‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ is a loose translation of another poem by the Chinese poet Li Bai. It was first published in Pound’s Cathay, a 1915 collection of his works. Upon publication several of the poems in this collection were controversial. Their form, style, and use of language were all-new, something that Pound strived for throughout his career.
‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ is generally considered to be the most popular poem of the collection and one of the best of his career. It explores themes of love, loss, and separation.
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The young wife is the speaker of the text, and she begins by informing the reader that she was married when she was only fourteen. This is not something that she comments on, aside from simply accepting that it happened. At the time she was very reserved and nervous around her husband. She didn’t laugh or look him in the eye.
As she aged she came to love him. This love only grew, and at the time the letter was written her husband was on a trip from which she hopes he will soon return. She suggests that he tell her through another letter when he’s almost there and she’ll come to meet him.
You can read the full poem here.
‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ by Ezra Pound is a five stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains six lines, the second: four, the third: four, and the fifth has the most at eleven lines. As was the case with all of Pound’s poetry, as a leader of the Modernist movement, particular of the Imagism, there is no rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is a technique known as free verse.
As an imagist, Pound respected the economical use of language and disregarded any need for enhanced poetic diction or overcomplicating syntax.
Despite being written in free verse, Pound makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’. These include but are not limited to, anaphora, caesura, and cliffhanger. The latter, cliffhanger, is clearly evident in the final lines of the poem. There is no resolution to the central conflict of the story. The young woman’s husband does not return home by the end of the final stanza and a reader is left wondering what her future holds.
Pound also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. This can be seen through the use of “You” at the beginning of multiple lines of ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’. This makes sense considering the importance that the intended listener, the young woman’s husband, plays in the poem. She is telling their story and addressing every line to him.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might come before an important turn or transition in the text. There is a good, impactful example in the seventh line of the fifth stanza. It reads: “They hurt me. I grow older”. It falls in the section that includes the young woman’s depictions of the gardens around their home and how everything is changing. Time is passing and she’s still alone.
While my hair was still cut straight across my foreheadI played about the front gate, pulling flowers.(…)Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
In the first stanza of ‘The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ the speaker, who is a young woman, describes the beginning of her relationship to the man who is now her husband. She was very young when she first saw him. These lines paint her as a child, “play[ing] about the front gate, pulling flowers”. His age is unknown, but she describes him lightheartedly as though he too was young, at least at heart.
They lived in the village with their separate lives for a time. There was no “dislike or suspicion”. The first stanza presents the village as a peaceful place, one in which these two grew up among family and friends. The village in the suburb of Nanking in China.
Through the use of several end-stopped lines, Pound lays out the basics of this relationship. He conveys the young woman’s words simply and directly. They got married when she was fourteen and she “never laughed”. This doesn’t appear to be because she was unhappy, but because she was “being bashful”. She was embarrassed and nervous to be married. This can be seen through the images of her “Lowering” her head and looking “at the wall”. Her husband called out to her and she never looked at him.
These lines create an emotional image of this period of her life that is then contrasted with the following years as she moved toward the present day.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,(…)Why should I climb the look out?
The third stanza, which is four lines long, describes the relationship when the young speaker was fifteen. By this point, she had grown used to being married and “desired [her] dust to be mingled” with her husbands after they died. She fell in love with him. But, her childishness still shows through, especially in the third line with the phrase “Forever and forever and forever”.
At sixteen you departed(…)The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
The fourth stanza is also four lines long and describes the crux of the speaker’s problem. Her husband left on a trip when she was sixteen. He went “into far Ku-to-yen”. This was a trip along the river during which he likely sought to buy and sell goods. The river he was traveling down is also known as Kaing in Japanese.
At the point the letter was written he’d been gone for five months and she had no idea when he was coming back. As a complement to the situation, she adds the phrase “The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead”. This represents some of her own sorrow. It is profound enough to where it’s been transmuted into other creatures.
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!(…)Please let me know beforehand,And I will come out to meet youAs far as Chō-fū-Sa.
The fifth stanza of ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ begins with a recollection of what it was like as her husband was leaving. She really how he “dragged [his] feet” when he left. He didn’t really want to leave her, but he had to. In the present though, things move on. The moss is growing “Too deep to clear them away!” And the leaves are falling early. The scene is a peaceful one, and each element of it reminds the young woman of her missing husband.
She pays attention to the butterflies. They are “paired,” unlike her, and they “hurt” her. They remind her of the loss that she’s suffering.
In the last lines she adds that when he gets this letter, he should try to tell her where he is. If possible, when he about to come down the river Kiang he should let her know. Then, she can meet him. The area she refers to, Cho-fu-Sa, is at quite a distance from the village in which they live. This makes her idea to meet him more meaningful. She isn’t offering something simple.
The poem is signed “Rihaku,” but the actual name of the poet who wrote the letter is Li Bai. Pound did not imagine the name. Rather, he took it from other sources that were attributed to the same fictional poet.