The River-Merchant's Wife Analysis

Ezra Pound

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ezra Pound’s adaptation of a poem by Li Bo, an eighth century Chinese poet, is a dramatic monologue spoken by a sixteen-year-old girl. It is written in open verse in the form of a letter from the wife of a river-merchant to her husband, who has been away from their home for five months.

The opening of the poem conveys both immediacy and continuance. The first line begins with the word “while” and presents an image of the wife as a young girl. The second line starts with the word “I” and contains an image of the girl playing at the moment when she met her future husband. The effect that is created is a feeling of recollection which draws time’s passage across the consciousness of the present. The focus is shifted from the “I” to a memory of “you.” The first stanza concludes with the couple merging into “we”—“small people” who lived in a village in a state of unreflective innocence.

The second stanza begins a triad of quatrains that recapitulate the three years of their marriage. In the first of these, the girl remembers herself at fourteen as severe, contained, and shy at the moment of the ceremony. She seemed to be acting out of obligation. Then, at fifteen, she began to relax and remembers that she “desired” to join her husband in both temporal and etherial realms, recognizing the immediate call of the physical as well as the transcendant appeal of the eternal. Her question that concludes the third stanza is a compression by Pound of a tale of a woman who waited on a tower for...

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The River-Merchant's Wife Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Pound wrote that “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Pound believed that the essence of this method, called Imagism, had been captured by the Chinese ideogram, which fused picture and meaning in one symbol.

The striking opening image of “The River-Merchant’s Wife” captures an entire cultural epoch. Pound originally used the American slang “bangs,” but the taut language of “hair was still cut straight” is an accurate rendering of the ideogram and of the appearance of young Chinese girls of that era. This image is followed by one of the river-merchant as a boy, his masculine aspects immediately established by his appearance “on bamboo stilts, playing horse” while she follows the traditional feminine activity of “pulling flowers.” Their early sensual attraction is implied by the boy parading around her and “playing with blue plums.”

The playful imagery of the first stanza is abruptly replaced by images of unease and uncertainty when the couple are actually married in her fourteenth year. She is presented as “scowling,” “bashful,” and never laughing. The wall is an image of enclosure and her desire to “mingle” their dust forever suggests claustrophobia and internment. The psychological condition of their first year of marriage has been precisely evoked.

When the river-merchant departs during the third year of their marriage, the...

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The River-Merchant's Wife Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Froula, Christine. A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1983.

Heymann, David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking Press, 1976.

Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Knapp, James F. Ezra Pound. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1987.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound. 1970. Rev. ed. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.

Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P., and Stephen J. Adams, eds. The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.