his] / Forever.” Their union is not only welcome, but for her the end of their relationship is unthinkable. She wishes it to continue throughout eternity. Ironically, now that this love has developed, the husband’s trip separates them, creating the poem’s real poignancy. The reader has followed this relationship from childhood joy, through the reluctant wife’s initial unhappiness, until their love matures. The two are now torn apart, and the wife is left alone to mourn his absence. The growth and development of this relationship allow the reader a greater understanding of her loss and pain.

Theme (Constancy)

The portrait of the growth of their love provides a rich context to allow the reader to fully appreciate another of the poem’s themes, faithfulness or constancy. When the speaker’s husband left, she had just learned to love him. The reader understands her regret that her newfound passion was too brief. She also hints about her fears for his safe return: he has traveled “into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies.” It is clear that he has been gone much longer than she had expected. Although she never mentions the possible dangers of traveling such a river, the reader realizes that rapids or whirlpools could explain why he has been gone so long. This would be even clearer to a Chinese reader since an ancient boatman’s song tells of the perils of traveling on this particular stretch of river.

The letter makes clear how painful the wait has become for her. The two short sentences in line 25 make a strong impression. Mentioning “the paired butterflies,” she simply states, “They hurt me,” leaving the reader to fathom her world of pain. She continues by noting that she has grown so much older, an aging that is emotional rather than physical. However, she remains brave in her wait, ending the letter with the message that she will come to meet him, if he will only send word. She holds fast to the thought of his return, despite the hints of trouble that nature has provided: the overgrown moss, the early autumn.

Hugh Kenner, who has written several books about Pound, believes that “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” along with the poet’s other verse published in 1915 provide some of the most effective emotional responses to the circumstances of World War I. (Poem: The River-Merchant’s Wife)

Indeed, the parallel between the situation of the wife in the poem and women throughout Europe writing letters of love and longing to soldiers called away to war is striking. While this poem has no military theme, it involves the same sense of loss, of fear, of waiting: the insecurity about whether the loved one will, in fact, return. Interestingly enough, this parallel reinforces the universality of the theme in the poem. That a poem composed in the voice of a Chinese woman in the eighth century provides such an accurate emotional description of a wife or lover waiting for news from the World War I front adds to its enormous poignancy.

Theme (Nature)

In a 1918 essay titled “Chinese Poetry,” Pound described the central qualities of the Chinese verse-form. One was the use of nature imagery to explain or indicate human emotion or set mood. He referred to this as “metaphor by sympathy.” This use of nature is a major factor in setting the tone of the final stanzas of “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”

While the five months the husband has been gone may not seem a terrible burden to the reader initially, Pound uses nature to cue the reader to mood. The “sorrowful” monkeys mirror the wife’s feelings. The fact that the merchant “dragged [his] feet,” cutting a path through the moss, shows his reluctance to leave; the fact that the moss has eradicated those marks of his presence, casts a worrying shadow. Much of nature, the wind, the seasons, the leaves, seems out of order reinforcing the wife’s foreboding. “The paired butterflies” provide a final, almost unbearable, touch. While these delicate creatures remain together, they torment her with the reminder that. (Poem: The River-Merchant’s Wife)

Poetic Style in Poem

This translation, “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” is structured into 5 stanzas: the first of 6 lines, and the second, third, and fourth of 4 lines each. Each of the first four stanzas is image-centered, focusing on an emotional point in the history of the relationship between the river merchant’s wife and her husband. The final stanza of 10 lines and a dropped half-line begins with the presentation of a similar central image that collects an enhancing detail in each line until line 25 shifts into a direct emotional statement. The last four lines mix this direct letter-writing style with the final image closing the physical and emotional distance between the river-merchant and his wife.

It was Pound’s belief that the pictorial quality of the Chinese ideogram, in its “closeness to the thing itself,” had the capacity for raising the mundane to the poetic. Likewise, Pound’s ear for the music of conversational speech raised natural speech rhythms to the level of poetry. In this poem, he expertly combines these to create a sense of the conversational naturalness of letter-writing with the focused, direct, and simple presentation of images inspired by the Chinese ideograms in which the poem was originally written. (The River-Merchant’s Wife)

Pound’s insistence on the centrality of the image to poetry is in great part responsible for the varied line lengths of this poem written in unrhymed free verse. While each of the first four stanzas concentrates on one image, the individual lines themselves are as long as Pound needs them to be to focus each component of the central image of the stanza in the mind of the reader. This technique is termed end-stopped lines, meaning that a complete idea is expressed in a line, with no spillover into the next line. However, the use of capital letters at the beginnings of each line is a signal that it is the lines of poetry, rather than the sentence constructions, that are the basic units of meaning.

The poet employs direct address throughout the poem, taking on the persona of the wife as the “I” who is writing the letter and thus entering her experience. This use of the first-person “I” also makes it possible for the reader of the poem to enter her experience. In addition, the direct address to the second-person “you” allows the poem also to be experienced as if it is a letter to the reader.

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